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Reflecting on the Silent Barn's safer spaces panel / by Nina Mashurova

Silent Barn hosts “public meetings” every month -- panel discussions followed by audience Q&A’s. Previous topics have included touring, curation, legalization, and women in DIY. On Tuesday, October 22, we held one about safer spaces, which **full disclosure** I co-organized.

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Our space does not currently have a safer space policy. There is nothing unusual about that – very few spaces in New York, or any other city for that matter, have safer space policies in place. As an art space, we deal in vibes, and, for what it’s worth, I have always been amazed and inspired by how open, respectful, supportive and positive the vibe here tends to be for the most part, and have had this feeling confirmed by a number of visitors to the space. But, we are also a space that likes putting our ideas into language, so a safer space policy seemed natural to have on the table. We decided to make safer spaces – their pros, their cons, their theory and their reality – the topic of a public meeting, both to welcome the discourse into our space and to inform any potential future policy-making.

Although “safer space” discourse is extremely present in the punk politic, it still has not made it into the broader arts world lexicon. Right off the bat, people recoil at the word “safe” due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what “safer space” really means. The term “safe” sends up a red flag - If there are two things that most people don’t want to hear described as “safe,” it’s art and nightlife. Rollercoaster? Safe, please. Loft bed? The safer the better. Noise music? Under-the-radar venues? Avant-art? To fulfill their promise, those things need to be challenging and liberationist and chaotic and sometimes terrifying. Most people go out or make art to cut loose and escape and give form to impulses that are constrained in proper professional daily life – and how are people going to let go and make next level art if the PC police is watching their every move? That’s the common complaint.

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Four panelists were present – Spencer from ABC No Rio, Megan who performs noise music as Lazurite and co-organizes the feminist experimental music collective LOXM, Suzy X from Shady Hawkins, and Leah from Support New York. Kate Wadkins, from For the Birds and International Girl Gang Underground, moderated.

The panel opened with a reading of the Coalition for Safer Spaces’ definition of a safer space, which describes a safer space as “a supportive, non-threatening environment that encourages open-mindedness, respect, a willingness to learn from others, as well as physical and mental safety. It is a space that is critical of the power structures that affect our everyday lives, and where power dynamics, backgrounds, and the effects of our behavior on others are prioritized.”

Panelists then went on to describe what safer space means to them and to their spaces. Spencer described ABC No Rio’s policy as very simple – “No sexism, no racism, no homophobia.” According to Spencer, the simplicity is both a pitfall and an advantage. Since the policy was drafted in the eighties before certain kinds of oppressions were enumerated in popular discourse, transphobia must now be lumped in with “no homophobia” and xenophobia is said to fit under the umbrella of “no racism.” On the other hand, the simple language helped get the venue’s values across to people who might not be initiated in theory.

“If you get too wordy and intellectual a lot of people aren’t going to understand it,” said Spencer. “I’ll speak for the straight white bros of new york city public school system who didn’t go to college – I don’t understand a lot of what I read in literature and I do my best but I have to have people break things down for me and I want to know what I’m reading when I read feminist theory. A lot of people have good intent but they don’t have the vocabulary or the intellectual means to understand literature or signage.”

When discussing the language of “safer” vs “safe,” Leah pointed out that, “there is no pure safety under a capitalist system that thrives on racism, sexism, and all these structures of oppression that we live under so it’s impossible to say that we’re going to get to a pure safe space. I really like the idea of safeR because it feels like trying.”

Inevitably, the conversation turned to resistance. As a female musician in an extremely male-dominated scene, Megan questioned how to bring this discourse up in the noise scene. “How do we get that started,” she asked, “when people hear the term ‘safer spaces’ and automatically are just like ‘feminist bullshit!’” Megan cited an an “aggro bro” mentality in the noise scene and the persistent booking of noise artists with numerous allegations of sexual assault against them as reasons why she has felt uncomfortable at many noise festivals and noise shows, and why such a policy would tremendously benefit her scene and why it would be almost impossible to implement.

Spencer sympathized, conceding that ABC’s policy, coupled with questionable enforcement by “overzealous volunteers” has earned them a reputation as “PC Fascists” among a lot of the scene. Terms like “PC fascists” and “policing” were met with laughter and nods of familiarity.

“The policing comment is the pervasive attitude,” said Kate. “We need to keep in mind that this is a very common way to silence any kind of activism ever. it is not an accident that every single one of us used the word policing because punks love to hate police and they love to tell you that you’re policing them because it makes you the asshole loser”

To combat the accusation of “policing,” Leah emphasized working together to create a language around values the community already shares. That way it feels less like there is a policy being artificially imposed from the outside and more like a community coming together around a common set of values.

(This is easier said than done – Leah and Suzy also mentioned their experiences with Occupy Wall Street, where they tried for five months to do just that and were still unsuccessful.)

Leah also mentioned being as specific as possible about what behaviors a space will and will not tolerate, to make sure that these values get reflected in action instead of staying mired in theory.

This brought us to another major topic of discussion - how to actually enforce a safer space policy once it is in place. Even when people who run a space can agree that creating a safer space is important, identifying and dealing with a problematic situations when they occur can be intimidating. As an audience member pointed out, having a policy in place without the people power to back it up is far more hurtful than not having a policy at all. How do you make sure you’re not just paying lip service to the concept? How do you train people to do safer space work? Which behaviors do you identify as unacceptable? How do you step in?

