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Safety Pins and Solidarity

Safety Pins and Solidarity

In the aftermath of last week’s election, many people have begun wearing safety pins as a statement of solidarity for marginalized people. This has become controversial, as many activists feel that it is an empty gesture that only makes the wearer feel good without actually helping others. However, some have reported stories of feeling safer seeing other people wearing safety pins. Ultimately the consensus is that the pin itself is not sufficient, and that actions of direct support must also happen.

The idea of wearing a safety pin in solidarity began in the United Kingdom after Brexit (the vote for the UK to leave the European Union). In the wake of the vote, hate crimes against immigrants spiked. In an attempt to counter that, a woman started the movement, hoping that the inexpensive and innocuous pin would make more people be able to join in. “For those wearing it, it would be a constant reminder of the promise they’ve made not to stand idly by while racism happens to someone else,” she told the Metro. There was immediate push back though, because it did not translate to much actual activism. The initiative did not gain much momentum in Britain. Edited to add: The safety pin movement in the UK was inspired by the #Illridewithyou movement that sprang up in Australia during and following a hostage situation in Sydney in 2014.

However, here in the US, it has caught on much more widely, with people also changing their profile pictures to safety pins. Even as the symbol’s popularity grew, activists decried it as “back patting” on the part of white people, a way to make themselves feel better without actually doing the work of dismantling the systems of oppression that marginalized people face. Ijeoma Oluo, a well-known and outspoken writer, tweeted that people who “couldn’t bring themselves to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt” were all too excited to wear a safety pin.

Tweet by Ijeoma Oluo and a response

She faced a backlash from hundreds of people, who said she was racist, divisive, and “part of the problem.” In a follow up article, Oluo said, “None of the commenters seemed to be aware that telling a black woman that she was wrong to question white people is kind of the opposite of racial solidarity in a country where the majority of white voters just elected Trump.”

Furthermore, people of color have voiced the concern that this simple symbol is easily worn by white supremacists and others, meaning that marginalized people cannot, in fact, trust that the person wearing a safety pin is an ally. In an article on Medium, Lara Witt wrote, “the problem with hyper visible forms of allyship is that they can easily be co-opted by white supremacists in order to harm people of color.” Isobel Debrujah, a prominent blogger, found an image from a white supremacist site actively encouraging their members to wear safety pins as solidarity for their own movement. People are encouraged to make their safety pins a more overt sign of support with rainbows, Black Lives Matter tags, etc., things that bigots would not be willing to wear.

On the other hand, many people have pointed out that wearing a safety pin is not necessarily an empty gesture. They are calling for a more positive approach, encouraging those wearing safety pins to more direct activism. A lot of people are new to outright protest, and feel shamed and excluded by what they feel is a “holier-than-thou” attitude from more experienced protesters. Kristin Fontaine, a writer here at the Cafe said, “I can feel the fear of doing activism wrong creeping in already. I can feel myself retreating from my ideas because I’m afraid I’ll mess up and get it wrong… If I wait to act until I am the ‘perfect’ advocate, I will be dead and will have done nothing to help.”

Many people have already reported seeing people wearing safety pins, and feeling a sense of comfort, of unity, knowing that they are not alone in opposing the blatant racism and hate. Ragen Chastain, an advocate for the Healthy at Any Size Movement, wrote in her blog Dances with Fat, “I think that the safety pins serve to disrupt the assumption that bigots tend to have, that people like them hold the same prejudices they do.”

A number of articles have been published with ideas for further activism, how to make the safety pin really stand for something. In her first post about the safety pin initiative, Isobel Debrujah wrote about the importance of having a plan of action. She outlines questions for the person considering wearing a pin, such as, what are you willing to risk? Maeril, a French artist, created the following guide for deescalating harassment.

“What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment” by Maeril. Click for larger version

This article from Quartz talks about the ways people are starting to turn the safety pin initiative into concrete actions, including the creation of a network to connect people in Harlem so that people could have company when they felt unsafe walking alone.

Ultimately, the safety pin is a meaningless gesture if it is not followed up by direct action. Donating to organizations that help marginalized people, such as the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or Southern Poverty Law Center, volunteering, or even just shutting down bigoted jokes when the people around you make them, all go a long way to helping counter the systems of oppression in this country. But the gesture of solidarity by wearing the safety pin, countering the narrative that the majority espouses the hateful rhetoric that seems to be everywhere, is also a powerful message to send.


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Cynthia Katsarelis

My second comment somehow didn’t make it.

