Given how the late-addition “Q&A” session at Skepticon came into being, how it was sold to the convention, how it was advertised, and how it was “envisioned” by Danielle Muscato and Mark Schierbecker, it is no surprise the entire thing went off disastrously. Let us itemize the ways this all went wrong.
To catch you up, first.
Jonathan Butler went on hunger strike on November 2nd at University of Missouri (aka Mizzou), to protest systematic racism, the destruction of planned parenthood services and health insurance, the pepper-spraying of peaceful protestors, and edgelord bullshit such as nooses and feces swastikas on campus, along with Chan-culture making death threats via YikYak. After press of the less-than-sympathetic sort (e.g. Breitbart and Fox News) kept wheedling their way into the protest and into protesters’ faces, students created a press-free cordon around Butler and his closest protest supporters, many of whom are black students who have felt unsafe on campus thanks to the overt racism and ratcheting back of necessary services that they experienced.
A student boycott ensued, along with support from the football team and faculty members, including a Mass Media prof named Melissa Click. Mark Schierbecker — a “citizen journalist” non-journalist student of Mizzou — entered the area to take videos of people reacting to the news of the President and Chancellor both resigning. Click demanded he leave several times, and at one point put her hand on the camera he was using to film. Police are presently considering criminal assault charges for this.
Shortly thereafter, Click apologised thusly:
Yesterday was an historic day at MU — full of emotion and confusion. I have reviewed and reflected upon the video of me that is circulating, and have written this statement to offer both apology and context for my actions. I have reached out to the journalists involved to offer my sincere apologies and to express regret over my actions. I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.
My actions were shaped by exasperation with a few spirited reporters. From this experience I have learned about humanity and humility. When I apologized to Tim Tai in a phone call this afternoon, he accepted my apology. I believe he is doing a difficult job, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him. His dignity also speaks well to the Journalism program at MU. Again, I wish to express my sincere apology for
my actions on Carnahan Quad yesterday.
Note, Tim Tai is another reporter, who was crowded out of the press-free zone by the students and who had his arms pulled down when he tried to take a jumping photo of the inside of the cordon.
Schierbecker characterized this apology as “insincere” and “curt”, and to this day believes Click should step down. In fact, during the Skepticon event, he stated that he won’t rest until she does step down, even knowing that putting the focus on his pain and his belief that his “first amendment rights” were violated by not being allowed to access people who wished for privacy distracts from the issues of racism on campus.
The video by Mark Schierbecker went viral. The short version of the video is being used to make arguments against black folks generally by overtly racist orgs like Stormfront, and also by those attempting to damn the Black Lives Matter and ConcernedStudent1950 movements like Breitbart and Fox News. The video as edited in the “short version” shows Click demanding Schierbecker leave the area, touching the camera, and ends with Click calling for “muscle”. The fuller version shows more attempts to get Schierbecker to leave before Click becomes frustrated, and has two students serving as “muscle” approaching Schierbecker and repeating the requests to have him leave the area, and effectively physically blocking Schierbecker from persisting in attempting to film the students against their wishes. The “muscle” did not actually strongarm or physically contact Schierbecker in any way, but served to assert the requests for privacy of the people Schierbecker was attempting to gain access to.
Now, for the specific event and everything that went wrong, in no particular order.
This programming addition to Skepticon was advertised online shortly before the official opening of the con, so it was not printed in the schedules. It was only available on the online schedule, and it was announced in a blog post dated Friday, November 13th, the first day of the con programming.
On the schedule, the lunch break between speakers was registered for between 12pm and 2pm. The speakers were also expected to gather for a Speakers Photo from 12 to 12:30, however this process easily dragged on til at least 12:45. It seems while I was running to the bathroom and to get some coffee, the talk started, and I missed the opening timeline.
There were only a small handful of people in attendance — no more than 25 or 30. Peak attendance within the main hall was probably 400-ish, which is good considering there were always contemporaneous events in other rooms and attendance (though lower than last year) is likely around 600 (remind me to ask for actual registration numbers!), and there was at least 200 in the room at the 11-12pm talk for Fallon Fox. The low attendance is undeniably because it was both late within the schedule, held during the lunch break, and poorly advertised — nobody knew there was a reason to stick around through lunch, as nobody even mentioned it (by my recollection) after Fallon Fox’s talk when lunch break was announced.
The talk was evidently sold to Skepticon as a “Question and Answer”, though Danielle Muscato and Mark Schierbecker did not envision it as such. The questions for the probably-scripted event all came from Danielle Muscato, who, during the course of the event, disclosed that she was acting as pro-bono Public Relations for Schierbecker, whom she considers a friend. Only because a number of black activists effectively started shouting out questions when Muscato declared the interview to be over did the event actually become a Q&A.
