Managing Anti-Social Behavior at Conventions: A Better Approach

07 Apr 2016 | Guest Poster

Guest article by Flip. Flip has been involved with furry and other fandoms since the late 1980s, running conventions since the mid 90s, and generally being an uberfan. He helps organize Furry Migration, which is held in Minneapolis.

This article is a companion and counterpoint to JM's recent article, Ideas on Anti-Social Behaviour at Furry Events.

It's odd when I find myself in such contrasting agreement and disagreement with an article at the same time. For the most part, I AGREE with JM's article in his goals and even parts of his methodology. However, I do not believe the use of "nudge" dynamics is the best approach. Nudge assumes a sort of passive aggressive control from the staff. Control should not the final goal; responsibility of membership should be the final goal. I am going to suggest a reframing of the argument to better meet this goal.

Let me start with this: I'm a long time convention attendee, event organizer, contract negotiator, and alternative lifestyle aficionado. I have been going to and running conventions ranging from anime, gaming, science fiction, furry, and alternate lifestyles—including LGBT, BDSM, and polyamory—for over 25 years. I have seen the spectrum, from what works well to utter collapse. I speak from experience.

I'm not here to be an expert on how people should enjoy their convention. I'm not here to say what is a correct furry experience; that is subjective. I'm not even here to suggest what is culturally appropriate; I respect the importance of art and free expression too much to try to restrain it unnecessarily. What I can speak to is a culmination of rules and lessons learned on how hotels and events run here in the Midwest United States, and some of the contract law/assumptions that govern them. I understand that staff at a convention feel obliged to manage their membership so as not to disrupt these sometimes delicate contacts and legal requirements. I also sympathize with members of the furry fandom, which if being true to a furry aesthetic, are more concerned with expressing themselves than second guessing whether their actions are always "socially acceptable".

This approach already seems to cause an issue with many furries. To some, I'm being too permissive, and actually encouraging "anti-social" behavior. To others, I'm being an "elite" fur because I'm defining do's and don'ts. Both of these accusations assume that I am trying to assert control, which is not my interest at all. If you feel that being furry means you are free to do whatever you like, I would answer; you ARE free to do what you want. But I, as convention organizer and an agent of a legal non-profit, WILL not support or defend your actions. I will distance your behavior from what has been established by the convention. The trick is knowing not IF you allowed something, but WHERE and HOW you are allowed to do things.

Before we proceed, I want to give example of what CAN be achieved if executed properly. I can cite several examples of events at conventions that were far more risqué than the issues cited by JM which caused problems:

  • "The 13th floor" of a local non furry convention, a responsible group established an area that was able to show a relatively full real life example of BDSM and polyamorous culture to those who wish to observe and even "sample" aspects of it. No significant legal or hotel issues were incurred, even though powers that be knew this event was occurring.
  • At a recent furry convention, a showing of Fritz the Cat was challenged by both the night manager at the hotel and (some) attendees. Citations of contract law, legal law, and artistic obligation showed not only why we could do it, but why we should do it.

My point is that organizers should not focus on the specific behavior, but rather the context of the behavior.

So what are the cardinal terms to understand? The difference between public vs. private areas. The difference between convention staff, the hotel, and convention membership. Finally, the different between engagement and enforcement.

Let's start with the first two terms. Conventions exist in that funny legal area where what is defined as public and what is defined as private is commonly blurred. I do not have space to show all the nuance here, but be aware what gets furs in trouble usually is doing things in a PUBLIC area instead of a PRIVATE area. Again, the issue is less the specific behavior but WHERE the behavior is conducted.

For example: you can be drunk, have sex, be nude, view adult material, etc, in a PRIVATE area, like a hotel room, but should be aware that such actions in a PUBLIC area (like a lobby), will be punished by the appropriate law. At a well run convention, the staff will know what areas are considered private and what areas are public. A convention attendee will often not know. But information like this is easy to access from staff: if in doubt, the membership must assume an area is PUBLIC unless they get clarification from authority.

With above being said, be aware of another often forgotten point: an illegal act performed in a "private" area is still illegal. (Yes, to acknowledge those libertarian legal scholars out there who love to cite castle laws, a private residence does have some discretion on enforcement law. But a hotel that rents a private space does not enjoy these protections.) Illegal drug use, underage sex or drinking, etc. is legally indefensible. A convention should not and will not defend you if there is a criminal act.

For example: there was a recent hoopla at a furry convention, where an incident that set of a safety alarm at a hotel required police attention. The convention was required, due to warrant and investigation, to disclose specific registration information. There was some outcry among furries that the convention should have withheld that information as "private". Nope, sorry: an illegal act is an illegal act, and a fiduciary requirement of a group is to aid an investigation. Yes, organizers do not disclose full lists or other data outside of a such an investigation request, and instead disclose only what is legally required.

