We were all temporarily annoyed when our British colleague, James, was detained at the Canada/U.S border. We were on our way to Philadelphia for the Minds IRL conference, and there was a glitch in our travel due to James’ paperwork. Our hold up, though, was slight as James batted his eyelashes and explained to the border agent that we worked for The Post Millennial. The agent pulled up our site on his phone and started to scroll. His eyes lit up. “Conservative Canadians news? I didn’t know people like you existed!” The agent was gleeful.
We were soon on our way for what would turn out to be one of the more surprising trips of our lives—one where free speech activists were under attack from media and activists increasingly desperate to misrepresent them as hateful.
Roberto, Yanky, James and I made up The Post Millennial team tasked with covering the Minds IRL conference—a one-day event dedicated to free speech, anti-racism and combating authoritarianism.
With a diverse lineup of speakers including headliner Daryl Davis (Klan-destine Relationships), co-organizer Tim Pool (Subverse), Mark Meechan (Count Dankula), and Lauren Chen (The Roaming Millennial), among others, the event had made headlines in the days leading up to August 31st as Antifa and local New Jersey “left-wing” groups threatened to cause violence and protest local businesses in the small town of Pitman as a response to the event.
The organizers of Minds IRL had to deal with the local Pitman theatre cancelling on them in the last minute out of fear. They moved the event to the security and surveillance-heavy SugarHouse casino—a move that would prove to be brilliant.
Blaire White, Shoe0nHead, Armoured Skeptic, Josephine Mathias all cancelled in the days leading up to the conference out of fear of violence. A benefit of the threats, however, was that Minds IRL organizers signed Daryl Davis on to headline the event and reiterate their commitment to open dialogue, free speech, and anti-racism above all else. Davis is a musician and activists that has personally and on a one on one basis, changed the minds of active KKK members. These guys have turned over their robes to Davis, and a new lease on life.
Despite the last-minute cancellations, backstage was a who’s who of YouTubers and independent journalists. The TPM crew interviewed Tim Pool, Sargon of Akkad, Meghan Murphy, Count Dankula, and Andy Ngo. The interviews were surprising and engaging and will be uploaded soon. Me and my crew connected with content creators and journalists such as Melissa Chen, Lauren Chen, Desi-Rae Campbell, Jack Posobiec, and more. It was convivial and many thought-provoking conversations took place, onstage and off.
There was one solitary figure backstage, however, who loomed large. One curly-haired woman paced the room, and took photos of people without their consent as they mingled and ate their complimentary sandwiches. We would later find out that she was Talia Lavin—a notoriously malicious activist-journalist famous for resigning from the New Yorker after lying about an ICE agent in an attempt to get him fired. After Lavin left the backstage area, she proceeded to take photos of unwitting attendees, and twist their words in order to make them sound hateful or racist. After that, she staged a scene where she was chased out of the venue by racists, but we found that this was a complete fabrication, and have a recording with SugarHouse security personnel to back it up.
At a time when journalists like Lavin are desperate to shame random conservatives online, and celebrities like Eric McCormack and Debra Messing are calling for the doxxing of donors to conservative political campaigns, threatening to disrupt their livelihood, and disingenuously claiming that there’s no reason people in the entertainment industry should be concerned about their political leanings being known, a conference like Minds IRL couldn’t be more essential. But a conference like Minds IRL is also dangerous for one’s reputation.
A prominent recording artist was in attendance, as well as a handful of others who kept a low profile by remaining mostly backstage. The recording artist confided to one of us that he did not want to be photographed or written about because the stakes were simply too high. They are successful (we won’t even risk revealing a gender), but in today’s cancel culture, no one is untouchable. I will protect their identity, but I wish such a precaution wasn’t necessary.
Onstage, the conversations were productive and eye-opening. Topics ranged from the legalization of sex work to big tech monopolies. A panel on The Great migration: A discussion on digital and physical immigration, was moderated by Stephen Knight (The Godless Spellchecker Podcast). Lauren Chen (Roaming Millennial), Tim Pool (YouTube, Subverse), Daisy Cousens (Sky News), and Tara Devlin (RDT Daily) took on the topic of online censorship, living life online, and actual analog migration. The perspectives were varied, and Pool’s vision of idea diversification was on display. The question was raised about whether social media platforms should be considered publishers or platforms. The most fascinating topic concerned the wealthiest nations’ responsibility to the citizens of the developing world. Are we global or national citizens? If the wealthiest nations rely on the labour and resources of the rest of the world, how should those refugees and migrants from those places fit into our culture?
