Update: Club member Steven "Kit" Hagen addresses the concept of disruptive art in this week's Back Page for Style.
A young black man says he was thrown out of a Shockoe Bottom club after he tried to tear down a sign that used the N-word to proclaim that blacks weren't allowed.
It happened Saturday during a doomsday-themed party at Fallout, a private, alternative, fetish-themed club on 18th Street.
Several attendees of the annual event say they were jarred by decorations that included racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic messages. Other signs featured swastikas and an epithet telling gays to "go home."
While previous years focused on zombies and raptures, attendees say the apparent intent this year was to portray "some kind of unspecified intolerant apocalypse."
The club, which takes pride in being accepting of views outside the mainstream, is standing by the decorations as art, saying that the signs and symbols were part of a temporary art piece representing a world in social collapse.
"This piece is purely representative of what a post-apocalyptic world might look like, and is meant to be viewed as nothing more than that," says the statement, sent by the club's business manager, Jackie Bishop Wells. "It does not represent the feelings or beliefs of the staff, management, owners, affiliates or members of this establishment.
"A misunderstanding between two customers regarding this particular installation led to an act of violence. The aggressor in this situation was asked to leave for the safety of our members and their guests."
The man who tore the sign down, speaking on the condition that he isn't named, says a bouncer immediately kicked him out. Afterward, he says, several club members followed him outside where they argued with him.
"They just tried to make it sound like it wasn't a big deal," he says. "Obviously they are trying to cover up the fact that it's obviously racist as fuck."
The club is open to the public on weeknights and members and their guests on weekends, according to Fallout's website. The club says that it encourages discussion of a variety of social issues:
"In many events at Fallout, we consider the entire evening to be a large scale audience participation performance art event. In these events, and others, we address and challenge, to varying degrees, many issues and topics, including but not limited to: social issues, politics, age, gender, religion, lifestyle, subculture, race, current events, cultural stereotypes and sexual awareness issues."
A fetish club inevitably is going to hold events that certain people find offensive, members note. But they differ on whether this party went too far.
"Fallout has nothing to apologize for," a member wrote on the club's Facebook page. "It's not their fault one person out of a hundred didn't 'get it.'"
"THAT GUY, had issuez," wrote another. "There's always one in the crowd."
Other members expressed concern. "Obviously what happened was not OK," Rose Hart wrote in an email to Style. "Some of us chose to ignore it, and some of us seemed more offended by the kid taking down one cardboard sign than they were by a regular who threw meat all over the club later in the evening.
"If we want our community to be welcoming to new people, especially new queer people and people of color, do we really want this to be how we advertise during our biggest party of the year?"
Jonathan Zur, the president of Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, says similar parties seem to make news every year, though typically they're on college campuses. Last year, for example, a Randolph-Macon College fraternity encouraged party guests to dress like "illegal Mexicans."
Zur says he's surprised club members would think their racist apocalypse decorations wouldn't offend. And the club's intent doesn't matter, he says.
"Whether or not I meant to offend someone, that person can still be offended," Zur says. "If I focus just on my intention, I miss the opportunity to truly understand the impact of my action.
"Ultimately, no matter the intention, the use of offensive words and symbols has no place in a diverse and inclusive community."
In regards to Doomsday:
In many events at Fallout, we consider the entire evening to be a large scale audience participation performance art event. In these events, and others, we address and challenge, to varying degrees, many issues and topics, including but not limited to: social issues, politics, age, gender, religion, lifestyle, subculture, race, current events, cultural stereotypes and sexual awareness issues.
A temporary graffiti art piece representing a world in social collapse was created by a group of people during the inception of this event. Throughout the years the content of this piece changes slightly but the representation of society in degradation, with no moral construct or rules, remains the same. This piece is purely representative of what a post-apocalyptic world might look like, and is meant to be viewed as nothing more than that. It does not represent the feelings or beliefs of the staff, management, owners, affiliates or members of this establishment.
