Facing Down Breitbart's Hateful Trolls

Cinder Block Comedy Fest trolls

They say you should change your passwords every 12 months, and it looks like I’m due for an update.

This time last year, I was changing my passwords across the internet due to the doxxing threat that was coming from a mob of trolls who were raging against our first-year comedy festival. This was in addition to death threats. It was scary as all hell — it was also how I knew we were doing the right work.

The Cinder Block Comedy Festival is the brainchild of Coree Spencer, who noticed a lack of diversity in other festivals across the country. As a gay lady, I jumped at the chance to join the team of hard-core, awesome people of all different backgrounds, and together we figured out how to extend the invitation for performers of all experiences to join us.

Taking a cue from the “wage gap bake sales” that are popular college campus demonstrations, we thought of charging women 70 cents during our early bird period for every dollar a man would pay once we opened the submissions to everyone. Then we went one step further and allowed the early bird access and pricing to performers of color, LGBT+ identities, and disabilities. If these were the populations we hadn’t seen much of at other festivals, what better way to show them they were welcomed here?

Real quick info about the application structures of most comedy festivals across the country: When you submit to participate in a given festival you are given an application to fill out, usually asking that you include a video of your performance. To submit, you usually include a set fee. Early bird periods are used to give people an incentive to get their applications in and also to get the word out about the festival in general. Many festivals offer special pricing during this period and/or dictate that only specific people are given access to this period of submission (such as people who submitted the year before, local performers, etc.). We picked our target demo based on our festival’s vision and gave them the early bird access and pricing, opening up access to everyone once early bird was over. Pretty regular stuff, really.

Our story took off and lots of people heard about what we were doing, including the readers of Breitbart, and they were just the upstanding, empathetic, gentle, kind, warm, lovely people you are imagining right now. Oh, you weren’t picturing nice people? Well, you’re right. They were terrible monsters.

Conventional internet wisdom says that you should never read the comments section on any published article. On Breitbart, this is especially true. The trolls there radiate a particularly spicy flavor of hateful. We were told that not only were we horrid liberals, perverts, and feminazis, we were also (and this really blew my mind) racist bigots for “discriminating” against straight white cisgender dudes.

But, hey, listen, that was their home turf. It’s not where I’d spend my days expressing my opinion, but if those grouchy, hateful people all wanted to get together in their alt-right corner of the internet and work themselves into a little private fury, that was fine. Icky, sure, but seemingly harmless.

It wasn’t going to slow us down.

The problem with hate is that it rarely stays unperformed, especially when it’s been cooking up nicely in the echo chamber of the Breitbart community and in other intolerant corners of the internet. The trolls came for us and they came hard. They filled our own comment sections with attacks. They sent emails promising to “finish the job” of the actual cinder block that at one time injured Coree and inspired the name and vision of the festival. This is when the threat of doxxing came in and we all had to protect ourselves online.

The more insidious and less expected hate came from our peers. Friends who couldn’t identify with our target audience (but with whom we were close) felt the need to speak poorly about us onstage, and some decided it was suddenly very important to play devil’s advocate with us in conversation. For a while it felt like were getting it from all sides. In short, it sucked.

Meanwhile, we were getting a steady stream of applications.

People from all over the country had found out about our festival — many of them due to the kerfuffle we had with the alt-right — and they were picking up what we were putting down. After all was said and done, our little first-year festival received 420 submissions, and we were able to pack our weekend in September with a cornucopia of perspectives and hilarious jokes from every walk of life. You better believe we’re using the same model this year, and we would love it if you came to join us.

We have to fiercely create and protect these spaces for each other. In the face of internet threats and some incredibly violent real-world ones, we have to persevere and keep an eye out for each other. Otherwise the trolls win, and,honest to God, they’re so mired in their hate that I’m not sure they would know what they “won” if they won it.

When we win, we win the freedom to express ourselves and literally live our truths out loud.

That’s worth the password update, believe me.

SARAH KENNEDY is a comedian who has opened for Jim Norton, Chris Gethard, Doug Stanhope; and for Dana Goldberg, Fortune Feimster, and Erin Foley as part of 2011’s – 2013’s Southwest Funny Fest. She’s was a finalist in NBC’s Stand Up For Diversity nationwide comedy contest and won multiple “best comedian” awards from publications in Albuquerque — her hometown. Sarah is the co-director of the thrice yearly Laughing Devil Comedy Festivals and produces multiple comedy shows around New York.

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