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Nov 22 2013

Skepticon, Guns, and Policies

Friday night at Skepticon, I went to bed early. I had some sleep to make up from driving through the night to get there. I’d given blood. It seemed like a good idea. I knew I’d missed stuff, though, so I checked the hashtag shortly after getting up. Unfortunately, I found this.

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@EllenBethWachs: So apparently Skepticon isn’t safe. American Atheist employee receives a death threat at the end of loaded 38 #sk6

Never what you want to see. Nor is it fun to see things like this before you have any idea what’s going on.

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@Sc00ter: @EllenBethWachs I’m sure the anti-harassment policy at #sk6 will take care of that no problem. Be safe @davemuscato

So it was going to be one of those days. Yay. But first to find out what had happened to Dave. Luckily, I knew from looking at who was tweeting it, it had to be public. It was on Facebook.

Hey universe, when I said it could be worse as far as the airline losing my luggage… that was not intended as an invitation for a death threat accompanied by a loaded 38.

I get a lot of hate mail and have lost count of death threats now, but this is the first time I have actually perceived my life to be in immediate danger from one.

Although it would not have helped in this particular case, I’m seriously considering a kevlar vest for future public talks.

Fellow activists, a reminder to be very careful about vetting whom you allow in your personal surroundings, and let me just say if I didn’t want kids before, I sure as hell don’t now.

This situation involved someone who I am lead to believe is normally pretty trustworthy who had simply had too much to drink. Obviously that’s not an acceptable excuse for this, but I’m not upset at the person as much as that I don’t want that person around me. I’m sure this is going to be going around the conference tomorrow but I don’t feel it’s necessary to name names and I’m not pressing charges. I may change my mind if I perceive this person to be an ongoing danger to me or anyone else at Skepticon. Hotel security and the Springfield police are fully aware and taking care of it, and I will be giving all the info I have to the conference organizers when they wake up, and I’ll let them decide if there’s further action they want to take, but I think it’s under control now.

There was also already a comment there from Micah Weiss, one of the Skepticon organizers:

Glad you’re okay. Contact us when you’re ready. We’ve got your back however you want to handle this. *hugs*

That right there? That’s the reaction I want to see from a conference organizer when something bad happens. First, concern for the person who has been harmed. Second, concern to follow up as soon as the injured party is ready and able.

Notice what there was not: No declarations about Skepticon except as they related to the conference’s responsibility to Dave. No “damage control”. No messages that Dave shouldn’t be talking about his experiences publicly. No interrogating his story. No allegations that he was out to ruin Skepticon. Just a focus on him being okay and on following up.

I was in the right place to see Dave as he arrived at the American Atheists table that morning, mostly because I was already talking with others about the limited information we had. He’d just been talking to the conference organizers. I heard the story first-hand. I haven’t asked for permission to share any additional details, so I won’t, but there’s really nothing relevant that’s been left out of the security update that Dave then proceeded to write up for Skepticon to post on their website.

About 4 AM on Saturday morning, another attendee of the conference made a graphic and direct verbal death threat to me while brandishing a semi-automatic pistol, which this person claimed was loaded. The incident occurred on E St Louis Street outside, away from conference property and neither in the conference hotel nor in the expo center. I was with a small group of people who were able to distract this person with conversation and diffuse things until we were able to return to the University Plaza hotel, where the person went to his room. I reported the incident immediately to hotel security and the Springfield police, and made statements on the record about what happened.

Skepticon organizers have been fully informed of all details of the incident, and all organizers and volunteers, as well as police and hotel security, have this person’s name and photograph. This person has agreed to leave the hotel and not return to Skepticon this year or in future years.

Skepticon organizers have been overwhelmingly supportive and competent. I was offered a security escort, which I appreciated, but felt was unnecessary and declined.

There was one person present who said, essentially, “Can’t you just go to bed at a reasonable hour so I don’t have to worry about you? But now that I have that out of my system, of course you can do whatever you want. I’m just fussing. You did nothing wrong.” It was a refreshing change from “Well, if you’re worried, just don’t go to any parties.”

