Sunday, 13 November 2016

Some (Hopefully Helpful) Thoughts On Your Safety Pin...

One of the most powerful examples of symbolic protest was during the Second World War when, in April of 1940, Germany invaded neutral Denmark. 

In a powerful act of solidarity with his Jewish subjects, King Christian X donned the yellow Jewish star that the Nazis were forcing Jews to wear. The Danish population followed suit and, since everyone was wearing a Jewish star, the deportation of Jews to concentration camps became completely unworkable and was thoroughly stymied.

It’s an incredible story. And it’s not true.

The truth is that Danish citizens never wore the yellow star, nor did King Christian ever threaten to wear it himself. In fact, Danish Jews never wore the yellow star either, except for the few who were finally deported to concentration camps, nor did German officials ever issue an order requiring Danish Jews to wear it. 

What the Danish people did do was truly extraordinary.

On 23 August 1943, the German occupation of Denmark, which up to that point had been somewhat benign, took a much darker turn. Copenhagen was invaded, the Danish Army was disarmed, the Danish government dissolved, King Christian was jailed, and martial law was declared. In response, sabotage operations by the Danish underground resistance against German targets increased considerably.

On 28 September, Danish officials were informed that Danish Jews would be deported two days later on 1 October. 

In an extraordinary operation that involved almost the entire Danish population, as well as the agreement of the Swedish government, nearly all Danish Jews were hidden and then ferried across to Sweden, where they remained until the war ended.

Out of Denmark’s Jewish population of 8,000, the Germans only managed to round up 400. But even they weren’t forgotten, and the Danish authorities ceaselessly requested to inspect the camp, which the  Danish Red Cross were finally allowed to do in June 1944.

As a result of this undaunted interest in Denmark’s Jews, none were sent to their intended destination of Auschwitz.

At the end of the war, fifty-five had died.

I tell this story because I want to think about what I started talking about at the beginning: symbolic protest, and one symbolic protest in particular- the safety pin.

I’ve had posts from three separate Facebook friends asking me to wear a safety pin.  At a coordinating meeting I attended yesterday afternoon, four people had bags of them and were passing them out.

The safety pin emerged as a symbolic protest in post-‘Brexit’ vote Britain, as harassment and attacks on migrants and minority communities began to skyrocket.

In the wake of the Trump Presidential victory, it has migrated across the pond with the same sentiment attached: let people- particularly those who bore the brunt of Trump's invective- that the person wearing the pin is in solidarity with them, that they are 'safe', that they will listen to them and act on their behalf.

To be honest, my first reaction to it was utter exasperation because, honestly, I’m so tired of 'liketivism'- online petitions, changing your profile picture to support a cause, asking people to get your ‘Stop (insert horrible thing here)' social media site to 1,000,000 'likes'…

If I was tired of it all before the election, I’m really tired of it now, and the safety pin just hit all my buttons.

First of all, I was willing to bet all the money in my pockets that this was not instigated by actually endangered minority communities. This, I bargained, was a white thing. ‘Liketivism’ usually is. It tends to involve a white, Western Middle Class person discovering that something horrible is going on; they then decide that something needs to be done (alongside the vague assumption that nothing actually *is* being done, or at least nothing worthwhile…). Then, they then pick a small, distinct, outward gesture for people to do or (more likely) wear- a red shirt, a pink ribbon, a safety pin- to ‘raise awareness’, show the affected people that ‘we care’, that they are ‘not alone’…

‘It’s a small, simple gesture’, we are told, ‘but it makes a huge difference to the suffering people.’

Does it? I’m not so sure. 

Why am I not sure? Because I haven’t actively asked marginalized, endangered communities what they think of it… and rarely do the organizers of ‘liketivist’ campaigns.

My friend and fellow theologian Jayme Reeves, in a brilliant essay on her blogsite, writes:

What I do know is that chances are it was started by someone NOT at risk.  Most likely it was started by a white, middle class, hetero person wanting to protest a political outcome and show solidarity.  Chances are that an immigrant, Muslim, person of color, or a disabled or LGBT+ person didn't go, "I know! Why don't you all start wearing safety pins so I know who's safe to go to?!
However, we need to be honest about what purpose the safety pins serve in most cases.  Hear me: SOLIDARITY IS A GOOD THING.  SAFE SPACES ARE NEEDED.  But a safety pin does not a safe space make.  More than anything, wearing a safety pin is a marker so that we (people who don't want to be known as racist or homophobic) know each other.  There's strength and comfort in numbers and that is where the solidarity of wearing safety pins lies.  For some, wearing a safety pin makes the wearer feel better, to say "this wasn't my fault."  At the end of the day, it's a political statement.  

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with symbolic protests. There is nothing wrong with political statements. There’s nothing wrong with symbols of unity and solidarity. 

The Danish people had theirs as well; one action involved wearing four coins tied together with red and white ribbons in their buttonholes (Red and white are the Danish national colours, and four coins adding up to 9 øre represented the date of the occupation, 9 April).

But the coins on their lapels saved no Jews; gasoline, boats, planning, expertise, and grave personal risk did.

That brings me to my main concern about symbolic protest: that it might potentially be all people do, or worse, all that they think themselves capable of doing.

‘I can’t do much. This is something I can do.’

I understand. Truly I do. I'm not heartless about this; a couple of close friends have helped me modulate my tone about this.

I do get it; sometimes the issues facing us are so horrific, so overwhelming, that we shut down; we feel paralyzed; we think that we’re unable to do anything heroic. 

But I do want to say this:

You have the same power, the same abilities, and- if you choose to cultivate it- the same courage as any one of the thousands of Danes who saved their Jewish neighbors. They were shopkeepers, mill workers, agricultural workers, housewives, students, white-collar professionals…

… and, when the moment of crisis came, thousands of bank clerks and waitresses looked down at their lapels, saw their coins and ribbons and said, ‘I can do more’…


As I was writing that last line, I received a message from my friend and colleague Will Randall, who works for the Montana Human Rights Network. His truck was vandalized last night, the only one on his street. Needless to say, there’s no indication of who did it or their motives. But Will’s outspokenness for the freedom and dignity of everyone here in the Flathead Valley in the face of- since the election- an emboldened far right leave me and him with our suspicions. 

He’ll be in Depot Park in Kalispell this afternoon, where people will be gathering in support of another local activist, Jennifer Allen, who was protesting alone yesterday, when she was jumped by three teenage males who grabbed her signs and tore them up.

They yelled ‘Fuck Hillary’ as they ran away.

I understand your safety pin. But I do most urgently hope you look down at it and say,

‘I can do more’…

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