From ‘safer spaces’ to biosecurity.

Some fairly loose thoughts about how once radical conceptions of ‘safer spaces’ have been invoked in protecting us from COVID and reinforcing the State’s biosecurity apparatus. Written specifically from Narrm, but probably with parallels elsewhere.

Safer Spaces

I retain a lingering trace memory of safer spaces being a direct and vital intervention into the complacent expectations of radical and transgressive spaces, before it settled into its current form as a bland and lifeless procedural appeal to higher authority. As a radical proposal, safer spaces is about those whose well-being is generally deemed unimportant, being able to claim space and take the necessary actions to assert control over their own safety. These actions will more than likely be an uncomfortable interruption upon the normality of those on the dominant side of a power relation, and all the better for that discomfort. What it shouldn’t be is a blunting of sharp edges, where instead of a spiky interruption, there is simply a broadening of pre-established terms to include those who are more marginalised.

The difference is important. In the second version, underlying power dynamics aren’t shifted and instead reaffirm hegemonic modes that have been constituted on the back of colonial, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal and capitalist violence and extend their capacity to be protective on a bedrock of such violence. This version co-opts any radical potential that ‘safer spaces’ may once have had and turns it into a superficial re-inscribing of dominant modes of safety so that catch-words such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ can be attached. Even with the addition of a bit of diversity, this conception of safety (or purity) is only maintained by organising it against that which is prescribed dangerous, threatening or infected. This inevitably draws from racialised histories where, even if some are allowed inside the protected zone (as the liberal citizen), there will always have to be many others held up as the exemplar of the outsider ‘other’.

One of the scary parts of the response to the COVID pandemic here in Narrm (but probably similar in many places?), has been the very obvious appeal to a supposedly ‘progressive’ version of safety as social responsibility to convince people to comply with state authority. This continues a trajectory where the implementation of ‘safer spaces’ – instead of being a radical move of asserting agency and looking out for each other – has become bureaucratised and institutionalised. We saw this happen even in radical spaces, where those with the bureaucrats’ tendency to codify everything missed the point of radical safety as an act of collective, counter-power. Instead, it created an expectation of appealing to already existing forms of power to provide protection.

At this point, the difference between safer spaces as a radical, political act and the conservative, exclusionary and ‘othering’ forms of safety upon which the borders of this country are militarised have become blurred. In Against Innocence, Jackie Wang points out that:

“When considering safety, we fail to ask critical questions about the co-constitutive relationship between safety and violence. We need to consider the extent to which racial violence is the unspoken and necessary underside of security, particularly white security. Safety requires the removal and containment of people deemed to be threats.”

Safety as ‘social responsibility’ can have no transformative claims when it asks us to align ourselves with the ‘social’ as defined and protected within current relations of power. State power is never simply benign on this stolen and colonised land and there is a longer history of ‘safety’ having reactionary uses that result in the violent disciplining of bodies inscribed as ‘other’ under the guise of protecting ‘innocent’ (white) bodies.


The form of authoritarianism that we face within the pandemic is not accurately depicted in right-wing memes about ‘Dictator Dan’ (Victorian state premier, Dan Andrews). Nor is it only encapsulated by the state enforcement of the lock-down through large fines and a curfew. Instead of a stereotype, caricature of fascism, what is becoming entrenched through such general compliance with the state’s role as provider of safety, is an increasingly totalitarian regime of biosecurity as a guarantor of ‘safer space’. This does not require a dictator, but instead administers total control through disparate processes, many of which aren’t as immediately imposing or evident as typical authoritarian tropes.

Beyond the lock-down, there is immediately the surveillance and constant monitoring for infection that is required for the ‘trace and test’ strategy. On its own, such medical tracking might be acceptable as a necessary measure in the containment of the virus, but allied with the punitive enforcement measures imposed by the state, the increasing empowerment of the police under this ‘state of emergency’, the histories of medical-science as a tool of repression and surveillance strategies such as phone-tracking, it instead becomes the justification for a much broader regime of control. Similar with what happened with ‘the War on Terror’ – and also related to safer spaces – the measures taken for securing one space against a vague and undefinable suggestion of ‘threat’ ultimately can only rest on the logic of racialised exclusion and surveillance.

