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Safety pin politics in the election aftermath

Activists handed out message-carrying safety pins at the Davis Square MBTA station Nov. 14.
Activists handed out message-carrying safety pins at the Davis Square MBTA station Nov. 14.Handout

These days, if you happen to use a safety pin to close a rip near the lapel of your jacket, you may be met with certain knowing glances from passersby: a nod and a smile, maybe an exaggerated eyeroll, or perhaps even an enthusiastic wink and thumbs up.

That’s because the common safety pin — long used to cinch fabric or fasten diapers — has been adopted in the wake of the divisive presidential election as a symbol of support for victims of racism, xenopobia, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination.

On Monday, activists handed out safety pins at the Davis Square MBTA station. Attached to each pin was a white business card stamped with the slogan “NO ROOM FOR HATE,” along with the words: “by wearing this pin, I commit that if I see something I will say something and stand against hate.” On the back of the card is a list of links to the Human Rights Campaign, GLAD and BAGLY, and phone numbers for the Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville police departments.

Safety pins began popping up in the UK after the Brexit vote to leave the European Union. But what does it mean in the US? Is it a political statement? A show of support for marginalized groups? A fad spawned by social media? Call it what you will, the safety pin is for the moment part of the national conversation, and it’s stirring up controversy.

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Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, a Cambridge native and playwright/performer/producer who now lives in California, says friends of hers were “furious” about seeing safety pins springing up everywhere. She said her friends felt “this is not what we need; we need action.”

“Marginalized people don’t think it’s useful,” she said. “There’s so much more that we could be doing.” Even worse, the safety pin can be viewed as “yet another reminder of privilege that they don’t get to have.”

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But to safety pin wearers, the grassroots movement is well-intentioned. Following the election of Donald Trump, an uptick of acts of intimidation and harassment against Muslims and other groups has been reported — leaving many observers startled and disturbed.

Meg Dubois Lim, a special-education teacher and transition services coordinator at Arlington High School, decided to wear a safety pin out of genuine concern for others. She said she crafted her own rainbow safety pin brooch to show “if you’re vulnerable, I’m here, and I will stand up for you,” she said.

She also acknowledges the safety pin “is a gesture, but it’s not enough,” and has made her own plans to become more politically involved.

Another pin wearer is Josh Tolub, a fund-raising consultant for nonprofits who lives in South Easton. After the election, he said he was troubled by reports of hate crimes, and recently learned his friend’s daughter found a swastika on the door of her dorm room. He also knows a gay couple who are scrambling to finalize an adoption because they fear the laws could change under the new Trump administration. In light of those developments, Tolub said he decided to wear a safety pin because it “seemed like the right thing to do.”

Sarah J. Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, explained why this seemingly innocent symbol has come under fire.

“While symbolic communication can often mean a lot to the person wearing the symbol, sometimes it’s missed by the larger society,” she said.

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For one thing, a safety pin is something that can be overlooked or misinterpreted — after all, the person wearing it may not even be making a political statement; they might simply be missing a button.

Jackson recited some of the questions critics are raising: “Why a safety pin? Why not something more explicit? Why not wear a Black Lives Matter pin, or say something against sexism, as opposed to doing something so subtle and symbolic?”

“The vagueness of the meaning is where it’s become controversial,” she said. “If wearing a safety pin makes you feel better, then fine, but actually do something. . . . We have real work that has to be done and I suggest we get started.”

Similar sentiments were echoed in an essay by Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based writer who wrote about the backlash she endured when she questioned why so many people who would never wear a Black Lives Matter shirt were suddenly sporting safety pins. She said commenters called her racist, an idiot, and names that were even worse.

“None of the commenters seemed to be aware that telling a black woman that she was wrong to question white people is kind of the opposite of racial solidarity in a country where the majority of white voters just elected Trump,” Oluo wrote in her essay on The Establishment website.

Oluo said one woman went so far as to e-mail a radio show that she appears on regularly demanding that she be barred from the show.

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“This woman was trying to take away a source of my income,” Oluo wrote. “All because I questioned her safety pins.”

Meanwhile, the safety pin phenomenon continues to grow.

It’s garnered support from celebrities like actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who tweeted a photo of himself with a safety pin attached to his lapel, and “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing, who tweeted that wearing a safety pin “as a sign that you are a safe haven for those who don’t feel safe post-election” is a “moving gesture.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is encouraging social media users to change their profile picture to a safety pin “to show that you stand up against bigotry and hate.”

Witch City Ink, a tattoo shop in Salem, is taking the safety pin trend one step further. On Dec. 3, the shop is hosting a “Solidarity Pins Event” where patrons can get a safety pin tattoo for $50, of which $40 will be donated to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and other left-leaning organizations.

Japonica Brown-Saracino, an associate professor of sociology at Boston University, said that the safety pin movement “isn’t sociologically surprising.”

“It makes good sense that people would want to make their political views visible right now,” she said, “and that also many of us would want to know where others stand right now,” she said.

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Brown-Saracino added that there’s a desire to build community, and “people often rely on symbols to build a sense of community.”


Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.