VICE looks back on the Midwest Furfest attack, earning kudos for thoughtful journalism.
by Patch O'Furr
You can’t get inside (The Hooded Utilitarian, 1/5/15) is one of the few best “mainstream” articles about furries. ‘Mouse’ wrote it with the perspective of an insider looking at outsiders who want an inside look:
“Furries are a little ridiculous. We have an understanding about that. But every blip of attention, even an attack on our second-most populated convention, investigated by authorities as an intentional act, is an occasion for poking fun. Midwest Furfest is in Rosemont, Illinois, and this year it attracted 4,571 fuzzy folks. My wife and I are regular attendees, though this year work obligations found us elsewhere. Very early Sunday morning on December 7th, someone laid chlorine powder in a ninth floor stairwell. Nineteen people hospitalized (one of them a good friend of mine), and hundreds endangered and inconvenienced, and all of them odd ducks. Please remember how odd they are, and that they sometimes have sex, which is odder still. So the gorge of distrust between our community and the media grows wider. “We’re just not going to talk to you people any more,” we tell ourselves periodically, when the eye of mainstream culture is upon us. Mainstream culture then obliges us. A pity, because insulation from outside scrutiny is poisonous for any human endeavor. But who is ready to cover us?”
The Midwest Furfest attack was perhaps the biggest spotlight moment for how furries and the media look at each other. The media didn’t come out looking so great. It was strange when a bunch of silly misfits kept the higher dignity.
A new article in VICE (2/11/16) breaks through that recursive mirror. It’s a refreshingly direct look back, engaging us personally with no giggling about the misfortune of strangers. It leaves outsider baggage at the door, while reminding us where it is. The attack is unsolved, but the lack of conclusion doesn’t matter. It’s about recognizing how impactful the story is.
CSI Fur Fest: The Unsolved Case of the Gas Attack at a Furry Convention – by Jennifer Swann.
This would ordinarily be a small Newsdump item. It gets a full headline because it ties to many extra points and inspires sharing more to the story. And it gets a special thanks for great journalism to Jennifer Swann. Past VICE articles haven’t always been so worthy. Here’s the points that make it great.
Informative value. The police investigation uncovered no new answers, but this needed update shows the limits of what they found, and how they closed the case for lack of evidence.
Thoughtfulness. The storytelling puts you in the footpaws of someone whose hobby accidentally becomes a national issue. (Call it “coming out of the kennel.”) When a maligned subculture suddenly needs empathy, what does it mean to get some? It gently pokes readers to think about normativity and civility, when those can be scarce on the internet. (Case in point: the article’s predictably nasty reader comments.)
Writing about the impact of an event can make further impact. Exploitation media is thoughtless about that. That’s why I did background checks on the writer when she contacted Dogpatch Press to research the piece:
“After the Vanity Fair story was published, most furries collectively decided to shun the press, banning reporters from attending conventions. It’s the reason most of the people I spoke to for this story were reluctant to grant an interview request, initially referring us to spokespeople or doing extensive background checks to ensure I had no intention of misrepresenting them.”
Visuals. Among those doing documentary photography of furries, Tommy Bruce stands out for being most intimately involved. Being at the attack put him in the story as more than a tourist. He sent photos here when it happened. Good for Jennifer Swann for finding and involving him. It’s a great item for a furry artist’s professional resume, and shows how her piece was so careful to engage this community.
Further interest. The article brought out more stories that deserve a highlight. On Reddit, InfinitySquared comments:
“I still remember trying to shoo people outside when the alarms went off. See, conventions have an unfortunate tradition of someone ALWAYS pulling the fire alarm, so people just don’t pay much attention any more.
“This is NOT a false alarm, we need to evacuate NOW. No, it’s NOT another false alarm. No, out THIS door here. No, you CAN’T go up to your room for your coat. Yes, it’s fucking cold out. No, out THIS door HERE, you can look for your friends across the street. No, DON’T block the driveway, we have ambulances coming.”
I was in shorts and a T-shirt, I literally got hypothermia while directing pedestrian traffic for an hour. Like, my girlfriend walked me to McDonald’s, and I stood under the hand dryer’s warm air for ten minutes before I could start shivering.
My girlfriend counted ambulance and emergency units from at least thirteen different suburbs, because we needed them all STAT.”
The attack was random enough to make me wonder if it was a prank gone wrong from someone stupid on the fringe of the community. I wondered, did targeting the 9th floor mean they were way inside and part of the con? Or was that just a better way to spread chlorine gas? Chlorine is heavier than air and sinks down.
Midwest Furfest is run well enough that it overcame the attack positively. Other cons in 2015 didn’t have such luck with drama. On Flayrah, GraemeLion left a comment of experienced perspective that shows the strength this community can have:
My suspicion in this is that Rainfurrest has had problems over multiple years…
Contrast that with MFF, which has an incredibly stellar relationship with the hotel. The hotel asks MFF’s hotel liason for things, and things get done. There ARE problems at MFF, many of them. Tons of them. I’m good friends with a board member and there are always fires being juggled. BUT the attendees don’t see them, the action never drops below or outside executive staff, the hotel gets resolutions within hours if not minutes, and the event is none the wiser.
So when a chlorine gas attack occurs, and the hotel is evacuated, the hotel can trust that this is outside the scope of what is expected behavior at the convention. They can address it with the board members and executive committee, (who all found each other and were liasing with the hotel and law enforcement, I suspect), as the event was unfolding. The whole process could have killed different cons, but conventions that have good relationships and a history of getting things done and controlling the expectations and actions of the guests like MFF only looked like an even stronger entity for it.
So that’s the difference. MFF didn’t look bad out of the chlorine attack. They looked amazing.
This VICE article deserves recognition. If exploitation media continues to be a problem for furries, this kind is an antidote. That’s why I would like seeing the Ursa Major Awards add a specific category for nonfiction media, or excellence in journalism.
To encourage more goodness, please nominate Jennifer Swann’s article for an Ursa Major award at the end of 2016. (The “Best Anthropomorphic Other Literary Work” category includes nonfiction.)
I don’t distrust the police, and I’m sure that they investigated very thoroughly, but I really wish we had some answers. I can’t help but worry that whoever did this is going to try again, with better planning this time.
Vice did a very good job. Vice is one of the most serious news organizations around these days.
I think it might be just as easy to suspect a clownish prank gone bad… the chlorine could be bought at any pool supply store. Still, it’s very good to be on guard. Glad the VICE article made you think 🙂
If I had one small beef with the article, I felt that they recounted some of the urban legends and myths about the fandom with too much detail and gusto.
I get a little tetchy whenever I detect pot-stirring in the guise of “just reporting the details.” (The worst example of that in recent memory was when Inside Edition played the always-lame-and-unprofessional “some people say” card in order to insinuate that furries were “losers” and “weirdos.”)
Since research has shown that even reporting myths can actually cause them to become more solidified in people’s minds, one has to be careful about how one recounts or debunks tall tail tales about the fandom, if one cares about genuinely debunking or detoothing myths and hearsay.
But, like I said, it’s a small beef, and I realize this is kind of a tricky tightrope for journalists to walk.