Sunday, January 12, 2014

Defining Safe Spaces with "Direct Action"

This week I was contacted by someone putting together a conference on Nonhuman Animal rights who was inviting myself and the other two writers for my Vegan Feminist Network project to present.  As someone who has experienced considerable harassment, sexism, and violence at the hands of vegan men in this movement, I requested information about their safe space policy and a list of presenters before we would agree to participate.

The organizer then presented me with a list of four speakers, all of whom were male, which immediately warned me that the organizers didn't understand how patriarchy works in our movement (most conferences, theories, books, etc. disproportionately feature the voices of men, though women compromise 80% of the movement).  The dominating presence of men made me uncomfortable about the prospect of participating, but there was more . . .

Instead of a clear safe space policy, the organizer assured me that everyone who would be present is really into intersectionality and has no tolerance for bigotry.  Also, any "creepy dudes" would be asked to leave.  Again, for someone who has been victimized heavily in the past by men, this "unspoken rule" about bigotry and creepy dudes left much to be desired.  It seemed there was no clear safe space policy at all, but rather an "understanding."

Finally, I decided to explore who these four presenters were.  After about 30 seconds of googling, I discovered that all four were involved in "direct action" (violent and illegal activity) on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front.  Some of whom were actually "famous" (because our movement worships white male bravado) for being "repressed" by the government.  Yes, when I informed the organizer that we would not be participating because violent activists would be present and this is a non-negotiable, she corrected me by labeling them "repressed" activists.  It seems by "safe space," she meant a safe space for white men to enjoy celebration for their  violent masculinity.

As a woman who has been victimized at the hands of men, the last place I want to be is in a room where men's violence is being celebrated.  That's the absolute antithesis of a "safe space."

To be clear, here are some of the things that the Animal Liberation Front and other "direct action advocates" have been responsible for:

These activists heavily utilize violence, which means their advocacy spaces are both uncomfortable for and dangerous for women.  These are men who operate according to "any means necessary" to make others bow to their will.  These are men who creep around in the night in black ski masks causing fear and terror.  This is the stuff of nightmares for women, especially those who have been victims of sexual assault, stalking, and rape.

Another reality is that women (and persons from poor backgrounds and people of color) are extremely disadvantaged in academia.  The Vegan Feminist Network writers are all graduate students with intentions of entering professional careers.  Unlike the white men who tend to be those utilizing violent advocacy, the rest of us have our careers on the line.  While Steve Best can be filmed cursing like an irate sailor and making violent threats to beat and kill people and still have tenure at a major university, the rest of us do not have that luxury.

For that matter, spaces that harbor and celebrate violence are also extremely unwelcoming for people of color, who are targeted by criminal justice institutions.  White men have the "privilege" of conducting illegal and violent advocacy because they are the most privileged and protected group on the face of the planet.  For people of color who are arrested simply for walking, driving, or shopping while black (or latin@, etc.), there is no room for them in animal "liberation" activities.  A white male who blows up a laboratory or stalks vivisectors is many, many, many times less likely to be arrested, prosecuted, or spend any considerable amount of time in jail.

Racial bias in the courtroom is a major problem for people of color
Via Sociological Images

Black/white disparaties in prison sentences
Via Sociological Images
Make no mistake, these events are likely to be under surveillance, as Nonhuman Animal rights activists have been targeted as number one on the list of domestic terrorists.  There's also the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which effectively criminalizes any behavior on behalf of other animals.  At least one of the speakers, Ryan Shapiro, is famous for his conflicts with the FBI as an activist.  A conference featuring these people is not a place that I would personally feel safe under any circumstances.

In sum, there is no such thing as a "safe space" where white male violence is celebrated.  White male violence is at the root of oppression.  White male violence makes it uncomfortable and unsafe for women, people of color, and all other vulnerable groups who have been victimized by white male violence.  I am both incredibly shocked and offended that anyone would be so brass and insensitive to contact the Vegan Feminist Network and ask us to be the intersectional "cover girls" for their white male celebration of oppression.  That conference and the groups promoting it appear to have no understanding of their own privilege and the institutional violence facing others.

My advice to organizers:  Create a safe policy and put it in writing.  Consult organizations and experts who specialize in creating safe zones.  If you are a white person of privilege and you are only consulting other white persons of privilege on what you as white privileged people think a "safe space" should be, in all likelihood, you are way off.  Step one to challenging privilege and creating a safe space is recognizing that you do not have the privilege of defining safety for everyone else.