HOPE Conference Criticized For Allowing Far-Right Harassment

New York, NY – The 12th ‘Hackers On Planet Earth’ (HOPE) conference has become embroiled in controversy regarding the enforcement of the event’s Code of Conduct. In a joint statement released late Saturday, numerous groups present for the conference, including the Tor Project and Riseup.net, as well as a list of people including main event speakers Chelsea Manning and Barrett Brown, stated that “on Saturday, 2600 and HOPE Conference organizers refused to remove fascist and white nationalist disruptors from HOPE 2018.”

Since Friday night, numerous attendees and presenters at the conference, including our reporters, noticed the presence of men with far-right paraphernalia, including Trump hats and Pepe frog patches. One man wearing a white ‘Make America Great Again’ hat bragged during a talk’s Q & A session about how he had participated in the neo-nazi ‘Unite The Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. 

The next day, the same man with the white MAGA hat further agitated conference-goers by loudly proclaiming himself a proud “nationalist” and voicing support for an accused child molester, John Draper (aka “Captain Crunch”), who has been banned from HOPE and other conferences.

On Saturday, the mood at HOPE shifted abruptly when a conference attendee confronted this man and took his hat. After the hat was taken, HOPE event security staff quickly mobilized to surround the person who took the hat, gave the hat back to the man who said he had attended the Charlottesville rally, and spoke in a friendly manner with him as he called the police.

The man at HOPE with a white ‘Make America Great Again’ who said he attended the Nazi rally in Charlottesville

When asked why they were assisting the far-right provocateur who had been confronted, a HOPE event worker compared taking the man’s Trump hat to assaulting a woman by ripping her clothes off. In front of a Unicorn Riot reporter, another member of the HOPE staff was asked if “fascist symbolism was appropriate” at HOPE, to which he answered “yes.”

HOPE event staff then let the man call the police into the venue. While the Trump supporter and admitted Nazi rally participant was filing a police report, one man wearing a HOPE staff shirt was overheard by Unicorn Riot saying “I don’t give a shit if he’s wearing a Nazi flag.”

The man with the white ‘MAGA’ hat would be removed from the event much later Saturday night when it became apparent he may have been carrying a concealed gun.

As word of ‘the hat incident’ spread, other reports began to emerge of men wearing Trump hats being physically aggressive and intimidating to event attendees. Camille Fassett, a reporter for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, tweeted thatone of the fascists at HOPE harassed me, made comments about my appearance, and threatened the electronic devices of me and my friends.”

During Chelsea Manning’s extended talk on Saturday, Unicorn Riot saw several large men wearing ‘Trump’ gear attempting to push through boundaries set up by event staff in front of the stage, and refusing to clear the access aisle, saying that any requests for them to move were “fat shaming.” While event staff did not let these men reach the stage, they were allowed to remain in the talk where they repeatedly approached several attendees, including presenters of previous talks, and got in their faces in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt at physical intimidation.

Late Saturday night, the statement denouncing HOPE’s response to these incidents was published. Signed by numerous groups & individuals involved in HOPE 2018, the statement pointed out how tolerance for fascist provocations seemed to break the Code of Conduct for the event:

HOPE claims to provide a “harassment-free conference experience for everyone,” however, on multiple occasions when the fascist attendees were reported to security for intimidation and harassment, HOPE security refused to intervene and even defended their presence at the event. The fascist attendees menaced other conference goers, cornering them, following them down the street, and threatening them; one even called the police on a conference attendee in retaliation for grabbing his hat. Following numerous complaints, HOPE finally expelled one white nationalist (after giving him a full refund), but allowed all of the other fascists to remain at the conference and intimidate attendees.

HOPE’s Code of Conduct states that anyone can attend the conference “regardless of race, class, gender identity or expression, age, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, personal appearance, or education level, text editor choice, and other aspects.” But creating space for fascists obviates the possibility of free speech. White nationalists are interested in violence, not speech, and allowing them into our community creates a chilling effect on all other participants’ freedom of expression. This is especially true for people who belong to marginalized groups that fascists often target for violence, such as people of color, trans and queer folks, and people with disabilities.

Unicorn Riot reached out to HOPE event organizers for comment on the controversy. They told us they don’t expect to issue a statement while the conference is in session.

HOPE organizers addressed the controversy on Saturday night when they responded to a tweet from Micah Lee, a journalist at The Intercept who signed onto the statement.

We can’t ban MAGA hats,” HOPE posted through their official Twitter account. “It’s absurd to think we can. But if people are dumb enough to wear them at our conference, it makes it really easy to keep an eye on what they do. But don’t let yourself be manipulated into giving them control. That’s a big part of their game.

Event attendees were quick to point out that since HOPE is a private event, organizers have discretion over who to allow to attend and thus the statement that “we can’t ban MAGA hats” was factually incorrect. Others contested HOPE’s claim that confronting far-right agitators present at their event constituted being “manipulated.”

The frustration of many attendees of HOPE was further exacerbated by the apparent comfort of many event staff with the men seen behaving aggressively. Several HOPE security staff were seen laughing and joking with some of the men in question, drinking shots of liquor with them behind booths on the mezzanine, and sharing a meal at the Hooters restaurant across the street.

Keynote speaker Barrett Brown also pointed out the fact that HOPE organizers were allowing Thomas Ryan, a private security contractor who once infiltrated Occupy Wall Street, gained access to protest organizer’s emails, and sent them to the FBI, to attend the conference.

A Unicorn Riot reporter saw two out-of-place-looking men with baseball caps in the access aisle stare Brown down during his keynote interview, and in turn Brown recorded the men from stage on his phone. Brown showed Unicorn Riot a clip he had recorded of one of the same men monitoring him outside the venue on the street.

The fact that HOPE has two headlining speeches from recently released political prisoners, Chelsea Manning and Barrett Brown, while allowing known federal law enforcement collaborators to attend, has caused some to question whether safety is truly a priority for the conference, which is organized by the longstanding hacking magazine 2600.

Unicorn Riot reporters and other people at the conference would have been able to clearly document more instances of harassment but the event privacy policy forbids photo and video; hence the scale of this problem is poorly documented.

While many expressed anger with HOPE organizers, others seemed more disappointed based on having held the event in high esteem as a valued institution in both the infosec and activist communities. Bill Budington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted:

The HOPE conference is held every two years at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. Presentations so far at this year’s event have included exposing malware networks, tracking law enforcement surveillance techniques, social engineering, bio-hacking and DIY pharmaceuticals.

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