Bad Actors Don't Get Stages: An Anti-Hate Guide for Venues

How venues and community members can identify and avoid booking far-right performers looking for a platform, and what to do if you already have.

Hazel Woodrow
Canadian Anti-Hate Network

A microphone against a purple and pink gradient background

In 2020 Baltimore-based writer Michael Tager shared an anecdote on X, then Twitter, describing an interaction he had with a bartender. As Tager tells it, the bartender noticed patches and symbols on the vest of a would-be patron, and immediately told the customer to “get out.” 

“You have to nip it in the bud immediately,” the server explained, “These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after awhile they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too. And then they bring friends and and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool, and then you realize, oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now. And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a problem. So you have to shut them down.

“Yeah, you have to ignore their reasonable arguments,” the bartender concluded to Tager, “because their end goal is to be terrible, awful people.”

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Preventing your establishment from becoming that proverbial “Nazi bar” is one good reason to be vigilant about keeping fascists, far-rightists, and conspiracy theorists out. But it’s not the only one.

As an employer, you have a duty to your workers that their workplace be safe and free of violence and harassment. You also have a duty specifically towards your workers who are 2SLGBTQ+, women, racialized, Jewish, Muslim, and members of other equity-deserving communities to not invite performers or speakers (or their audience) who pose a threat to them into their workplace.

For as long as fascists and the rest of the far-right have been booking at Legion halls, campus lecture theatres, hotel conference rooms, and neighbourhood dive bars, antifascists have been trying to get them deplatformed. 

What is deplatforming?

Deplatforming is a fundamental principle of anti-racism and antifascism which means we take steps to prevent fascist and far-right movements from reaching an audience. There are a wide range of actions that fall under this umbrella. It can be as simple as asking a social media platform to remove a hateful account or as big as asking a music festival to cut an antisemitic performer. As author of Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook Mark Bray puts it, we work to deplatform fascist and far-right groups and individuals “before they can expand into murderous movements or regimes, as they have in the past.”

We think there’s a better way: if venues are equipped to be vigilant against far-right and conspiracy theorists attempting to use them as a platform, we can prevent the need for counter-mobilization later on. This guide provides suggestions for venues, booking agents, and community members on how to identify and avoid booking far-right and conspiracy theorist bad actors looking for a platform, and what to do if you already have.

How to avoid booking bad actors

Being vigilant about not booking bad actors at your venue is a form of everyday antifascism, which is part of a collective and ongoing effort. If following all of these suggestions feels overwhelming, just start with one. Taking one action to prevent hate from finding a home in our communities is better than none. 

Before you book an act, you should ask them direct questions to make sure that they are the kind of people you want to give a platform to. We recommend asking:

  • Will their performance be in line with your venue’s values and policies? Make sure these values and policies are in writing somewhere (like your website) so you can refer to them.
  • Can they guarantee that the act they are booking will be the act that performs?
  • Will they be selling merchandise, and if so, what does that merchandise look like?
  • Can they provide references from past venues?

If the act has provided satisfactory answers, you can move on to background research, which takes two main forms—looking online, and asking others directly.

When it comes to your online research:

  • Look for news stories about them
  • Check the performer’s social media platforms. They may or may not provide you with all their accounts when trying to book your venue, so try to find them on as many relevant platforms as you’re familiar with. Check posts as well as replies and comments. Pay attention to comments left by others. 
  • Try to find out if the subject has ever performed or associated with anyone else. Look for headliners, openers, sponsors, and past venues. If an act has ever been associated with groups and individuals who promote hate and conspiracy theories, ask them about it. (Sometimes acts get tricked as well, so it’s worth hearing them out if they have an explanation, and no other concerning evidence of hateful ideology).
  • Search the act on social media, looking for posts made about them by others
  • Search the act on Reddit. People in music or other subculture communities have a vested interest in keeping bad actors out and may be the most vigilant in issuing early warnings about them. Try subreddits (smaller forums for specific interests) for cities the act has performed in previously, as well as genre-specific subreddits. 

