Anarchists play rough: Kerfuffle over radical book fair in the porn palace

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The Armory Community Center: too sexy? Not sexy at all?

A la Lord of the Rings, San Francisco (Facebook, at least) has become an epic battleground, the clash of two radical cultures, a reinvigoration of an age-old rancor. The 18th annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair is set to be held at the Kink.com Armory (a.k.a., the Armory Community Center) March 16-17. The questions being addressed: is BDSM porn radical? Is a corporate dungeon's event space the right place for the anarchists?

It would seem that some anarchists don't want to hawk their anti-capitalist zines and lovingly-silkscreened patches, or talk activist history in a place owned by a company who pays women to be submersed in water and gang-banged for the sexual pleasure of others. Feminist pioneer Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has canceled her scheduled anti-colonist talk, calling the choice of venue unecessarily controversial.

Poster design by Hugh D'Andrade

"I feel good about the venue,” said Book Fair planning committee member Jen Angel, who called me to explain how the decision to hold the Fair at the Armory was reached. To retain the previous venue at Golden Gate Park's Hall of Flowers, Angel told me that her group would have had to hire park rangers and pay a rental fee beyond its means. Venues the size and price of the Armory Community Center, she said, are rare in San Francisco.

She cited the Armory Community Center's affordability and accessibility (the venue is two blocks from the 16th Street BART station) in the committee's eventual decision to move, which was announced in a blog post on the Book Fair website in August of last year and included in all subsequent literature released by the Fair. 

The Book Fair would not be the first to utilize the massive "Drill Court" hanger -- last August SF Beautiful, hardly a radical organization, held its awards ceremony there and the space had been rented out once before, Kink.com staff told me, years ago. 

Dunbar-Ortiz – well-known for her organizing work beginning in the 1960s, when she split from groups like Weather Underground and Students for a Democratic Society to form separatist feminist group Cell 16, eventually going on to teach in the Cal Hayward Native Studies program, help found the school's Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies degrees, and become a Native activist – said she only became aware of the venue change last week, when she sent a public letter to the organizers explaining that she would no longer be appearing at the Fair.

"I would not in my wildest imagination have thought that anything remotely related to my political circles would take place in that corporate dungeon, just as I wouldn't imagine that it would take place, say at Bank of America headquarters at the right price," Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in her February 6 public letter, addressed to the Book Fair organizers [full text below].

She said her planned talk, which was to have commemorated the anniversary of Wounded Knee, was a particularly inappropriate choice for the venue. "I am equally embarrassed as a feminist at a time when violence against women and rape culture are epidemic," she continued, ending with a call to change the Book Fair venue.

Angel says when Dunbar-Ortiz pulled out, her letter was sent to every Fair vendor and speaker so that all were appraised of the situation. None of them have canceled their appearance, she says, though the Fair's event wall is marked with attendees who've announced they will not be entering the Armory to attend.

There is nothing overtly sexual about Kink's event space, which has a separate entrance from the porn company's front doors. Angel confirms that porn and erotica has been sold at previous Book Fairs, although the organization doesn't monitor what vendors have at their tables.

After Dunbar-Ortiz published her letter, the Book Fair's event page blew up with debate, both civilized and not. There was nearly 800 comments on it at the time this post was published. Angel said debate over the venue -- outside the bounds of Facebook -- has been minimal. 

For many in the San Francisco kink community, the anti-BDSM stance of Dunbar-Ortiz and other anarchists who've announced they won't be attending shows a lack of education about BDSM and sex work.

Others take issue with Kink.com as a company, but say the debate over "torture porn" on the page is missing the point.

"We've spent days arguing with each other about whether or not porn and prostitution should be decriminalized," wrote local alt-porn performer Kitty Stryker. "The heat has been effectively removed from Kink.com entirely. All too often that suits capitalism and the patriarchy just fine." Stryker has long been vocal against the company's hiring and other labor practices. (See local porn performer Maggie Mayhem's reflection on the company for a good first-person account of these failings.)

