Last night, Noisebridge broke tradition and enacted an Anti-Harassment policy. Here's why that matters.
For the last five years, Noisebridge, one of the oldest hackerspaces in the country, has been run as a consensus-based anarchist collective that had just one rule: "Be excellent to one another." It's consensus-driven political process means that any major changes to the space that go beyond its typical "doocracy" have to be put up for consensus, a system in which a single member's refusal to agree can shut down an otherwise popular request. The consensus process is one that is not conducive to much in the way of governance, though this is of course generally viewed as more of a feature than a bug; it ensures that the space remain true to its anarchist roots.
Recently, this has become more and more problematic, as attempts to remove sexual predators from the space have been stymied by the presence of lone, oblivious members of the community who simply refuse to believe that someone they consider a friend might not be a friend to women in the space. The situation at Noisebridge has gotten so bad (alongside other issues such as dirtiness and homeless people living in the space) that long-time members went so far as to put in a proposal that Noisebridge seek to terminate its lease, presumably to then rebirth itself at a new location with tighter access control. Although it was clear that this proposal would never pass consensus, the decision was made that we would discuss the reasons why it was proposed, in the hopes of fixing the underlying issues in the future. By sheer luck, the meeting had been scheduled shortly after a feminist hacking event sponsored by Double-Union, a local feminist hackerspace, and as a result a large contingent of woman hackers was present. Stories pretty quickly came out about why so many were willing to let the space die.
I've been spending time at Noisebridge for the last year, and in that time, I've been harassed by multiple people on many different occasions, almost always with members present. Never once has a member intervened or spoken up on my behalf: not when Weev called me a cunt or made anti-semitic, anti-mormon, anti-woman, anti-gay jokes loudly in the space, not when someone loudly (and descriptively) told me about the "sluts" they double-penetrated the night before, not when an individual (upon seeing me about to leave the space on my Powerisers) declared "I love your stilts. I'm going to make you my bride and then those will be mine" before slapping my ass as I was leaving just a few weeks ago. The closest thing I have felt to supported in the space was when one individual decided to doocratically paint over the bathroom wall, which at the time was covered in images of maimed and broken crying women with enormous tits and waists so thin they would make Barbie jealous. It has become abundantly clear to most women in the space that "Be Excellent" has failed us.
Any other night, the telling of these stories would simply have been an explanation of why we were willing to let go of Noisebridge, why we were ready to withdraw from the community, but that night we had just come from a room full of interesting, engaging, awesome feminist hackers, and I had sitting in my email a very clear anti-harassment policy that had been created by the good folks at the +Ada Initiative
and the ladies of Double Union. Once the dust had settled, we made a proposal: to adopt an anti-harassment policy, post it visibly in the space, and empower members to remove the toxic elements from the community, without having to go through the consensus process to do so. The policy we proposed is as follows:Noisebridge is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of people at our events or space in any form. Sexual language and imagery should be only be used for positive purposes in accordance with best practices advocated by professional sex educators (if you’re not sure what those are, don’t do it). People violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the space or the event at the discretion of any Noisebridge member.Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. People asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately."
The key strength of the policy is that it allows a member to kick someone out, without requiring consensus to do so. This prevents the situation we've sadly been dealing with in which individuals regularly block attempts to remove predators from the space, but brought some concerns about evidence and the possibility of innocent people being excluded. The policy did pass (provisionally), but not without objection. The arguments against it were the standard ones: free speech, false accusations, and straight-up denial of there being a problem at all. A few people expressed concerns about the possibility of the policy being used in retaliatory ways (the old "false-rape accusations" argument), including Monad, the lone member who threatened to block. He, of course is responsible for perhaps the best quote of the night: "The first sentence is fine.....the rest of it is just stupid to me."
Monad was demonstrating exactly the problem Noisebridge has had for years. He was fine with the idea
of there being a policy, with saying "Noisebridge is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience," but he balked at the idea of defining what harassment was or creating any system by which it could be dealt with. In short, he wanted to simply be able to say "be excellent" and have it happen, but wasn't willing to accept that for some things, specifics are needed.
Some arguments, especially those that erupted on twitter after Leif Ryge, a Noisebridge member, tweeted his displeasure about the policy , centered on the idea that it was tantamount to censorship, banning "sexual imagery and language." Of course, Leif's tweet was misleading, as the policy doesn't ban sexual language & imagery entirely, just mandates that "Sexual language and imagery should be only be used for positive purposes." It's a far cry from the "censorship" that some people are claiming this represents.
In the end, we weren't able to convince Monad from backing down on his threat to block, a position he justified by claiming that the policy might be used alongside false accusations as a way of removing people you don't like from the space, so we settled on a compromise: to pass the measure with an expiration date, so that we could have a few months to tweak the language, perfect it and smooth out any issues, and see whether or not any of these "false accusations" that are so often the favorite arguments of rape apologists actually occurred. To those of you that believe that the policy is needed, but needs some tweaking, I hope that you will use the time between now and January to iron out the details and come back with an even better policy: one that makes it clear that harassment is not acceptable behavior in the space, that still has teeth, and that can draw clear lines and boundaries that ensure that unwanted sexual attention is unacceptable while perhaps approaching the issue from a slightly more sex-positive standpoint.