The contents of this post were originally meant as a response by members of the Noisebridge community to recent shocking revelations documented in the news, and which I began drafting during a flight on June 2nd centered around many of my conflicting emotions (most of which I was still processing). The draft went through many iterations and edits were provided by a number of amazing folks both inside and outside of the Noisebridge group. It eventually evolved into a (very long) message that all of us agreed had lost relevance as a post for Noisebridge. Appropriately the draft was scratched and a new (shorter) one formed by those involved later posted on June 10th.
I’ve decided for my personal health and sanity to continue writing out the original draft (in addition to all the helpful edits provided) and post it here. The people coming forward (semi) publicly with their stories of mistreatment, misconduct, abuse and harassment are more courageous and powerful than many of us who’ve mostly sat around in silence turning a blind eye when these activities occurred. That has been my motivation to write this out and release it. It’s a combination of an oral history of Noisebridge, and my personal feelings orbiting around certain events both recent and in the past. I’ll keep comments on this post open and unmoderated until I have reason to delete and close them out. Thank you.
Hi there. My name is Rubin and I’m a founding member of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge. I’m also a Middle Eastern cis-male queer who supports feminism and many grounding aspects of anarchism. I’m haphazardly drafting up this while traveling to a wedding in a sculpture park, participating in Toorcamp, and going through a bit of recovery after some voluntary surgery.
I’m writing this post partially because I want to get a bunch of really complicated feelings out of my heart and head (many of which I’m still processing, feeling negatively about, and will need time to stew), but mostly I felt the need for the community to make a little bit of a statement about who we (Noisebridge) are today and less of what we were in the past. This post contains the combined contributions of a number of different hackers currently active within our community, I deeply thank them for their help.
Noisebridge got started around 2006 because a bunch of really dedicated folks decided that San Francisco needed a space similar to some of the older hackerspaces found in Germany, Austria, and the rest of Europe. Our desires were to construct a space built upon anarchist roots, not clouded by rules or process. A space to feel safe while being excellent to one another and hacking the planet, a space in which all would be welcomed. I remember the night I was invited to dinner by some friends who had returned from a winter trip to Germany, shooting this extremely preposterous idea at me. I told them it was silly and would give it a year before it burned to the ground.
A lot has happened over the past decade. We’ve sent objects into space and back again (and had a competing internal space race). Our community fostered local activism and helped support the Occupy Movement. Through some dedicated volunteers we launched a successful program to transform money into internet freedom while footing the NSA/FBI/CIA occasional visits’ bill.
We’ve given away access to our space to thousands and thousands of people around the world, some of whom visit every day, and some of whom still have a key but haven’t visited yet. We’ve welcomed people of all shapes, sizes, colors, socioeconomic backgrounds, and education levels to share, create, and participate, with a truly unprecedented level of unconditional acceptance. Our high-minded ethic of “inclusiveness” stood in stark contrast to that of many other hackerspaces and collectives, and we defended it zealously.
We also unwittingly created an environment for some really horrible things to occur.
In this dark era, visitors abused the space as a homeless shelter and drug den. Harassment was rampant and thefts of personal items happened routinely. The space became unwelcoming and unsafe for many.
Many of the people most heavily involved in the space during these times allowed for some truly wrong things to happen – largely in defense of our stated ideals, such as what we believed “inclusiveness” and anarchy to mean. Some individuals worked hard to improve the space any way they could, but their efforts were run ragged by the much more powerful inertia of the community norms we ourselves had put in place.
Most importantly, our interpretation of what we believed inclusiveness meant at the time, and how consensus and do-ocracy work, led us to feel that our hands were tied. It was early at this point that I reached burn-out and needed a break from the space. In addition to me the space lost many good people to this dark time, causing us to call sharply in question the meaning of “inclusiveness”. Trolls just ate it up.
