Recently, there was what appears to be a chlorine gas attack at Midwest FurFest in a Chicago suburb. Press reaction has ranged from just barely neutral to outright mocking, as in the case of Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Good Morning Joe. When finding out, on live television, what a furry was, Brzezinski could barely contain her laughter and had to leave the set rather suddenly. Scarborough didn’t bother trying to hide his mirth. It should be remembered that Brzezinski is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Director under President Carter, and that Scarborough was elected to four terms in Congress. Neither is a stranger to unusual topics or keeping their composure in public, and yet here they lost it. Co-host Willie Geist managed to keep his professional decorum intact. These two national news figures were unable to maintain their composure as they reported a gas attack that sent nineteen to the hospital and threatened thousands, including small children (seriously, folks huddled in a group in the cold to prevent one infant from getting hypothermia), simply because of who the victims were: furries. That is to say, fellow fans.
Furries, those interested in anthropomorphic animals in a variety of ways and for various reasons (more below), get little love from other fandoms. They are castigated as “furverts” and worse not just by society at large but by other fan groups who should be supportive or at least neutral. After all, virtually every fandom out there has at some point been accused of some manner of sexual deviancy. Even otaku, anime fans, who are now considered relatively mainstream were once thought of as little more than hentai-obsessed pedophiles. Fandom would be up in arms if almost any other group were simultaneously attacked at an event and then mocked in the media. The only good thing to report is that the evacuation went fairly well and no one else was hurt in the process according to one of the participants.
Now, there are still some questions as to exactly what happened but the basic facts are agreed upon. The first reports came in at about 12:40am. The Rosemont Hyatt was ordered evacuated at 1:10am during the late evening dance that is a nearly universal feature of fandom conventions. People complained of a noxious gas smell, headaches, and other symptoms. Nineteen people were hospitalized. Investigators determined that chlorine gas had been introduced in the ninth floor of a hotel stairwell.
Police say the manner of release “suggests an intentional act.” The hotel was decontaminated and people were allowed to return about three hours after the evacuation. However, there are still two important unknowns: who and why. There are presently no suspects and no publicly available evidence on that score so speculation has been minimal. The Rosemont PD are declining to answer any questions regarding the incident and frankly don’t seem to be investigating with any seriousness beyond stationing extra security on site. This is troubling for all the usual reasons. The second question, however, has proven far more interesting.
Let me start by saying that this may have absolutely nothing to do with furries, per se. The perpetrators may simply have been looking for a convenient target with large numbers of people and the group drew the short straw. However, because furries are so often the targets of insult and even attacks, it is plausible to believe this was a crime that specifically targeted them. Some are already calling it a hate crime, or even attempted genocide, and with some justification. To many furries, their identification with the group is more than simple fandom. It is as important and inherent to their sense of self as racial or sexual or religious identity is to others, a point made better by Dr. Sharon Roberts, her colleagues, and her graduate students than I ever could. I won’t pretend to understand all the nuances, because I don’t, but I do understand that this identification has a deeply personal meaning to its adherents and that is something I can understand and respect as a chronic outsider, a gay Jew who grew up in North Texas. The dismissive responses from Brzezinski and Scarborough, as well as those from other fans, and the non-response from police represent a lack of consideration based on the failure even to attempt understanding.
How Does This Affect Me?
It means you or people you know are potential targets if this was in fact a crime specifically against furries instead of an act of opportunity. Even if it was the latter, it still means you are a potential target at a convention of whatever sort. The lack of any reasonable police response is stunning and the furry community is in an understandable uproar. That other fandom groups are overall blasé about the whole thing is shameful.
We need to demand answers from the police. We need to demand respect from the media. We need to demand support within and between fandom groups. To borrow a phrase, an attack on one is an attack on all. I’ve been involved with fandom, both as an active member and as a researcher, for fifteen years and though this happened half a nation away to a group outside my own interests, it scared me. It could occur again at any fandom event, whether Comic-Con, PAX, or my own beloved A-Kon.
Regardless of one’s fandom affiliation, we must stand up and be counted if we’re going to get any level of respect, from police, from media, and from other fans.