For a limited time, read the full keyword essay on “Safe”

“I hope this email finds you well.” I’m not sure why I ever assumed that I would find anyone I emailed well, but it was not long into the COVID19 pandemic that it became clear to me – as well as many others – that this opening line would need rest or revision. Although I stuck with the sign off, “Take care,” which felt a bit more compassionate than “Best,” many others increasingly would close email messages or otherwise bid adieu with the phrases “Be safe,” or “Stay safe.” During the height of lockdown and since, the latter entreaty also became the catchphrase of public health agencies, from the Center for Disease Control to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and was also used to signal other associated risk management protocols, be they the U.S. Department of Justice’s warnings about new on-line threats to children or Interpol’s #StaySafe campaign that highlighted cybersecurity and medical fraud. The American Hotel & Lodging Association would also invert the words, shifting the verb of personal action into the modified noun of a pledged product: Safe Stay™.

Of course, the call for one to stay safe assumed not only that one’s vulnerability is a choice, but that most people were somehow safe in the first place: assumptions at the core of both the claims of right-wing pundits who declare COVID19 no significant risk and by Democratic centrists who ask people to stay safe without the resources to do so. Today, when spoken by state agencies, this phrase sounds like a farce, as public funding to help protect people from infection or poor outcomes has only declined. But the heightened popularity of a keyword that was already quite broadly used has revealed much about how we define what it means to be safe, as well as about the diverse ways state power promises and withholds safety and how activists have organized in response.

When I first wrote the entry on safe for Keywords for American Cultural Studies in 2019, I traced a few themes, focusing on the private marketplace and the punitive state: including its citation in relation to risk management, from financial markets to liability law to ideas of sexual responsibility; its affective charge, often in relation to other states of feeling, like fear, be that on college campuses or in city streets; and its use in state policies that harm some in the name of protecting others, from policing to settlement to war. I also highlighted how safety had long been treated across the political spectrum as a good and goal; from anticrime campaigns that unite liberals and conservatives, or how debates about policing tend to emphasize one’s lack of safety either without the police or because of the police. Some of these themes resonated during the lockdown months of the pandemic, which overlapped with a surge of mobilizations in response to police violence, many associated with Black Lives Matter. Calls to defund the police and a new popular spotlight on abolition were sometimes paired with the phrase “We Keep Each Other Safe” or “We Keep Us Safe” (including and well beyond the book published with that name) and highlighted the limits of individual choice models (such as “bad apple” officers) and emphasized the need to redirect public funds from policing to health.

These actions revealed how states promise and deny safety through the threat of violence – as was the focus of my first entry – but they also made clear how states do so through the withholding or upward redistribution of resources. This, too, is facilitated by the turn to individual choice: for example, despite research that supports state- or institution-level rules to protect the collective as a whole – such as mandatory masking – today individuals are expected to craft their own calculus of risk and protection, and to put themselves rather than others at the center of their decision-making. With no systematized approach, at any moment one person can feel vulnerable while another feels invincible, as each of us collects our own data points – personal health, social distance, air circulation, tenor of near-by cough – to produce very different bets as to how to be safe (which may or may not include being sick). This has scaled up so that the public interpretation of scientific research has shifted from experts associated with state agencies to those affiliated with popular social media accounts.

But this aspect of the pandemic has also revealed some of the fissures in activist response, especially around the question of state authority not only to define or punish but also to manage collective resources. For example, the increased mainstream attention to abolition was joined by that to mutual aid – community-based efforts, many founded during lockdown, to collect and distribute food, health supplies, and direct economic aid to those most in need. Some of these were developed on the scale of neighborhood, others within social or activist networks, and a few even partnered with or incorporated as non-profit agencies. Often paired with abolitionist calls to build community-centered accountability programs in place of state punishment, mutual aid efforts sometimes eschewed the now charged language of safety in favor of addressing broad matrices of uneven vulnerability and advocating for what people need to “survive and thrive.” But the variety of approaches to mutual aid meant that they were motored by (explicitly or not) wildly different political visions: from anarchist horizontalism to debated approaches to dual power to new liberal philanthropic funding streams. In many of these cases, this took the form of an antistatism that addressed state violence and abandonment, but less so state responsibility. In other words, safety was no longer seen as something the state could or even should provide, and instead social needs were scaled down to local communities.

In this context, the popular discourse of safety has taken some left and right turns since the onset of the pandemic, that make evident the contradictions of both what it means to be safe and the role of the state in everyday and institutional life. For example, the longstanding stigmatization of health-related risk-taking directed at minoritized communities such as in response to HIV or diabetes has continued in the response to Monkeypox, but also can include the assumption that all who don’t mask do so as an affirmative choice. This has been joined by the stigmatization of risk avoidance as well as the claim that risk-taking receives the most disapprobation regardless of one’s social status. Public calls for more police in response to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes got more mainstream airtime than the many calls to stand in solidarity with activist demands to defund the police. And while state policies in the name of safety and security have often been the target of the left, from the so-called War on Drugs to War on Terror, the rejection of vaccine and mask mandates has made new (if not that surprising) bedfellows.

In workplaces, including universities, individualization has been normalized in ways that arguably exceed pre-pandemic standards. For example, many people were introduced to the ideal (if not practice) of universal access to remote work with the expansion of on-line communication tools like Zoom during the height of pandemic policies. Today those same technologies are more likely to be understood as an individual choice (for those who want to work remotely) or official accommodation (for those with a documented need to work remotely) or to be used to facilitate the extraction of more work (since all places are now potential workplaces) rather than as a creative tool for universal access. While many activists have shown up the ruse of safety, privatized interests have also done well to capitalize on some of its alternatives, including mutual aid. And the January 6^th^ attack on the U.S. Capitol demonstrated one approach to claiming state power via an avowed anti-statism, albeit one based in racism, white supremacy, and misogyny (in line with the antistate state of neoliberal governance described by Ruth Wilson Gilmore).

What this reveals is that as the language of safety is used to attack gendered rights to bodily autonomy (from trans-affirming health care to abortion) as well as on migrants, the environment, and so much more, it is as much about the role of the state as punitive power as it is about the state as a means of distributing resources and ensuring rights, here in the U.S and around the globe. Although we might then summarize the politics of safety these past years with the pat and wry phrase all bets are off, I’ll instead offer everything is possible – including new political formations in and against the state -- and it will take risk, care, vulnerability, resources, and more to get there.

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