F12 cofounders Plus Sign and Sasha Tycko Credit: Porter McLeod

Let’s say you’re at a show. It’s a small venue, or maybe it’s somebody’s basement. It’s loud and it’s crowded and there’s definitely nothing resembling a security staff. So there’s nobody you can alert when you see a guy who looks not quite sober standing over a woman and speaking to her aggressively. She also looks drunk, and she’s clearly uncomfortable. Then you realize you recognize this guy. Everybody in your scene knows this guy. He has what you’ve heard referred to as “social capital”: he’s powerful and connected, much more so than you. And suddenly you remember—or think you remember—that you’ve heard ugly rumors about him. Maybe from a friend of one of his ex-girlfriends. Maybe?

What do you do?

On a Saturday evening in mid-May, about ten people crowd into the small living room of Earphoria, a guesthouse for musicians in Logan Square, to try to decide how best to untangle this sort of problem—a paralyzing knot of sexual violence, community dynamics, and personal responsibility. In about an hour, many of them will head down to the house’s basement performance space for a show very similar to the one in this hypothetical—through the floorboards, you can hear the sound check in progress. Several people present didn’t plan to come to this workshop, but they got here early and it’s a place to sit down, so why not?

The event has been organized by the F12 Network, a volunteer group founded in late 2016 whose six members all come from Chicago’s DIY scene. They’re dedicated to teaching de-escalation and accountability: If you want to teach the community how to take care of itself, they reason, why not do it in places where people gather, like show houses?

F12 cofounders Kelley Grenn and Sasha Tycko lead the discussion at Earphoria. (Tycko also helps run a series at the Promontory called the Corner, which since April of last year has grown into a hub for community-based performance and activism.) On a gigantic Post-it pad propped against the front windows, the two of them have written a list of de-escalation tactics recommended by the People’s Response Team, a multiracial and multigenerational Chicago group that works to end police violence: “Take cues from the person being harmed. Orient yourself to your surroundings. Find someone to support you. Provide a distraction.”

The group considers which tactic would work best in this situation. Maybe you should find someone who could physically confront the guy, like a bigger dude? (That can precipitate violence if the attacker feels threatened, though—look what happened last month on that train in Portland.) Maybe you should find a way to separate them, either by inventing something urgent for the guy to do or by approaching the woman like a long-lost friend? Everyone agrees that you should definitely check up on her after she’s out of harm’s way—and again tomorrow to make sure she’s OK.

The problem, as most people in the group acknowledge, is that it’s easy to know in retrospect what you should have done. What’s hard is having the presence of mind to know it at the time. “I know I need to stop and take a breath,” one woman says, “but it’s hard to do in the moment.”

“You struggle with how far you can go before you have to stand up and say, ‘No, I’m taking a side, because this is not right,'” another woman adds.

Grenn and Tycko listen and nod sympathetically. “Accountability and de-escalation are skills you have to work on,” Grenn says. “We’ve been socialized to react with anger.”

Both Grenn and Tycko speak softly, calmly, and deliberately, like people who’ve had a great deal of experience defusing difficult situations—which is what they are. Before founding F12, many of the collective’s members were part of the Feminist Action Support Network (FASN), a group that formed in 2012 to intervene in instances of violence or harassment in the DIY community. Grenn and Tycko attended several events and worked with the organization. FASN set its sights high, aiming to facilitate an accountability process that would bring peace to the person harmed and encourage the person doing the harm to make amends and change the bad behavior.

The DIY community liked and respected FASN, says F12 cofounder + (often rendered “Plus Sign”), a former FASN administrator who’s also part of the rap scene and frequently hosts at the Corner. But community members also seemed to assume that people from FASN would do all the work. Even as more people signed FASN’s mailing lists offering to volunteer, fewer actually turned up to do de-escalation duty at shows.

Not surprisingly, this led to burnout on the part of FASN’s core members, and the group disbanded. When they reorganized as F12—the number 12 is slang for “police,” and F usually stands for “fuck,” though the collective says it can also mean “feminism,” “friends,” “free,” or any other f-word—they decided to change their strategy. Instead of trying to do the de-escalation and mediation by themselves, they would teach others through a series of workshops and with a zine containing information and resources (it was distributed in print at the Earphoria workshop and published online last week).

F12 openly acknowledge their debt to Chicago groups such as the grassroots Let Us Breathe Collective, which fights racial injustice, and Project NIA, which uses community-­justice techniques to keep young people out of prison. (Grenn has volunteered with the former.) F12 members will lead a workshop called Let’s Treat Each Other Right 101 on Thursday, June 15, at the Hyde Park Art Center, preceding an open pitch meeting for the zine The Sick Muse. They also plan to make a presentation at the Eco Collectives’s Fourth of July show and lead workshops during Fed Up Fest, a queer-centric underground punk celebration whose 2017 installment is scheduled for July 28 through 30. Other events will appear on the calendar at f12network.com as they’re nailed down.