A misunderstanding between two customers regarding this particular installation led to an act of violence. The aggressor in this situation was asked to leave for the safety of our members and their guests.
If you have any questions or comments regarding the fundamental concepts of Fallout, please feel free to contact a member of management.
I’d like to say, first and foremost, that I love Fallout. Richmond’s only serious goth and fetish club is one of the first places I felt safe expressing my queerness, my kinkiness, my gender identity. They elected a transwoman as Miss Fallout in 2010. They had an explicit “no touching without consent” policy. They had a mixed drink named after the community’s favorite lesbian couple. I knew that these were the kind of people I could be safe around, people who got it. And so it pains me to say what I have to say next.
What happened there on Saturday night makes me question whether I ever want to go back again.
For those of you who don’t know the story:
1. It was Doomsday, a local favorite event that brings in a lot of new people every year. It’s an End of the World party, with lots of dancing and craziness. A great time all around.
2. The theme this year was some kind of unspecified Intolerant Apocalypse. In past years, themes have included raptures and zombies. This year, the theme appeared to be something along the lines of Fourth Reich. It’s unclear whether or not the club’s owners and employees knew about this in advance, but volunteering regulars made the decorations, including several signs.
3. Normally when the club does events that might be...uh, scary for some people, they advertise heavily what the theme of that night is going to be. If it’s medical play night, they plaster up some warnings. It’s a fetish club, of course it’s going to have themes that not everyone is comfortable with. But…
4. This is a big event that brings in a lot of new people. And the website did not make it clear beforehand what the theme of this year’s event was going to be. So…
5. People showed up, and were surprised. And not in a good way. Signs on the walls (not claimed by any one particular person, but written in advance by volunteers) included:
-Fags go home
-Cooking with Jews
-And the kicker: No N*******s allowed.
6. Some kid tore down the No N*******s sign.
7. He got thrown out, and the sign went back up, but backwards so that the words couldn’t be seen.
8. Some people followed him next door to a second club.
9. There was a yelling match in the street, with the one kid surrounded by several Fallout regulars.
10. Luckily, no one was hurt. No police were involved, as far as I could tell.
In the aftermath of this incident, I’m not necessarily sure what we as a community can do, moving forward, to improve the situation. Obviously, what happened was not okay, nor was it handled well by us, the regulars. Some of us chose to ignore it, and some of us seemed more offended by the kid taking down one cardboard sign than they were by a regular who threw meat all over the club later in the evening. This suggests to me that the problem was not the act of destruction, since acts of minor destruction are par for the course on crazy anarchic party nights. What this was about was people’s resistance to any critique of a sign that was, frankly, hurtful and scary.
We as a community need to do better. I know that we can, because I’ve seen us do better in the past. If we have tensions on the brain following the recent rash of racially-motivated hate crimes and police actions, we need to not take it out on each other--or at the very least we need to warn people when we’re about to throw a party with fascist police state implications, because some people don’t want to go to that. There’s been some suggestion to me that each of these signs was written by someone who can legitimately state that they are reclaiming the slur. And that’s certainly better than the alternative. But there are people from outside our community who don’t know that some of us are gay, that some of us are black, that some of us are jewish. They’re walking into a place they heard was cool and safe and seeing hateful writing on the walls, in a dark bar where they don’t know anyone. Again, this is the blowout night, when new people come in. If we want our community to be welcoming to new people, especially new queer people and people of color, do we really want this to be how we advertise during our biggest party of the year?
And further, Fallout (like any club) has a few unsavory characters who genuinely believe this stuff. Putting it up on the walls indicates to them that they’re right, and that we all are secretly thinking this way. And the next time they say or do something racist, or homophobic, they’re going to assume the whole club has their back. Let’s not give them any grounds for believing that. We put ourselves out there as a tolerant community, a safe place to do the freaky stuff you want to do. Let’s make sure we live up to that reputation.