Angel says that the Book Fair – which has responded to concerns about the venue in a statement on its website – will be sponsoring a discussion on March 16 (the Saturday night of the weekend the fair is held) at an as-yet undetermined location, not at the Armory. For those interested in learning more about sex-related activism, there will be a panel on the history of sex worker organizing, and workshops on preventing assault within the anarchist community and on queering the anarchist model, all at the Book Fair itself.

We here at the Guardian are fans – legitimate and significant critiques of the company's practices notwithstanding – of the work Kink has done to bring alternative sexuality into the spotlight.

More importantly, we've heard the "BDSM creates violence" arguments and we're just not buying it. Consensually, safely, sexily-created BDSM subverts societally-accepted power differentials. And we're stoked that a porn company has a community space, that's the kind of thing we like.

So we're bummed to see this business – yes, it's a for-profit business, at odds with some aspects of anarchist thought. But as some have pointed out, do you know the shady dealings our public institutions are getting into these days, should the Book Fair be moved to a university? – pilloried by activists in what may be their first introduction to BDSM, and the role that Kink.com plays in the SF sex-positive community.

If anything, the mess-of-an-Internet has highlighted the need for more education surrounding BDSM feminism. Surely there are some rad dominatrixes, slaves, daddies, ponies, sluts, pervs who'd be happy to provide just that -- in fact, Kink representatives told us they are in talks with the anarchists to provide seminars on power dynamics. Bookfair organizers could have anticipated this necessity.

This could have been a big, sexy learning opportunity. It still can be.

Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair

March 16-17, 10am-6pm, free

Armory Community Center

1800 Mission, SF

bayareaanarchistbookfair.wordpress.com


The text of Dunbar-Ortiz's letter follows: 

UPDATE: The original letter, a reader has informed us, contained a link to this article by Gail Dines in Counterpunch calling out James Franco's "feel-good torture porn." What follows is the version that Dunbar sent us yesterday at our request.

Dear sister and fellow workers, 

I received a message this morning informing me that the 2013 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair will be held at the Armory, corporate headquarters of Kink.com. 

I did not know about the arrangement between the Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair and Kink.com until now. I'm sure that is my fault as I see it is posted on the Book Fair website as well as the Facebook page, now that I look there to find it. However, I would not in my wildest imagination have thought that anything remotely related to my political circles would take place in that corporate dungeon, just as I wouldn't imagine that it would take place, say at Bank of America headquarters at the right price.

Clearly, Kink.com had a problem from the beginning with its "image" in the family friendly San Francisco Mission District neighborhood and has been working hard during the six years since it paid $14.5 million to buy the Armory, without success--it is shunned like the plague. But what a boon to get the stamp of approval from the anarchist community, in the wake of their courageous  leadership role in the Occupy movement!  What a dishonor to our Wobbly ancestors (in my case my own grandfather).

The sleazy owner of Kink.com must be exposed for trying to pretend to be a respectable public venue while continuing promoting torture. 

I am particularly embarrassed and ashamed to have the 40th anniversary of Wounded Knee and Leonard Peltier--the subject matter of my talk--to be associated with Kink.com. I often consider my actions by thinking of what Leonard Peltier would do, and in this case I have no choice. I have apologies to make to people to whom I am responsible for this error on my part in not having been aware of the venue. 

I am equally embarrassed as a feminist at a time when violence against women and rape culture are epidemic. 

Please immediately remove my name and the topic from the program and the website. If my name or the topic is already printed on posters they must be destroyed. I urge other speakers, panelists, vendors, and anarchists in general to object to the Book Fair being held at the Armory and consider not walking in the door, ever, while Kink.com owns it.

I call on the organizers of the event who are responsible for contracting with the pornographic industrial complex to take responsibility for this horrific choice, making very clear, with apologies, on the website and the Facebook page and to every vendor and speaker what they are getting in to, as well as to the public you are expecting to attend.  

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

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