And in the midst of this darkness, about 2 or 3 years ago, a new group of enthusiastic hackers stepped in. Having seen the space at its greatest and its lowest points, the new wave started a concerted effort to redefine and re-envision our core ideals. We cut away all our previous attempts at policy and punishment-based behavioral control, and found greater self-regulation and positivity in a highly Anarchist, do-ocratic cultural practice of continually reaffirming What We Want, and identifying and refusing to accept What We Don’t Want.
With this historically-informed approach and a lot of hard work, our community and our space have again flourished. Good people we thought we’d lost to chronic harassment and frustration have come back to hack, like unicorn sea otters coming back to live in a healthy forest of rainbow kelp. I’m proud to say that I find Noisebridge a safe space to hack in again and don’t feel ashamed talking with friends about it. There’s always room for improvement, but the general “lowercase-c” consensus is that we’re going in the right direction.
Because of the dynamic range of shit we’ve had to endure as a community over the years and our will to be as transparent as we can be through documentation, Noisebridge has become an amazing “canary in the coal mine” resource to the rest of the global hackerspaces community. About to try something new with your space? See if Noisebridge has done it before and how it went wrong (or right). More importantly, read up about what we tried to fix it. As much as we’re made fun of within other spaces, people sure do look to us often to avoid the mistakes we’ve thrown ourselves into. We’re actually proud of all of this.
Thinking over all what I’ve just written, it’s still amazing the space is standing and not a smoldering pile of cooling embers (yes I know this joke is a little ill timed considering a local and favorite hardware store sadly burned down yesterday, but I wrote this bit weeks ago). Out of all those people I remember seeing at our initial meeting in the first location we moved into, I think there’s maybe only 3 or 4 of us still around today. The space now belongs to the new blood, and they’re doing a damn good job of keeping it together.
Bringing it back to the present (and the more emotional bit), there’s been much coverage over allegations of sexual acts of misconduct (rape) within the Tor community. Twitter has turned into a gross religious war ground of anarchists demanding proof through a police investigation before they’re willing to admit that someone could be telling the truth about being assaulted in the most intimate way. Media outlets are now sinking their teeth into this thing, and Hacker News bloggers and commenters have been arguing like it’s the Christmas of CIA conspiracy theories, which all probably have some grain of of truth. Sadly, many people with a sharper business tuned agenda in the hacker/security community have been shoving true victims aside in order to sell “their stories” of past conflict for professional gain while the ink is hot.
And in the spirit of owning our shit, it’s important that we own the fact that Jacob Appelbaum (Jake) helped found Noisebridge, alongside countless other founders and volunteers. He imprinted our community with all of the positive and negative ramifications of his gregarious, manipulative, complex, and problematic personality. He was one of the founding members of Noisebridge and was highly influential in us formalizing from a group of hackers meeting once a week to manifesting into a physical space. I don’t believe Noisebridge would exist today if it hadn’t been for his contributions, but I can say the same for a number of other founding members. With all that being said, none of it excuses any of his past or present abusive actions.
Shortly after moving into our current location in 2009, Jacob dropped off being a part of the community by not participating in the physical space and avoiding Noisebridge related things online all together. He currently isn’t a member. His vague involvement with the community as of recent consists of a complicated whois record, and the once in a blue moon reply to the mailing list whenever something about him or his ego crops up.
What we (the Noisebridge community) can say for sure is that Jacob’s behavior, along with many incidents we regrettably overlooked in the past, now would absolutely trigger our Anti-Harassment Policy, and result in conversations and confrontations that would not have occurred when Jacob was still involved in Noisebridge. As the weeks have gone by since I started writing this, Noisebridge has made a public statement about Jacob no longer being welcomed to participate in the community (do-ocratically), and folks have started the process to formally ban him (through consensus).
As a friend of his I am saddened for not speaking up sooner, not calling him out on his past shit, not telling him to lay off the creepy pants act. As a citizen of my wider communities I’m angered that instead of addressing the problem of a predator using their social influence and charisma for sexual gain, we (myself included) defaulted to greeting newcomers in the past with the passive solution statement of, “whatever you do, don’t sleep with him.” Above all else as a member of Noisebridge, I regret not fighting more against harassment in the hacker community, especially involved within our San Francisco space.
