war on women
[Photo by: Chris Sikich]

Older participants in the world’s hardcore and punk scenes like to bemoan the current state of the scene, whether it’s the music pounding out of the PA system or the attitudes and behaviors of the participants. When this writer frequented the Pittsburgh hardcore scene in the early ’80s, the climate was very small and was taking its cues, influence and aesthetics from the punk scenes in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

The ratios of people of color and women were scant, but the atmosphere was inclusive. There was a sense of tribal unity: While the rest of the city were seemingly scarfing up tickets to see Lynyrd Skynyrd, we were reacting by embracing the new sounds and a code of conduct. Respect was key: If the slam pit got too violent, you picked people up off the floor or cleared a space to help find missing eyeglasses, whatever. Sometimes the young women jumped onstage, shouted some lines to a visiting band’s chorus and then jumped back in the pit. There wasn’t any groping or toxic male come-on’s to be had.

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When Shawna Potter hears this recollection, she pauses and clarifies something. “Let me challenge you a bit,” she begins calmly. “No one got harassed that you know of. You didn’t see it; it was happening. And it always has. In every scene. Every kind of music. Every kind of venue. It’s happening everywhere, and no scene is immune from this.

“This book isn’t a critique on my world or your world,” she continues. “It’s a critique on the world. It’s for people who still feel helpless realizing how much people can suffer at the hands of bullies and want to do something. This is to give them hope and to empower them.”

Straight up: Potter knows the score. She’s been working tirelessly as an anti-harassment advocate, speaking to young women on how to handle unwanted situations; venue owners about the policies they can create for maximum inclusivity; and to regular showgoers about what they can do as a third party to react in a positive way. Her work as a former member of the anti-harassment group Hollaback! and her experience as the lead singer of the hardcore band War On Women (which had her counseling people on Warped regularly during the tour’s 2017 campaign) fueled her to write a book, Making Spaces Safer, recently issued by AK Press.

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Potter’s book is remarkably cohesive and exasperatingly thorough. Forget any kind of political subtext: Making Spaces Safer is just a guide to becoming a better human. Prior to leaving for a European tour with WOW, she talked to Jason Pettigrew about the need for the book, what the future holds and the most frequent question she constantly has to address.

There’s research and then there’s what happens to you in real life. What was the ratio of things you had to experience personally compared to things that you learned about harassment from other people and organizations?

SHAWNA POTTER: Since being harassed, discriminated against or inappropriately touched since puberty, I obviously have a personal relationship with harassment. I have my own thoughts and feelings about it and my own journey, from how I deal with it and how I live with it. And that’s what certainly got into my activism. I got into the social justice world due to my feelings of being fed up with being harassed. And what I finally discovered was other people were harassed too, and it’s not just this weird thing that I go through, and there are so many of us experiencing this, that’s when I began to pick up the mantle of anti-street harassment in Baltimore.

Through that I heard many stories of how pervasive it is: how it affects people who don’t look like me, how common it is, how horrible it could be. I wanted to do something more than just raise awareness. Training venues over the past five years, I’ve perfected my workshop. I fine-tuned it to what people actually need to hear and how they need to hear it in order to take in the information—what I need them to do to help victims of harassment is worth doing, and it makes an impact. Your average person might pick it up, but they might need to hear some numbers. I’d need to back it up. So I did the research, did the digging and found the stats. I found the proof that what I’m doing didn’t come up out of thin air; it was based on research and real needs. I’ve been doing this training for years: It’s actionable and real.

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When did you finally say, “Dammit, it has to be a book”?

[Laughs.] I think it was finishing Warped Tour. I’ve said this in a couple [of] interviews already, but I was concerned about saving my voice on Warped Tour, yelling for 30 minutes every day and then teaching a workshop on harassment intervention, and I just didn’t want to lose my voice. I thought, “I’m saying the same things over and over again. I should just be able to hand this to people.” If I just wrote it out, they could do it, and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s a good idea.” So I started writing when I got home from Warped Tour.

There’s philosophy, there’s structured ideas and plans, all things to consider. Did you see anything that you found suspect in the crowds at Warped? Or did you see the opposite: a significant amount of people who wanted to achieve that empowerment to react against harassment?

I didn’t personally witness straight-up harassment while I was on Warped Tour—and of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You put that many people in a public space, something is going to happen. There are statistics where there is more harassment per person per square mile. The more people there, the more likely harassment is to happen.

There were these activists with a table next to ours who were teaching bystander intervention, and I heard so many stories. They had so many people come up to their table. On the first day of Warped Tour, a woman told us a story about going to Warped Tour with her male friend. He didn’t care about the festival at all; she just didn’t want to go alone. She wanted to bring a guy with her to act as a buffer to hopefully prevent anyone from harassing her. Like a shield. He was like, “Yeah, I’m here so no one messes with her.” That’s expensive. How many women do that at Warped Tour? Spend money on a friend’s ticket so they could come and not get messed with?

