Why I Don’t Care About Your Safety Pins
Courtney Wilburn

Thanks for writing this.

An ethnically Vietnamese work colleague asked me yesterday, in the company of others, whether I thought it was safe to travel to Sarasota, Florida next week. His concern stemmed partly from the widely reported incidents of violence against visibly non-white people by “Trump supporters” in many cities of the United States since the election. I offered the general opinion that travel within the United States in 2016 is statistically pretty safe even for people who look non-white. There does appear to have been a flare-up of violence in some places. However, I suspect (without proof) that it has more to do with habitually violent people feeling emboldened to enter places where we are accustomed to feeling relatively safe, and doing the things that they have already been doing. They seem to be finding, deliberately or not, victims that are more visible to a media that is temporarily sensitized to the issue of this particular style of hate crime.

It’s worth observing that violent crime rates have declined steadily in most American cities over the past quarter century—to differing degrees for different demographics, and not necessarily at all for some, especially queer and transgendered people of color; I don’t know how it shakes out along the gender dimension. (Which I pointed out in the same breath as the overall observation, for what that’s worth—along with fairly standard counsel about the imprudence of seeking out or deliberately provoking or appearing to mock people who intentionally advertise their potential for violence, or drinking to excess or being on the street between 1 and 3 AM. This is not at all intended to blame victims who have exercised their non-violent right to do any of these things or to shift responsibility for the crime, but simply to go down a risk management checklist in advance. I also—and I’m not sure this was wise, and will accept arguments that it was not—counseled, in response to his demonstration of “no speak Engrish” mimicry, that there are places where hostility to Chinese nationals is particularly intense, and that knowingly playing up his physical resemblance to an exploitation-movie Chinaman was probably a bad idea.)

This November may mark a change of trend, or be a transient uptick, or a phantom altogether. It will be hard to know until the statistics have been gathered and placed in context. Which is not to minimize the very real reasons for him to be fearful; only to point out that it is not a new pattern, just a new label on a slight variation on an existing pattern.

While I did inform my coworker (and our other colleagues then present) about the existence of the “safety pin movement”, I share your concern about “false flag” operations, and not just as a lure for the unwary. They are a standard trick in the playbook of dirty war around the world and throughout the ages, and I think we are seeing them around us now, masquerading as both “pro-Trump” and “anti-Trump” aggressors. There are doubtless some people who were on the verge of criminal violence and chose to cross that boundary, prompted by feelings of power or of powerlessness, in the absence of an organized sponsor. But it appears quite clear that there are also established criminal groups (whether socially or commercially organized) operating under banners of convenience—some simply as camouflage and misdirection; some just for the sheer thrill of fomenting a bit of extra hatred; some in the pay of nefarious agents, domestic or foreign, playing the good old “divide and conquer” card. (I will say that I stooped to accuse Putin and his henchmen directly, without specific proof in my hands; it is a certainty born of (third-hand) knowledge of KGB tactics and of observing the ripeness of the opportunity. And though I regret exceeding the bounds of the irrefutable in that conversation, I fully expect to be proven right, at least in part, when the investigation reaches that stage.)

I’m going to try wearing three safety pins in the left shoulder strap of my backpack, but I don’t expect that to signify trustworthiness to anyone in particular. It is simply a way of calling a bit of attention to my willingness to step in if needed. That way, anyone who may feel the need for protective assistance or non-violent support can observe me closely and make a judgment call, based on whatever other attributes signify for her or him, about whether I’m the person to call on if the need arises.

It’s not much, and you’re right not to care about it, and even to see it as a potential microaggression—a declaration that I have the privilege of choosing whether or not to be part of a conflict in my presence. If it seems to be doing more harm than good, I’ll stop doing it, and I don’t expect any credit for it whether it “works” or not. I draw a different conclusion from yours, but not really because I disagree with you on any fundamental point (as far as I know). While I have applied somewhat different weights to the pros and cons and perceive the balance differently, I am open to persuasion that I have it wrong, and should remedy this error when the opportunity next arises.

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