As a community we are all in some way responsible for creating the environment in which certain behaviors can occur. What Noisebridge has learned, through the Drama Llama School of Hard Hack Knocks, is that avoidance of difficult conversations merely makes bad behaviors worse. I know I’m not alone over regretting not speaking up sooner about what we observed about Jacob in the past, especially now.
Noisebridge today exemplifies Actually Learning From Our Mistakes. We don’t sweep the shit under the rug, pretending everything’s OK; we point at it, we laugh and cry and rage at it, and then we make things better. The current shit going down has the potential to make the hacker scene better. If anything, this letter should be that rallying cry.
Before and after the Noisebridge statement got posted I’ve gotten poked by a number of friends, both in and outside the hacker scene. Some of those outside had known Jacob approximately 10 years ago when he lived in San Francisco, well before Noisebridge was a thing and online rights and privacy had turned into such a fought over subject. With a lot of these friends there really wasn’t a question of, “do you feel he did it?” Most of us had seen him in his borderline sexual predator bully mode. It’s odd being asked passive questions like if I know how he’s doing and if he’s going to be able to take care of himself, while again turning a blind eye to the apparent issues as if they’ll fade away into the past. I sincerely believe they won’t now.
Jacob did some awful things to me in the past. One of the very first interactions I had with him I can now clearly label as non-consensual or even assault, but in the past just brushed over it with the notion that attractive boys will be attractive boys. He also did things to loved ones of mine, things I wish I had stood up to and protested instead of being glazed over by his charisma when I didn’t understand my own emotions. Looking back at it now I feel like I didn’t have the right tools emotionally and socially, or didn’t understand what tools I did have to make a change in these situations. Maybe it was just the fear that if I questioned his “lifestyle choices” he would no longer see me as a friend.
It was educational to see him turn negative towards me. At the first Toorcamp he shamed me in front of a dozen other friends, telling me I should just leave for ruining the whole event (a very long story involving an inverted boy who cried wolf narrative I’m happy to recount in person). Another time, he blew up when I greeted him with a pat on the back that was harder than intended. I apologized immediately, yet he held a grudge against me for almost a year, stating that I had assaulted him and it wasn’t something he tolerated inside of the Noisebridge community.
I was relieved when he began the process of moving to another part of the country (and eventually another part of the world). My involvement with Noisebridge and the greater hackerspaces community meant that I would still run into him, more often than I originally thought. Dear friends of mine in Berlin got involved in being a part of his “entourage” and communication lines started to dissolve. In early 2012, standing in a metro station under Berlin, facing someone I love very much as the train doors were closing, I blurted out “If you sleep with him we can no longer be friends, I can’t pick up the pieces anymore.” Recently I found out that interaction at the station later caused Jacob to vehemently argue with said friend about how they should drop contact with me all together.
Writing this now brings some closure. I am still going to beat myself up about it for awhile. I’m still going to feel like utter shit for not saying something sooner, every time I read a new story of assault. I don’t find any of my stories to be more relevant or important than those involving women in the hacker community who have been more directly sexually abused or humiliated (though many have told me that isn’t true and my accounts of abuse and misconduct are just as valid, which I acknowledge hearing). Regardless, the two things I’m still hopeful are for Jacob to accept accountability and a willingness to seek help. I don’t think either will do much for me, but I feel they will provide a lot of closure for many of his other victims. It would also give breathing room to many of my friends who still have a justifiable desire to help defend him and set a healthy precedent for a community sorely lacking in positive examples and a terrible track record.
Jake, if you’re reading this, do the right thing: fess up, apologize, learn from your mistakes. Listen to the people, your friends, that you’ve hurt.
And to my friends with whom I’ve had very little contact either due fear and coercion, or for following a false hero: I’m sorry this is happening, I’m sorry we’re so far away. I understand you are doing what feels right to you and I support you for that. I still do, and will always consider you a friend.