The safety pin: a reminder to resist bigotry

Just before the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, Jo Cox, a Yorkshire Member of Parliament was murdered by a right-wing extremist with a gun that he had constructed himself. Shootings are rare here because we have strict gun laws.

That murder did not happen in a vacuum; the shooter was part of a wider discourse of rising racial hatred and bigotry. The campaign to Leave the EU was particularly virulent in its racism, with posters of refugees labelled as a “swarm”, and claims that Turkey would soon be joining the EU, together with maps showing that it is next door to Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Many people voted to leave the EU because they thought it meant that we would be ejecting all the immigrants – not just people from the rest of the EU, but people from India, Pakistan, Africa, and the Middle East. The Remain campaign also mentioned the ability to ‘control our borders’ but said that we would be better able to do that if we remained in the EU.

It is hardly surprising then, that in the immediate aftermath of the vote, there was a wave of racist hate crimes. Hate crime increased by 57% in the first month, and 42% over the next three months. People started collecting incidents in a Facebook group and Twitter feed called Worrying Signs, and on a Tumblr site called Brexit, this is what you have done. The people who voted to leave the EU didn’t all do so because they are out-and-out racists; the main reason given was the desire to ‘take back control’ (also deeply problematic) and the second biggest reason was wanting to decrease the number of immigrants.

In response to this rise in racist and xenophobic attacks, Allison, an American woman living in London, suggested people wear safety pins to show solidarity towards EU citizens and other communities who are targets of racist abuse.

The safety pin idea was inspired by the “I’ll Ride with You” campaign in Sydney in 2014, which was to protect Muslims from a wave of bigotry aimed at them on public transport.

Similarly, in World War II, Norwegians wore a paperclip as a sign of resistance to the Nazis.

The safety pin campaign in the UK was criticised by people who have been on the receiving end of racist abuse, because no-one would listen to them before, and they were accused of exaggerating the amount of racism that exists, and they were understandably sceptical that it would make any difference. They felt that it was just there to make the safety-pin wearers feel they had done something. It was also labelled ‘the visual symbol of #notallwhitepeople’.

My immediate response was to think that the safety pin is not there, as it was originally described, just to say  ‘I am a safe space, you can sit next to me, you can talk to me, you can ask me for a help.’ That’s not enough.

What the safety pin should be for is a reminder to the wearer to do something if they hear or see racist, misogynist, homophobic, or transphobic attacks.

As Twitter user Hev (@SpareMeMary) wrote:

If you’re gonna wear a pin, make sure you’re ready to step in when you witness racism in public. Don’t you DARE wear it and stay silent.

If you don’t feel safe to challenge the perpetrator, at least move to be with the victim. Get them away from the perpetrator and to a place of safety.

The safety pin in the USA

In the wake of the election of Trump to the presidency, there was a huge wave of racist, transphobic, misogynist, and homophobic incidents. In response, people in the USA have started wearing safety pins too. The #safetypinUSA campaign comes with a pledge:

The Promise

If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.

If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.

If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the cops stop you and/or whenever you need me.

If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.

If you’re LGBTQ, I won’t let anybody tell you you’re broken.

If you’re a woman, I’ll fight by your side for all your rights.

If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.

If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.

If you’re a Native American, I’ll stand with you to protect our water, your burial grounds, and your people.

If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.

If you’re a union member, fighting for one, or fighting for $15/hour, I’ll be there.

If you’re a veteran, a college student, a member of the working or middle class, I’ll fight against austerity measures and for more publically funded assistance for all.

If you’re sick or just human, I’ll take up the fight for universal healthcare.

If you’re tired, me too.

If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.

If you need me, I’ll be with you.  All I ask is that you be with me too.

People who are already wearing safety pins as part of the U.S. campaign have said that people of colour have thanked them for their solidarity.

Some other people have expressed concern that the safety pin may be worn by violent bigots to lure people into thinking they are safe.

The safety pin is just the beginning

Things have already been terrible for Black people, indigenous people, and other minorities in the US. Racism is far from over. For the next four years at least, the USA is going to be an even worse place to live for women, LGBT people, Black people, Muslims, Native Americans, Latino/a/x people, and other minorities.

When members of these groups tell you that they are terrified by Trump’s election, don’t just say that they are exaggerating or over-reacting. Don’t tell them to ‘just get over it’. Ask them what you can do to help.

When one of your relatives makes a racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-disabled, or misogynist comment over Thanksgiving dinner, don’t just roll your eyes and sigh inwardly. Challenge it, and make it clear that their attitude is not acceptable. Yes, I know that they will lapse back into their bigoted views the next day, once they start hanging out with their Trump-voting friends. But the failure to consistently challenge that kind of bigotry is one of the factors that got us where we are now.

If you hear a bigoted remark whilst out in public, challenge it. If you see someone being attacked (whether physically or verbally), don’t stay silent. If the perpetrator is too scary to tackle, try to get the victim away to safety, and make sure they know that you don’t agree with the perpetrator. In these situations, silence from bystanders is assumed by the perpetrator and the victim to be approval of the perpetrator’s actions.

It would be a good idea to set up a Facebook group, Tumblr, and/or Twitter hashtag where post-election bigoted violence can be collated.

Someone has already set up a website where post-election resistance actions can be collated: it’s called “And Then They Came For Us”.

ICAAD (International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination) reports that under the current Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), only 3% percent of all hate crimes are documented. The FBI has a victim assistance program, but I cannot find a simple way to report a hate crime to any central body, as there is in the UK.

If things get even more unpleasant, as I suspect they will, more organised resistance will be needed. Safe houses for Muslims and LGBT people, for instance, and maybe for women who have had abortions, and the doctors who carried them out, as well. Civil disobedience campaigns will be needed. Solidarity networks are being created (see Rhyd Wildermuth’s article on forming solidarity networks at Gods and Radicals).

The safety pin is a reminder to act. [Photo by Yvonne Aburrow]

The safety pin is a reminder to act. [Photo by Yvonne Aburrow]

Civil courage can be learned

Some people have commented that they don’t know how to respond in cases of racial harassment and violence. Fortunately, there are resources for those who find this difficult.

There is an excellent cartoon guide to what to do if you witness an Islamophobic incident (which would work well for any form of bigotry).

There is also an excellent workshop outline for developing civil courage available from Unite Against Fascism (and I have made a copy of it on the inclusive Wicca website, and added a new section called Resisting fascism, where I will add more links as they become available). I would strongly suggest holding this workshop in UU churches, Pagan camps, and wherever there is space available.

First they came …

Just about everyone who knows their history is aware of the First they came… poem by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

They (in the form of vicious thugs who believe that the vote for Trump has given them licence to attack minorities) are already coming for Muslims, LGBT people, Native Americans, women, Black people, and other visible minorities.

We know how this goes. Let’s speak out against hatred and bigotry and violence now. Consider it a practice-run for if/when Trump sends in the highly militarised police and starts rounding up Muslims and undocumented immigrants; or if/when they begin to implement Pence’s horrible anti-LGBT ideas.

Further reading / resources

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