safer spaces

Y'know, it would be real fucking wonderful if I could go into the asexual tag every now and then (when I’m feeling down about that part of myself) without being bombarded by Ac/e Disc/ourse™ posts left and right.

Like, honestly? You want my opinion as an asexual? If someone feels safer in an LGBTQIA space and the group welcomes and accepts them? Let them be! If an asexual (or anyone) doesn’t want to become part of the group because they don’t feel like they belong/need it? Let them be! Why do you care so much about what other people are doing to make themselves feel safe?

Honestly, that stuff (combined with a ton of other repetitive issues that keep popping up) is part of the reason I think I’m not on Tumblr socializing as much.

I’m just. Half of the time, the ridiculous/painfully misinformed/downright vicious posts I see on here are by people six or more years younger than me, so maybe that’s it? Am I simply too old to put up with these people? Or those same people claiming that someone writing something fictional means they condone it in real life? Or those same people who attack others over the most insignificant of opinions?

I don’t know.

I’m just tired.

I’m going to bed.

i swear to fuck this is true but a couple times i went to therapy with my friend in high school and her therapist was a cool dude or whatever but i told him i was bi and he kept going on about how much he hated “fake bisexuals” and shit, especially girls in high school that were doing it to fit in. how would you fucking know buddy? how would you know whether or not somebody is “faking it” to fit in, or whether or not some high school girl finally allowed herself to accept that she’s attracted to people that aren’t men, and a friend coming out gave her the courage to do so? how do you know that these girls didn’t drift together to feel safer in a space where they know they’re not going to be judged by people like you with your unwanted opinions on somebody else’s sexuality? fuck off dude. rot in hell.

A man in our safe and inclusive scene
is outed as an abuser and everyone claims
to not have saw it coming
or believed him capable. 

In quiet huddles they insist 
they never heard about his hands before.
How to them, they were such comforting,
hard-working hands, capable only of building.
They are shocked by the tricks those hands tried to turn
when the bands had packed up
and the collective members gone home. 

Meanwhile my mouth foams 
with the times I said his name 
and everyone shrugged.

The stories I told
and she told
and she told
and she told
and they told
and they told
and he told
were not enough,
they lacked “proof,”
needed more punch.
The were just “drama”
or “personal matters”-
until the space closed
two years later.

Then suddenly it was “I never saw it coming.”
It was sympathy. It was, “I didn’t know he was like that.”

Ask me why I am not surprised. Why my mouth
does not hang open in shock.
But this was not news. 
It’s not like the warning signs weren’t there.
People just refused to look.
—  Your Safe Space is Not Immune, Lora Mathis 
Not all toxic people are cruel and uncaring. Some of them love us dearly. Many of them have good intentions. Most are toxic to our being simply because their needs and way of existing in the world force us to compromise ourselves and our happiness. They aren’t inherently bad people, but they aren’t the right people for us. And as hard as it is, we have to let them go. Life is hard enough without being around people who bring you down, and as much as you care, you can’t destroy yourself for the sake of someone else. You have to make your wellbeing a priority. Whether that means breaking up with someone you care about, loving a family member from a distance, letting go of a friend, or removing yourself from a situation that feels painful — you have every right to leave and create a safer space for yourself.
Not all toxic people are cruel and uncaring. Some of them love us dearly. Many of them have good intentions. Most are toxic to our being simply because their needs and way of existing in the world force us to compromise ourselves and our happiness. They aren’t inherently bad people, but they aren’t the right people for us. And as hard as it is, we have to let them go. Life is hard enough without being around people who bring you down, and as much as you care, you can’t destroy yourself for the sake of someone else. You have to make your wellbeing a priority. Whether that means breaking up with someone you care about, loving a family member from a distance, letting go of a friend, or removing yourself from a situation that feels painful — you have every right to leave and create a safer space for yourself.

Nina Mashurova wrote a piece (“Making Safer Spaces”) about our conversation at Silent Barn Public Meeting X: Safer Spaces for The Media’s 23rd issue. I really enjoy her conclusion at the end, which I’ve included above, courtesy of The Media.

You can also stream the entire audio recording of this discussion on Silent Barn’s YouTube channel.

Relatedly important: we coined the term “brahvant garde” (meaning “bro avant garde”) which I foresee being helpful in the forever future.

Thanks to Rachel Levy for snapping the photo above!

SEATTLE – The all-white, all-male volunteer staff of a new DIY spot billed as a safe space for people of any gender expression, race, or religion celebrated its opening over the weekend. The venue intends to host hardcore shows, poetry nights, and other events that should make the all-white, all-male staff feel better about themselves when they aren’t busy changing their Facebook profile pictures to pride rainbows.



via Racialicious

I’ve spoken before at length about images used by instructors to accompany history lessons, and what they teach us about history versus what they don’t.

This leads to students given the impression that many different people of color somehow “showed up” just in time to be exploited by slavers and colonizers (think of how “First Contact” narratives are commonly the first mention on Native Americans in US History, or “Chinese Immigrants” show up in time to build railroads and then mysteriously disappear), and contribute to the misconception of a socially and racially isolated Europe in perpetuity.

Which of course leads to this phenomenon in popular media:

(from an episode of “Psych”)

As if merely stating the location and the time is a total justification for ubiquitous whiteness in casting. If you were actually interested in historical accuracy, it might be noted:

By the eighteenth century the black population in England, particularly in London, had indeed become a community, with a concern for joint action and solidarity. When in 1773, for example, two black men were confined to Bridewell prison for begging, more than 300 black people not only visited them but provided for their economic and emotional support. In the later eighteenth century there were black pubs, churches and community meeting places, changing the picture of isolated individual domestic servants and roving beggars on London streets to that of a thriving and structured black community.

Black London: Life before Emancipation, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. Rutgers University Press, 1995.

The problem here is that if the visual narrative shows a person of color, especially a Black individual, who is not being subjected to horrific violence, dehumanization, or is not literally a photograph of a dead body, it’s seen as an “exception” or “anomaly”. Note the tweet above that cites the use of lynching postcards, a terrifying example of how racist murders were not only common, but normalized.

I think that if these kinds of images are used as the only types of images from history students see of Black people, that is absolutely a form of racial aggression and even violence that has been embedded and institutionalized in American culture.

See Chimamanda Adichie’s powerful talk, The Danger of a Single Story:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.”

If you are an educator, you hold a piece of that power.

It’s important to tell the truth about oppression, violence, and genocide in history. But beware of making that the only stories that are seen and heard.

Part of the point of Medievalpoc is to try and create a visual and textual narrative in which people of color can also enjoy history as playground, as a point of pride, as somewhere they can see themselves, ourselves, as something other than subjugated.

How can we foster educational environments where these topics can be discussed without putting the onus on students of color? Without making students who may already be “the only” one in their learning environment feel even more singled out?

Given my own experience in educational and professional spaces, I try to be more sensitive to what it feels like being “the only [insert your category here]” in class and to be more mindful of how the particular composition of the classroom can inflect a discussion.

In one of my classes, we were discussing the Travels of John Mandeville and its description of “Ethiopians” and discourses of blackness and beauty. There happened be only one black student in class that day, and as we approached this topic many of the classmates’ glances began to drift, as if on cue, toward this person…perhaps in anticipation that this student would soon speak up, or otherwise just to gauge her reaction; in any case, it was an unconscious and unspoken shift in the class dynamic that “singled out” the student in a way that obviously made her uncomfortable.

This student avoided eye contact with me as this was happening (clearly she did not want to be called upon) and, picking up on this weird classroom dynamic, I redirected the conversation by inserting myself in the moment. I said something to the effect that “as a nonwhite person I find these Eurocentric racial discourses cause me great discomfort. We obviously have both white and nonwhite people in this room, so what are some ways we can all approach reading this passage today?”

I found that at this point all the students felt they had more of a “way into” the discussion and there was no longer this perception that only one “type” of person bore the burden of responding to this passage. It was one way to give us all permission to openly acknowledge the many different bodies in class and to engage in a shared discussion.

