As the sad report of a rape at Occupy Glasgow shows, we need safer spaces policies. I asked a woman at Occupy London Finsbury Square whether, in light of the news coming from Glasgow, they had a safer spaces policy there. No, she said, “we’re such a small camp and it feels so safe already here, that we haven’t felt we needed to put one together”. Of course you never realise you needed something until it turns out that you need it, and if you haven’t already got it you’re a bit stuck at that point. There’s something in the old scout’s motto ‘Be Prepared’.
But I think that’s the classic problem with safer spaces policies. As a friend involved in squatting social spaces pointed out, they are usually seen as policing documents setting down rules for use as a last resort, when things go wrong. When they should be seen as something we set down at the start of creating a new space in order to make it intentionally, consciously safe from the outset. How else can we expect people who routinely or often, or ever expect sometimes brutal and violent oppression to feel that our self-organised spaces are places where they will be welcome and included?
Because let’s face it, while our self-organised spaces may feel a lot like the utopia that we hope to live in one day, but in the end they are just bubbles, surrounded by the prevailing social oppressive racist, sexist, classist social structures.
And they have porous boundaries – when people enter a self-organised autonomous space they don’t automatically, magically experience an erasure of their privilege or oppressive behaviours.
And this is where I start to think that we need to go beyond what we currently think of as ‘safer spaces’ policies and think about what we really need to make our self-organised, autonomous, albeit temporary communities really inclusive. Because really, we don’t want to be ‘safe’ from others, we want to be equal to each other, and in order to achieve this, we want to know that we are entering spaces where all who take part consciously acknowledge and claim their privilege, and the power differentials accorded to us by society and resulting from the privileges we inherit.
Granted it’s not as cool as a kind of magic, psychic footbath that will wash away all oppressive behaviours as you cross the threshold into an incense-filled, rainbow-hued utopian self-organised space. But if we’re going to be conscious about the oppression outside our spaces, we have to be conscious of the privilege we carry into our spaces, and determined to claim and address our privilege. Only then can we stand a chance of making spaces where all can feel included and empowered to participate as equals.