A Tale of Two Netroots
When I arrived in Philadelphia for Netroots Nation 2019 I had mixed feelings. #ThatConference is an annual political convention for American progressive political activists. I was excited to support my wife’s panel, I was elated to see friends and participate with several of them on my own panel.
I said to anyone that would listen that this was my first and last Netroots before I even experienced what #ThatConference was. My first connection with Netroots regulars was at the hotel bar and I could already tell something was off. Maybe it was the fact that I was in a majority-Black city dealing with gentrification and yet most of the attendees of Netroots were white. I expected this though. I knew that in progressive/leftist spaces white folks dominated the conversation and space. I also knew that from an industry perspective, Netroots Nation is predominantly a digital organizing conference and having a large contingent of attendees who were general consultants like me wasn’t common. I recognize the multiple intersections inhabit as the only Black disabled general consultant in the country. I know that I am an anomaly and it wasn’t until I put “Black and disabled owned” on my firm’s website that many in my industry started treating me differently.
When I was asked to speak at The Double Down: Discussions of Black and Disability Identity panel, moderated by Patrick Cokley with fellow panelists Reyma McCoy McDeid, Azza Altiraifi, and Keri Grey, I was looking forward to speaking about the intersections Black disabled folks live with.
What happened during the panel was something I half expected but not from the actual source. Netroots Nation staff to wanted to remove me from the panel I was on while I was in the middle of answering a question because they only allocated for one lift for the duration of the entire conference. For that staffer to interrupt the panel, Netroots to cut the live video off during their interruption, and then to be heckled by that staffer while I’m still on stage was was repugnant and totally dehumanizing. It was a lot to try to process. At once and I’ve had never felt so invisible in my entire life. For a white male staffer to interrupt a black disability panel flanked by off duty police officers as security was traumatizing to experience.
As of right now, #ThatConference has only written a rushed apology in which they not only failed to hold themselves accountable but also absolved themselves from their volunteer’s actions. For an organization that only holds conferences yearly to fail at accessibility despite being consulted by multiple folks in the disability community in recent years is a severe oversight on their part.
First, let me again thank those that have reached out and offered support, bent an ear, and are ready to roll at a moment’s notice. I do feel supported. However, I’d be remiss if I wasn’t also genuinely cautious. What happened at Netroots on Saturday didn’t just happen to me. My colleague Patrick Cokley was shushed and outright dismissed by Netroots staff, and fellow panelists Keri Gray, Azza Altiraifi, and Reyma McCoy McDeid and I were all in the middle of a pointed conversation before we were interrupted. This isn’t just about me, this is about the panel starting late, dozens of people who would’ve benefited from the conversation walking out as soon as their action ended and as our panel was getting situated.
I don’t do sudden attention well and certainly not after what happened on Saturday, July 13th because most of the attention I am getting is reactionary, not genuine. We’ll see who’s ready to roll out of the trenches and actually support what’s next and who’s going to want to keep #ThatConference the status quo for their own gain. On social media, I saw many who took this dehumanizing incident that I’m still unpacking and centered themselves in reaction to what happened on that day. You all have some apologies to make for yourselves. Those of you who saw me at #ThatConference before Saturday heard me repeatedly say this was my first and last, and that I didn’t feel welcome. So you can imagine how the sudden attention after Saturday would make me feel hesitant.
I thought it important to get my words out because most organizations tend to force their own narrative as to what occurred rather than use facts. I am hopeful that sharing my story I can help change the way my community is treated at Netroots Nation and in other progressive spaces. The work of progressive organizations and spaces to be more inclusive will take time and attention. During the panel, I talked about how more disabled folx should be paid for their consulting of abled spaces while acknowledging that capitalism kills disabled folx.
Editor’s Note: For more, check out this piece by Patrick Cokley, “If We Cheat…” (July 22, 2019).
Neal Carter is the Founder and Senior Partner of Nu View Consulting LLC. Neal has been spearheading political outreach operations in campaigns since 2002. Neal is one of the foremost voices in field operations, campaign strategy, and candidate training in the United States. He has worked in campaign management on the federal, state and local levels throughout the United States. Under Neal’s leadership, Nu View Consulting has elected world leaders, trained future elected officials, and successfully passed progressive policy protecting the most marginalized communities.
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