Although I touched base with this particular student later about things in office hours and we had a productive conversation about this and made sure she hadn’t felt alienated, I don’t doubt that I could have done better—but I at least tried to “call out” a (subtle) shift in class behavior as it was happening and do something productive with it.

“Intersections: On Annoyances, Mistakes … and Possibilities” by Jonathan Hsy (The Medieval Middle)

We can do better.

We can do better.

On Not Shutting Up

I recently decided to start some discussions about sexism in the activist community here. Too many women I know have had bad experiences, have burned out, or have given up on engaging with male-dominated groups which don’t seem safe or supportive.

As part of this, I’ve mediated one discussion with a small group in which some women talked to men very generally and abstractly about their experiences with sexism, and am planning a workshop that will engage specifically with men in thinking about how they respond when women talking about feeling unsafe or having concerns.

It appears one of the men who was invited to this workshop passed this information on to another man who I did not engage with in relation to the workshop. This other man is someone I don’t feel safe around, and have no desire to interact with.

Below is a copy of a recent email I received, purportedly sent by this man as his name was typed at the bottom (although I note that the email address used a pseudonym, so perhaps, improbably, this is an elaborate plot by someone else to make him look bad). The only changes I have made to the email are removing the the email address and name, and the name of my workplace.

[Edit: I’ve put the name it was signed with back in. This is for a few reasons. Firstly, if this was written by Bruce and is a genuine reflection if his beliefs, there’s no need for me to hide his name. If it wasn’t written by him, as is possible, it would be useful for him to know that emails like this are being sent in his name. Secondly, removing his name makes it harder to deal with these issues. It might lead to people suspecting a different man in their group, or being worried that they are working with someone who sent this email, leading to further generalised distrust. I remind everyone, also, that this is a common name, and may be shared by more than one person in Perth.]

In Confidence

Gday Sky

I’ve been made aware yesterday, that you are co-organising with one other person a meeting of members of the Perth Left with the aim to create a process by with the Perth Left can handle allegations made within the Perth Left.

From what I understand, some within the Perth Left are of the opinion that, as a counter-measure against occasions of accusers not being believed and the person accused then being unfettered by the accusation, it is necessary to adopt a stance of the accuser’s accusation being accepted as being fact - and also that the person accused being condemned as guilty beyond any doubt. I note that such a counter measure is contrary to the principle of natural justice. 

I wish to draw both of your attention to the fact that the Perth Left exists within the State of Western Australia, which is a place where the principle of natural justice applies. Additionally, within the State of Western Australia the law of defamation applies via the Defamation Act 2006 (W.A.)

Where some within the Perth Left do seek to exercise the notion that it is appropriate to adopt a stance of the accuser’s accusation being accepted as being fact - and also that the person accused being condemned as guilty beyond any doubt - these persons risk running into conflict with the principles of natural justice.

Additionally, where these person wish to assert their stance that the person accused ‘is’ guilty upon the accusation being made, and then seek to share such view with others, these people risk committing an act of defamation against the accused. 

I would like to point out that the Perth Left is within the State of Western Australia where both the principle of natural justice and the Defamation Act 2006 (W.A.) apply, and that any meeting organised by members of the Perth Left is subject to these legal mechanisms. 

Please note that as a general principle where I am defamed by a person or persons and I have proof of such I will take defamation action against the person or persons defaming me.

In regards to the meeting: I would like to attend. May I?. If you as co-organiser do not wish for me to attend please can you state why you do not wish me to attend?

I wish to attend as I wish to offer my concept to deal with by with allegations made within the Perth Left, namely the utilisation of activist lawyers to walk the line between defamation and informing the person accused of the accusation. 

Apologies for utilizing your [deleted] work email address to contact you, please provide another email address should you wish me to utilize another email address to contact you.


Bruce Campbell

Why am I sharing this? I am aware that while some (particularly male) activists are happy to talk abstractly about supporting women, building safe spaces, and/or being allies, they sometimes have difficulty living up to these claims in practice. As soon as women raise to a specific incident or experience they appear to see us being difficult. As being manipulative. As being too angry. As not being trustworthy. As causing fractures and divisions and undermining ‘the real work’.

I am sharing this because it is important that we start understanding the specific processes by which women are silenced.

I am sharing this because I want to contribute to building something better, and that requires difficult conversations.

I am sharing this because I believe we should not remain neutral and avoid dealing with these issues. When I asked mutual contacts to please not pass on information about me to this man (without making any specific accusations against him), one man replied, “I don’t fully understand what the politics of (non)involvement may be, or what’s at stake across personal/political levels for people”, and women I knew said she hadn’t had “any issues around my interactions with him personally”. What we don’t see (and deliberately avoid seeing), we can ‘stay neutral’ on.

I am sharing this because I can only speak about my own experiences. Because I don’t know other women’s experiences, and because I believe many women don’t feel safe or supported speaking up when something happens in our community.

I want to address this idea that it is contrary to “natural justice” to believe women and other people who raise concerns about their safety. Quite apart from any attempt to work out what that “natural justice” actually means, what does it mean to believe women? I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere (and even that more detailed version is just a sketch).

Basically, it means to take people seriously when they say, “I have been assaulted”, but also when they say, “I feel consistently sidelined during meetings” or “I felt uncomfortable when you commented on my appearance” or “Please don’t hug me”. It doesn’t necessarily mean excluding people who are engaging in unsafe behaviours, and it doesn’t necessarily involve engaging in punitive measures against people who have made others uncomfortable (although it may, at times, for example where such people continue to make others uncomfortable despite having been asked to change their behaviour).

When people insist that sexism and unsafe behaviours can only be dealt with within an adversarial model, or even only within the state’s legal system, there are two consequences:

1) Danger signs and problematic behaviour that falls short of a crime can’t be dealt with. There’s no room to talk about someone repeatedly making you uncomfortable, someone whose touches linger too long even after you ask them to stop, someone who pressures  others to drink too much at events. These aren’t crimes, and many of them are only noticeable to the person who experiences them particularly as often people who engage in predatory behaviour are careful that this behaviour isn’t visible to others: it is hard to provide proof and evidence.

2) It forces people who experience more severe harms into a system that is hard to navigate, unsupportive, and which all the evidence shows has poor outcomes.

To give a more specific example: a few years ago I went to an activist event, and had an unpleasant moment of feeling unsafe. It was a moment I might not even have noticed, a few years before. I blogged about it, in a very general and non-specific way. My aim was to make something unseen visible.

I didn’t want to sit in a community court and try to come up with ‘evidence’ of the incident. I didn’t want either of the men involved run out of town. I didn’t even want them excluded from future events.

All I would have hoped for, as a most ideal reaction, would be for people involved in that space to say something like, “I am sorry that happened. I can see why that made you uncomfortable. [Or even: Could you explain a bit more about why that made you uncomfortable?] Let’s talk about steps to make sure that the next event feels safer.”

Instead, what I got was a bunch of semi-public criticism for being a terrible, divisive feminist.

What do I want now, sharing this email?

Firstly, for people to recognise that an email such as this (or even a conversation along these lines) can be understood as a silencing tactic (starting with the claim that it is “In Confidence”). Its aim appears to be to intimidate, threaten and bully. I am already exhausted. I have a lot on right now, and trying to talk about sexism is hard to begin with. I sat in a conference, reading this email, and cried. My hands shook. I had to present a paper within an hour or two, and I was already tired and overwhelmed. The temptation to cancel the workshop, to just shut up, is significant. I suspect that other people have received similar emails. Some of those people may be more traumatised than me, may have fewer resources to draw on, may be less able to put themselves at risk of a defamation suit. Some of those people may, reluctantly, decide not to speak. I do not want to stop speaking.

Secondly, to recognise that nothing in the email betrays any concern for my safety or the safety of other women, and no desire to engage in accountability processes of any kind is expressed. It is clear from the email that the writer wants to attend the workshop as an attempt to control me or the workshop, and not because of a genuine interest in building better processes to keep our community safe. In any event, the workshop is not about ‘making accusations’ against anyone, and the sender of the email is not welcome there. Neither are any other men who do not have a genuine desire to engage in a discussion about the issues and accountability processes, or who want to attend in order to pass information back to the sender of the email.

