Having a Safe Space Policy is Easy, Enforcing It is the Hard (and Important) Part

“They who have the watch must keep the lookout…” an old West Indian saying goes. It speaks to the responsibility of those who are chosen, or set themselves up, as protectors of a community.

Several months back, a member of the Food not Bombs PDX community asked for help because they were being harassed by another member. It was a brave and probably difficult choice. We all just want to make tasty food, sit in the park, and eat with friends, but FNB PDX has a safe space policy, and we should have the courage to defend our friends and our values.

Meetings were held with both folks involved, and a small self-selected group of FNB volunteers decided the accused had violated the community’s safe space policy and should be banned from the feed. As far as I know, there wasn’t an announcement about the process, and I wasn’t included in the meetings even though I had helped cook almost every week for about nine months. I did my best to keep track of progress, however, hoping things would be handled well.

I was surprised that this process wasnt more open. Of course the person who is asking for help shouldn’t have share personal details with the entire community, but at some point the situation needs to be shared with everyone— so there can be buy-in for any decision reached, and so community members can guard against a person who has been found to cause harm.

K, the person who was banned, is still allowed to attend FNB. He has not acknowledged the harm he has caused and is still causing harm by verbally attacking members of the community, including myself, for what he thinks was an unjust process. K is a thin, light-skinned male with brown eyes. He is balding, with curly black hair and a full beard. Lately he has been covering his face with a scarf.

In my opinion, the response to the situation from the FNB PDX community has been a failure, and I’m not helping with the meal any more unless things change. Along with not enforcing the ban, the inner circle of volunteers has failed by not have a more open process, and not communicating with the wider FNB PDX about the decision reached. I feel responsible for this situation because I’ve invested time and energy in this community, but those who have have conducted the process bear the bulk of responsibility for what I see as serious failures.

The person who asked for help isn’t satisfied with the current situation either, and is also questioning whether she wants to be associated with a group unwilling to protect its members. She has asked at least one member of the inner-circle of volunteers to help enforce the ban, but the person who asked for help said they refused. I hope that when the wider FNB community finds out what has been happening, they will also demand changes.

I’m sure I will be criticized for making this public, but I’ve talked to many of the folks who organized the process, (there’s no formal leadership structure, so I’m not even sure who was included) and I don’t think the will is there to enforce the ban or open the safe space process. Regardless of what happens, I must speak my truth and my reason for moving on.

I wouldn’t be surprised if those who controlled the process will try to silence the conversation (by deleting a Facebook post), so that’s why I’m posting this on my own site. I hope that this post will spur action, and at the least, allow others to learn from FBN PDX’s missteps.

Soon after the safe space meetings, as we prepared food one Monday, one of the inner-circle organizers said Kay was banned from FNB and should not be served. There was a brief explanation given, enough to make me comfortable with the decision. Even though I wasn’t part of the process and uncomfortable with its exclusivity, I was glad to have a role in enforcing the decision. After a few hours of chopping and cooking, we biked the food to the park. Another newer, non-inner circle volunteer and I were the first of about six servers, sitting in the grass happily serving food.

When K reached the line of serving pans and extended his empty bowl to us, we told him that he was banned for his bad behavior. One of the inner-circle volunteers briefly told him he was holding up the line, but other than that, it was just us two awkwardly and apologetically refusing him. Where were the people who decided on the ban? It would have been nice to have some backup, some community support, but no one else stepped up.

A long-time volunteer, who I believe was part of the meetings, told a friend to take his bowl and let her fill it. The other newer volunteer and I were thankful for an end to the standoff, although it felt wrong. A couple of kids were angry and yelled at me for attempting to refuse service to K. I tried to explain the situation to them, but they weren’t hearing me. We argued for a bit, then they took their food and left.

I’m not sure what happened at the following servings, and then I was out of the country for five weeks. When I returned, K was back around creepily hanging out but not really engaging with anyone. I’d say hello, but mostly I just ignored him. I didn’t think to ask what had happened with the ban.

At FNB two Mondays ago, I was verbally attacked by K. He said I was an asshole and unjust for “just going along with the group” concerning his ban, all while jabbing his finger in my face and shaking with anger. It’s not fun being cussed out while trying to enjoy delicious handmade pasta and puttanesca sauce with fruit salad, but I’m glad it happened. It woke me up to the fact that this situation isn’t settled.