Evidently, Muscato was using this event to essentially coach Schierbecker on how to repair the image damage he’d done himself by putting the focus on his “first amendment rights” issues over the racism and death threats happening on campus. That Skepticon doesn’t appear to have been aware of this relationship, and that the “press release” in the blog post appears to omit this fact, indicates to me that Skepticon, knowing Danielle Muscato from previous events, trusted her to use the forum judiciously. This use was, as I posted on Twitter shortly thereafter, a gross abuse of the venue. There is nothing “skeptical” about posting the views of the person with all the power who was aggrieved on a small scale with having their camera touched, while omitting the views of those aggrieved in the grander scheme, in a public-relations spin job fashion, when the person in question is already being published in major (right-leaning) news organizations uncritically.
Repeatedly, both Muscato and Schierbecker conflated right to access to people with freedom of speech. You have every right to say what you want, but you have no right to demand access to others. And indeed, being a student on campus and having access to the football field generally would not grant you access to the field in the middle of a game if you’re not a player — you’d get tackled, even though you have the same level of “right” to be there that Schierbecker had to the area where students requested privacy from press. No amendment grants you as a fundamental right the freedom to harangue people who’ve asked you to back off, given that you can be charged with criminal harassment even if you are on public property, nor does it grant you a right to an audience, specific or general. It’s this sort of conflation of free speech with entitlement to other unrelated aspects of communication that progressives like us call “Freeze Peach”.
From my tiny contingent, when Muscato declared she was Schierbecker’s PR, Niki Massey (whose notes on Skepticon you really should read) left the room saying to us, “I can’t do this.”. Shortly thereafter, Stephanie Zvan left to make sure Niki was all right (EDIT: she left to get migraine meds and food, and supporting Niki was a side-effect). Me, Greta Christina and her partner Ingrid stayed, out of an inclination to witness this event. Between us, we each kept remarking to each other that this was unbelievable and surreal, that we didn’t understand what was actually happening, but that it was certainly not a Q&A as advertised, and we speculated that Skepticon didn’t know what exactly was unfolding.
When the black students from Mizzou started asking questions about why the narrative was focused on Schierbecker and why there were no representatives from ConcernedStudents1950, the cameraman, Rob Lehr of Hambone Productions, was absolutely guerrilla in his coverage of this. He turned the camera toward the protesters and brought a boom mic to get their questions, and encouraged Muscato to keep going because he would keep filming. I think without his quick thinking and his self-sacrificing (this was his lunch hour too, after all!), we would not have had as much actual Q&A for the event.
When during the audience questions portion Schierbecker suggested that he would only stop distracting from the important fight against racism on campus when Click stepped down, when his own injustice was redressed to his satisfaction, I finally broke and yelled something like “You get justice before anyone else!?” This was, for the record, the only time anyone from my contingent said anything. A few seconds after that, Greta, Ingrid and I left. This was probably for the best because I was angry enough to heckle, and that doesn’t really happen with me.
A very important point to note is that Skepticon, and especially Lauren Lane, Skepticon’s lead organizer and primo boss lady, do not appear to have had prior knowledge that Danielle Muscato was acting as Mark Scheirbecker’s Public Relations. I have yet to confirm this single fact directly with anyone on staff, but staff seemed genuinely distressed by the events. When we were leaving the room, I saw Lauren Lane entering with a power-walk stride, looking to my eye pretty horrified by the events unfolding, so clearly someone had informed her what was going on and she was returning from her lunch with a mission. That said, things kept happening for a few minutes more thereafter.
I think someone — possibly Lauren, but I didn’t see, as we were just exiting the huge room at that point — asked about a question from the audience more than once, and it might have been directed at Greta who was leaving the room with me. Greta had, after all, had her hand up for many minutes without being called on before the three of us walked. I’m completely unsure as to who asked whom about questions, and the video doesn’t help fix things in my mind.
Muscato posted on Facebook that she’d severed her relationship with Schierbecker as PR manager for “multiple indefensibly racist comments”. I did not sense there were actual directly racist comments in what Schierbecker said — only that his (and now, unfortunately, my) efforts continue to center attention on him and his “freedom” to access people to catch a story, rather than the black folks being made to feel unsafe by threats and overt racism. While he did say “everyone’s a little bit racist”, and repeatedly said “fuck racists” and “I have white privilege”, he also asserted that privilege to demand that justice for transgressions against him should take priority.
