White Out: Erasure of the Black Lives Matter Panel and People of Color from the Brooklyn Zine Fest

Friday, April 17, 2015

My name is Jordan Alam and I was formerly the panel coordinator for the Brooklyn Zine Fest. I had to quit my position because the main organizers chose to remove a panel on Black Lives Matter zines, which communicated to me that black and brown voices were not valued in the space. Below is my experience.

I proposed 4 different panel topics for consideration – on intergenerational zine making, writing on uncomfortable topics, the prison industrial complex, and Black Lives Matter zines. As a non-black zinester of color with the opportunity to elevate black zinesters, I saw solidarity as giving them that space. After my proposal went out I was asked to join the two main organizers, both white people, for a meeting.

I prepared a list of potential panelists and topics of discussion. I brought the zine Black Women Matter as a way to show relevancy. But when we got to talking, it became clear that these documents would not move them. I was surprised at first, but my surprise quickly hardened into a stubborn discomfort as I saw where things were headed. They first struck out my idea for a panel featuring zinesters who write about incarceration or are in communication with incarcerated folks. They cited that they wanted to keep the panelists to the people who were tabling, which narrowed my options considerably.

The last panel we talked about was on Black Lives Matter zines; at that point I had not seen the full tablers list, but I was still pretty confident that there would be people who could speak on the movement. One of the main organizers said straight out to me that they consider this fest to be an apolitical zine fest, and that the language of my email made them feel that a Black Lives Matter panel would be too political. I could feel my heart pound as I made my arguments about the importance of this political moment. I had made very clear that this was the panel I was most invested in – in my head, I had resolved that if the panel did not happen, that I would quit being panel coordinator.

The coordinators also mentioned feeling unsafe because there had been an undercover cop at the Anonymity panel that I hosted the previous year, a fact I didn’t know until they told me at this meeting. I wasn’t sure why they brought this up – the most vulnerable people in that room would have been the speakers, especially those who talked about anti-police riots. Yet their panel was somehow seen as “apolitical” enough to be included in last year’s fest. I could only conclude that because the panel was composed of mostly light-skinned or white presenters that it passed the test. Finally, the organizers drew the connection that hosting a Black Lives Matter panel would invite potential violence by citing an unrelated incident at the 2013 Anarchist Book Fair (long before Black Lives Matter was a familiar movement).

By then I was doing all I could to hold it together and keep a professional tone; I was gripping the arm of my chair the entire time. I caught on a comment they said about having been criticized previously for hosting a mainly white zine fest: “they just didn’t know where to find the non-white zinesters.” I switched tactics to talk about how having this panel would help invite people of color in by showing that there is space for conversations that matter to them. The organizers didn’t bite.

Instead they said if we “took the politics out of it” and made the panel “Black Zines Matter” – an appreciation event of black zinesters – that it could still go on. I left that meeting feeling tokenized and angry. I walked home from the museum, stumbling along in the snow. But I resolved that this compromise would allow me to at least shape it to my liking. I was hoping to change it to a #BlackBrilliance panel because that seemed at minimum less tokenizing (I had seen this hashtag being used on Twitter and it came from black folks themselves), even if it still felt problematic and complicated.

A week or so later, I realized I had made a mistake: I had double booked myself the day of the Brooklyn Zine Fest panels. I emailed both parties to see whether I could change around the dates, but it wasn’t possible – I would have to get moderators for at least some of the panels. However, the organizers took this as a moment of opportunity:

“So, since we won't have you to run things like a well-oiled machine at BHS [Brooklyn Historical Society], we'd like to cut the number of panels down to two.  This will give us time to work with each of the panel moderators/leaders to make sure they're set and comfortable, without having to pack too much into one day… Out of the ideas we've discussed, we really like the "How I Came to Zines / Generations of Zine Makers" and the "Writing About Uncomfortable Topics" the best.

You can guess which one they cut. I sent my resignation email a few days later and have not yet received any reply.

This was perhaps the least slick way that I have seen someone exclude black and brown voices from a conversation aside from direct removal. I am upset that I had to quit because I know that now there is virtually no chance for my community to be seen at the Brooklyn Zine Fest, but I refuse to work with people who keep narrowing my options to create space for black and brown experiences until they are non-existent. White DIY circles, no matter whether they perceive themselves as alternative, have made it clear that they do not see us, and that to them it undermines their work to have us appear as we are.

Too often, in both ‘traditional’ and ‘alternative’ creative spaces, the voices of people of color are excluded or must be made palatable to white audiences. In spaces where we make our own media, it is even more hurtful – zines are meant to be a form where we control how we are portrayed and are on topics that we care about. To be excluded yet again because our narratives make white people uncomfortable, and implying that political discussions invite violence, is yet another injustice against us.

Our bodies and lives do not have the privilege to claim that they are ‘apolitical.’ By our basic existence, we must contend with the very politicized assumptions placed upon us, black people most of all. Shutting us out from programming is a choice to align with the dominant racist and anti-black culture.

I ask that you support our campaign to add another event to the zine fest lineup. We will use this platform to share anti-racist zines/materials and discuss active ways to resist racism in alternative communities, with a focus on black voices. Please share my statement, email the organizers at brooklynzinefest@gmail.com, and post on their Facebook and Twitter the following letter (or come up with a message of your own):

Dear BZF Coordinators:
Apologize for your removal of the Black Lives Matter panel and open up space for anti-racist discussion at the Brooklyn Zine Fest. I do not support the marginalization of black and brown zinesters.
Signed _____

If you are tabling, consider making a sign for your table saying 'Black Lives Matter at the Brooklyn Zine Fest' and if you have been asked to speak on a panel, please state that you do not agree with the removal of the Black Lives Matter panel. If you are interested in participating or helping with the alternative event, please DM me on Twitter @thecowation.


I am including the text of my resignation email to the Brooklyn Zine Fest, as their response characterizes it as "aggressive," which they say is the reason for their not responding until today's statement. For the record, we discussed and I offered to get another moderator for the panels day-of if I were unable to make it in person. Below is the email, sent March 14th:

Matt & Kseniya,
I unfortunately cannot continue to work on the Brooklyn Zine Fest panels this year. Since your last message, I have been thinking a lot about the erasure of black and brown bodies in DIY spaces. Though it may seem like a benign omission from your standpoint, taking the Black Lives Matter and/or Black Zines Matter suggestion off the table reminds me about how often I personally and my communities systemically have been excluded from and erased in spaces that are meant to be 'alternative'.

Particularly, I take issue with the idea that an 'apolitical zine fest' can exist or should be encouraged. Your tablers and your audience do not exist outside of politics, and the only people who can ignore or deny that they participate in systems of oppression are those privileged enough to have power supported by structural inequality. When we met, you alluded to violence at the Anarchist Book Fair and an undercover cop making things 'uncomfortable' at the last zine fest. Bringing up these examples assumes that having a discussion highlighting the structural inequality around race - whether through celebrating black artists or actually talking about violence against them - will invite violence, or at the very least unease. But your decision to remove that conversation altogether does not create safety or comfort, especially not for those artists or other artists of color impacted by these systems each day. Instead it makes it harder for us to collaborate with you, knowing that the things most important and integral to our lives will not even be given a 1 hour time slot.

I feel let down that an event meant to create space for unique ideas to thrive will not allow space for marginalized people to speak on their own experiences. I can no longer collaborate on or contribute my work to an event that does not have room for that discussion.

Jordan A.