To speak of safety in a time of accelerated warfare, or perhaps in any time, is tricky business. In the United States, the enduring legacies of settler colonialism and chattel slavery, and the ravages of neoliberal privatization, continue to normalize the premature death of black, brown, gender non-conforming, queer, immigrant, and poor people often under the justification of public safety. The very terms through which this illusive thing is articulated both bury and reveal generations of struggle among communities, movements, the state and corporate forces to make sense of living amidst so much death. Who speaks for safety in a moment when occupation, prison construction, and legalized racial profiling are offered in its name?
Queer people and politics have long been embroiled in the struggle to define safety. The past decade has brought an intensified push on the part of LGBT political formations and a growing set of state actors to criminalize anti-LGBT hate violence as part of a broader legal equality strategy. This push has emerged in the context of a deepening enmeshment of anti-violence, criminal legal, and military systems, approaches, and technologies, both of which have been appropriately critiqued by many queer critics and activists. What has been less visible during this period has been the mounting theorizing, model development, and organizing by a range of social justice formations to create and popularize transformative, non-punitive approaches to intimate and community harm, such as that of the Audre Lorde Project's Safe OUTside the System Collective, Creative Interventions, Critical Resistance, generationFIVE, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Ubuntu, and many more.
In 2007, inspired by the work of these visionary organizations and committed to wrestling with these urgent questions, Community United Against Violence (CUAV), a San Francisco-based queer and trans anti-violence organization founded in 1979 following the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, engaged in a soul-searching reflection process. After nearly twenty eight years of service provision, community education, and experiments with grassroots organizing, we asked ourselves, What is our role now, almost three decades after our founding, in the context of an unimaginably proliferated police-prison state, a neoliberal national LGBT policy agenda, vastly deteriorated community and institutional infrastructures, rapid urban displacement and gentrification, and the continued devastation of intimate, community, and state violence? With all that has changed, with all that we are up against, what is it that we’re trying to build?
We emerged from this process of listening and exploration with a renewed vision and strategy to build the power of queer and trans communities to create safety—to transform both incidences of violence as well as the conditions of oppression and trauma that created them. We were clear that this would be no small task given the depths of trauma and violence in our communities, and just how enmeshed our communities’ dominant common sense is with state ideologies of crime and punishment. Our first year of implementing this new approach has included transitioning into a collective, becoming membership-based, exploring and practicing community healing and accountability models, and deepening our coalitional efforts for racial and economic justice.
From the outset we recognized that our communities already possessed so many of the competencies, insights, and experiences needed to build the level of power we thought necessary to transform greater and greater levels of violence. Safetyfest was conceived as a vehicle to lift up this resilience, and amplify an articulation of safety grounded in values of community self-determination, radical love, and collective liberation. This inaugural year of the festival, held from April 8-18, included free skill-shares in Oakland and San Francisco on self-defense, erotic writing, healing from trauma, radical history, community accountability, bike safety, sexual consent and communication, art-making, transformative justice, BDSM, love letter writing, as well as two parties, one photography exhibition, and one film and performance night. The idea was that everyone has something to bring to the project of transformation, and that while we are far from where we want to be, we are not as far we we are told.
In a moment when the passage of a sexual orientation and gender identity-inclusive federal hate crimes bill is celebrated as a clear-cut victory by many, and when so many of our people have been brutally taken from us far too soon, hundreds of people gathered to dance, practice, create, envision, eat, connect, learn, heal, and share under the banner of safety. Despite the over-determined and co-opting articulations of safety that are used as fodder for domestic and international aggression, a growing number of people are remembering and forging a different path forward. Part of our collective task in this hopeful project of reclaiming safety is grieving the deep wounds brought about by generations of intimate and state terror. To ensure that it is not misused, we must be present with our heartache and loss. As more and more queer political formations take up this task, refusing to be absorbed into the insidious regimes of neoliberal warfare with promises of recognition, we create growing space to inhabit our power differently, to embody the world we long for, and reconnect with what we hold dear.