Thirdly, I want people to see what attempts some people make to stifle  concerns being voiced about unsafe or unacceptable behaviours. I want you to consider that this might be happening, from multiple sources, in ongoing ways. So if you are working with people who you’ve heard ‘something’ about, who you’re staying neutral on, and women don’t come to your meetings, or suddenly stop coming to your meetings, pay attention. And if you are calling your organising a ‘safe space’, claiming you have accountability processes, claiming you are non-hierarchical or against state power, you should be aware of attempts being made to shut people up. You should be aware that you may not ever hear what’s going on if you don’t work to help make safer spaces for people to talk about what they are experiencing.

I hope that I can sustain the energy to continue talking, to continue organising. But so many wonderful, dedicated, caring, women who I know have been worn down and traumatised and have left activism because of their experiences. And I can’t, sadly, be sure that I won’t join them.

Silent Barn Safer Spaces Policy

The Silent Barn is a community art space committed to being a safe, respectful and positive environment. Silent Barn supports experimental artists by providing a space for free expression of all people. We believe that many hierarchical structures allow a minority of people to have a voice at the expense of silencing others, and that the most interesting, spontaneous, and creative ideas can best be realized in spaces where an anti-oppressive policy is nurtured with intention and care.  

In maintaining this ethos, we feel it is important to directly confront social hierarchies and oppression as they manifest within our space and at our events. We define oppressive behavior as any kind of uninvited physical contact, sexual or otherwise, as well as comments or other behaviors that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, ableist, classist, ageist, or otherwise discriminatory on the basis of physical appearance, orientation, gender presentation, ability, or cultural, economic, ethnic, national, educational, or religious background. Silent Barn will not tolerate language or behavior that is oppressive.

Individuals who have engaged in oppressive behaviors outside the Silent Barn will still be held accountable within it. Those with a history of being called out for sexual assault or abuse or other oppressive behaviors may not be permitted entry into the space.

A safe and respectful community is everyone’s responsibility. We encourage you to make friends and look out for each other. If you see someone who might be in trouble, don’t hesitate to ask them if they need support.

The Silent Barn’s Safer Spaces Working Group is committed to upholding this policy. Any member of the Silent Barn collective may ask you to leave at any time if your behavior makes others uncomfortable. If something or someone is making you feel unsafe at the Silent Barn for any reason, please tell a staff person, or write to the working group directly at:

The Silent Barn

a no-mean-players space
“don’t be sleazy, be cool”

[[approved by the Silent Barn Kitchen on May 14, 2014]]

For your safety and security...

“This safe space policy is designed to ensure that meetings take place in a considerate and relevant manner, without participants being undermined for discriminatory reasons.
 If someone violates these agreements three times, they will be asked to leave the space. The three-strike policy can be bypassed if a serious infraction of these agreements happens, to the extent that someone feels unsafe. Examples of serious infractions include, but are not limited to, harassment, bullying, theft, sexual harassment, sexual assault and threatening or violent behaviour.”

Safer Spaces Policy for National Campaign against Fees and Cuts

“We want to emphasise frank communication whilst always prioritising the stated needs of those experiencing oppressive behaviour. No one should criticise others for how they respond to oppression – anger and violence can be completely valid responses. Immediate ejection from the social centre may be the right thing to do if people feel immediately unsafe. […] Lively discussion is great but no matter how passionate you are, it isn’t OK to talk over others or raise your voice aggressively at others.”

Safer Spaces Policy for House of Brag, The London Queer Social Centre

“Our staff are entitled to work in a pleasant environment without fear of verbal abuse, attack or harassment. Lewisham Homes will take the strongest possible action against any intimidating or abusive behaviour that may result in a criminal prosecution or you losing your home.”

Notice in Lewisham Homes office

Light a candle

The term ‘safer spaces’ is increasingly used as a short-hand for a loosely interconnected set of concepts and practices developed to challenge oppressive power dynamics within radical collectives. The historical roots of these ways of thinking and doing politics lie primarily (though not exclusively) in feminist struggles against rape, and LGBT struggles against queer- and trans*-phobic violence. I know more about the former of these than the latter, and this is just one example of my limitations. What I’m presenting here is not supposed to be a comprehensive or definitive account of safer spaces politics. It is based on my own experiences of the lefty political 'scene’ in London, and on experiences recounted to me by others. Still, I hope it will resonate with enough people for it to count as an analysis of some general tendencies in the politics I am talking about.

Safer spaces politics is, among other things, a radical response to rape culture. It recognises that we live in a society in which rape and sexual abuse is not prohibited, but regulated. Whether coercive sex counts as rape is not a question of the victim’s experience but a question of property ownership, with all the racism that entails. Transgressing any of the contradictory norms of gendered propriety – engaging in 'inappropriate behaviour’ – makes you a slut and asking for it, or frigid and needing it. Conversely, 'perverts’ are incarcerated, occasionally for violating a human being, but more importantly for violating the rules of who owns what, and what business is to be conducted where. Many survivors* say they feel raped again and again, at the police station, in the court room, if it ever gets there, but equally by family and so-called friends: forced to repeat the intimate details of their violation, offering up their trauma to the masculine face of Authority, interrogated, disbelieved, and blamed. No wonder so many of us never speak out at all.

The characteristic ways in which safer spaces politics seeks to challenge this culture of oppressive violence are:

  • accountability processes/panels, and mandates for the exclusion of people on the grounds that they have been judged 'unsafe’ or make others 'feel unsafe’

  • less formal campaigns, which often operate through rumours/spreading the word about people judged 'unsafe’, resulting in social exclusion or expulsion from spaces without an 'official’ accountability process

  • use of trigger warnings, and a particular theoretical vocabulary to talk about traumatic experience

  • the idea of safety as a goal of overriding importance to oppressed people

  • concepts like silencing, apologism, victim-blaming, tone policing, and derailing, which have been developed specifically by the safer spaces movement

  • more mainstream or institutional concepts like appropriateness/inappropriateness of conduct or 'behaviours’ (often plural), harassment, abuse, abuser/perpetrator, vulnerability

  • maxims like 'believe the victim’ and 'do not engage with the perpetrator’ (these being treated as two sides of the same coin).

However, from within the same broad project of challenging violence against women and others perceived as disruptive to the hetero- and cis-sexist patriarchy, the effectiveness and political direction of various aspects of the safer spaces approach are disputed.

In terms of 'big names’, queer theorist/activist Jack Halberstam and political philosopher Wendy Brown have raised critical questions about elements of the safer spaces project, asking how they relate to the dominant neoliberal project and state power. Last year a book came out by Christine Hanhardt called Safe Space: Gay Neighbourhood History and the Politics of Violence. Focusing on LGBT movements in New York and San Francisco from the 60s onwards, it looks at the complex relation between campaigns against queer- and trans*-phobic violence and calls for 'safe space’, on the one hand, and urban policing and gentrification on the other. The book is particularly concerned with the splits between different LGBT experiences depending on who, for reasons of class and race, benefitted from the growing recognition of LGBT people as subjects vulnerable to violence, and who, for reasons of class and race, continues to be constructed as a threat to safety and targeted for removal from newly claimed LGBT areas.

What the 'big names’ have to say, though, is unimportant compared with the discussions which are taking place all the time, in a multitude of forms, as we fight to live and organise together. For example, there are arguments over whether ostracism or safer spaces policies are working to erode hierarchies within political groups, and over how trauma should be understood. There is also disagreement over how safer spaces practices and language are to be applied or interpreted in particular cases. For example, while I don’t believe there’s any feminist who would deny that victim-blaming is crucial to upholding the violent hierarchy of gender, there are still disagreements among feminists about whether the actions of a particular person or group amount to victim-blaming, and what the response should be.

Which side are you on?

The different 'sides’ in these arguments do not map onto a division of people into good and evil, into those who want to challenge oppression and those who want to hold onto their privileges by oppressing others.

