On Getting Choked, Journalism, Racism, and Rebellion

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A few weeks ago I went to “Into the Grave”, a festival in the Netherlands. Despite being fully accredited as a journalist, I was kicked out and beaten by their security guards for the unforgivable offense of doing basic journalism about misogyny and racism. And even though the experience itself was traumatic (besides beating me, one of their thugs choked me and kept me from breathing for a dangerously long time) I’m not sure that was the worst part

Almost a year ago I published an article dealing with leaked chats between members of Alestorm and Gloryhammer where they exhibited misogynistic and racist attitudes towards their fans. Besides singer Chris Bowes referring to black fans as “niggers” and “coons”, it showed what at the time I referred to as “men in their 30’s competing over how many barely-legal teenagers they can bed while on tour, while at the same time demonstrating an absolute lack of respect or concern for those women.” I stand by those words.

My disgust at their words and behavior had little to do with virtue-signaling or with being “woke” (although both terms have virtually become meaningless now), but rather with the knowledge and experience that comes from working with victims of racism and sexual assault. I’ve personally met (and even reported on) women who have been victims of the “women are disposable” attitude exhibited by some musicians and, as part of an immigrant community, I’m painfully aware of how discrimination and xenophobia affect lives. This doesn’t mean I’m an activist, or some wonderful person exuding social-consciousness; it only means that I have a personal connection to these topics, and I care enough to use my time reporting on them.

When the story about the leaked chats broke, what we saw was a replay of the kind of tropes and stereotypes that populate misogynistic discourse. “All guys talk like that!”, “Boys will be boys!”, “They’re just jokes!”, and “Girls backstage should know what they’re in for” seemed to be the preferred defenses by people who, by wording their excuses like that, betrayed exactly the kind of people that they themselves were. The kind of man who sees women as notches in a bedpost and who has no problem with women being treated in such a repulsive manner. Guys who, objectively, see no problem in having sex with a woman and then calling her a “nigger” and a “coon”, whose “big lips” are “good for a blowy” in front of his barely-literate collection of imbecilic friends.

The “Elliot” referred to by Chris is Elliot Vernon, keyboardist of Alestorm.

At the time Chris Bowes  published a couple of apologies acknowledging the existence of these conversations (none of the others did), and promising to “educate” himself or some similarly nebulous term. Exactly what kind of education he and the rest of his band-mates required to know that this type of behavior is unacceptable was (and remains) unclear. What we do know, however, is that both of those apologies have since disappeared into the ether. He deleted his pathetic hand-written apology from his Instagram and, at least as I write this, his apology on his own website has also gone away.

Chris Bowes’ heartfelt Instagram apology today

It was the disappearance of those apologies that motivated me to find out more about him and his bands’ attitudes towards women. I was also curious about the free pass that he has gotten from the “scene”, facing virtually no backlash for his and his friends’ behaviors. It really seemed like the kind of absolutely basic journalistic inquiry that anybody with an interest in the metal community should be able to make, and which should really surprise nobody. I was clearly mistaken in that assumption.

Enter Into the Grave and Loud Noise Productions, their parent company,

Knowing what happened to me at Into the Grave, it might be easy to think that my intention was to disrupt the festival. Quite the opposite. Just a few days before the festival took place, as they loudly lamented their poor ticket sales, I made a Facebook post telling people about it and about how they should get their tickets and go. Hardly the actions of someone trying to sabotage an event. My intention, as always, was to merely check the festival, hang out with friends, and then publish some nice photos of their artists, together with an article where I’d probably question their choice of headlining acts. Out of principle I had decided not to shoot Alestorm or Gloryhammer, and had even made dinner plans with another photographer to get a pizza while Alestorm were playing their headliner slot. Photographing a band takes time, and I didn’t think their show was worthy of mine.

My plans changed by pure serendipity. As I was walking towards the festival, and by pure chance, I ran into Chris Bowes himself. Unable to let this opportunity pass, I asked him whether he hated all black people or just women, but didn’t get much of an answer. He did seem shocked and appalled that I quoted him verbatim when I asked him “do you call all women coons and niggers?“, a question that I still consider valid. Probably a better question would have been “why did you delete all of your apologies?” or “you promised to ‘make amends’ for your ‘hurtful behavior,’ what have these amends consisted on?”, but my ‘planning’ for the questions had taken all of 10 seconds.

