FAQ about the Brooklyn Commons boycott
Brooklyn Commons and its owner, Melissa Ennen, promoted antisemite Christopher Bollyn’s talk as a normal, sanctioned event at the space.
Some claim that the appearance of Christopher Bollyn on September 7, 2016 at the Brooklyn Commons was merely a commercial rental of the space, as opposed to a regular speaking event. (The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Bollyn as a “raging anti-Semite” and for years he worked with a neo-Nazi media group, Willis Carto’s Liberty Lobby.) In fact, Bollyn’s talk was promoted by the Brooklyn Commons as a normal, sanctioned event, and they included the talk’s announcement in their email blast without comment. The Brooklyn Commons also altered the description of his event after complaints were made, showing that they had the power to affect the content of how the event was cast.
The Brooklyn Commons was the only space on the east coast that insisted on hosting Bollyn on his tour over objections.
Many other spaces, including another one in NYC, as well as spaces in Philadelphia and D.C., cancelled Bollyn’s appearance when called on by elected officials, concerned community members, and local progressive groups.
We know that Bollyn’s tour was intentionally booked at progressive spaces, especially churches involved in Palestine solidarity work. The only east coast venue that provided him the opportunity to spread his bigoted ideas to progressives was the Brooklyn Commons. Busboys and Poets (DC), The Unitarian Society of Hartford (CT), West-Park Presbyterian Church (NYC), and others all cancelled Bollyn’s bookings, and issued apologies. (Bollyn rented a space in DC at the last minute after the bookstore cancellation, and held a secret talk in NYC.)
Common Decency has talked to tenants at the Brooklyn Commons at all stages of this process.
The boycott is not directed at the tenants of the Brooklyn Commons and we are not asking people to boycott the groups that use it. The Brooklyn Commons tenants have no say in who uses the venue space; Ennen has sole control over it. Many tenants (although not radio station WBAI, which leases the largest portion of the space at below market-rent) objected to Bollyn being booked at the space; Ennen ignored their complaints. One group, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, pulled out of the space entirely.
We have repeatedly reached out to the tenants of the space before the boycott, asking them all to sit down and discuss it, and will continue to speak to them about their concerns. We have offered assistance in finding a new space if tenants wish to leave the Brooklyn Commons, and this offer of help is still open.
Ennen was contacted far in advance of the Bollyn talk and refused to respond to emails and calls.
Ennen claims that she did not know about complaints and protests over Bollyn’s appearance until directly before the event. In fact, as soon as it was announced in August, multiple people attempted to contact Ennen by emailing, texting and calling her. It was only a few days before the event that she replied, and then refused to offer answers or to meet with anyone.
Prior to the boycott call, Ennen declined to meet with concerned community members.
Since August 2016, Ennen has repeatedly rebuffed each and every attempt to reach out to her, to sit down and discuss matters. In her first and last communication with Common Decency, dated October 26, 2016, she wrote, “I am giving priority to [other] groups” and asked, “Why do you keep emphasizing nonviolence?” There has been no further communication from her since.
Allowing the far right on progressive platforms is a special gift to them, which is only available when progressives freely agree to give it.
The far right, and especially antisemites, intentionally seek out progressive platforms in order to woo activists to their side. In areas of common interest — especially foreign policy (e.g. Israel/Palestine), international trade agreements (such as the WTO, NAFTA, and TPP), and opposition to banking practices — they offer antisemitic and other bigoted explanations for the state of the world. In so doing, they seek to convince progressives to adopt their ideas and, if possible, to convert them to their own far right politics.
When progressives provide the far right with a platform, this forces oppressed people to defend themselves just so that things don’t get worse. Progressives should fight oppression, not make it up for debate.
Allowing bigots platforms forces oppressed and marginalized groups into a position of self-defense. There are endless, baseless and stereotypical claims about oppressed groups: one could spend an unlimited amount of time trying to refute such bigoted views, which are patently false.
Giving a platform to these views gives them both wider visibility, and puts the obligation on oppressed people just to argue against their own oppression. Progressives should be taking a strong stance against antisemitism, not forcing Jews and others to argue why antisemitic lies are untrue.
We would not, and should not, ever ask that black folks argue against a neo-Confederate speaker who held that slavery was good for them, or for women to argue against a “men’s rights” activist that they are, indeed, just as intelligent as men. But Ennen has, in effect, said that Jews should be forced to argue that they don’t run the world or control the US government.
Ennen has been spinning and spreading outlandish lies about what happened during the demonstration at Bollyn’s talk.
Ennen has brazenly lied about what happened at the original demonstration against Bollyn, despite the fact that the incident was captured on video and that there are many witnesses who do not back her up. It is this willingness to lie so openly that is telling.