So, to start with, there are people of all genders on both sides. Actually, it’s worth trying to be more specific. In my experience, it is primarily white women by whom or on whose behalf accountability processes, whether formal or informal, have been instigated, and the issue has usually been some kind of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Disputes over whether particular kinds of language or imagery are oppressive have also generated exclusions. For example, a person I know was excluded from some queer spaces for disagreeing with a decision to exclude a DIY feminist band on the grounds that the vagina image on their logo was trans*phobic. In this dispute there were trans* people on both sides. Another example: a comrade of mine with a long history of severe mental health problems has told me she feels upset and excluded by the decision of the AFem2014 organisers to include in their safer spaces policy an instruction to 'Avoid ableist language… e.g. “nutter”, “mental”…’ She is worried that ruling these words intrinsically ableist and hence unacceptable, regardless of context, erases an important history of activism by disabled people who have proudly called themselves 'nutters’, using humour and the long-practiced (albeit often precarious) strategy by oppressed groups of reclaiming derogatory language to overcome suffering and confront stigma. She is united with the organisers on the need to confront ableism while disagreeing over what counts as ableist.

The most vocal supporters of accountability processes have been people of all genders, and the targets of these processes have been people of all genders. In quite a few cases, the named 'perpetrator’ is a white cis-man, but the people who come to be most strongly denounced, as apologists or victim-blamers, are women, and it is at them that the most hatred is directed. Women who are, or have been, the lovers of men named as unsafe or inappropriate are often primary targets. Meanwhile, being a safer spaces 'bulldog’ can provide an outlet for white men whose dominating voices might otherwise be viewed with suspicion. This is a dynamic that deserves some attention.

Racism is mentioned on every safer spaces policy, and racism, including its gendered and sexualised forms, is ubiquitous within radical collectives. However, accountability processes have not, in my experience, been pursued on behalf of individual people suffering racist oppression. Christine Hanhardt’s arguments in the Safe Space history mentioned earlier suggest that this may have to do with racialised constructions of who is dangerous, and who is vulnerable and in need of protection. Charges of racism have been brought against groups such as the AWL on the basis of public statements which were identified (rightly, in my opinion) as racist. However, in disputes over whether individuals should be driven off campus on the basis of membership of these groups, there have been people who have directly experienced racist oppression on both sides.

There are also survivors of sexual violence on both sides (unsurprisingly, given how common this is). There are people who have had all sorts of traumatic experiences on both sides, whether or not they want to speak about this in the psychiatric vocabulary of PTSD. There are people who have experienced or are experiencing mental health problems on both sides, although again, people have all sorts of different relations to the language of 'mental health’.

This means, just to spell it out, that it is often happening that people who have been raped are being publicly denounced as rape apologists, even told they 'love rape’.

It is often happening that people experiencing serious mental health problems are being thrown out of political and social spaces because their presence is claimed to be triggering to others. In some cases, people have suffered mental breakdowns as a direct result of campaigns against them in the name of safer spaces. There has been at least one suicide attempt, and this is hardly surprising, really, given that the punishment which ostracism is intended to inflict is social death. If a person makes every space they enter unsafe, where on Earth are they supposed to go? So to put it bluntly, no side can have a monopoly on trauma, or to use a less loaded term, on suffering.

Of course, it’s a sad symptom of the state we’ve got to that I’m even talking about 'sides’ here at all. It’s because I’m hoping that we can break down these 'sides’ and open up a more free and nuanced discussion that I’m writing about this, rather than just hiding in a corner – which I know is what a lot of people feel like doing when 'safer spaces’ comes up, because the whole issue has become, frankly, terrifying. There are more and more people scared to be involved in political organising, scared to go to social events, look on facebook or twitter, for fear that they may be excluded or denounced in the name of safer spaces, or for fear of being reminded of previous, deeply upsetting – some might even say 'traumatic’ – experiences of exclusion or denunciation. This is not just misogynist rape apologist evil-doers crying into their glass of privilege: boohoo I hurt too. That is a caricature which ignores the reality I have just been describing.

Cast out the rotten apples

On the other hand, it is also true that all the people who have been outed as 'unsafe’ really are that. They are all, to some extent, misogynist. They have all treated others badly, and they are all, to some extent, complicit in rape culture among other shit things. But then, this is true of absolutely everyone, including the people enforcing safer spaces. This is not to say that everyone is as bad as everyone else, that we’re all guilty so we can’t make any judgements anymore. Actually, I think we need to be making more judgements, more complex and nuanced judgements, and resisting the tendency to think (hope) that the world is going to divide neatly into victims and perpetrators. There is a serious question whether actions undertaken in the course of enforcing safer spaces are okay even though, in other contexts, they would be understood as straightforwardly abusive – for example, as has happened, men calling women 'scum’ on twitter, or shouting over them when they try to speak. Before we even get to that issue though, there is the fact that, in most of the formal and informal accountability processes I have witnessed, it has been the case that at least some of the people enforcing safer spaces have at some point in the past done something similar, something comparably oppressive or hurtful or stupid, to what the person being excluded in the name of safety has done.

Obviously, this is gross hypocrisy, but that’s not the main problem with it. To say that someone is hypocritical – that they do not practise what they preach – is not yet to say what should be changed, the practice or the preaching. Where what is being preached, though, is social ostracism on ostensibly principled grounds, simple hypocrisy becomes something else. An example is made of someone who, sure, is far from perfect, but in many cases (not all cases, but many) is not so much worse than anyone else. Though the denunciation of the example, the forcible excision of the unsafe tumour in the communal body, everyone else attempts thereby to purify themselves. This is the definition of scapegoating. The process never ends, though, because it disavows (despite paying constant lip service to) the oppressive tendencies in all of us, rather than honestly confronting them. The communal body, unsurprisingly, remains ill, so yet another tumour must be identified and the accountability surgeon called again. The taboo spreads, farcically at times. Someone can be labelled a rape apologist for being friends with someone who refused to disinvite from their party someone who once shared a kebab with someone who was sighted on campus with someone who… The result of all this is that people are so scared of becoming the next scapegoat that they cannot confront their own faults openly, or can do so only superficially and with ever-increasing bad faith.

Please believe me

I have emphasised that those who are critical of safer spaces, or who are targeted in the name of safer spaces are often survivors of sexual violence themselves, or suffering mental health problems. I am not saying, though, that therefore they are necessarily or automatically right, and what has happened to them is necessarily or automatically wrong. Quite the opposite. Survivors do not agree, so to hold up some survivors as unquestionable authorities just means that other survivors cannot have their perspectives listened to. Unfortunately, this is what is sometimes happening at the moment.

To really be listened to, to have your experience acknowledged, to be taken seriously and supported when you try to articulate your trauma – that can in itself be profoundly transformative. A commitment to this is a basic requirement for radical politics. The maxim 'believe the victim’ expresses this commitment. It poses a direct challenge to rape culture, and I do not for a moment suggest that we should not stick to it. The problem, though, is that it is not always so clear what sticking to it means.

Here’s the first issue: believe the victim about what? As I have already said, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge someone’s trauma, to take seriously their articulations of their own experience. Perhaps people do occasionally lie about these things, fabricate trauma for ulterior ends or whatever, but that possibility is nowhere near as significant as the problem of people having their experiences dismissed. The fact that I should be taken seriously when I speak of my trauma, though, obviously doesn’t mean that I should be treated as correct about everything (and nobody would claim this), so what is it that I am supposed to be believed about?

One common view is that I should be treated as correct if I call someone out as an abuser and that I should be treated as at least presumptively correct about what should be done to or about that person, for example: that person should be excluded from spaces, or subject to an accountability hearing, or made to undergo therapy. You could call this the 'weaker’ interpretation of the maxim. There is also a stronger interpretation, which is only rarely explicitly defended but still implicitly relied upon in many arguments over safer spaces. This is the view that I should be treated as an authority on the topic of abuse, trauma, and oppression in general. Being treated as an authority here means that anyone who disagrees with me is taken to deserve labels like 'misogynist’ or 'rape apologist’. This is because my authority derives from my status as someone who has experienced abuse so disagreeing with me (disputing my authority) is seen as amounting to an attack on my experience (the source of my authority).