A panel on The Effects of Political Violence featured Minds co-founder Bill Ottman, Andy Ngo, a journalist who is a persistent and virulent thorn in Antifa’s paw, and Tim Pool, who made his bones covering Occupy Wall Street back in 2011. Ngo talked about his experiences on the streets of Portland, covering the clashes between Antifa and the Proud Boys. In addition to being beaten and bloodied, he had been milkshaked. It may sound absurd, that there’s violence in throwing a milkshake, but Ngo laid it out. First off, a milkshake can blind you, it gets in your eyes, and confuses your vision. The second thing it does is mark you, it’s basically a dairy-based paint bomb, so once you’re marked, other violent protesters will spot you with ease.
Sometime in the late afternoon, word began to spread that Antifa had congregated outside of the site of the Minds afterparty, an indie brewery called Human Brewery Company owned by a local Jewish couple. The afterparty was for speakers and panellists, along with 100 paying guests from the conference. It was near the original venue, in Pitman, New Jersey. As the afternoon turned to evening, reports from Pitman confirmed that the number of protestors lined up across the street from the brewery was growing. While some speakers declined to attend the after-event, others were undeterred, because when freedom of assembly is under assault, free speech absolutists step up.
As the sun began to set, Yanky and I set off for Pitman to see what we could see. We were met by Pitman police and police from the surrounding area who escorted us through the small town and various checkpoints down a gravel-road back lane. When we arrived at the back of the venue, we were greeted by Pitman locals—homeowners who were there to keep watch in case any trouble broke out. “We love our town, and it’s a shame these outsiders [Antifa] decided to come here to cause trouble,” one homeowner told me. He went on to describe the history of the town, the significance of its town tabernacle, and their Christian heritage.
How odd to be in 2019, when a group of ideologically, racially and culturally diverse liberals and conservatives can congregate in a Jewish-owned brewery to discuss ideas and learn from each other, and somehow that’s considered “hate.”
It’s almost too absurd to write down, but here it is: The Minds IRL crew were diverse in every way. Daryl Davis was holding court to attentive listeners, talking about the over 200 KKK members that he helped to deradicalize. Meanwhile, across the street from the brewery, between 20-30 mostly-white middle-class 20-somethings chanted slogans suggesting that the people inside were “fascists and “KKK members.”
Some of the Antifa members and “anti-racist” protestors let the attendees know in no uncertain terms how they felt about them. One young man taunted journalist Andy Ngo, beckoning him to cross the street: “I got a milkshake for you, Andy!” he bellowed.
Another man yelled at a talented, young YouTuber called The Red-Headed Libertarian as she left the event under police escort, saying ” “I hope you get raped in those heels.” Remember: these are the “anti-fascist good guys.”
Yanky and I made our escape, again with the help of NJ police, and headed back to Philly to decompress and rejoin our other colleagues, Roberto and James. We spoke of the incoherence of the current cultural moment. The downside of 2019 was made clear by the delusional paranoia of the protestors who genuinely think that they are fighting some serious fascist force. The upside, however, was also clear. The people who gathered for Minds included anti-racist deradicalization specialists, independent journalists, feminists, liberal pundits, Trump supporters, Never-Trumpers, and every ideological position in between.
What united them was not an ideology, not biases or prejudices, not hatred, but a determination to maintain individual liberty, support and secure free speech, and never stop debating, interrogating, and investigating ideas.
On the way home, I faded in and out of sleep between pit stops, Yanky’s erratic driving, various political debates, James’ frantic search for his paperwork, and good-natured ribbing. I found myself dwelling on the fate of Talia Lavin. I wondered what would life would be like for her if she simply let go of her hatred and bias, and tried to have a conversation with the people at the conference instead of stealthily taking photos of them and smearing them on Twitter.
It’s a thought that deeply saddened me because I know that she would find challenges to her assumptions, common ground, and even friendship. I also know that she currently lives in a context that would never allow her to risk such a conversation. If she did, she would lose all her current friends. Maybe one day she will feel the freedom to risk it. After all, that’s why a conference like Minds IRL exists.