Next part is the relationship between staff, the hotel, and the membership. Put most simply, a convention is an event where a collective of members is renting a space for private use from a hotel, negotiated and managed by staff. Understand there IS, initially, an adversarial arrangement here. Ideally, the best conventions are where staff manage a partnership between the hotel and the membership, but that is usually the result of many years of trust and hard work, providing a consistent positive outcome and low drama events. Many furs forget that almost ANY negative impact to the hotel will possibly kill this arrangement and thereby potentially kill the convention. To a hotel, there is no "minor incident" unless they want it that way. They have the power, we don't. They own the place, we don’t!

Any assertion along the lines of "they need our business" or "the convention can afford it" is simply wrong. Staff are there to best represent the interest of the membership for the convention, and request from the hotel the facilities necessary to make it happen. The only power is the power of the hotel, and legal authorities able to implement commerce and trespass law. Convention staff have very little authority.

This gets us to our last point: engagement vs enforcement. With a realistic understanding of how power flows, and who has final say on "anti-social" behavior, it seems easy to conclude that staff cannot enforce behavior. This statement is alien to most furry conventions, but is the basis of good relations for many conventions (including here in Minneapolis). Conventions do not run a security department, they run an operations department. The staff's job is not to enforce rules, but to establish the areas of the convention, both private and public, to best serve their membership. They then "remind" the attendee where these areas are, and the rules established by hotel that govern them.

Ultimately, convention staff is there to mostly identify and inform, not enforce. Furry Migration in Minneapolis uses a "wandering host" model instead of a security model. This approach ultimately dictates policy, contract negotiation, and finally implementation.

Let me give this long example; some conventions have a "no drinking policy" or “no parties" policy to correct antisocial behavior. This is a mistake. To put it bluntly, this is about as responsible as an abstinence-and-no-education policy to curb teen pregnancy; it simply does not work and will drive truly antisocial drinking behavior below the ability to monitor. Instead, staff should establish rules and areas where drinking may occur. The rules should be concurrent with the hotel policy or local law enforcement that govern them.

During a convention, your wandering host can regularly go by to check ID’s, curtail public drunkenness, etc. If this is not happening, engagement and a rehearsed policy of escalation are essential:

  • The host should identify the person(s) acting outside the rules, and remind them of the rules.
  • The host should make it clear that they are not enforcing rules, but are obliged to report any future issues to the staff and ultimately the hotel. Usually that is enough. It also makes the staff look less like cops but rather the good friend who holds you back before you get involved in a fight they know you can't win.
  • Further escalation varies depending on belligerence of the person(s) in question. The key is to make them keenly aware that the rules of hotel are tantamount, and that staff will not defend them if they persist in violating the agreement with hotel.
  • If the problematic person remains belligerent or irresponsible, your final recourse is to pull their badge and inform the hotel. This does two things. This highlights to the hotel that the organizers are self policing by identifying an individual membership violation of hotel agreement. And by pulling their badge, you are showing you do not agree or condone this behavior of said individual.
  • The moment the fur in question is NOT part of the membership; the room block discount/room placing rules allowing them to stay in the hotel are no longer legally binding. The hotel is now free to enforce whatever legal and economic punishment they have at their disposal.
  • In the end, the staff is not the bad guy (in the eyes of the convention membership) because they performed no enforcement function, just disclosure. The hotel may call actual law enforcement, knowing they have the support of their client, and knowing exactly what happened. They also know that responsible organizers reduce the risk of damage. This preserves the relationship between the hotel and the convention.
  • The problematic fur may complain. But if an individual fur negotiated with a hotel on their own to host an independent room party, the same response would have happened. The only difference is that the individual would have no intermediary to remind them that hotel enforcement is much worse than a friendly nudge.

As a follow-up, this is why I have such an issue with ghosting. Ghosting is trespassing! A hotel normally would not tolerate a random person—who is not a guest—wandering their halls. The hotel also has power over all occupants of a room that includes a ghost. So if a room has five people in it, and one is ghosting, commerce law dictates that it IS legally possible for a hotel to charge for, or displace, the entire room. In this case, the convention has no real reason to defend the occupants of the room because, if they did, they would be highlighting to future hotel negotiations they intend to allow all sorts of "extra" non membership people not outlined in the contract. Furs who cannot afford the cost of registration and/or a room simply cannot attend.

This last critique I wish to address is all of this makes convention staff seem to have "too much" power because they are the monopolistic gatekeepers with the hotel. Any well-run convention or event is likely to be a volunteer organization and as such is always open to new staff. If you wish to be part of it, put in the work. If you want to be part of the show, then show up to the planning meetings. I will say this; my own experience has shown less than a 10% retention of convention volunteers specific to working with hotel because it is hard and thankless work. I have a rule that I use at local conventions: you want the “glamour and prestige” of this job, please learn how to replace me. I'm very happy this last year I finally got replaced as programming head at Furry Migration: now I’m back at the hotel, trying to find my new replacement.

I'm hoping this article does aid others in how they view and manage "anti-social" behavior. Back in the day, RPG's, furry, homosexuality, etc were all considered anti-social - that hotels and other venues did not want to deal with. Over time, conventions showed they could be reliable and profitable clients. The issue is not always about behavior, but about how behavior is managed, and the relationship with the hotel in question. Convention staff and membership need to understand this balance if we are to go forward with larger, better, and maybe even more permissive events.