The Safety Pin Project: It’s Admirable…Despite Jaded Detractors


So, amidst all of my grief and despair over the last two weeks as a result of the shocking presidential election results, I caught wind of a grassroots resistance and sympathetic movement that started in the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote (though it has roots in other, even more past historical instances) to show solidarity with immigrant and minority populations who may suffer discrimination or hate crimes as a result of enabled bigotry that was interpreted as mandated by the vote.


Increased hate crime following the bigoted and discriminatory rhetoric of the presidential campaign, followed by the election of the disseminator of the bigotry, is somehow seen by some as an empowerment of those racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, and discriminatory sentiments, an enablement of latent misanthropic prejudices. THIS IS A REAL THING.


The safety pin project is a simple symbolic refusal to consign the nation to a paradigm of hate. It is a means to identify oneself as a champion and proponent of civil rights for immigrant and minority populations under attack from nationalist-enabled discrimination.


My latest mail art project has been in promotion of this symbolic movement. In each mailing I included a small description of the safety pin project, some safety pin stickers (so that people can forward the symbol onward on their own mail), and a safety pin to wear…


Safety Pin Mail Art project

My safety pin mail art project…ready to go out to the mailbox.


What is the significance of a safety pin? In India, safety pins are used by women to protect themselves against harassment in public spaces. A #safetypin Twitter campaign suggested wearing safety pins to show support for immigrants in the U.K. experiencing racist attacks after Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Following in the U.K.’s footsteps, wearing safety pins in the U.S. has become an act of solidarity for those subjected to hate and vitriol in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential win in the recent elections.


As a tiny object of dissent, the safety pin has returned to its punk-rock roots as a symbol of opposition. The safety pin’s origins as a fibula highlight class differences, but its current use to signify solidarity emphasizes support for marginalized communities. The safety pin has always offered a way to hold clothing together. Now it transcends that utility, promising to hold people together too.



There have been detractors to this safety pin movement. Mostly, these detractors are astonishingly from the liberal and minority front. But I disagree with those critics. Firstly, those critics claim that the symbolism is hollow. Secondly, some of those critics offer alternatives that they claim have “real” meaning, while shaming supporters wearing pins.


I’d like to address both points…


In response to whether the wearing of a symbolic item is hollow in its sentiment, one only need look at the plethora of symbols throughout the millennia that identity groups and protest groups have harbored and claimed for themselves…


If you are a Christian, you are very likely familiar with the wearing of a cross around one’s neck; and if you are of Jewish ancestry, a member of your family may very similarly wears a Star of David. Pagans have become accustomed to wearing a pentagram. All of these symbols are meant to claim and announce one’s identity and allegiance, and possibly to indicate to fellow members of those religious clans that a sympathetic soul rests with the wearer. In America, no one condemns any of these religious groups for the right to define their heritage or allegiance to their chosen religious affiliation.


Further, some of these symbols were originally used as symbols—or actual implements—of persecution, and have subsequently been embraced and turned into symbols of self-empowerment. The Christian cross is an example—a symbol of the instrument of torture and death used by the Romans, is now subsequently embraced by Christians as the symbol of their salvation through the persecuted and condemned Christ. Likewise, the Holocaust symbol of the pink triangle, used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps, was absorbed by gay rights advocates in the 1980s and used as a symbol of defiance and solidarity, particularly in the “Silence=Death” campaign protesting the ignored epidemic prominent in the gay population, and the refusal of politicians to support of HIV and AIDS research. The movement behind this symbol eventually made headway into making the AIDS crisis a nationally discussed issue.


History of the safety pin

history of the safety pin…


History has also seen symbols used in underground movements of dissent. Throughout the Roman empire, during times of persecution, when it was illegal to hold gatherings of Christian celebrants, the fish symbol was used to make markings in the street pointing the way towards secret meetings of Christians. That same symbol is today also used as a symbol of Christian solidarity and endurance.


