A low, lurid whistle. A not-subtle-at-all slap on the ass. A slur tinged with the implication of violence. War on Women frontwoman Shawna Potter is on a tireless mission to crush these incidents and give people the tools they need to build a better scene.
To do this, the punk singer has embarked on a number of initiatives. She started the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback, a global nonprofit organization that aims to stamp out harassment, and leads bystander intervention trainings. But for the relentless Potter, that still wasn’t enough.
That’s why she wrote Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather, an expanded version of a previous pocket guide meant to share the content of her workshops.
The full-length book gives readers the lowdown on the prevalence of harassment and assault and offers concrete steps anyone – venue owners, bartenders, patrons and, yes, you – can take to respond to these occurrences and to (hopefully) prevent them from taking place in the future. Dotted throughout are real-world examples written by musicians, booking agents, activists and more who are putting Potter’s teachings into action.
In our interview, Potter breaks down the challenges and triumphs of writing her first book, her victim-centered approach to activism, and how everyone can chip in to create a better scene.
Hard Noise: In your years of touring and performing, how have you seen venues evolve and become safer?
Shawna Potter: I see more people talking about it, which is always the first step for any movement, for any change in society. It’s not just little DIY spots run by anarchists that are obviously super radical and learned on these topics. It’s getting less radical and more normal, which is what it should be.
How was writing the full-length book different than the pocket guide?
The pocket guide is all the stuff I try to talk about in the workshops I do or the things that can come up in a workshop.
For the full-length version, I wanted to explain why. Why are these the things being taught in the workshops? Why is it important to know grounding techniques? Why don’t people speak up about harassment they face? I really wanted to address it holistically. It’s the stuff that if you don’t already get it, it will help you get why safer spaces are important.
Does it ever become emotionally draining to immerse yourself in this subject so much?
The reason I started the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback in 2011 was because I was craving that connection to other people, that idea that I’m not alone in what I experienced with harassment. I was so glad I could talk to people about it, and they could talk to me.
After awhile I became the street harassment expert in Baltimore, so everyone is coming to me. That would take away from my own leisure time, my work time.
Pouring myself into this book, I know that I can take a break from doing all the other things in the community that I’ve done. I don’t have to give and give and give because I’m working on this project that could potentially help hundreds, thousands, I hope.
How did you find and refine your voice for this book, which is informative but also at times humorous?
What I have written mostly has been lyrics, which is completely different. There, I can take on different stories, characters and talk about whatever I want.
This is totally different. It’s more vulnerable because it’s more me. I’m not hiding behind music; there aren’t four other people to back me up.
I don’t personally like being preached to. I find it important to have little breaks from what is a potentially tough subject. But you’re learning. Hopefully you’re reading this book, learning new information, and just a little tiny break, a little tiny joke can reset your brain and get you ready for the next chapter.
I want it to feel like you and me talking. I want it to feel comfortable. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m pointing a finger at them. The point of the book is not that you’ve been failing this whole time. The point of the book is that we can all do better and here are a few options on how to do that.
Say you’re at a show and you see someone acting way out of line, harassing a woman or really invading someone’s space. What should a bystander do?
Depending on your level of comfort, safety and personality, you can choose one of the five D’s of bystander intervention. One of the safest D’s is distraction. You can walk up to the person who is harassing or the person who is being harassed and just shoot the shit. Talk about the band T-shirt they’re wearing. Talk about the band that’s about to go on. Anything to break the moment that gives a chance for the person to get away. Or, if you read the situation wrong – maybe they really are just friends playing around, now you know.
This method avoids direct confrontation. If it’s a more threatening situation, you can move on to the other D’s, like direct or delegate.
Who can benefit from reading this book?
This book is about harassment against anyone from a marginalized community. That means that anyone can be an ally and put these tactics into practice. These are tactics for me as a woman to help out and support members of other communities – the Muslim community, trans men, black folks. There are so many of us that are potential victims of harassment and violence and being bullied and marginalized, but we can all also be allies to other people. I think that my book offers a standard for the bare minimum of what everyone should know, and it comes from a victim-centered place.
If you really give a fuck about a punk ethos, a DIY ethos, this book is that. To me, punk is about fighting against the status quo and the people in power. Right now the status quo is sexist. It’s racist. It’s xenophobic. It’s transphobic. It’s ableist.
We have a way to counteract it, to squash it. That way is to create a different way on our own without cops, without government. We do not need authority figures on how to create a welcoming and inclusive and more-fun-for-everyone environment.
Photo by Suzy Harrison