The only advice I got from one of the inner circle volunteers who overheard the interaction was: “I would have kicked his ass.” K’s attack is the second and last time I will be left hanging by this community. I found out later he’s done the same thing to several other community members, and it seems like there has been no community response.

The attack made me investigate what was going on. Since I was gone, I wasn’t sure if there had been some sort of reckoning that I didn’t know about. Nothing had changed, I found out; the ban was just not being enforced.

A few years back a group of bike (bicycle) gangs collectively known as Zoo Bombers organized Monday Funday in Summers Park. They cleaned up trash, stopped fights, intervened with the police, and helped keep event safe and fun.

One Monday back then while I was playing dodge ball, somebody came on to the court and barked a few sentences I didn’t hear. He turned and walked away quickly. About half the players followed. I followed too, just to see what was going on.

About 20 people formed a semi-circle around one person, a youngish man with baggy pants and a flat brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes. He was told several times he wasn’t welcome at the park. They yelled. They jeered. Somebody snuck up behind him and expertly snatched his pants down. The crowd could have easily beaten him up and dragged him out of the park, but they did not. He argued with the crowd, but after a few minutes went silent. The crowd held their ground, continuing their demand that he leave. In about ten minutes before he left, and the crowd cheered before returning to their beers, bikes, and dodge ball.

I was told the person asked to leave had threatened someone with a gun at a party, and the community decided he was no longer welcome at the Zoo Bomber events. I’m glad I was told what was going on— and when I found out what happened, of course I supported the action. The flexing of community power was truly a beautiful thing to watch. At the time I wondered why they didn’t just smash him so we could get back to playing dodge ball, but looking back their commitment to non-violence is laudable.

FNB PDX is an entirely different community, with entirely different values, but I think we could learn from how the Zoo Bombers handled their ban. Here is my suggestion:

Summer Park is public, but if K joins the feed, whether to eat or just sit, I think a group of people should let him know why he is banned and ask him to leave. It doesn’t have to be loud, and shouldn’t be aggressive, but it should be clear— and the message should come from several individuals. The person who asked for help thinks that folks should express individually that they don’t want his company, and get up and move if he joins their circle. We have slightly different ideas on tactics, but we both agree something should be done.

I would be willing to stay involved if more than a few folks are willing to commit to standing with me in asking K to leave, and the inner-circle volunteers commit to a more open safe space enforcement process. Otherwise, I’m done with helping the Monday FNB.

In one sense K was right: I was unjust for “going along with the group.” But not by enforcing the ban— rather by letting the ban slide. I apologized to the person who asked for help for my inaction, and still have some hope the FNB PDX community can come together to find a solution. The entire FNB PDX community owes her an apology as well. I doubt anyone who has witness this safer space process would ask for help… they would probably just stop coming.

Everyone deserves food and everyone needs community, but we must hold fast to standards of conduct. K maintains he has done nothing wrong, and has learned nothing from this process. I feel the ban should be upheld until he admits fault and begins the process of change. By just letting him hang out, we are denying him the accountability that could motivate him to get help and disrespecting the person who bravely asked for help.

I have really enjoyed cooking food and getting to know the volunteers of FNB, and I know I’m probably burning bridges with this post. It’s satisfying to save food from the landfill. It’s fun turning it into a healthy, delicious meal with compassionate, fun folks. It’s wonderful serving that food to activists and the food insecure. Even with all the great experiences I’ve had through FNB PDX and the relationships I’ve made while volunteering, I refuse to help with an event that won’t uphold its decisions and values.

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2 thoughts on “Having a Safe Space Policy is Easy, Enforcing It is the Hard (and Important) Part

  1. so i see youve been taught to keep your head down. This you do well, however it is important that you not force it down or you lose some of your forward momentum and are losing power. it is okay to look up AFTER contact, preferably in time to see your ball flight. Think of seeing the spot on the ground where the ball laid before you hit it, then look up to see the shot. This will help you move forward and through as opposed to leaning back because you are forcing your head down.

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