You can ask others for help in figuring out whether a potential band, performer, or speaker is a bad actor. For example:

  • Previous venues the group/individual has booked
  • Other folks in the same genre/subculture/sphere as the act you’re considering booking whose opinions you respect
  • Organizations which monitor the far right like CAHN, Montreal Antifasciste, Community Solidarity Ottawa

If the act or their booking agent wants you to sign a contract (especially if it involves steep cancellation fees) make sure to get it checked by a lawyer before you sign it. 

If you’re getting pressure to book bad actors, or you’re aware of them already and are approached to book them, look to your business’ own internal anti-harassment or workplace violence policies, as well as values and venue policies, and relevant legislation to bolster your justifications for saying no.  

You accidentally booked bad actors. What now?

Whether you’re reading this guide because you’ve already booked a bad actor, or you tried the tips above, and still ended up booking a bad actor, we know that sometimes people with really good intentions end up in not good situations. Some bad actors have booked things under different names than what they plan to perform as. Others have instructed venues not to announce their shows until the last minute—leaving both venues and communities scrambling to address the situation once everyone realizes what’s going on.

First: stop and breathe. If you can, tap someone else in the business, or a trusted friend, to help you sort out what comes next. You might be getting a lot of angry emails, calls, tweets, and comments right now, and that is a lot to process. If you’ve booked members of the far-right or conspiracy theorists, the people sending those messages are right to be angry. The good news is that you can still take actions to make this situation better. 

Next: We’re not lawyers, but if you have a contract in place with the act, you should probably talk to one. They can help you understand your legal options, and the consequences. They may, for example, explain that you’re not legally able to contractually sign away your responsibility to provide a safe and respectful working environment.

In almost all cases, the most ethical thing to do will be anything in your power to prevent fascists, far-rightists, and conspiracy theorists from using your venue to reach a broader audience. Hopefully, that means cancelling the booking. However, we know that won’t always be possible (for a variety of reasons). 

If you do decide to keep the booking, you don’t have to make it a good time for them. If you’re a nightlife establishment, you can keep the house lights on. You can refuse to sell alcohol. You can make your establishment inhospitable to socializing and networking (i.e. the parts of this event we want to deter the most) before, between, and after sets by playing loud, unpleasant music and refusing re-entry. These are all tactics that can reduce the bad actors and their fans' enjoyment, and deter them from using your space as a place to socialize and build connections. However, these tactics probably won’t be particularly well-received by attendees, which means it’s important to make sure that there’s a general manager or owner on site during the show, so your front-of-house staff aren’t the ones on the receiving end of backlash.

People are really mad! What now?

If you’ve already hosted bad actors, people are likely pretty upset. And they’re right to be! But all is not lost—you can salvage relationships with concerned community members. It will take time, sincerity, and humility. 

First, apologize sincerely for your actions. Even if you end up cancelling the booking, it’s important to understand that taking the booking alone (even if it’s by accident) is likely felt as a breach of trust for many people. Acknowledge the impact, and that it is likely felt more deeply by people from equity-deserving groups. Explain what steps you’ll be taking to prevent this from happening in the future. Consider actively soliciting acts from antifascists and equity-deserving communities, and taking steps to increase the accessibility/feasibility/ success of these events. Consider donating the proceeds from the event to an organization which serves or is led by equity-deserving groups. Did you accidentally host a group that’s known for its anti-Indigenous hatred? Commit the proceeds to a trusted local organization which works with the Indigenous community. 

No matter whether you cancel the booking or not, it is vitally important that you make a good faith effort to hear and address the concerns being raised by community members. Don’t hide or delete angry comments. Don’t lash out defensively. Don’t lie. Don’t make excuses. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. 

It’s not pleasant to be under the microscope like this, but you and your establishment can get through it if you keep your values at the centre of what you do next.

Bad actors often don't take kindly to having their performances cancelled, so you should be prepared to receive backlash from them and their fans. Having strong relationships with community members who are fighting against hate is one of the best ways to withstand that storm.

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