The tweets, of course, kept coming. Along with them, the misconceptions and double-standards.
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@ElAtheism:PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT: Stay clear of future #Skepticon events. This year an American Atheist employee received a death threat. #FTBullies #sk6

Unless you can come up with something about Skepticon that led to this event, this is ridiculous. This person won’t be returning to Skepticon, which would be the only reason to expect a repeat at subsequent Skepticons. Not letting offenders come back is how you make the conference safer.

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@ElAtheism: The death threat outside #sk6 was diffused. No elevators were harmed in the process. #Skepticon thanks its attendees. http://skepticon.org/security-update/

Oh, right. You don’t actually care about conference security. You’re just obsessed with Rebecca Watson.

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@saramayhew: If only skeptic conferences would have anti-death threats at gun point policies this wouldn’t happen! http://skepticon.org/security-update/ #sk6 #Skepticon

Well, no. As it turns out, no one has ever said that policies stop all problems. If you look at the start of all this (and as a skeptic, you’re going to check your facts, right?), policies were called for because of repeated problems. They do set standards for acceptable behavior, but they are there to stop unacceptable behavior from continuing. Just as laws provide clear guidelines but don’t stop all instances of harmful behavior, so with these policies.

Also, for the record, Skepticon’s policy has this covered already under “deliberate intimidation”. They didn’t have to change the policy at all to keep this person out.

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@saramayhew: Death threat at gun point at #Skepticon, but no one received unwanted flirting, so still a safe space. #sk6

I can’t tell you whether anyone received unwanted attempts at flirting at Skepticon this year. (Unilateral “flirting” isn’t flirting.) I can tell you that if anyone did, they knew they had the organizers’ backing to put an end to it. They knew that if someone refused to listen or became abusive when they set boundaries, they had people who would be on their side. That is what gives someone a safe space in which to set those boundaries–as tightly or as loosely as they want.

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@DoubtfulNews: We don’t do atheism stories but someone needs to give the details about the gun threat today at #skepticon #sk6

This one is just weird, particularly paired with another tweet a few days later.

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@DoubtfulNews: There was never any response by #skepticon #sk6 regarding the gun incident AFAIK. Irresponsible. #skeptic

Not only was the original tweet posted after the announcement from Dave Muscato and Skepticon, but Skepticon provided that link directly to Sharon Hill. She responded to that tweet, demonstrating that she saw it. She asked no follow-up questions that I can find, merely claimed she hadn’t received “any response”, which is blatantly untrue.

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@Mykeru: @szvan Congratulations on temporarily having enough working brain cells to agree with The SlymePit on this one #sk6 #sk6 threat

This one is also bizarre. I hadn’t tweeted anything about the threat or the response, except for retweeting Dave’s unhappiness with how the issue was being used on Twitter. The official channels had taken care of everything just fine. I did, however, tweet one thing from Greta’s talk having to do with celebrations and alcohol. It had nothing to do with security threats. It was about being careful not to encourage drug use as a primary means of coping with stress.

I haven’t bothered to find out what the slime pit’s careful analysis of the situation is. I’m sure it’s entirely factual and not at all targeted to suggest that we don’t need policies to deal with people misbehaving because people should just behave. Or not.

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@uberfeminist: We should talk about the epidemic of gun violence at atheist and skeptic conventions #sk6 #AtheismPlus

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@toxicpath: @BirdTerrifier @D4M10N just be careful guys. You know there is a rampant gun problem at skepticon! #sk6

So you’re comparing a single incident that was handled swiftly and well with no prompting with years of events that have largely been shrugged off despite multiple protests? Get back to me when you understand the basics of analogies.

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@Jack_Rayner_III: Did Greg Laden get drunk and threaten someone with a gun at #Skepticon? Not making an accusation, just asking a question… #SK6

If you cared about facts, you’d know that (1) Greg challenges U.S. gun culture at every opportunity and (2) he didn’t travel for atheist or skeptic conventions even before he gave up the movement as rubbish. Lucky you, though, you don’t care, so you still get to try to be relevant. Maybe next time, you can even succeed.