Treating survivors as automatic authorities in some general sense is obviously contradictory, though, for the simple reason already given that survivors do not agree. Yet what about the weaker version of the maxim? Is it really true that any questioning of my interpretation of what happened in the particular case(s) where I was traumatised, and of my opinion on what should be done, amounts to disrespecting my experience? A look at right-wing calls for 'victim-led justice’ should raise concerns about this interpretation as well. We all agree that it is possible to respect the trauma of someone whose child has been killed without supporting their call for the drunk driver responsible to be imprisoned for life. I have chosen this example simply because the driver might be culpable without being an embodiment of evil, and without the proposed punishment being a good thing. Of course I am not saying that demanding someone be excluded from a social space is equivalent to calling for them to be incarcerated by the state. The point is just this: if you recognise the possibility of respecting the trauma of the person calling for the driver’s lifelong imprisonment without supporting that call, you have to recognise that agreeing totally with a victim’s interpretation and proposed solutions cannot be a necessary condition of respecting them and their traumatic experience. We need to be able to raise and frankly discuss what respect for experience and acknowledgement of trauma might mean, starting from the premise that we do not yet have all the answers.

There is a second problem, though, which applies equally to weaker and stronger interpretations of the maxim: 'believe the victim’ cannot function as an instruction at all until you have decided who the victim is. We could interpret it as meaning: you should believe any claim of the form 'I am a victim’, or 'So-and-so abused me’. However, this leads directly into a contradiction. Suppose you have two people (just to keep it simple) each saying that they are victimized and naming the other person as the perpetrator, or abuser, or to blame for their trauma. This is not some hypothetical scenario invented for the sake of argument. Cases like this are not at all rare, especially (though not only) when intimate relationships end. In these cases, 'believe the victim’ gives absolutely no guidance about what to do. Nevertheless there is still a tendency for it to be invoked, and the way in which it operates is troubling.

Double-edged words

What has happened in several cases I know of is that the person who gets to claim the title of 'victim’ – the person who, according to the directive, must be believed – is the person with the confidence, the social power, and the inclination to go public with their accusation. In these cases, as so often, social power is bound up with language. The person who gets to be the victim, in these cases, is often the person who is more comfortable wielding the language accepted within the safer spaces movement for talking about victimhood. It is the person who is most vocal, who gets in there first to say: 'that’s my abuser’, 'I’m triggered’, 'I feel unsafe’. Mastery of an in-group language generates a kind of immunity from criticism. Having been called out as a perpetrator, the other person is not supposed to be 'engaged with’, and anyone who comes to their defence is liable to be labelled an apologist, a derailer, a misogynist, defending an abuser, etc. It is treated as 'problematic’ even to ask for that person’s perspective on the accusation against them, except in the context of a confrontation or accountability hearing, in which their status as a 'perpetrator’ who needs to be 'held responsible’ is taken for granted.

Yet all sorts of possibilities are excluded by fiat when 'believe the victim’ is interpreted and acted upon in this way: the possibility that both people are traumatised, or (and this is not incompatible) that both have been, perhaps in different ways, abusive to each other, or that one person suffered trauma even though the other person did not do anything particularly heinous, or even that one person has been consistently abusive and the accusations they are making against the other person are a continuation of this abuse. It is also possible, and in some cases definitely true, that the named perpetrator has done something terrible and is genuinely dangerous. But to act as though this is true in every case is to ignore the operations of social power. We seriously need to ask whether being au fait with a certain discourse, as well as both wanting and feeling able to throw your intimate experiences onto the very public mercies of the accountability mill, necessarily corresponds to being the most wronged.

It is really important not to take this point out of context, as often happens in these discussions. The tendency to take phrases or sentences out of context is perhaps understandable given the distressing subject matter, but context really does matter here. When I ask 'who gets to claim the title of victim?’ I am not saying that survivors are grabbing after social prestige. I am talking specifically about cases where there are two people, each of whom feels they have been abused by the other. In several cases I know of, the people involved were both queer women. I am saying we need to think about the role of social power in determining whose narrative carries the day.

On the other hand, the features of safer spaces language which enable it to function as an instrument of power in this way are some of the very features which have enabled it to fight established forms of power with some success. Dominant society (for want of a better word) enforces further trauma on those who experience oppression with its patriarchally inflected demands that we 'prove’ our abuse. In response, the feminist and queer liberation movements out of which safer spaces politics emerges have contributed to the development of a language for disclosure which makes it easier to indicate the harm that we have suffered without tearing ourselves up once again for the benefit of those who stand in incredulous judgement over us. Thanks in part to these movements we now have words like 'abuse’ and 'sexual harassment’ to draw on to gesture towards our ill-treatment. The requirement that we trawl through all the gory and distressing details can be counteracted by appealing to the theory of triggering, according to which we may be incapable of speaking about our trauma without incurring further harm. The vagueness of words like 'abuse’, the fact that they lack any precision, any indicators of scale or context, helps make disclosures of some kinds of trauma easier. It helps us to reject the patriarchal understanding of sexual assault, according to which it only counts as 'real’ rape if some racist news item can be spun out of it.

The difficulty is, though, that this same vagueness – this ability to convey condemnation without any need to bother about the details – makes these words amenable to misuse as instruments of in-group power. For example, if I simply tell you that so-and-so abused me, I haven’t yet said much at all about what happened, except that I had a bad experience and judge them to have done something wrong, to be culpable for my bad experience. I am not lying about this. But I haven’t yet said what they did, or how or why or in what context. I haven’t even really described, with any richness, depth, or detail, how I felt about what they did. If I then decline to provide further information about what happened on the grounds that it is too triggering, that may be perfectly understandable, and I certainly should not be forced to. On the basis of this kind of almost contentless disclosure, though, it can be difficult for you to form any well-grounded beliefs about what actually happened and how to react to it. To insist that you are morally obliged to instantly and without question place the accused into the generic category of 'abuser’, along with Martin Smith and the murderer of Sarah Payne, is to insist on belief being detached from any aspiration to track the contours of what the world is like. Certainly, patriarchal assumptions about what counts as a 'well-grounded’ belief should be rejected, and our understanding of what constitutes a patriarchal assumption constantly deepened. There must be no questions asked about lengths of skirts, for example. But this does not itself settle the issue of what to believe and what to do.

Policy vs. Politics

The term 'well-known’ stands out in enforcement discourse: so-and-so is a well-known trans*-misogynist, a well-known rape apologist, a well-known unsafe person. I suspect that the repetition of this term – which is interestingly ambiguous between a belief being justified and a belief being held by lots of people – masks an uncomfortable (hence suppressed) awareness of the fact that knowledge is often precisely what is lacking. It seems that, in practice, uncertainty about the basis for belief is being compensated for by extreme decisiveness about what to do – the kind of decisiveness that a policy provides. I mean here not only actual safer spaces policies but the 'policy’ of enforcing the kind of rules which feature on safer spaces policies, whether or not there is an actual piece of paper stuck on any particular wall. The policy provides a sense of decisiveness and legitimacy while masking the exercises of judgement and operations of power which are necessarily a part of its implementation.

Take, for example, the policy quoted at the start from House of Brag, which I chose because it is more thoughtful than many safer spaces policies (the NCAFC offering lying at the other end of the spectrum). It states that violence on the part of those experiencing oppressive behaviour cannot be criticised. It also states that it is never okay to raise your voice or talk over someone. Both of these statements come, at least in part, from a good place. But the fact is that whether someone is experiencing oppressive behaviour and therefore privy to the exemption from the broader policy of enforced civility (colonial overtones intended) is often precisely the contested issue. And contesting an issue does sometimes involve raising your voice. Yet if someone feels 'immediately unsafe’ then 'immediate expulsion’ (by force?) may be the answer. Presumably someone might feel immediately unsafe if someone is being angry and violent towards them. But, as the policy itself acknowledges, a person being angry and violent may not be in the wrong. They may be responding to bullying, to oppression, to less overt but more damaging forms of threat and victimisation from the other person. If so, then according to the policy, they should not be open to criticism at all, never mind immediate expulsion.

