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The discursive strategy of appealing to safety and innocence is also enacted on a micro-level when white radicals manipulate “safe space” language to maintain their power in political spaces. They do this by silencing the criticisms of POC under the pretense that it makes them feel “unsafe.” This use of safe space language conflates discomfort and actual imminent danger — which is not to say that white people are entitled to feel safe anyway. The phrase “I don’t feel safe” is easy to manipulate because it frames the situation in terms of the speaker’s personal feelings, making it difficult to respond critically (even when the person is, say, being racist) because it will injure their personal sense of security. Conversation often ends when people politicize their feelings of discomfort by using safe space language. The most ludicrous example of this that comes to mind was when a woman from Occupy Baltimore manipulated feminist language to defend the police after an “occupier” called the cops on a homeless man. When the police arrived to the encampment they were verbally confronted by a group of protesters. During the confrontation the woman made an effort to protect the police by inserting herself between the police and the protesters, telling those who were angry about the cops that it was unjustified to exclude the police. In the Baltimore City Paper she was quoted saying, “they were violating, I thought, the cops’ space.”

The invocation of personal security and safety presses on our affective and emotional registers and can thus be manipulated to justify everything from racial profiling to war. When people use safe space language to call out people in activist spaces, the one wielding the language is framed as innocent, and may even amplify or politicize their presumed innocence. After the woman from Occupy Baltimore came out as a survivor of violence and said she was traumatized by being yelled at while defending the cops, I noticed that many people became unwilling to take a critical stance on her blatantly pro-cop, classist, and homeless-phobic actions and comments, which included statements like, “There are so many homeless drunks down there — suffering from a nasty disease of addiction — what do I care if they are there or not ? I would rather see them in treatment — that is for sure — but where they pass out is irrelevant to me.” Let it be known that anyone who puts their body between the cops and my comrades to protect the State’s monopoly on violence is a collaborator of the State. Surviving gendered violence does not mean you are incapable of perpetuating other forms of violence. Likewise, people can also mobilize their experiences with racism, transphobia, or classism to purify themselves. When people identify with their victimization, we need to critically consider whether it is being used as a tactical maneuver to construct themselves as innocent and exert power without being questioned. That does not mean delegitimizing the claims made by survivors — but rather, rejecting the framework of innocence, examining each situation closely, and being conscientious of the multiple power struggles at play in different conflicts.

On the flip side of this is a radical queer critique that has recently been leveled against the “safe space” model. In a statement from the Copenhagen Queer Festival titled “No safer spaces this year,” festival organizers wrote regarding their decision to remove the safer-space guidelines of the festival, offering in its place an appeal to “individual reflection and responsibility.” (In other words, ‘The safe space is impossible, therefore, fend for yourself.’) I see this rejection of collective forms of organizing, and unwillingness to think beyond the individual as the foundational political unit, as part of a historical shift from queer liberation to queer performativity that coincides with the advent of neoliberalism and the “Care of the Self”-style “politics” of choice). By reacting against the failure of safe space with a suspicion of articulated/explicit politics and collectivism, we flatten the issues and miss an opportunity to ask critical questions about the distribution of power, vulnerability, and violence, questions about how and why certain people co-opt language and infrastructure that is meant to respond to internally oppressive dynamics to perpetuate racial domination. As a Fanonian, I agree that removing all elements of risk and danger reinforces a politics of reformism that just reproduces the existing social order. Militancy is undermined by the politics of safety. It becomes impossible to do anything that involves risk when people habitually block such actions on the grounds that it makes them feel unsafe. People of color who use privilege theory to argue that white people have the privilege to engage in risky actions while POC cannot because they are the most vulnerable (most likely to be targeted by the police, not have the resources to get out of jail, etc) make a correct assessment of power differentials between white and non-white political actors, but ultimately erase POC from the history of militant struggle by falsely associating militancy with whiteness and privilege. When an analysis of privilege is turned into a political program that asserts that the most vulnerable should not take risks, the only politically correct politics becomes a politics of reformism and retreat, a politics that necessarily capitulates to the status quo while erasing the legacy of Black Power groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army. For Fanon, it is precisely the element of risk that makes militant action more urgent — liberation can only be won by risking one’s life. Militancy is not just tactically necessary — its dual objective is to transform people and “fundamentally alter” their being by emboldening them, removing their passivity and cleansing them of “the core of despair” crystallized in their bodies.

« Against innocence. Race, gender, and the politics of safety »
vol. 1
Lies journal n° 10