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@saramayhew: Go to a con and threaten someone at gun point at 4am – guys, don’t do that. #sk6 #Skepticon

Isn’t it fascinating to see how different the reaction is when it’s not a woman suggesting she should be treated professionally? Nobody arguing with this at all. I guess we do still need feminism, huh?

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@OffensivAtheist: If the guy at w/GUN at #sk6 was drunk & so was the guy threatened they must both be rapists or am i confused? There should be guidelines

There are. You’re part of the reason why. If people didn’t work so hard at misunderstanding this, maybe those guidelines wouldn’t be needed.

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@AmbrosiaX: Some of you are thinking the big news from #SK6 was a gun or that Zvan had a moment of sober clarity. No, there were Slymepitter t-shirts!

For once, Edie almost has a point. No, not about my drinking. She has no idea how much or when I drink. That’s just her trademark pointless nastiness.

However, we aren’t very good at celebrating the people who get things right in the secular or skeptical movements. It doesn’t make news even when it should. So kudos to Dave, Micah, Lauren Lane, and everyone else on the scene and working for Skepticon who helped keep Dave and the rest of us safe and did it so well that we could go on with our conference almost without noticing the interruption.

As for the matter of naming names, Dave is still getting advice on how to handle that. Since he has already been threatened by this person once, I certainly understand his caution. I don’t agree with anyone telling him he needs to add to his own risk by handling things the way they want them handled. That’s not a decision others get to make for Dave.

However, I’m confident as a conference organizer myself that Dave will be receptive to sharing that information with my organization as we plan for our next event. Unless your event is this weekend, give him time to figure out how to do it best. If it is this weekend, just ask him instead of telling the world that he’s handling this wrong. Have some confidence that he’ll handle this as well as he handled the original threat. After all, he did a great job at that.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    The usual assholes continue to show their assholishness, disregarding the fact that the incident was handled professionally and with minimum uproar by the Skepticon organizers.

  2. 2
    John-Henry Beck

    That certainly was strange and worrisome news to wake up to. Didn’t take too long to get the basics, though. Including that the organizers were on it and Dave was doing fine. Sure, I’m kinda curious about the details of just what happened…but I can live without all that. Dave had that post up pretty early answering everything important.

  3. 3
    Gwen

    Wow….the slympitters just couldn’t wait to drag Rebecca’s name into it…..Just wow..
    OTOH, it was handled just as I would like such an incident to be handled. Good job Scepticon. Let TAM and other Cons take notes.

  4. 4
    Flewellyn

    The usual assholes continue to show their assholishness, disregarding the fact that the incident was handled professionally and with minimum uproar by the Skepticon organizers.

    I’m sorry, Al Dente, but I have to object to calling them assholes. Anuses may be gross sometimes, but they are useful, indeed, vital, and their proper functioning essential to continued life and health.

    The Slymepitters are more akin to pilonidal cysts: diseased, useless, painful, unsightly, and best dealt with by excision and drainage. The only similarity is that they are also often full of shit.

  5. 5
    Al Dente

    Flewellyn @4

    I accept your objection. The anus is a useful orifice, worthy of respect. The Slymepit is a useless orifice, worthy of the deepest disdain.

  6. 6
    ajb47

    However, we aren’t very good at celebrating the people who get things right in the secular or skeptical movements. It doesn’t make news even when it should.

    Isn’t “news” by definition that which is out of the ordinary? That’s just something that was brought up in one of my college classes twenty years ago or so, and is something I have to keep reminding myself. Unfortunately, this kind of thing usually ends up in the “Human Interest” section.

    But what’s great about this is that we have a first person account of what happened, minus names, and how it was handled. So all those tweets just show how out of touch the other side is.

  7. 7
    Tom Foss

    In addition to addressing repeated behavior and setting guidelines, a good anti-harassment policy should function in a way similar to a good emergency weather/escape plan. It provides a framework that organizers, attendees, and volunteers can fall back on in a difficult situation. It distinguishes between situations that are cause for action and situations that are outside their purview. It provides a standard response for specific situations. It protects the organization against legal liability issues.