The point is that symbols infuse our lives, and have infused the lives of our ancestors. Symbols can have highly emotional meanings for people, and no one should be shamed for adopting personal emblems of empowerment. If someone shames you for wearing your personal symbol of empowerment, that symbol really only becomes more empowering…because your ability to rise above your detractors only emulates greater strength.


Yes, it’s true that symbols can have a deleterious public effect. But personal symbols are different than symbols which disempower someone else—as in the swastika or the Confederate Flag, which have long been recognized as symbols of mass oppression. Symbols can come in positive and negative forms…and every tarot enthusiast ought to know this fact. Tarot cards are symbols…a pack of at least seventy-eight. Some of those symbols can be interpreted as positive and some of those symbols can be interpreted as negative. In different instances, we can interpret “negative” cards in more positive light, and we can interpret “positive” cards in less-than-affirmative ways. Symbols are what we use to make our living, and really, symbols pervade almost every facet of our human lives. So it is troubling to me when certain tarot readers, using social media, have helped to dispense this shaming rhetoric that wearing a safety pin—with all its good will and intent—somehow undermines the social justice cause that it purports to advocate. Frankly, the pin I will wear is meant to say, “Hey; we’re all in this together…”



Which brings me to the second point of criticism that has been raised against wearing a safety pin in solidarity—that it’s shameful because there are better things that can be done. One blogger named these “active” alternatives to “the empty gesture” of pin-wearing: fight; interrupt people making discriminatory statements; protest by joining a “real” local organization; don’t make it about you and don’t take offense when the people of color you are advocating for don’t want to work with you; keep trying…


Ummm… yeah. See, for one thing, my wearing a safety pin doesn’t preclude me from doing any of those things. And for another thing, I can sort of make an argument against all of those alternatives. Look…everyone has their own level of ability and their own level of comfort when it comes to advocacy or dissent.


“Fighting” comes in many forms and many shades. I can fight for justice without throwing punches or without holding a cardboard sign on 5th Avenue. I can “fight” injustice through my little actions, through a personal boycott, or by talking to my neighbors who put out a Trump sign on their lawn, or by not being afraid to sit next to the immigrant family at the next public social gathering. “Fighting” doesn’t always have to be belligerent.


Likewise, “interrupting” people every time they are trying to express their own feelings isn’t going to get us having any sort of productive dialogue. Sometimes it takes time for people to express themselves fully or sufficiently, even if they make a mess of it to start off. It seems to me that LISTENING is just as or more important that interrupting someone in order to contradict. As tarot readers, we ought to know that it often takes a lot of listening and asking questions to get to the core issue that a client is experiencing.


“Real” or “Viable” non-profits and protest organizations all started as grassroots brainstorms. There are no illegitimate ways to express your dissent against injustice. Small voices become collectively loud protests when others hear the reason in what you have to say…with eloquence and prudence.


And if people of color or other minorities find that they don’t want me to protest with them, it doesn’t mean I’ll stop protesting for their rights and for their justice. I’ll be sad that my sense of justice and solidarity doesn’t seem good enough, but that seems like someone else’s hang-up; not anything that has to do with my desire for a more egalitarian and collaborative world…



All-in-all, it’s kind of disheartening to think that I feel like I need to rebut and defend a simple act of solidarity to people who don’t think my act is “good enough” to make a difference. As a minority, I would rather glance at someone’s jacket on the bus and see a safety pin, than not see a safety pin and wonder whether I could trust that person to stand up for me in a crisis of homophobic intolerance. I would much rather see a safety pin on someone’s sweater and feel a sense of calm knowing there are advocates in my community, rather than be constantly guarded or circumspect about my well-being in public situations.



Granted, it’s a small token…a minute gesture. But it means to world to the person who might recognize it for its message.


You can read more about the safety pin project and its history here, here, and here.








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Posted in Close to My Heart, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Mail Art, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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