Also as in ‘the War on Terror’, all these processes become normalised, as what was once proposed as extraordinary measures in a moment of crisis become ongoing features of our ‘safety’. The state does not relinquish these, as we come to experience perpetual moments of crisis. Idris Robinson describes how:

“The most recent regime of biopolitical control is what is known as ‘security’. What ‘security’ does is it allows an event to happen, so as to then manage that event. These events are varied… What the state does in these instances is to make a statistical calculation and try to find acceptable terms within which it can allow events such as pandemics to occur, while keeping them within neatly circumscribed boundaries.”

The circumscribed boundaries that are referred to here are the difference between a self-organised and adaptive response to public health that is based in the communities affected and one that relies on a top-down authority to impose blanket measures as a form of safety.

This top-down version of safety relies on statistical information to chart the containment of populations through graphs and numbers. The reduction of the messiness of our lives to quantifiable data that allows for predictive models to inform a controlled version of ‘safer space’ – one overseen by the state and the police – can again, only reinforce racist logics and a fear of the outsider. Difference that cannot be easily accounted for becomes a risk that must be partitioned in a variety of punitive ways. Who is allowed to move, where people live, their capacity to access resources and how they’re allowed to be, has all already fallen under the scope of security. The pandemic has compounded these measures and we are now heading towards immunity passports, the categorisation of certain demographics as vectors of infection, at the same time as shifting towards individual blame through the linking of vaccination to welfare provision. (No, I am not anti-vax!!!)

As medical science and disease control specialists have become the authoritative voices in outlining the conditions of a biosecurity response to the pandemic, Maori epidemiologists, Donna Cormack and Sarah-Jane Paine, write about how their field could be “a producer of knowledge not just to be kind (although that is helpful) but for the purpose of radical transformation”. However, as it currently stands:

“Western epidemiology is informed by a set of values, principles and ideas that attempt to predict how characteristics of ‘population groups’, defined by age, gender, nationality, ‘race’ or some other variable, interact with patterns of disease. As a discipline, epidemiology reduces peoples’ complex and interconnected lives to numbers, with the common underlying assumption that this quantitative data is fact or evidence. Many of the techniques used in epidemiology, and particularly the statistical methods that dominate, originated from the thinking that shaped early quantitative approaches to the study of differences between social groups. This thinking included racist, ableist and classist beliefs linked to eugenics.”

At the service of the state, epidemiology provides more data for the bureaucratised management of our lives. To break from this history – it’s attachment to colonial and capitalist forms – and instead be at the service of collective and community based health responses, epidemiology would have to open itself to and interact with different forms of knowledge creation, especially that of Indigenous peoples.

Safety/ Risk

The global effects of the COVID pandemic have inevitably been most heavily borne by marginalised groups. The conditions of safety within this society ensures that sheltering from the spread of the infection is far less possible for some people. Additionally, access to resources and care can never be equal – for some to be secure, there must always be an other opposed to that security, desiring and threatening it. This is the contradiction at the centre of versions of safety that imagine broadening out normality to include everyone. Accepting the same mechanisms that have created these conditions to chart our future protection is doubling-down on an incessantly, repeating cycle. We see versions of this play out in microcosm within radical communities that once had the best intentions, but that have ultimately over-bureaucratised safety, handing it to experts, over-valuing it at the expense of risk and experimentation and creating a nervous and exclusionary disposition when faced with unaccountable difference.

There isn’t a simple answer. There is only our attempts to care and look out for each other while continuing to find ways to resist and be disobedient towards State control. If we hand our safety to the measures it imposes now – because we cannot see beyond the horizons it sets – they will only become ever-more entrenched in our daily lives and a breakage will be increasingly impossible. The ‘protection’ the State provides has always come at immense cost to many, and also with trade-offs required for those who might fall within its hold. Radical safety is not risk-free, it cannot be. It can only exist as self-organised, empowered and with solidarity. What it ultimately looks like cannot begin to take shape while we’re also attached to a cordoned-off ‘safer space’ and the controlling embrace of the state.

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