Alestorm (L-R) Elliot Vernon, Garret Murdock, Chris Bowes, Mate Fodor (Photo by Elliot Vernon, used under a Creative Commons License)

My encounter with Chris changed my intentions somewhat, particularly when I found out that both Gloryhammer and Alestorm were doing signing sessions at the festival. Not only had the festival and its collaborators given them good time slots for their shows (probably because, due to their financial constraints, they couldn’t afford any good bands for that day) but they were also rewarding and celebrating them in this manner. This seemed wrong, and I wanted to know why they were doing it.

At this point I think it’s important to clarify a couple of things. You can listen to whatever you want, and you can go to whatever show you want. Listening to Alestorm doesn’t make you a racist misogynist anymore than listening to Burzum makes you a racist sociopath. BUT if you are running a festival you should at least be ready to answer questions about why you act in a certain way, and what kind of message you are sending out by doing so. What are you telling women and minorities when these are the bands that you honor and celebrate? What environment are you creating for those in attendance?

This was the question I wanted answered when I approached the signing tent that the festival and the magazine Metalfan.nl had set up. I had no intention of disrupting anybody else’s festival experience, let alone preventing a kid from getting autographs or selfies, whatever I might think of their personal taste, so I waited until the signing sessions were over and only the organizers were left. I identified myself as a journalist and asked (thankfully this is all on video) “why are you holding signing sessions for bands that refer to their fans as niggers and coons?“. Incredibly  (as in it actually defies credulity) the person there said that they did not know about the story (even though it was reported pretty much everywhere when it happened, and this was supposed to be a journalist). I left the signing tent and went to have dinner with some friends.

Then it all went to hell.

After spending time with my friends, as I made my way to photograph Destruction, my last band for the day, I started to be followed and harassed by the security staff of the festival. One of them demanded I give them my ID, which I obviously rejected as the unlawful demand that it was. I photographed Destruction for a bit before a whole lot of security guards grabbed me and pulled me out by a side door next to the stage. I barely managed to get them to let me get my things, seeing that I had another camera and all of my gear still in my backpack.

One of their thugs ripped off my festival wristband, scratching my arm in the process, and told me I was blacklisted and not allowed to be there. At this point I had a few scratches on my wrist, and I had been treated with a kind of aggression that was not justified by anything I had done, so I wanted to document what was happening. I pulled out my phone, started recording, and asked the guards to tell me their names. That’s when they started to beat me, one of them hit me in the stomach, another one hit me in the mouth, and one of them put me in a chokehold.

Here it is important to remember that I had not hit any of these people, nor had I been aggressive towards anyone at the festival. I can certainly take ownership of being an annoying person and asking annoying questions, but neither of those traits warrants or justifies getting beaten. They also don’t justify or warrant the racist slurs that these thugs used against me (I heard “kut buitenlander” or “fucking foreigner” plenty of times during the beating), or the fact that one of them constricted my windpipe for a dangerously long time, only stopping thanks to the timely intervention of another guard who heard me wheeze out a cry for help. There’s a reason why more and more police departments have banned the use of chokeholds: they are an extremely dangerous way of restraining a person, since they can easily kill them. And all of this, it bears repeating, because I tried to film the security guards kicking me out of a festival.

If it wasn’t because the police were called (I expressly demanded that they call them, although they might have called them already because I was now “blacklisted” and had to be removed) I sincerely believe these people would have done much worse to me. The same racist thug that choked me demanded that I delete all the footage I had recorded, but by then I had already forwarded it to a friend so there was nothing they could do to make that go away. He and the other guards also demanded to know the names of anybody else I knew at the festival, but I refused to comply and put those people at risk. I have not heard from most of those other journalists, fans, and photographers since the events took place, but I know they’re safe. That’s enough for me.

The police took me to the police station, where I spent the night, and was told that I had been accused of being in the festival unlawfully (I had my accreditation and the emails I exchanged with the festival to prove otherwise) and that I had apparently hurt a security guard’s pinky finger. How exactly I’m supposed to have hurt his pinky finger is questionable, although my theory is that, if at all, this happened when he hit me in the mouth as he must have scratched himself with my teeth.