Let’s Treat Each Other Right 101
F12 Network members lead a workshop preceding an open pitch meeting for the zine The Sick Muse. Thu 6/15, 5 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, 773-324-5520, hydeparkart.org, all ages, free

“We frame our work as F12 transforming the way our community responds to sexual violence,” says Plus Sign. “We want to promote an infrastructure we didn’t have when I was 20.”

F12 also want to change the DIY community’s thinking about how to respond when one of its own hurts someone. The F12 Network have consciously aligned themselves with the prison-­abolition movement, and they don’t believe that the knee-jerk response to harassment or sexual violence—ostracizing the wrongdoer—is the best. Isolating offenders doesn’t teach them how to take responsibility for the harm they’ve done, much less how to reengage in the community. It just sends them off to a new community, where they might do the same thing again.

“We support survivors fully,” Grenn says, “but this seems like a big problem. Folks support the survivor, but it’s easy for folks to dispose of people. It’s hard work to work through the hard stuff.”

But certain principles hold up better in theory than in practice, as all the participants of the Earphoria workshop could tell you. Earlier that week, a widely circulated post in the DIY Chicago Facebook group by poet Kitty Cordero-Kolin had accused Ben Hopkins of queer punk duo PWR BTTM of being “a known sexual predator,” and several more people came forward with allegations of abuse by Hopkins. PWR BTTM issued a statement claiming that “the allegations come as a surprise” and requesting that accusers e-mail the band to discuss their issues. This did nothing to slow the backlash, though—within days PWR BTTM’s summer tour in support of their new album, Pageant, had been canceled. They were dropped by their record labels in the U.S. and the UK and by their manager, and streaming services stopped carrying their music.

Strangely, no one at Earphoria mentions PWR BTTM. Instead, guided by Tycko and Grenn, they discuss things they can do personally if they see someone behaving like a sexual predator.

F12’s <i>Quick Start Guide</i> contains information and resources to help people learn de-escalation and mediation.
F12’s Quick Start Guide contains information and resources to help people learn de-escalation and mediation.Credit: Porter McLeod

The F12 members at the workshop decline to comment on the PWR BTTM situation when asked—they don’t know any of the people involved, they say, or what exactly happened between Hopkins and the accusers. They’re also reluctant to say how they might handle a similar situation in the Chicago DIY scene, because every case is different.

“It’s frustrating to hear things like this, to see how people respond to it,” says Tycko. “That’s why we’re doing this work. When it happens, there’s a way to talk about it and a structure for dealing with it.”

Plus Sign later elaborated in an e-mail: “In a post-F12 world, people are more prepared to hold their friends and selves accountable with loving practices that understand and truly address the root causes and symptoms of the cycle of violence.” In other words, F12 hopes that the community will be able to spot impending signs of sexual violence and help perpetrators recognize what they’re doing and change course before any further damage is done.

It’s a lofty goal, requiring the overhaul of human behavior patterns ingrained over millennia. But F12 think it’s possible, and others who’ve been watching their work agree.

“I am a firm, firm, firm believer in the idea that the revolution starts at home,” says Jes Skolnik, a music writer and activist who teaches de-escalation workshops and has written extensively on accountability practices. “I have seen it. I have seen it in my very small world and rippling outwards from there.”

Skolnik is referring to two things in particular: the spread of the idea that sexual-assault survivors can experience PTSD and the practice of issuing trigger warnings. The term “trigger warning” has been misapplied, debased, and ridiculed over the past few years, but in its original sense it referred to something very specific and very real: the practice developed in the late 90s in Internet conversations among sexual-assault survivors who understood that calling certain memories to mind could set off panic attacks or other physiological responses.

“I don’t think de-escalation tactics will spread as fast,” Skolnik continues. “It’s not as reducible a topic. It’s something you have to practice every day of your life.” As for accountability, there’s still extensive debate on what it should look like. “The things that I see working most often are considerations of what does it mean to heal—more on peace than on justice.”

Skolnik’s observation echoes F12’s distrust of the criminal justice system.

Instead of shunning and isolating perpetrators, says Plus Sign, “We need to stay with the trouble, huddle up, and figure it out. Our communication needs to be at the point of recognizable violence. It can come from any person at any time. You need to be ready to address it—not in a violent way, but in a loving, patient, and serene way. I cease being surprised. Not that I don’t trust anybody. But I know what everybody is capable of. To heal, they have to know what to do.” v