The fact is that the policy does not specify any course of action, and it simply comes down to the political judgement of those involved. This is not in itself a bad thing. Of course we need to make political judgements, and weigh considerations which may pull in different directions. The contradictions are there in reality, and the policy reflects them rather than creating them. The problem, though, is that in appearing to give an actually applicable formula for how to be 'right on’, and therefore appearing to relieving us of (at least some of) the burden of judgement, the contradictory policy makes whatever line of action is pursued in its name appear to be based on some kind of communally decided (hence legitimate) law, and any criticisms of that line of action appear as a (legitimately punishable) crime against the community.

Going off the rails

My worry, then, is that maxims like 'believe the victim’ and its corollary 'don’t engage with the perpetrator’ are operating in ways which go against their original radical intentions. I’m just not sure that women, or survivors of all genders, or people suffering oppression, are always being listened to and respected more as a result or their application. It seems, rather, that we are listened to and respected more only when we make certain kinds of claims, in a certain language, and have certain friends.

This is all very ironic, of course, because the whole point of safer spaces is supposed to be to make things more inclusive, to challenge power imbalances, bullying and silencing within political groups. To say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, though, does not really capture the situation. For the fact is that we were already in hell. The hierarchical systems of gender, race, and capital, and the violence which constructs and perpetuates them: that is hell. Rape culture is hell, and rape culture persists within radical collectives. The safer spaces movement has challenged rape culture. Yet it has also labelled a 'rape apologist’ and a 'well-known misogynist’ the first person to ever really listen and believe me when I told them about my experiences of being forced into sex.

As with every revolutionary movement, the safer spaces movement carries the marks of what it fights against. It inevitably contains contradictory moments, impulses, tendencies, whatever you want to call them. It fights power but also becomes an instrument of power; it fights abuse but also becomes an instrument of abuse. Like I said, this is the nature of all revolutionary movements. Saying that the safer spaces movement is contradictory does not amount to an attack on all that it has achieved and aims to achieve, or to a demand that it be jettisoned. But, and this is the point I want to make, if it is to remain revolutionary rather than sliding into authoritarianism, it must allow for internal dissent – that is, genuine political disagreements about safer spaces concepts and practices in general and about what is to be done in particular cases.

The difficulty, of course, is that what is to count as 'internal dissent’, as opposed to attack by the forces of reaction, is usually exactly the contested issue. Who is 'with’ us? Who are 'we’? I don’t have answers to these questions, and anyway it’s not just up to me. I would not want to define the rules of a collective, even if I could. I just think we need to acknowledge that these are difficult political questions, and that some (though by no means all) of what is happening at the moment in the name of safer spaces is not pushing towards the best answers.

I imagine someone might object that pointing to the complexity of an issue is a common derailing strategy. To say how complicated or difficult an issue is can be a way of stalling attempts to do something about it, thereby upholding the status quo. For example, a standard response to calls for a boycott of the Israeli state is to say 'oh, but the Israel-Palestine situation is so complex – we can’t possibly take sides’. This response refuses to recognise the power dynamics of the situation and the urgent need for action. However, the fact that claims of complexity are sometimes used for this purpose does not mean, obviously, that there are no complex issues, or that we should pretend that all political questions have simple answers. On the contrary, saying 'it’s more complicated than that’ might be a necessary part of responding to those who think that the actions of the Israeli state are automatically justified because Jewish people suffer oppression, or because Israel is a victim of attacks, or because some opposition to Israel definitely is anti-Semitic. Claims of complexity are neither inherently good nor bad politically – it surely depends on whether the 'simple’ narrative they are 'complicating’ is true or not, and what consequences sticking to it is having.

Solidarity forever

It is worth analysing further why the question of what solidarity demands is so fraught. We know all too well that just because someone says they’re a feminist doesn’t mean that what they are doing is actually helping to dismantle patriarchy. When the Bolsheviks began shooting their own fellow-revolutionaries for departing from the party line, they were motivated, at least in part, by the sincere belief that those who did not adhere totally to the programme were, whether wittingly or unwittingly, contributing to the ever-imminent danger of counter-revolution. Defeat by counter-revolutionary forces would mean, literally, the massacre of the revolutionary movement, and the loss of all that had been gained. The people they shot called themselves revolutionaries, but the people doing the shooting called them tools of the bourgeoisie. Apologists, if you will. Pre-revolutionary Russia was hell, and the Bolsheviks thought they had found the only path out. No wonder any tarrying by the wayside, any perceived attempts at derailing the process, marked you out as a devil. But the more people they denounced, the more their road led nowhere. Or rather, we all know where it led. I do not say this in order to delegitimise the concepts of 'apologism’ or 'derailing’, which certainly are rightly applied in many cases (and there really were White agents among the Russian revolutionaries), but to highlight the problem when any disagreement is taken to warrant the application of these labels, no matter what the politics of the disagreement.

I imagine that using the example of the Bolsheviks seems quite over the top, so I should explain what I’m doing with it. I’m certainly not saying that what is being done in the name of safer spaces is remotely comparable in its horror to the actions of the Bolsheviks. I’m not saying that advocates of safer spaces are 'secretly’ Leninists, or anything like that. I’ve chosen it as an example, firstly, because I’m sure everyone I’m addressing is in no doubt that what the Bolsheviks did was not good politics, to put it mildly. On the other hand, I want to show that their authoritarianism was actually not so obviously wrong from where they were standing, in that it was a response to an objective situation which made that ruthlessness appear necessary to some people who did not have purely malevolent intentions. I want to bring out the logic of the position, and to use that as an object of comparison in trying to understand how it can come to seem as though, out of a commitment to feminism, you might be morally required to treat your fellow-oppressed with such callousness. There is a problem with the logic, though. It did not follow from the horrors of Russian tsarism that if you were a committed revolutionary then you had to be committed to every aspect of the Bolshevik programme. And it does not follow from the horrors of rape culture that if you are committed to challenging oppression and sexual violence then you must be committed to every aspect of safer spaces politics as currently articulated and applied.

Since I’ve been slating Leninists I may as well make it clear that liberals are at least as bad. They go on about 'reasonable debate’ and 'tolerating dissent’ but they actually exclude serious challenges to the status quo from the sphere of the political, by labelling them unreasonable, mindless, violent, criminal. Your dissent is permitted, as long a you behave appropriately, as long as you do not engage in behaviours which would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his or her personal safety. (Public Order Act 1986)

Radical collectives are premised on the rejection of the liberal conception of politics. We recognise that the liberal concept of 'reasonableness’ is a mask for the white, bourgeois man, and that those voices dismissed as irrational, as hysterical, are precisely the voices of the oppressed. The perpetual danger of utopian projects, though, is that they replicate what they set out to oppose. The politics of safer spaces has done a lot to challenge oppression, but in the process it has codified a series of prohibitions on opinions or actions which are labelled 'unsafe’, and a prescription that anyone accused of being unsafe be excluded from the sphere of political engagement. The liberal demand that you go about your dissent in a 'reasonable’ manner seems worryingly to be mirrored in the demand that you go about your dissent in a way that does not make anyone feel 'unsafe’. In both cases, some genuine political disagreements are being excluded from political spaces, being transformed into an apparently prior moral issue of whether you are conducting yourself in a permissible manner.

To raise this concern is not to say that no-one, and no opinion, should ever be excluded. Of course we need to distinguish between cops and comrades, and not all those who police our oppression wear a uniform. Equally, the idea that we can simply 'not act’ is a liberal illusion – so-called 'non-intervention’ just upholds existing power relations, and does not provide a solution. However, anyone committed to revolutionary change must believe that it is legitimate, and even necessary, to oppose existing wrongs without being able to provide a fully worked-out alternative. (This is partly because our ways of thinking are so shaped by oppressive power structures that we cannot totally transcend them when we imagine alternatives, and partly because alternatives need to be collectively determined in the course of transformative struggle, not decided on by a small group in advance and then imposed upon others.) There is no straight and narrow path of righteousness out of this double-bind, only the constant struggle against what we hate, and against becoming what we hate. But recognising that we are in a double-bind seems more promising, as well as more honest, than sticking to the line that we just aren’t ostracising hard enough.