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There were a lot of people there who were thankful we were telling them how to intervene with bystander intervention if they did see anything go down. It made them feel better to know that even if they were someone who was once harassed, and maybe they don’t get the chance to use bystander intervention that much, it made them feel good to know we were telling other people. There were men coming to the table wanting to learn how to intervene. And I think that is the impact we had. It was almost like we were giving them permission to be there without having to keep their guard up all day long. I think it’s a really wonderful thing that they could just enjoy a festival and not worry about being harassed. And I think that’s easier when you know that everyone around you could potentially have your back if you were harassed.

The punk scene in and of itself is supposed to mark itself away from the mainstream on so many levels. It’s a drag that your book exists, but it’s more like an instruction manual than a manifesto. It’s all about being a better human.

I wanted to make it easy for people. And I knew that if I was judging them in the book or using too much academic language or too much activist jargon, I would turn some people off. I was very conscious of that. It [wanted] to keep it as mainstream as possible. The things in this book should be normal and should be taught. They are not radical. At no point did I act like, “You must have an updated punk card to enter,” you know? This is absolutely for everyone.

Did you ever encounter someone who seemingly didn’t have any vested interest in preventing harassment? Somebody who was like, “What’s in it for me? Grow up. Life is rough. Stop being a baby.” That full-on toxic chauvinist vibe? Somebody who no matter how well-researched you were, you still wanted to land a graphite nine-iron on his face repeatedly?

[Laughs.] Well, it’s hard to teach people empathy. Especially in the moment when all you’re trying to do is say, “Here’s an option.” I’m not saying, “You better do this or else.” I’m just offering helpful tips and someone who is hearing, “You’ve been doing it wrong”—they hear it as a critique. Obviously, that says more about them than me. To have that resistance and flat-out rejection of what I’m trying to say or even the idea that harassment can be harmful to people over time is pretty maddening. But I’m very lucky that it doesn’t happen a lot because the venues and stores and groups that let me train them have locked it in. From the top down, there’s an acceptance of these ideas. Usually there’s one person outnumbered by everyone else that is just hung up on some random idea. I will try to be patient with them and hold their hand through it. After a couple of minutes, and they’re still not getting it, I say, “Look we don’t have a lot of time, and we have to move on. If you have questions, you’ll have to talk to me later.” I’m sharing this information for the greater good, so obviously, I’ve got to share it for the greater group.

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But you know what? One reason that I’ve been able to be patient with folks in these workshops and training and why I want to be kind to people in this book is that I am lucky enough to have a really great outlet for my anger and frustration with the world through War On Women. It’s a healthy release, and I can be as snarky, funny and angry as I want. And it allows me to have a bit more patience when it comes to real-world interactions.

You’ve been doing all this groundwork for years. The book isn’t about browbeating as much as it problem solving. So let me ask point blank: How are we as a community doing in this realm?

I think we’re doing better as a society rallying around victims and holding abusers accountable. But it’s still a new skill for society at large. So it’s messy, and it’s not perfect. But there are a lot of things to think about.

One question I do get asked frequently is how do you separate the art from the artist? What do we do when we find out someone in our favorite band has been shitty? In the book, I talk a lot about being victim-centered and everything that you’re doing is about making sure the victim stays safe, feels supported and gets through what is potentially a tough moment—or many that they have accumulated over their lives. If you keep that idea in mind, no longer giving money to these artists that have caused harm—sometimes very serious harm—that’s one way to do it.

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But the question comes up, “But I like their songs still.” I do have advice on that. If I already own the music of artists whose work I love, they are problematic for real. If I want to listen to their music, I try to do it in private. I don’t play it at a party. I don’t DJ [with it] with a sound system. I don’t do it in a way that someone who could be listening might get upset by it as a reminder of their own sexual assault. Sometimes I get so uncomfortable with an artist that I don’t want to listen to their stuff anymore. There’s no problem there; I just don’t. If you keep the victim-centered idea in your mind, it can help inform situations.

There used to be a record store here in Cleveland that had a section labeled “Asshole Bin.” Bands who were problematic had their records marked down to wholesale cost, and when they were purchased, the money was donated to various women’s charities. I remember seeing copies of Science Fiction in there.

Oh, my God, I love that! And I understand that idea of maybe you bought it, and you can’t return it. But there’s always something you can do for victims in tough situations.

War On Women will be touring the U.S. later this year with dates and tickets available here. You may order Making Spaces Safer here. Potter is available for online safer spaces workshops and feminist coaching sessions. Message her on Facebook.