//Priscilla Jerez holds one of the orange cards from the Protect Your Space Project behind the bar at Tooey’s Off Colfax on Aug. 16. Jerez launched the program on July 4. Photos by Madison Lauterbach | firstname.lastname@example.org
Priscilla Jerez, the manager and bartender at Tooey’s Off Colfax, moved to Denver ten years ago. Before that, she lived a whole other life in Washington D.C. She owned a bar called The Palace of Wonders, which was part museum of oddities. She was a burlesque dancer as well, something she said she can’t wait to tell her daughter about when she gets older.
But she also had an experience that is shared by most women who work in or go out to bars. When Jerez was 26 years old, she had her drink drugged while she was working.
“There were two men talking to me and, you know, being friendly,” Jerez said. “I think they were trying to sneak me out or something. I guess whatever state I was in, I was able to get to a safe place. It’s one of those things that really stayed with me where I’m like, ‘Holy shit, who knows what could’ve happened?’” Jerez said.
Years later, Jerez has started a community-based program to combat sexual harassment and bigotry. The group behind the Protect Your Space Project, which Jerez founded and leads, set its eyes on making bars in Denver safer for women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ+ community. But they haven’t stopped there.
“We’re actually branching outside of bars. We started picking up spas, tattoo shops and stuff like that because we’re not just about doing a safe place program with [places that serve] alcohol,” Jerez said. “It’s not just about violence and being harassed or groped. It’s for the young trans woman that wants to go get waxed and wants to feel comfortable, it’s about being a black man going into a tattoo shop and not being told that their skin is too dark.”
The Tooey’s bartender and manager devised the plan for the program in response to what she saw as performative activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and so-called burn lists that were circulating the internet in the Denver area in June. Burn lists are comprised of people’s names and descriptions of their alleged abuse, which are sometimes misappropriated by ex-partners with grudges.
The black squares and online lists outing people as abusers were missing what the intended goal was, Jerez said.
“I was kind of in this place where I was a little bit frustrated with a lot of people, like saying stuff and posting memes but not doing anything about it,” she said. “Then on top of that, there’s this other world that’s like, ‘Oh my God, I want people to feel safer.’ I’m just so sick of people feeling like they don’t belong places.”
The program launched officially online on July 4. Since then, Jerez estimates a few dozen businesses have already signed on to be a part of the program. Businesses begin with a staff meeting to clarify what it means to be a safe place for all people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or other characteristics. As Jerez said, building a safe place starts with the staff understanding the types of behaviors that won’t be tolerated.
Once the staff, management and owners are on the same page, Protect Your Space provides posters and orange cards, at no cost, to be hung in the bathrooms. The orange cards are used by customers to communicate with the staff that a situation needs to be resolved. Jerez chose the color while keeping the dark lighting inside bars in mind.
“I thought of, like, a card because of a credit card. That’s kind of how my bartender brain works. Like how would I like somebody to communicate with me? ‘I’d like another glass of water’ or whatever and they slide the card over,” she said.
With the program in its infancy, Protect Your Space hasn’t decided yet on what kind of protocol they’ll suggest for handling a situation, but Jerez said she’d suggest a “three-strike (card) you’re out” rule. The group has also discussed eventually making an online directory of the businesses that have signed up as a safe place and holding workshops to improve the community environment. For now though, it’s mostly about communicating with other businesses who the bad apples are. That being said, Jerez wants to avoid the concept of cancel culture, where people are written off for minor things.
“People have to coexist in this city. We are here to communicate,” Jerez said. “It’s not about kicking you out yet, there’s a difference between ‘I just don’t like that person, make him leave’ and ‘he just called me something in the hallway and I’m scared.’”
Nick Nunns, the founder of TRVE Brewing Company, said the Protect Your Space Project aligns with what his business has always stood for.
“All we’re doing is really trying to reinforce to our guests that we are a place that is for them, and that is for everyone,” Nunns said. “We are trying to make a place that’s open and accepting, and that people can feel like they can come to and not be harassed or feel like they are being looked at sideways.”
As a metal bar, Nunns said TRVE is a perfect fit for the program as the music genre is full of people who have been pushed to the margins by society. What used to be a white, heterosexual male-dominated subculture, the heavy metal scene is now changing to include all people.
“It’s easier to tap into that within this community, I think because it has such a weird outsider freak community,” Nunns said. “So like other people who are ‘freaks,’ they’re more welcome here than they may feel in other places because we get it, we’ve been there and have been through that kind of stuff as well.”
Nunns said TRVE jumped in as a member of Protect Your Space as soon as they were invited. One of the bartenders, Kacey Taylor, is also a member of the group.
“That was another reason why signing up for this was kind of a no brainer because my staff was already so well-educated, and already has such a great sort of like ‘no-nonsense, no bullshit’ approach to dealing with this sort of stuff that it didn’t take much training necessarily,” Nunns said.
Casey Hosch, manager and piercer at Sol Tribe Tattoo and Body Piercing, echoed the same sentiment about her staff. Hosch is a member of the group behind Protect Your Space. Sol Tribe became a recognized safe place shortly after the program was launched. She said within the last year, the shop created a core values document that was transparent about where they stood on certain issues. The shop strives to be inclusive, itself being woman of color-owned and employing several queer folks.
“I took it upon myself, and Alicia [Cardenas, owner of Sol Tribe] definitely let me roll with it, to really stand our ground and where we stood on this matter. So specifically for Sol Tribe, I don’t really think there was a whole lot of adapting because we were kind of already there,” Hosch said. “We don’t have a lot of adapting to do because everyone who works there is either of color or queer or super supportive of that. We all kind of have very similar ideals.”
Several complaints within the body modification community have been leveled specifically at tattoo artists. In the wake of the latest Black Lives Matter protests, complaints have emerged that many artists are ill-equipped or refuse to tattoo darker skin, as Jerez mentioned. In addition, over the last few years, the tattoo industry has been reckoning with its own version of the #MeToo movement. Several prominent artists, mostly male, have been called out for either being creepy toward or assaulting their female clients.
“At a bar you can easily up and walk away to a certain extent, you know what I mean? But if you’re being tattooed for four hours, that can be a little bit tougher,” she said.
Hosch said the Protect Your Space Project aims to eliminate these issues in the community, and even before the inception of the project, Sol Tribe was already working to foster communication between clients and artists about what is expected, especially when tattooing intimate areas.
“I think every little sub-industry is going through some major outing of folks who are sexual predators,” Hosch said. “So far, it has to my knowledge, been men tattooers, but I think something that I really want to drive home with this Protect Your Space Project is that this isn’t just about men creeping on women. Anyone can be a scumbag, right?”
Jerez also mentioned that the project isn’t about focusing on the stereotypical evil cis white, heterosexual bro. Just as anyone, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, can be a victim of violence, so too can they perpetrate it.
“If we really want to make something like this work, we have to focus on creating safer environments, but without telling people who to love and who to hate,” Jerez said. “I don’t want people to be like, ‘let’s go hate all these people,’ like a witch hunt. That’s not how this program works because that can create an unsafe environment. Let’s try to talk about it, it’s about communication.”