“Everyone’s scared to do it,” said Kate. “Everyone feels like it’s not their job and they’re not qualified to do it and it should be up to someone else’ that’s the pervasive scary idea – I don’t know how to do this, let’s leave it up to the professionals.”

Suzy brought up the importance of preventative measures - scanning the room to identify vulnerable situations, looking for people who look sick, not leaving people alone. Otherwise, the responsibility is on the affected party to come forward, which can be difficult for some. She also emphasized de-escalation – since confronting someone and telling them that they are being kicked out can result in knee-jerk violence, the best course of action is to first remove the person from the heated situation by taking them outside to cool down.

Spencer advised us to train collective members and then have a few collective members present at each show, and to somehow identify those members as people who someone who felt uncomfortable could come to. (This is a thing that sort of already happens implicitly, but making it more explicit would be a consideration.)

Panelists discussed the relative pros and cons of kicking people out of a space and agreed that while kicking people out is ill-advised and should only be used as a last resort since it results in alienating people and creating a negative reputation for your space, sometimes it is important to do in the moment, to preserve the safety of people present. It is important to remember that a lot of the oppressions that safer space policies are designed to minimize are totally normalized in everyday life. Most “offenders” are not menacing, just uninitiated – most might not even realize that they are doing something that can be perceived as wrong. To mitigate this, ABC has a “throw out, come back” policy – someone who is kicked out in the heat of the moment is then given a chance to come back to a collective meeting. Panelists agreed that the overall goal should not be to create a “walled garden” but rather to meet people where they are and promote education, dialogue, and longer lasting change. But, panelists also agreed, sometimes people are just assholes, and sometimes you just have to kick an asshole out.

Before the panel, I had went through the DiTKO Zine Library and picked out a couple of appropriate zines – “Support!,” “Sexism in the Punk Scene,” “Safety is an Illusion,” and “We Are All Survivors We Are All Perpetrators” to name a few.

Those zines resonated with me for a lot of the reason that the panel discussion resonated with me – they deviated from militant theory, acknowledged people as human and flawed, and strove to educate rather than demonize.

“We Are All Survivors” writes, “Identifying one person as a perpetrator may not make sense if both or all of the people involved in the interaction both crossed another person’s boundaries and had their own boundaries crossed. The language we currently have available to describe these situations creates a false division of the world between perpetrators and survivors, when—just as with oppressors and those who are oppressed—most people experience both sides of the dichotomy at one time or another.”

“Safety is an Illusion” echoes this – “I am sick of the language of accountability being used to create mutually exclusive categories of 'fucked up' and 'wronged.' I find the language of 'survivor' and 'perp' offensive because it does not lay bare all the ways in which abuse is a dynamic between parties… These essentialist categories don't serve us…People abuse one another- this abuse is often mutual and cyclical- cycles are hard but not impossible to amend. These behaviors change contextually…There is no space we can create in a world as damaged as the one we live in which is absent from violence. That we even think it is possible says more about our privilege than anything else.”

I have seen a lot of well-intentioned punk communities eat themselves in a destructive cycle of accusations, banning people from spaces, and ruining reputations. This happens when people get so wrapped up in rhetoric that they forget that, as humans raised in a highly individualistic capitalist society, we have not been socialized to look out for each other. Over the course of our lives, most of us have had violence enacted onto us and have enacted violence onto others. Perhaps resistance comes from the underlying suspicion that if there were ever a truly “safe” space, none of us would be welcome to it.

To me, striving for safer space involves being intentional whenever possible but also being realistic and patient. Even raising these questions is an important step. As Leah said, “just the act of starting to create agreements and talking about the values explicitly starts to create a cultural shift.”

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When I was a teenager, I went to shows at a lot of spaces that were definitely not safe spaces. It was worth it to go see cool bands without having to deal with $20 covers and lame venue vibes. It ended up being okay for the most part. I ended up in a lot of sketchy situations, but, thankfully, nothing seriously traumatizing happened to me personally. That said, if it did, it would never have occurred to me to come to an organizer or a venue staffer for help – I always got the sense that no one would have cared. It wasn’t upsetting, it was a given. My friends and I took pride in resiliency. New York made tough kids out of us all – so much of our time was spent interfacing with apathetic and often hostile public and private environments (subways, streets, eateries, parks) where we were the only ones looking out for our well-being, that there was zero expectation that a venue should be different. It wasn’t until I visited the Vera Project many years later, as an adult, that I realized how much better life would have things been if venues were run by people who gave a shit.

Now, when people say that safer space discourse has no place in arts spaces because it is not challenging, I ask them: what exactly is challenging about misogyny, ageism, and homophobia? Aren’t those just the power dynamics of mainstream society being replicated behind the shield of aesthetics? If anything, it seems safe to take comfort in the structural oppressions that give you privilege. For a space to be truly challenging it should take steps to challenge not just hegemonic paradigms of art but also hegemonic paradigms of how we relate to each other, how we negotiate power, whose voices we amplify, and whose safety we hope to protect.

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