    Imagine the range of possible responses if there hadn’t been a plan in place: “It didn’t happen on conference grounds, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” “have you contacted the police yet? You should contact the police. We don’t need to be involved,” “You need to talk to security about this, not the organization staff,” etc. A plan outlines the hierarchy of power, the course of action, and the kinds of situation that require intervention. This isn’t rocket science, and the continued opposition to something that every business and conference recognizes as a basic safety and liability necessity looks more and more like dogmatic obstinance than any kind of principled stand.

  8. 8
    M. A. Melby

    I’m glad to see that anuses are getting their due.

    My youngest son had 4 surgeries and could have died due to the lack of one.

    He is doing well now due to an approximately $200,000 anus.

    Anuses are awesome.

    :)

    So is health insurance.

  9. 9
    Sheesh

    So happy that Sara finally said something we can all agree on!!

    “@saramayhew: Go to a con and threaten someone at gun point at 4am – guys, don’t do that.”

    Yes please don’t do that!!

  10. 10
    A Hermit

    A plan outlines the hierarchy of power, the course of action, and the kinds of situation that require intervention. This isn’t rocket science, and the continued opposition to something that every business and conference recognizes as a basic safety and liability necessity looks more and more like dogmatic obstinance than any kind of principled stand.

    This^

    I run into this kind of exchange from time to time: http://anewsreports.com/?p=1029#comment-293

    Uberskeptic: We don’t need anti-harassment policies! If something bad happens at a conference you should just report it!

    Me: Report it to whom?

    Uberskeptic: To the conference staff!

    Me: That’s a good idea but how will the conference staff know how to deal with the complaint? I guess they could have some kind of guidance for the staff on how to deal with the situation? Maybe some kind of procedure, or protocol or…oh what’s the word I’m looking for …? Oh yeah…a POLICY! That’s it!

    Uberskeptic: (sound of crickets chirping)

  11. 11
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    I wonder what it’s like to operate every day with a brain encased in a cubic meter of concrete. How do they do it?

  12. 12
    Martin Wagner

    So apparently Sara Mayhew’s latest thing is to claim that the skepchicks are all just jealous of her because she’s so YOUNG AND HAWT!

    Really, she’s saying this.

    Would it be sexist of me to offer up the usual “B–ch please!” here?

  13. 13
    closedmyaccount

    C’mon folks, show some love. Some of these comments were hilarious and snarky.

    Evil people do evil things. Dumb people do dumb things. Evil people don’t care about codes of conduct, and dumb people don’t understand them. Paper doesn’t blush. The only thing that policies are good for, is teaching left handed and socially awkward stuff how to react to certain things. That’s as far as it goes. They can’t do anything useful other than that.

    Up to this point in time, Skepticon is objectively the most dangerous conference any atheist could attend. And it’s not because of policies, but because of people who attend it. Skepticon is the radical mosque of SJW atheism.

    About the gun thing, this can be said:
    In a quick dragnet-like evaluation of a person, who (A) would attend Skepticon (B) is prone to threatening violence (C) likes having a drink too much and (D) is treated too leniently by his own peers, the name Greg Laden immediately appears on top of the list. True story.

    And it’s not Laden who left the movement by his own decision, it was the movement that finally understood that Laden is someone you shouldn’t be associated with, at any cost, no matter what the cause may be. Greg Laden is a Taliban of atheism.

  14. 14
    Donnie

    @Al Dente and Flewellyn: Sorry that I am late to this, but is the ‘Pit is like an appendix? Useless and unnecessary to the rest of the skeptical and atheist community but if left alone can rupture and kill the body that it houses, the skeptical and atheist community?

  15. 15
    Stephanie Zvan

    Schlumbumbi, I’m letting that comment through for the sheer volume of wrong it contains.

    C’mon folks, show some love.

    You know, turn the other cheek.

    Some of these comments were hilarious and snarky.

    In other words, you like your comedy based in false assumptions and claims.

    Evil people do evil things. Dumb people do dumb things.

    All a conference really needs is to keep out anyone twirling their mustache and torturing kittens in the registration line.

