“I can’t, I can’t…” sobs a young black woman who has collapsed on a flight of stairs at the Boiler Room Weekender festival in Pennsylvania. She has just gotten caught by security for allegedly possessing a small amount of weed. In footage THUMP obtained of the incident, four men in black police uniforms loom over her in a tight circle.
Following the woman’s arrest earlier this month, escalating tensions between the local police and crowd forced Boiler Room to shut down the festival early. Many, including Boiler Room themselves, criticized the police from Lake Harmonya rural town in one of the swing states that swerved red during the presidential electionfor targeting people of color. Even headliner Dev Hynes said he had every page of his notebook searched as his white friends walked by without a second look.
Ever since the festival, I can’t get Jones’ cry out of my head, perhaps because it echoes the last words of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” These words, shouted over and over by Black Lives Matter activists over the last few years, convey the despair of a society where racially targeted policing is not an aberration but a normand where a black person is shot every two days by the authorities.
“We want to breathe,” wrote feminist scholar Roxane Gay in a 2015 New York Times op-ed about safe spaces. Gay defines a safe space as “a haven from the harsh realities people face in their everyday lives” because of their race, sexual orientation, or other identities. In electronic music, events are usually called “safe spaces” when they promote a set of values best summarized by a banner that hangs at Brooklyn’s Afropunk festival every year: no sexism, no racism, no ableism, no ageism, no homophobia, no fatphobia, no transphobia, no hatefulness.
The Boiler Room Weekender fiasco was a jarring reminder of both the importance and fragility of safe spaces in nightlifeas were, on a much more horrific level, the shootings at Pulse in Orlando and the Bataclan in Paris. It was also, as my colleague Ezra Marcus noted, a wake-up call about the danger of uprooting these safe spaces from the social and geographical context in which they arose (in this case, the ultra liberal New York underground), and transplanting them into a conservative Trump town that does not necessarily share their values.
A festivalgoer at Afropunk (Photo via Aaron Paschal/AP2 Photography)
The festival took place more than three weeks ago, but since the election results rolled in, it feels like our collective hangover has only gotten more painful. In considering what role (if any) safe spaces will play in the electronic music community over the next four years, we are faced with a number of tough but critical questions: Do safe spaces in nightlife even exist? If so, how do we keep our safe spaces “safe”?
Electronic music history suggests that safe spaces have never been free from conflict; in fact, they have always been permeable to hostile intruders. Perhaps safe spaces are neither a myth nor an impenetrable sanctuary, but as Boiler Room put it, a “moving target.” How the rave community has responded during previous times of crisis is what really mattersand previous experience suggests that there are a number of approaches we could take to move forward.
Do safe spaces in nightlife even exist? If so, how do we keep our safe spaces “safe”?
The first is to fight backjust like in the 50s and 60s, when police began raiding gay-friendly bars in New York’s Greenwich Village. According to the research of scholar and activist Moira Kenney, the idea of “safe spaces” actually originated at gay bars on and around Christopher street, because anti-sodomy laws and harassment at the time made it dangerous to be “out” publicly. Tensions between authorities and the LGBTQ+ community had been brewing since at least Prohibition, but when one confrontation between cops and an unnamed lesbian exploded into widescale riots on Christopher Street in 1969, it kickstarted the modern gay rights movement in America.
A Timeline of Christopher Street, New York LGBTQ Nightlife’s Most Storied Thoroughfare
Fighting oppression has a way of bringing people together. Go to an anti-Trump protest today, and you’re likely to see activists from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter marching next to Muslim-American parents, Bernie-supporting environmentalists, and feminists of every color. In the dance music world, many parties in the weeks after the election (including a White Material showcase I attended in Brooklyn) donated proceeds to organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, bolstering them with funds and new supporters. Beyond offering collective catharsis, dancefloors can be potent breeding grounds for political mobilization.
The crowd at a recent Loft party in New York (Photo by August Goulet)
Another option is to withdraw. One foundational tenet of rave culture is that the spaces we party in are “temporary autonomous zones,” where marginalized misfits can escape from oppression. This utopianism came from dance music’s roots in black, Latino, and queer communities in cities like Chicago and Detroit, and is threaded throughout our history. The late David Mancuso fostered a culture of secrecy around his legendary Loft parties by refusing press, sending out personalized invitations, and requiring memberships for entryall to keep his party’s LGBTQ+ crowd, and its culture of tolerance, safe. For the same reason, historically gay spaces like the Paradise Garage and Berghain have always been strict about who gets in. Treating safe spaces as hermetically sealed sanctums is both a form of self-protection and a means of liberation, fostering a sense of anarchic freedom, and a world apart from the unequal one outside the rave’s confines.
However, I would argue that there is a danger in thinking of safe spaces as divorced from reality. What happened at Boiler Room a few weeks back is a pretty harrowing example of that. But it can also endanger situations where people wrongly conflate safety with a lack of discourseas Trump himself did earlier this month. At a recent Hamilton show that Mike Pence attended, an African-American actor from the musical’s notably diverse cast addressed him from the stage, imploring him to “work on behalf of all of us.” Trump responded on Twitter calling the cast “very rude” and demanding an apology for Pence. He tweeted: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. fuck up by not knowing how racist the environment would be? Yes. But white people don’t think about how black people live on a day to day basis,” he said. Still, he praised the Boiler Room team for putting on such a diverse festival with so many black headlinersnoting that no other organization has attempted something like that before. What he said next could be a rallying cry for all of us: “You can’t move on with anything unless you take a risk.”
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP’s Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.