The oppressive social relations we struggle against are inevitably reflected in us, individually and collectively. We are scarred, and our relations with each other are scarred, though obviously we are not all scarred in the same way. To fight and organise, together, against the world as it is, we must fight to be together in ways which challenge and subvert, rather than perpetuate, the modes of domination, exploitation and violence which create us as subjects. All I have been trying to show is that it is not so obvious that every aspect of safer spaces politics is taking this fight forwards – not so obvious as to justify the assumption that any opposition warrants hatred and denunciation by all right-thinking radicals. On the other hand, maybe the incidents of bullying and scapegoating, the 'miscarriages of justice’, which I have pointed out are not indicative of any general problem with the politics of safer spaces, or with its conception of justice. Perhaps they are just examples of safer spaces practices and language being abused, unfortunate lapses in an otherwise healthy project. If this is the case, though, then that means more than ever that dissent needs to be understood as not necessarily reactionary or victim-blaming or misogynist. Otherwise there is no mechanism for preventing the abuse when it does happen, and there is no way for those who suffer from it to speak out.

* There are plenty of problems with using the term 'survivor’ to describe people who have experienced sexual violence against them, for some do not feel themselves to have 'survived’. This may be because they feel that in some crucial ways they did not continue to live after those experiences, or because the abuse is ongoing, or conversely because they feel that the experiences did not threaten their existence in the first place, and they do not want to define themselves in terms of them. I’ve used the word, despite these problems, because there are at least as many problems with other words. I use the word 'victim’ where I am discussing victim-blaming and the maxim 'believe the victim’, and also when what is at issue is a person’s suffering a particular wrong, rather than their having survived past wrongs.

Allies understand that emotional safety is not a realistic expectation if we take our alliance seriously. For those with privilege, the goal is to “become comfortable with the uncomfortable and uncomfortable with the too-comfortable” and to act to alter the too-comfortable… My experience is that when white people ask for safety [we] mean [we] don’t want to be held accountable for what [we] say.
SCENE REPORT: MidWest Zine Fest 2013

On April 13, 2013, POCZP Midwest Coordinator Joyce Hatton attended MidWest Zine Fest for herself and on behalf of POCZP. She created this report back as part of POCZP’s advocacy to help address safer space issues and to encourage more communication/outreach between white zine fest organizers and POC in the community where the event is taking place.

As a result of Joyce’s recap, we have been directly in touch with MidWest Zine Fest organizers. Our advocacy is about building relationships and sharing resources—with the focus always being on the liberation of POC.

We understand the utility of call out culture but we prefer to directly address issues with people one on one. We have found this leads to more tangible positive change than simply reading someone/an entity online (although sometimes it is needed!).

Enjoy the recap and let us know what you think!


MidWest Zine Fest 2013: The Awesome and the Not-So-Awesome

By Joyce Hatton

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Joyce Hatton and POCZP member Mimi Thi Nguyen at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 (photo by Joyce Hatton)

On April 13th, 2013, I attended MidWest Zine Fest in Urbana, IL.

There were two speakers: Joe Coyle, and Kevin Hamilton. There were 21 tablers listed on the schedule, but a few more attended than were listed- myself included. I met some really interesting people and left with a huge pile of zines. I was really glad I went.  Other events that I didn’t attend included a photo scavenger hunt, a stencil workshop, a film screening, and a punk show.


  • When I walked in I saw several people wearing “radical librarian” name tags.  I <3 librarians, especially radical librarians.
  • I was delighted to see Georgi Johnston there, because I had just ordered the zine “Erik Satie was a Punk” through the mail. I was excited to read one zinester’s analysis of “punk” in a decidedly non-punk context (Satie was born in 1866 and and punk broke in 1977, as Georgi points out in the zine).  I talked briefly with Georgi and we ended up doing a zine trade.
  • Joe Coyle gave an excellent talk titled “Young People, the Prison Industrial Complex, and Writing” about work at a writing program based out of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center. 

Joe said: 

“The voices of young people are often neglected in discussions about the justice system and other social issues. This talk showcases some creative work by detained young people that critically addresses these topics and imagines alternatives.”

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A view of the crowd during Joe Coyle’s talk at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 (photo by Joyce Hatton) 

Coyle commented that sometimes even auxiliary prison workers get flack for being a part of the broken system that is the PIC.  As we talked we agreed there is value in the efforts of working through the system to improve the lives of incarcerated people, and value in working for radical change of the system.

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Joe Coyle and Becca Sorgert tabling at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 with zines made by incarcerated youth and adults (photo by Joyce Hatton)

Joe and Becca Sorgert tabled zines written by incarcerated youth and adults as a fundraiser for the Beat Within, an nonprofit magazine that publishes works by incarcerated youth.

  • Kevin Hamilton spoke about the process of making the zine “A Place in Time: Two Paths to a Television Broadcast.” 

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Kevin Hamilton (on stage) speaking about the zine making process at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 (photo by Joyce Hatton)

Kevin’s talk was a bit hard to hear because there was no microphone and zine fest was very busy at that time.  Fortunately I was able to borrow a copy of “A Place in Time,” and I really enjoyed reading it.

Kevin was motivated to make it after seeing a video of the 1967 TV show “Public Broadcasting Lab.” In the zine, images from one of the broadcasts were used to recap a discussion amongst students and faculty talk about racism on campus. Black students are very anxious to talk about it, and the white students and faculty much less so.

[POCZP Editor Annotation]

FROM LAST YEAR: Chicagoian Jonas of "Cheer the Eff Up” zine tabling at MidWest Zine Fest in 2012 (in the black hat and hoodie)

Photo Source: Nicole on WeMakeZines

Update via Jonas on FB:

The final 2 issues of Cheer the Eff Up will be available this year! #5 will be finished in time for The Portland Zine Symposium in August. Issue #6 will be done in early November! 

In the meantime, you can get issues #1-3 at a few cool distros on the internets. The most recent issue #4 can be found through Mend My Dress Press or Portland Button Works

Please support those distros, because they are run by some of my favorite zinesters on the planet. But, hell, I’m not going to lie to you: if you write me a letter asking for a zine or 2, I’ll probably just mail you stuff for free. Meh. I’m a sucker for mail. Message me privately for the P.O. Box addy. 

Later gators,

[/POCZP Editor Annotation]

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A view of the zine tablers at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 (photo by Joyce Hatton)

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Participants during the stencil workshop at MidWest Zine Fest 2013 (photo  by Joyce Hatton)

COMMUNITY & ALLIES: Here is where Joyce raises some very important concerns that we hope sparks an ongoing and collaborative conversation between white folks who organize events and POC in the communities where they hold these events. If we don’t address these issues, POC will continue to feel unwelcome, unsafe and shut out from community. We cannot abide this. <3 Let’s change the game.


  • Both Joe Coyle and Kevin Hamilton, the only two speakers, were white men.

Joe spoke for incarcerated youth, which due to the institutional racism of the justice system, many were people of color. Kevin’s zine spoke to racism on University of Illinois campus during the 1960’s and in my opinion, serves as a reminder that at any moment any one of us could be an individual that shapes history.

I appreciated Joe’s talk, and Kevin’s zine very much, but I always feel uncomfortable when white people speak about racism to a white audience (there did not appear to be people of color sitting in the audience of either talk.)

I appeared to be one of two people of color tabling zines there. There were some people of color who attended the event, which I was very glad to see. But I think it’s very important for POCs to have an active role in events, to have an active voice in presenting information. It seems like a distraction to talk about issues of race out there when your own space isn’t integrated.

I spoke with event organizer Jeanie about the lack of POCs at the event. Jeanie said that some zinesters of color were planning on coming from Chicago, but were unable to at the last minute. We talked for a bit about the need for more representation of POCs at zine events, and discussed barriers and solutions to making that happen.

POCZP stopped by Urbana-Champaign last year and put on an event at the Independent Media Center where Midwest Zine Fest was held. A few people commented to me that they had attended. While it was exciting to hear that, it was a little discouraging hear at an event with so few POCs tabling zines at MidWest Zine Fest.

  • There was a zine there about “ghost hunting” and it included an image of a “proud Native American.”

