"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 Harmony—a rural town in one of the swing states that swerved red during the presidential election—for 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 norm—and 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 nightlife—as 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.
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 matters—and 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 back—just 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.
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.
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 entry—all 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 discourse—as 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. [sic]"
Trump's appropriation of "safe spaces" is especially insidious, as it suggests the term can be used as a rhetorical device by anyone—even the white, wealthy, men who arguably necessitated the rise of these spaces to begin with. Earlier this year, George Hull—a longtime rave promoter and co-founder of UK-based dance festival Bloc—wrote a controversial op-ed declaring that back in the good old days, "The rave was supposed to feel like a distinctly unsafe space." To make a raves more enjoyable, Hull believed you needed "a vaguely threatening environment… surrounded by questionable people." Like Trump, Hull was blasted on social media for his blasé statement, which failed to recognize that safe spaces are meant to protect the marginalized from harassment.
Trump and Hull are not alone in misinterpreting safe spaces as sheltered bubble worlds. Safe spaces on college campuses have also faced a backlash in the last few years because some think these spaces favor politically correct "trigger warnings" over healthy dialogue and diversity of experience. To that end, the University of Chicago sent this year's incoming students a welcome letter that said, "We do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." What these detractors fail to see is that safe spaces have always been inherently political, and their very aim is to foster social progress in the wider world. "Gay bars were not 'safe' in the sense of being free from risk," Fusion's Malcolm Harris wrote about safe spaces in the 60s, but rather "place[s] where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression."
While the aforementioned methods of "war" and "retreat" have historically been the go-to tactics for marginalized communities in dance music, I would argue that they exclude actual dialogue with the opposition. As David Remnick noted in the New Yorker, Trump's campaign was fueled by stoking fear of "the Other"—including the African-American Other, the Hispanic Other, the female Other, and the Jewish and Muslim Other. But when we rage against the "stupidity" and "ignorance" of "rednecks" who live in Trump towns like Lake Harmony—or refuse to deal with them completely—we are guilty of a similar "Othering" effect, one that feels contrary to the inclusive spirit of rave culture.
"A safe place was where people could find practical resistance to political and social repression."—journalist Malcolm Harris
If there is hope for reconciling a deeply divided America, I believe it is in ending the way both sides of the aisle have reduced each other to ugly, one-dimensional caricatures. Going forward, what the rave scene should encourage is not an "us versus them" mentality, but a sense of empathy and willingness to engage with people who have vastly different perspectives. This third approach—a middle ground between "fight or flight"—could be a way for the dance music scene to reconcile the particular, emotionally inflamed divisions of our times.
In the last year or two, the global dance music community has been noticeably transformed by the recent rise of politically conscious collectives like NAAFI, NON, Discwoman, Papi Juice, Siren, House of Ladosha, and many others. These crews, largely comprised of queer, feminist people of color, have created a noticeable shift of industry power away from its white-male dominated strongholds, and towards a more equal representation of minorities on festival lineups, clubs bills, editorial publications, and beyond. By working hard to promote inclusion and diversity in the music scene, these collectives have proved that it's possible to create progressive spaces in environments that were previously ignorant, or even hostile, to their values. A member of NON, who said he was placed in a chokehold by police at the festival and spoke to me on condition of anonymity, summed up NON's mission: "[What happened at Boiler Room] is just one small piece of this giant puzzle of 'How do we end oppression?'"
When Western music festivals take place in less wealthy countries, they often sell tickets to locals at a discount in order to foster better relations with the community. But as this year's Boiler Room festival proved, when the dancefloor becomes a tool for outreach, minority communities are the most at risk. A gay DJ I met at the festival framed it this way: "We're just trying to celebrate our lives, free our minds, and dance with our hands in the air, like, yaaaas!" He snapped his fingers above his head for dramatic effect. "But I can see how that could come across as total anarchy, and they are scared because they don't understand it."
Of course, the key for such an approach to succeed is for important allies, including white people and others who operate from a relative position of privilege, to act as a bridge between the two worlds, and mediate between the radical rave community and everyone else. Additionally, instead of recklessly invading hostile territories, we can take small, measured steps into the wilderness by supporting the collectives like NON, Discwoman, and NAAFI, and helping them take their progressive ethos to a broader scale. Even in flyover red states like Michigan, there are historically liberal oases like Detroit full of like-minded, progressive people. If we help these people develop a more empowered platform, maybe they can in turn change the discourse where they live.
My friend Turtle Bugg, an African-American DJ who played at the Boiler Room Weekender, told me shortly after the festival ended that he doesn't blame Boiler Room for failing to recognize the dangers of conducting a progressive social experiment in the middle of Trump land. "Did [Boiler Room] 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 headliners—noting 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.