And the fallout after the fact is ridiculous in the hamfisted attempts at reshaping the narrative being made by trolls and racists and reactionary right-wingers and Chan culture who want to tear down progressives in general, and Skepticon in particular — Schierbecker put out a video (titled “Journalists’ Lives Matter”, subtitled “Fuck Skepticon”) shortly after Muscato threw him under the bus.
(ETA, this may have been edited later to “Journalists’ Livelihoods Matter” given the current title and the number of people who remember it as “lives”, which while it’s good that Schierbecker realized there are some lines you probably shouldn’t cross, is actually pretty damning that people being killed is somehow comparable to journalists having the right to play paparazzi.)
During the video he admitted to being on the autism spectrum, and was clearly shaken by the whole experience of being called to account for his prioritizing himself. Trolls have seized upon this, pretending like they can now catch progressives out on what they perceive to be our attempt to play “identity politics” by claiming that Skepticon and progressives criticizing Schierbecker are actually attacking him for being autistic. (This from people who regularly use “retard” as a slur, so take it for what it’s worth — which is to say nothing, because I know plenty of people on the spectrum, none of whom are assholes or racists.)
The trolls also repeatedly demand that Skepticon apologize for calling Schierbecker racist, though clearly the only person who’d done so was Danielle Muscato, the person serving as his PR agent. Granted, Muscato was given a great deal of autonomy in putting together the event, so one might conceivably make an argument that Skepticon is on the hook for Muscato being an agent for the con. But the distress among Skepticon staff was visible to me, placed as I am such that I can actually see the feet paddling below the surface in most cons that I attend, and despite that distress, none of the agents actually called Schierbecker racist.
Shortly after the talk, I said on Twitter:
If goal is to stop the distraction from racism at Mizzou, and you can't get representation of protestors, don't have the event. #skepticon
— Jason Thibeault (@lousycanuck) November 14, 2015
Among the people who favorited that was Danielle Muscato. Some time after she favorited that tweet, she posted this on Facebook with some clarifications, including agreement that the event should not have gone on without representation from ConcernedStudent1950, while reiterating that she’d attempted to get them to show up.
I fully understand why they didn’t, knowing now what Schierbecker’s and Muscato’s goal was for the event. I stand by my assertion that it was an abuse of the venue. A number of Skepticon’s organizers seem to feel the same, and this statement by Lauren Lane seems to agree, even if it takes more responsibility for “failure” than I think the con deserves — if it failed, it was only in trusting Muscato would not use the con improprietally. I have a great distaste for everything that has happened, and I’m more than upset with Muscato, and am suspicious of her intentions and her apparent cavalier use of the venue. She redoubled the damage to the narrative that has happened with the event in trying to do damage control, when she declared that Schierbecker made “indisputably racist statements”, because that overstatement doesn’t bear out. Now trolls can say “he didn’t say anything wrong and Muscato says so herself”, when a) she was doing damage control; b) she overstated the case after she felt she had to retract her support; c) the case is actually still about the covert racism of white privilege rather than hoods and pitchforks.
And now, Muscato has posted again, appropriately walking it back, retracting the “indefensibly racist” part, hoping to still be friends with Schierbecker. But the damage’s already done.
Much like how Dan Rather took damage from an overstatement of the case against George W Bush’s missing military service records despite the fact that there’s still a gap that’s unaccounted for, this particular story’s sails were sabotaged by the overstatement. I fear the damage is done now and the story will forevermore be about how wronged Schierbecker was in having his camera touched and in being denied access to people who asked that he step the hell off, rather than the story being about the black folks who are effectively under emotional and potentially physical siege by the systemic racism they’re facing at University of Missouri.
Once again, a white person’s metaphorically stubbing their toe takes precedence over a black person being assaulted.
And once again, a white person is swinging into action to defend and fix the PR problem that first white person caused. Then, that same white person is screwing things up by overstating the case, then walking it back.
And once again a white ally — because we’re, basically, the only people the white folks squabbling over what’s racist and what isn’t will ever listen to — has to lay everything out for easy consumption by white eyes.
I am so, so sorry that all of this is happening. I honestly feel every bit as betrayed by the parties involved in putting together this sham of an event as the folks at Skepticon, and the black folks who expected an actual Q&A from this session without having to take it by force.
I really need to put together a post about all the good that came out of Skepticon, and all the huge wins. I think Stephanie is putting something together now, but I have my own high points, so maybe I’ll make mine more personal and less event-specific.
EDIT: some grammar edits and clarifications added Wed, Nov 18, 11:45am CST. Likely more to come as I notice them.