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From Texas to DC, Artists and DIY Spaces Struggle with Permits and Trolls

After the deadly Ghost Ship fire, internet trolls have tried to get DIY art spaces around the country shut down by calling in bogus safety code violations.

A concert by the band Cheap Haitcuts at 1919 Hemphill in 2015 (photo by Madison Gostkowski/Flickr)
A concert by the band Cheap Haitcuts at 1919 Hemphill in 2015 (photo by Madison Gostkowski/Flickr)

Before 1919 Hemphill was shut down in December, the venue had always passed its annual fire inspections. So when the Fort Worth fire marshal received seven anonymous complaints about the space in a 48-hour period, the volunteers who run the DIY music venue and community space were surprised and confused. They quickly discovered that the anonymous complaints had come not from concerned community members or even angry neighbors but from anonymous internet trolls looking to exploit concerns about safety in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire to target DIY arts spaces. In Fort Worth, the increased attention brought on by the complaints revealed that 1919 Hemphill’s Certificate of Occupancy had expired. The organizers were told that they would need to complete repairs and get a new Certificate of Occupancy before being allowed to re-open.

The troll campaign against DIY music venues and live/work artists’ spaces that caused the closure of 1919 Hemphill emerged from /pol/, a 4Chan message board ostensibly devoted to politics and current events, but known more as a cesspool of meme-ified Nazi symbols, racial epithets, and extremist right wing activity. After getting booted from /pol/ by 4Chan moderators, the threads moved to 8Chan, and then to a private chat app called Discord. The reactionary politics of the online campaign are explicit, disturbing, and wholly unsurprising. “These places illegally house our enemies,” one anonymous user writes, before encouraging readers to “EVICT LIBERAL RADICALISM.” One of the earliest anonymous posts ends: “MAGA my brothers and happy hunting,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. The anonymous posters adopted the name “Right Wing Safety Squad” — SS for short — and posted memes incorporating Nazi symbolism. They found lists online of DIY spaces across the country and scoured Facebook for venue names, addresses, and, in some cases, images of specific venues, using the information to call in anonymous complaints in an attempt to get spaces shut down over fire code violations and permitting issues.

A 4Chan thread in which internet trolls discuss trying to get DIY art spaces shut down (screenshot by the author)
A 4Chan thread in which internet trolls discuss trying to get DIY art spaces shut down (screenshot by the author)

While trolls in the message boards were eager to take credit for a spate of recent closures, it’s difficult to confirm how many can actually be attributed to the campaign. After the Ghost Ship fire, DIY spaces were already bracing for a crackdown, anticipating that the tragedy would draw the attention of local officials to similar spaces in their cities. In Baltimore, the closure of the Bell Foundry happened on December 5, just three days after the fire in Oakland and before the threads on 4Chan seem to have started. The closure of Burnt Ramen, a legendary DIY music venue in Richmond, California, took place after Richmond’s Mayor Tom Butt released a statement referring to that venue, by name, as “Richmond’s Ghost Ship,” suggesting that the city was already planning a response. In San Francisco, artists, musicians, and dancers in a live/work space in Bernal Heights received an eviction notice a few days after the Oakland fire. Tenants told the San Francisco Chronicle that they believed the heightened concern about un-permitted live/work spaces simply offered a convenient way for their landlord to push them out — he had filed for permits last July to build a $7-million, 49-unit apartment building where the warehouse currently stands.

While it may be difficult to judge how many of the recent arts space closures can be directly attributed to trolling efforts, the feeling of being targeted has, understandably, left many venue organizers angry and frustrated. In Athens, Georgia, the organizers of JokerJoker, a DIY venue, also found their home on a list of targets. Although they haven’t heard from any local officials, organizer Muz Blank says they are taking a break from holding public shows while they make repairs and research relevant regulations. In the meantime, Blank expressed frustration that their activities would make them a target. “This was not about making money, it wasn’t about overthrowing the government, and it certainly wasn’t anything that would hurt anyone,” Blank told Hyperallergic. “We simply produced art and shared it with the community.”