The zine said that ghosts followed Natives around, and encouraged ghost hunters to follow Natives around in order to hunt ghosts. I asked the tablers of the zine about it in and they said “it’s just a joke” and offered to give me my money back.

I told them I hadn’t bought the zine, I had just noticed it while flipping through it. They repeated “it’s just a joke,” a few times, and eventually one person said “oh, you know, our friend made that joke. She’s a member of United Tribes.”

This is even more troubling when put in the context of the still-active controversy surrounding University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s recently retired mascot Chief Illiniwek.

  • Dan from was wearing a tshirt that said “Chicago ain’t no sissy town.”

I approached him and had a brief conversation with him about the fact that “sissy” is a very loaded word that might make some people feel unwanted at the event, particularly given that he was tabling, which gives him the appearance of a person with power over the event. Dan was extremely polite, and offered to put on his sweatshirt to cover the shirt up.

We traded a couple of emails about our discussion a week or so later, and I think our interactions were very positive and educational for both of us.

I was very impressed with Dan’s immediate willingness to accept a new perspective, and complete lack of defensiveness.

I appreciate all the hard work the organizers did to host MidWest Zine Fest. I do not want to detract from the awesomeness of the event. What I wanted to do is give my honest perspective so that MidWest Zine Fest can grow to the be inclusive event that we all want it to be.




POCZP founder Daniela Capistrano reached out to MidWest Zine Fest organizer Jeanie Austin this week after Joyce requested support.

Jeanie has been one of the organizers for the three MidWest Zine Fests, is a zine librarian with the UC-IMC Radical Librarians, goes to school for library science, and works with youth through Mix IT UP!

Here is the thread from our convo with Jeanie:


Hi Jeanie and Daniela, Jeanie, Thanks for your email.  I apologize for my lack of response.  I appreciate that you shared your concerns and experiences with me, but I was really unsure how to respond to information that I was supposed to keep secret- not just off the POCZP tumblr, but from Daniela and others. I think that growth and accountability can only happen in an open, transparent environment.  

If you do have any comments or notes that you want to go with the blog post, please let us know.  



To her credit, Jeanie responded in a very honest way that frankly we rarely see from white zine fest organizers after this kind of interaction:


joyce -

i totally understand.  i felt yucky as soon as i sent that e-mail.  sorry to put you in that position.  

i think that i would add this as an addendum to the notes “if i were to offer a word of advice to organizers who want to maintain safer spaces (which we do), there needs to be a lot of talk about what that looks like in action, including a patrol team that looks around and is ready to ENFORCE safer spaces (even if it means kicking folks out).”


Hi Jeanie,

Thanks so much for weighing in. POCZP does not use call out culture tactics because (although we understand when it is needed), we find it more productive to focus on solutions directly with folks we’re addressing. So we really appreciate your response and will include your note in the write up later today.  I would also like to suggest the possibility of us all brainstorming by google hangout later this week or next week ways to collaborate in the midwest moving forward, with Joyce being a part of that in ways that make sense for her/work with her schedule. <3 Let me know what you think. Warmly, Daniela

POCZP founder Daniela and Jeanie are in touch about ongoing collaborations. Daniela, Jeanie and Joyce will be speaking about issues that came up at MidWest Zine Fest in more detail in the coming weeks so that resulting solutions can be shared publicly.

Jeanie is like many zine fest organizers—a person with a lot of other stuff going on who is passionate about building community. She reached out to us earlier in 2013, in fact, to present at MidWest Zine Fest. She also approached POCZP about a possible collaboration with a juvenile detention center in Urbana, IL and made an introduction on our behalf with Joe Coyle, who oversees the writing project.

This post isn’t about “calling out” Jeanie or anyone else at MidWest Zine Fest. We are about building community and making safer spaces for POC. 

COMMUNITY: Think about Jeanie’s comment:

to maintain safer spaces (which we do), there needs to be a lot of talk about what that looks like in action

This hits close to home for POCZP. We made our own mistakes during our first tour last year that we will not make again this year. We discussed these mistakes at Chicago Zine Fest and you can find all details within our prezi.

Despite POCZP being founded by a person of color, and being made up of POC and allies, we still made mistakes during last year’s tour that negatively affected some attendees. Some of our partner venues wouldn’t let people under 18 in, some of the venues were not wheelchair accessible and and we never created a Safer Space Policy for our volunteer event coordinators.

Even as POC, we need to examine our various privileges and how that informs the way we produce events.

So even as we ask the MidWest Zine Fest organizers to examine what went wrong and how to produce more inclusive events in the future, we continue to identify our own mistakes so that we can learn from them and then share that knowledge.

MidWest Zine Fest DID create a safer space policy. The challenge is (one that many event organizers face) how to make sure that everyone is adhering to that policy and whether or not everyone is one the same page about what the policy means

These conversations about accessibility, inclusivity and white privilege can be awkward, yes. But we need to keep having them. All the time. That is the only way positive change can occur. We need to all be a part of the solution.

Another factor to consider when assessing how the same mistakes keep happening over and over is volunteer organizer turnover rates. If there isn’t a handoff of information and a training component to onboarding new volunteers, critical information doesn’t get transferred. 

In the case of MidWest Zine Fest, there is talk that the festival may not event continue after this year (not confirmed). Jeanie herself will no longer be involved with planning the fest after this year, due to moving out of state.

But even if MidWest Zine Fest doesn’t continue, it’s likely that the past organizers will continue to create community in other ways and in other spaces. We encourage these organizers to think about how their various privileges informed their decisions that resulted some of the problematic realities of this year’s fest so that they can ensure that their next event is genuinely a safe space for POC attendees.

Check out Joyce’s roundup of zine fest posters that includes a note about MidWest Zine Fest’s problematic poster choice. 

Again, we aren’t interested in simply calling out issues and walking away. We appreciate the time and energy it takes to organize zine fests and would like to partner with MidWest Zine Fest (if it’s still around) in the future.

For additional context, here is a very positive review of MidWest Zine Fest written by a white male attendee. Here is another very positive review published by The Daily Illini.

Zine fest attendees can have very different experiences, even while being at the same event together. This is something to keep in mind when discussing what true inclusivity looks like.

COMMUNITY: How can we create a praxis - a constantly evolving framework - for zine fest organizers to reference as they build toward a goal of producing an event that is truly inclusive? We should all be sharing resources. Send us your ideas:

Also, feel free to reblog this recap and include your own thoughts and links to resources. We’ll be sure to find them and share <3

- POC Zine Project
The Problem with "Privilege"

The concept of safe space flows naturally from the logics of privilege.  That is, once we have confessed our gender/race/settler/class privileges, we can then create a safe space where others will not be negatively impacted by these privileges.  Of course because we have not dismantled heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism or capitalism, these confessed privileges never actually disappear in “safe spaces.”  Consequently, when a person is found guilty of his/her privilege in these spaces, s/he is accused of making the space “unsafe.”   This rhetorical strategy presumes that only certain privileged subjects can make the space “unsafe” as if everyone isn’t implicated in heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, settler colonialism and capitalism.  Our focus is shifted from the larger systems that make the entire world unsafe, to interpersonal conduct.  In addition, the accusation of “unsafe” is also levied against people of color who express anger about racism, only to find themselves accused of making the space “unsafe” because of their raised voices.   The problem with safe space is the presumption that a safe space is even possible.

By contrast, instead of thinking of safe spaces as a refuge from colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, Ruthie Gilmore suggests that safe space is not an escape from the real, but a place to practice the real we want to bring into being.  “Making power” models follow this suggestion in that they do not purport to be free of oppression, only that they are trying to create the world they would like to live in now.   To give one smaller example, when Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, organized, we questioned the assumption that “women of color” space is a safe space.  In fact, participants began to articulate that women of color space may in fact be a very dangerous space.  We realized that we could not assume alliances with each other, but we would actually have to create these alliances. 

One strategy that was helpful was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc.  We then structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic.  The issues we have covered include: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others.  However, in this space, while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis.   Thus, this space did not create the dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession.  Instead, we presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and that we would need to work together to undo them.  Consequently, in my experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess.    The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability.

[bolded mine]

I’ve only quoted a small part of the article - click through for the whole piece.