    Evil people don’t care about codes of conduct, and dumb people don’t understand them. Paper doesn’t blush. The only thing that policies are good for, is teaching left handed and socially awkward stuff how to react to certain things. That’s as far as it goes. They can’t do anything useful other than that.

    It is also pointless for laws to exist, much less different laws in different states or countries. I mean, evil people don’t care about them, and dumb people don’t understand them. They just lie there on the pages, impotent, ignored.

    Up to this point in time, Skepticon is objectively the most dangerous conference any atheist could attend.

    And that objective measure is death threats that we’ve been told about because the conference organizers and victim were willing to tell us about them. It’s a perfect proxy, even if we just came up with it last week. It doesn’t leave anything out.

    And it’s not because of policies, but because of people who attend it.

    Which people would those be? The ones who aren’t allowed back after the conference organizers know they did something criminal to other attendees? That makes Skepticon less safe than conferences where those people are invited back?

    Skepticon is the radical mosque of SJW atheism.

    You’ve reported their bombing plots to the FBI, right?

    About the gun thing, this can be said:

    Anything can be said. The question is whether you’ve said anything that has anything to do with reality.

    In a quick dragnet-like evaluation of a person, who (A) would attend Skepticon

    You know, it’s careless to assume that Greg would travel to skeptical or secular conventions in the absence of evidence. It’s quite something else to say that he would in the comments of a post that tells you he doesn’t travel for these conventions.

    (B) is prone to threatening violence

    I don’t think you understand the meaning of the word “prone”. Even a rank essentialist like you should understand the problems extrapolating from N=1.

    (C) likes having a drink too much

    Are you making this up because it’s convenient for your “argument” or just making racist assumptions about the Irish? Greg drinks next to nothing.

    and (D) is treated too leniently by his own peers,

    Nobody who says this ever manages to come up with what they think the appropriate punishment should be for Greg. For that matter, they never explain why everyone else should be utterly free to harass for years without any punishment.

    the name Greg Laden immediately appears on top of the list.

    No, the name “Greg Laden” is simply the closest thing you have a piss-poor attempt high tu quoque, and it still has to be exaggerated for your purposes, as you’ve done here. If you want to figure out who thinks that what he did was acceptable, just look to the people for whom it’s not enough, who have to pile on lies to demonize him.

    True story.

    At least you got “story” right.

    And it’s not Laden who left the movement by his own decision, it was the movement that finally understood that Laden is someone you shouldn’t be associated with, at any cost, no matter what the cause may be.

    You do realize that, by saying this, you’re saying FreethoughtBlogs is the movement, right? That was the only change that happened back then. He’s since, entirely by his own decision, dropped other associations in the skeptical and secular movements. He no longer hangs out with us.

    By the way, you do know you just called us “too lenient”, right? When you contradict yourself that badly in the space of two paragraphs, maybe it’s time to realize you’re just vomiting anything to try to make yourself feel better.

    Greg Laden is a Taliban of atheism.

    You can’t words.

  16. 16
    freemage

    A Hermit@10: Oh, they’ve worked it out a bit better now. Now, when you ask who they should report it to, they say, “The police!” If you respond that many of these incidents are unlikely to produce police action, either due to lack of evidence or lack of police concern, or because the situation was defused before it reached bodily harm levels, they immediately get smug looks and say, “Well, then, what’s the big deal? Quit being a drama queen.” Because all serious offenses are de facto crimes, and all crimes are competently and ably dealt with by the police. Trufax, and all that.

  17. 17
    Stacy

    @Stephanie #15, fine fisking. :D

  18. 18
    ewanmacdonald

    I don’t like Greg Laden and would never want to be in a room with him but this could not be more irrelevant. What matters right now is this: the idea that Skepticon handled this anything other than brilliantly is laughable.

    It is absolutely disgusting how much unabashed glee there is over there, coupled with wilfull lying about the facts, from people with a several-years-long case of SIWOTI.

    I don’t go to conventions. If I did, Skepticon would be absolutely top of my list, because it’s run by thoughtful adults with a clear idea of how to keep a conference safe and enjoyable for its attendees. I could not be more impressed with how they dealt with this.

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