Chokeholds (like the one I experienced) and even carotid restraints have been banned around the world as a restraint due to their inherent danger (Source: San Diego Union Tribune)

All of this was pretty bad, but we’ll manage. I have an attorney, and it’s my intention to ensure that these violent, racist, thugs do not get to do this to anybody else ever again. We will find out exactly what they were told to do, and why they were told to do it. We have a legal fund to pursue this to its full extent, and you’re more than welcome to pitch in if you’re so inclined. Any excess funds will go to the Committee to Protect Journalists and/or Reporters Without Borders (neither of which are associated with me or approve my actions in any way, shape or form) so I stand to make absolutely no profit from this fundraising endeavor. I just don’t want anybody else, particularly journalists, getting hurt for doing their job.

As traumatic as this episode was (and I use “traumatic” in its medical sense) it was only the beginning of one of the most painful experiences of my life. While the majority of people were supportive, those “in the business”, even if they were willing to support me in private, were happy to remain silent in public. People were not willing to risk their access to shows or their connection with promoters, and were instead happy to just look the other way, even as they privately admitted the fact that what happened was wrong: A journalist was beaten, choked, and the target of racist abuse for asking questions about racism and misogyny.

The hate mail I’ve received since the event has not been surprising nor, if I’m honest, has it been very significant. The only aspect of it that has been shocking is the number of people who sincerely seem to believe that security guards at an event are empowered to do whatever they want against the people in attendance. The number of victim-blaming messages saying that, in one way or another, “I had it coming” for asking annoying questions was surprising. They were all metal fans, of course, clad in denim vests covered in patches against Christianity and “authority”, but who revealed themselves to only be willing to rebel in cosmetic terms. The minute they saw a boot coming down, they were just happy to lick it. “Non Serviam“, unless refusing to submit and obey puts them in danger. No, security guards are not allowed to hurt you just because you’re annoying.

It is this aftermath that has been the most difficult part for me. To see how many people are happy to live in hiding in order to protect their bottom line has been truly depressing. And although I wish I could say this is the first time I’ve experienced such a disillusionment from people close to me in the face of injustice, the truth is that I’ve been here before. As an immigrant, every time I have experienced discrimination I have been told that, in one way or another, it was my fault. Whether it was when houses were not rented to me because the owner didn’t want “foreigners” living in them, or when an employer told me about how he knew the “risks of hiring foreigners”, there has always been a chorus of useful idiots happy to tell me that I’m just too militant, too sensitive, and too damn proud to just accept my position in my adopted society. I sincerely hope that I never see life the way they do.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable and safe at a show in the Netherlands again, or whether I’ll ever feel like a part of this country’s “metal community”. Let’s be honest: what I did was not exactly Watergate-worthy reporting, so it’s scary to think what would have happened to me if what I was reporting on was really serious. What if I had been asking questions about sexual abuse? What if somebody wanted to ask questions about why an organization uses violent thugs to beat up journalists? Will they get choked? Will they get beaten? Will they get killed?

I want to tell myself that not everything is lost and that rebellious, adversarial journalism still has a place in this scene of ours, but experience has taught me otherwise. It seems to me like the vast majority of people are just happy to regurgitate press releases, publish reaction videos, and give whatever favorable coverage is needed in order to get the chance to take selfies with b-list celebrities. They want to feel famous by proxy, basking in the reflected glory of the musicians they interact with, or bragging about the number of shows they attend for free. That’s not enough for me and, if you’ve made it this far, I hope it’s not enough for you either. It’s a lonely pursuit, I know, but the alternative is to just be a mindless drone, happy to wear a pentagram amulet and whatever non-threatening symbol you can find, and just lick whatever boot hangs precariously above you.

This is a path where I have found myself alone before. I was alone when I defended Varg Vikernes for his unjust imprisonment for speech crimes; I was alone when I went after Arch Enemy for their bullying tactics against photographers (in which, by the way, they were assisted by Loud Noise Productions); and I seem to find myself alone in this one, like an overweight Quixote charging against windmills. But it’s OK.

I don’t need a seconder,” said Christopher Hitchens in one of his most memorable talks. “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this, can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.

That is Non Serviam.

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