I’m tired of the snark. In England it simply meant that you were a safe person, it didn’t have to symbolize anything at all. We Americans are over analyzing it and mocking one another. It is a ministry of presence. There I was often bid to sit with Muslim women on buses. Simple. Be there.

I’m gay. Some of my gay friends have recently gotten threatening notes on their cars and the doors of their homes. If I’m verbally assaulted, I hope to God that someone wearing a pin (something I can quickly identify) is around to help steady me and support me. Likewise, I promise to be there for anyone I see being attacked.

I, and many others, are feeling horrified and less safe in the world. If you are too privileged to know what that feels like then I ask you to please listen to those of us under threat. I
need this sense that not everyone hates me, only half the voting population.

Philip B. Spivey

Understood, Cynthia, but in this day of flavor-of-the-week politics, I find that the “or” gets a lot more attention than “both/and”. I think we would agree that both/and is a must.

Philip B. Spivey

Well taken, Cynthia. Safety pins certainly do no harm if they help, as they seemed to have in your experience, very well and good.

I do remember a time, during the 1960’s, that I donned buttons to signify solidarity with several progressive social movements. I’m not sure how much help they were, but they did help identify ‘people of like mind’ and maybe just as importantly, the buttons made me feel better. Fortunately, some things don’t change; but sometimes, middle aged people do forget.

Cynthia Katsarelis

To each their own. I dangle extra safety pins on mine, so that I can give them away to interested people. Thus far, the interested people have been young African American women at the check out registers of grocery and drug stores.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for some people feeling hopeless, it is a small thing they can do. And maybe a little bit of empowering will lead to further empowerment. There may be a gendered component here, after all, pretty much all of us women have been subjected to unwanted attention, if not outright attacks. Perhaps pledging to stand up for others will give some people the confidence to stand up for themselves. And then maybe organize and work for larger change.

Philip B. Spivey

Well taken, Cynthia, but I’m a Black, gay man and I can tell you that safety pins do not make me feel any safer. I appreciate people’s need now to find counters, and show solidarity, against the hate that surrounds us.

But as we talk of safety pins, there are organizations and movements that require our witness and our labor; I plan to surround myself–in safety—with them.

Cynthia Katsarelis

It isn’t either/or. The pin means you commit to action on the street, ministering to a person in need. It doesn’t mean you aren’t going to engage in social justice.

Philip B. Spivey

Helen Kromm: Thank you for resisting the temptation to normalize what has just occurred in our nation or to place a whole lot of faith in symbols. Symbols without a movement behind them will avail us nothing. Trump’s ‘Lets Make America Great Again’ has taught us that much.

David Allen

Ms Kromm, that’s a lot of snark and vast empty assumptions on your part about others over something as simple as wearing a safety pin as a sign of solidarity. I have been wearing mine proudly since they were made available at church last Sunday and I like the smiles as I pass people in the street who also sport one.

Just as here in Seattle, I feel good when I pass a Starbucks Coffee store and see the rainbow Safe Place decal in the window and know that it is a designation of the store as a place of refuge and trained assistance should I need it.

Officer Jim Ritter places a sticker on a front window of a business on Capitol Hill in Seattle.  RItter is the new SPD liaison to the LGBTQ community. He's started a new campaign where businesses can sign up to become a "safe place" for people who are being harrassed.

Cynthia Katsarelis

As it was used in England after Brexit, the safety pin meant that the wearer was a “safe person.” So in England, Muslim women robustly invited me to sit with them on buses and trains, it made them feel safe. Being safe means that in case of verbal attack, you will do a non confrontational intervention. In the case of a physical attack, you’ll call 911 and try to record it and useful information, like a license plate.

It can symbolize opposition to the racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric and hate crimes. But most of all it means you’ll be safe for people who need safety. That is an action, an important one.

Philip B. Spivey

This post is a compassionate effort to counter the fear and paranoia we are experiencing in the post-election ether. Finding safe people and safe havens is on many minds. If a safety pin can identify a non-combatant and initiate a conversation about the political dangers we face, I’m all for it.

However, I would like underscore the particular importance of two items raised in the post: First, the symbol of a pin is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to change. We must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Second, their are no ordained gatekeepers who judge good activism from bad. Avowed activists as well as apprentice activists will all have their hands full for years to come. All hands on board! There are many creative ways to foster social justice and progressive change: volunteer, donate—time, labor, money— write, march, stuff envelopes, update a data base, place phone calls or— speak. Speaking may be your most powerful tool: The cultivation of Jesus’ Beloved Community begins at home: family home, church home, neighborhood organizations, social organizations or political organizations.

As you brandish your safety pin, let your voice be heard throughout God’s kingdom.

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