A concert at Burnt Ramen in Richmond, California, in 2012 (photo by Miles Gehm/Flickr)
A concert at Burnt Ramen in Richmond, California, in 2012 (photo by Miles Gehm/Flickr)

The names and locations of several Washington, DC venues were included in the trolls’ list of targets, but none of the complaints have resulted in closures. An occupant of one house venue told Washingtonian magazine that DC Fire and EMS officials they spoke with described the complaints they received as “ridiculous.” Despite the lack of closures, DIY organizers in DC are expressing a higher level of caution, indicating they may reconsider how much information they post about their venues online. Both traditional and DIY venues in DC were already on edge after months of harassment aimed at local restaurant and music venue Comet Ping Pong, as well as many artists and musicians with connections to the venue. That harassment campaign is driven by the Wikileaks-inspired, 4Chan and Reddit-driven, anti-Clinton conspiracy theory known as #Pizzagate and emerges from many of the same dark corners of the internet that host the Right Wing Safety Squad threads. The fear that online threats stemming from the #Pizzagate conspiracy might result in violence was affirmed on December 5, when a gunman arrived in DC to “self-investigate” Comet Ping Pong.

This atmosphere of caution was certainly a factor for artists Eames Armstrong and John Moletress when they found threads discussing their works and musing on their possible connections to the thoroughly debunked conspiracy on Voat, a site that now hosts some of the #Pizzagate conspiracists banned by Reddit and 4Chan. The artists were preparing for an exhibition at Flashpoint, a gallery in downtown DC, and the opening was scheduled to take place a week before Trump’s inauguration. The artists informed CulturalDC, the nonprofit that runs Flashpoint, about the threads and, after a discussion about their options, CulturalDC’s staff made the decision to hire armed security guards for the exhibition opening. While the threads they found about their work don’t compare to the vile abuse and harassment some of her friends have received because of #Pizzagate, Armstrong described reading the discussions of her work and Moletress’s, in the context of the conspiracy, as chilling and invasive. Their show, Perversion Therapy, was scheduled long before the election’s outcome was known. But, in the current political environment, Armstrong says, the artists were approaching the show as a celebration of queerness and a self-conscious rebuke to the explicitly anti-LGBT people who are coming to DC with the new administration. Given the queerphobia underpinning #Pizzagate, the fear that the show might attract attention from the conspiracy’s remaining believers seemed reasonable.

A concert at the Bell Foundry in Baltimore in 2012 (photo by James Blucher/Flickr)
A concert at the Bell Foundry in Baltimore in 2012 (photo by James Blucher/Flickr)

In the United States, the culture wars have often descended into harassment, vilification, and targeting of particular artists. Jesse Helms famously called Andres Serrano a jerk on the floor of the Senate. David Wojnarowicz successfully sued the American Family Association and its leader, Reverend Donald Wildmon, after the group used cropped images from his work in an inflammatory pamphlet that was sent to members of Congress. The internet allows for a more intimate culture war, one in which even artists who are relatively unknown beyond their immediate communities can find their work, their identities, their spaces, and their lives picked apart — not by politicians trying to foment public outrage, but by extremist trolls whose own sense of community comes from teaming up to harass, vilify, and threaten strangers, especially queer people, women, and people of color. The number of individuals involved in these harassment campaigns may be relatively small, but the reach they can have, amplified by technology and emboldened by the tacit approval of newly powerful individuals, creates a broader chill that feels like a warning. “This is a completely different city, a completely different country,” as Armstrong told Hyperallergic, adding that the harassment campaigns are “a really visible sign of this.”

Back in Fort Worth, 1919 Hemphill held a successful fundraising campaign, gathering more than $10,000 for building upgrades. They’ve also applied to become an official 501c3 nonprofit and began the paperwork to apply for the appropriate Certificate of Occupancy. They anticipate re-opening by the end of March. In Washington, DC, the opening of Perversion Therapy went on as planned, complete with a spirited and participatory performance by Moletress. Two armed guards conducted bag searches at the front door and another was stationed at the back of the gallery, observing the crowd. A few attendees asked Armstrong if the bag searches were part of a performance piece.

In the meantime, most of the DIY spaces that were shuttered in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire — the Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Rhinoceropolis in Denver, Burnt Ramen in Richmond, the Glass Mènage and Drkmttr in Nashville, Flux Capacitor in Colorado Springs, and Purple 33 in Los Angeles, among many others — remain closed. While the chaos and upheaval of Trump’s first 10 days in office has grabbed the spotlight, attention to the fate of these spaces has faded, even as the fight to preserve DIY arts spaces — and the freedom they give artists to work and live in safety — only becomes more urgent.

John Moletress performance during the opening of <em>Perversion Therapy</em> at Flashpoint in Washington, DC (photo by and courtesy Tony Hitchcock)
John Moletress performance during the opening of Perversion Therapy at Flashpoint in Washington, DC (photo by and courtesy Tony Hitchcock)
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