On WBAI, Ennen claimed that 8 people forced their way in during Bollyn’s talk; that after giving them ample time to speak in front of the stage, she politely asked them to leave; that as they were being kicked out, more people came in, accosted her, and slammed her head against the wall. (Here, around 26:50.)
The reality is that only 4 people came in; they yelled at the speaker from the very top of the ramp, but did not enter more than a few feet into the space, and were nowhere near the stage; Melissa never spoke to them. (In fact, Ennen chose to lie about this despite the fact that the event was recorded on video; see here around 20:50.) Some of her friends and employees–later joined by Ennen herself– threw them out, trying to punch and choke them in the process. Once they were outside, they remained on the sidewalk. No one else from the crowd joined the 4, none of whom ever touched Ennen.
There were dozens of witnesses, as well as many reporters present. Police were present outside the building, and Ennen spoke to them immediately afterward. No one left the scene and the police did not arrest anyone. Not a single person witnessed the alleged incident of violence against Ennen, and Melissa apparently first concocted this story when she appeared on WBAI over a week later.
Managers of the Brooklyn Commons, and members of organizations that use the space, have physically assaulted and sexually harassed critics of the Commons.
At the Bollyn event, one of Ennen’s security guards openly threatened a protester who was talking to him. While on the clock, Brooklyn Commons manager Robby Hecker told one woman, who was conveying why she was upset with the event, a “fat bitch.”
Later, on September 26, at an open mic at the Brooklyn Commons, when members of a Jewish community group expressed their feelings about the space’s policy, they were physically assaulted and sexually harassed while being removed from the venue. Robby Hecker and a WBAI volunteer physically assaulted members of the group, while another WBAI volunteer, Mitchel Cohen, sexually harassed one protester by attempting to kiss them and touch their genitals without their consent.
The organizers of the boycott against Brooklyn Commons have never threatened or harassed Melissa Ennen.
None of the organizers of the demonstration against Bollyn, nor any members of the groups that have called for the boycott, have ever made any physical threat against Melissa Ennen or her family, or encouraged others to do so. This lie has been repeatedly used to smear those who oppose Ennen’s decision to provide resources for the Far Right, and to paint her as the victim.
In particular, one local conspiracy theorist (who in the past was a Jewish left-wing activist for several decades), spammed an email around to many listervs in early 2017, directly accusing Common Decency of inciting violence against Ennen. This man had already harassed people at the original protest and has had articles published in the same white nationalist and antisemitic newspaper that Bollyn was an editor at. His claims are completely false and if we were the sort, we would sue him for libel (we’re not).
Ennen and her supporters have spun various conspiracy theories about “who is behind” the protests.
In an attempt to evade responsibility for their actions, both Ennen and her supporters have concocted a variety of conspiracy theories about “who is behind” the opposition to her decision. Ennen, who is a 9/11 Truth conspiracy theorist, said on WBAI in September 2016 that, “There were some people manipulating this event for their own purposes.” Bollyn’s friends claimed it was a Zionist plot to hide Israeli crimes on 9/11. Others have claimed that members of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, in league with Jewish real estate developers, are trying to drive Ennen out of business.
The reality is as obvious as it could be: a bunch of leftist Jews, antifascists, and other concerned New Yorkers are angry at Ennen for providing a platform to the far right to use.
This is not the first time that Ennen has hosted far right speakers.
In 2006, Ennen–who is a 9/11 Truther–also hosted Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (of InfoWars) and Kevin Barrett, a conspiracy theorist who is now a Holocaust Denier.
Boycotting the Brooklyn Commons is a First Amendment activity.
Boycotts of institutions which support racism and bigotry have long been part of the US political tradition, and they are themselves a manifestation of free speech protected by the Bill of Rights. Ennen has bizarrely claimed she is a free speech martyr, but nothing could be further from the truth. The First Amendment only guarantees that the government will not ban your own political speech. Free speech means you are free to speak; it does not mean others are obligated to host you, nor does it mean you are free from the criticism or consequences that come from airing or providing a platform for noxious views. A boycott is not a call for government intervention; it is, rather, its own form of free speech.
The Brooklyn Commons is not being singled out, but rather is being held to the same standard as other speaking and cultural venues across New York City.
It is not uncommon that racist and fascist groups, bands, and speakers come to NYC. For many years, members of the progressive community have boycotted venues that have attempted to give bigotry a stage. Unlike these other spaces, we have spent months trying to give the space’s owner a chance to meet and to rectify what she has done. As with the other spaces, we are exercising our legal rights to refuse to support a venue that provides a platform for the far right.
Ennen is exploiting her past work as an activist to excuse for her present actions of providing resources to the far right.
While some people may appreciate the work that Ennen has done in the past, all of us must be judged by our own actions in the present. A person’s good deeds, no matter how admirable, cannot act as an excuse for problematic and damaging behavior in the present.