News about the Elm Europe organizer [TW]

I saw this tweet which, according to Google Translate, reads as follows:

Good evening,

Thibaut Assus, one of the creators of ParisRB, was tried at the Paris Assizes and found guilty of rape and sexual assault with the aggravating circumstance: abuse of the authority conferred on him by his functions.

He was sentenced to 5 years in prison at first instance.

If you have been a victim or witness to certain acts or behaviors following a RailsGirls event, at ParisRB or in any other context, whether it seems more or less serious to you, do not hesitate to contact the organizers of the association here.

Such acts are very serious, in a community advocating benevolence like ParisRB. Women On Rails conveys its full support to the victims. We believe you and we are here for you.

The Women On Rails organizers.

It is truly sickening news. I have not been able to get additional details yet, but I want to fill people in on what I know right now.

This person independently created/organized Elm Europe, inviting a lot of speakers from the Elm community. I feel sick having spoken at this event, and I pray to god that everyone who attended was safe.

I have reached out to people from Women on Rails and Elm Paris to try to find out more details. It seems to have been a jury trial, but when does the 5 year sentence begin? Will it be possible for him to try to organize more events before that? Anything that might help us act to protect people as quickly as possible.

I have also contacted the ESF lawyer to learn what can be done to make sure independently organized events are safe. E.g. Can we ensure that the name “Elm” is not used by certain events? If so, how does that work internationally? What do other open source projects do? How can speakers do background checks on organizers? Etc.

That is all I know right now. Thank you to @Warry for bringing this to the attention of non-French speakers here, and I want to reiterate what WomenOnRails, ElmBridge and elm-conf have said. Specifically emphasizing that “If you have been a victim or witness to certain acts or behaviors […] whether it seems more or less serious to you, do not hesitate to contact the organizers of the association here.” And as a speaker, I now understand that knowing that a conference has a Code of Conduct is not sufficient. I need to be asking a lot of questions about the specific staff and safety procedures at a conference. “If someone reports they feel uncomfortable around someone else, what happens next? Are there minders? Who are they? What is the protocol on ejection? Etc.” I encourage other speakers to do the same, and to decline to attend if they are not getting good answers.

[Edit: Having speakers ask these questions obviously cannot guarantee that the event will be safe, but it seems like a responsible precaution, especially if your talk may be a draw for the conference. There is further discussion/refinement below!]

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I think its pretty difficult to express how this makes me feel bad but it’s good to see you stepping up and reassuring the values that most (hopefully all) of our community stand for. So thanks for that.

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Hi Evan,

I’m really sympathetic with your reaction to this shocking news.

That said, I’d like to point out that Elm’s label or your presence did not enable him to commit a crime. Rape culture and the symbolic power of the offender did.

In France, 7 on 10 claims of sexual assaults are classified without continuation. And I believe most rapes and sexual assaults are not even reported.

Thus, having a way to check the criminal records of guests/organizers is in no way a good enough filter. It won’t stop sexual assaults, it will only force potential offenders to hide better. Worse, saying that the measures of a given organization are OK enough to wear the Elm’s label and having you as a guest may actually drive attendants to lower their guard. Everyone will have the feeling they are the good guys (I use this term because most offenders and most tech audiences are cis-gendered males ) until the next sexual violence.

Sexual violence happens everywhere, in your family, in your university, in your church, even in your anarcho-feminist local community.

If you really want to take action, your strongest move is probably to use your symbolic power to plead for non-mixed gatherings (which are known to be safer than mixed ones). The second one is to use it to promote a culture that acknowledges the existence of rape culture along with the potential predator/survivor hidden inside everyone who has been raised in it. We need to talk about that to educate ourselves to see and react to the signs prefiguring the worst events.

Finally, we need to creatively -and collectively- think of ways to gather with extreme care for people who lack the symbolic power of guests and organizers (or the privileges of HSBCs). Clearly, a code of conduct and goodwill are not enough. And it is a hard problem which has not been solved properly. Even by the most enlightened communities, you can think of.

Some promising ideas I encountered or heard of in mixed-gathering :

  • Having someone responsible for actively and periodically check that everyone feels safe. Talk about small aggressions or even identify them as such can be hard. It’s easier when someone comes at you.
  • Getting rid of stages (and backstage) as well with vertical sharing of knowledge. It may seem not relevant but it is a way to address the imbalance in the distribution of perceived symbolic power.
  • Clearly state that even consented flirt is not OK during the gathering. Particularly when symbolic power is not distributed equally.
  • Indeed, having a clear policy for exclusion with a security team (professional or not).
  • Talking massively about this when welcoming people and when promoting the event. The person who reports aggression is, by default, always right.

The idea is to discourage predators to attend these events and to prevent people from becoming predators with the affirmation of clear boundaries.

I don’t believe there is a clear path for you to coerce organizers to follow such rules (and as stated earlier, even if you can it might end up being counterproductive), but you can convince them or participants (us) that it should be tried.

Also, when I opened your post, I was not expecting to read something related to rape and sexual assaults. Maybe you could add a trigger warning in the title of your post?

I have a lot of respect for you and your work. (And sorry for my poor English, I hope I’m intelligible enough).

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That is disturbing. Is this the guy you are talking about?

I completely second @Yoelis . You can neither become a vigilante that watches every Elm conference or brand Elm as hazard free by controlling the brand. Elm has become a global movement and it is too big for anyone to directly control it. What I think needs to be done is to coordinate all Elm groups in a way that follows transparency and trust.

No, this is wrong also. This would just encourage false reports from persons who want to tarnish someone

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These false reports happen too much, and it is almost as harmful as rape. But victims still need to be encouraged to report

I agree that @evancz should do that

false reports happen a lot

This is not true, and the fact that it’s being stated here as true makes me feel like we’re probably already not a safe community for reporting.

Here are some overviews on the statistics about “false accusations”:

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I have learned that the five year prison sentence has begun already.

Thank you @Yoelis for your response. I really like the ideas you shared. I have talked to the ESF lawyer about how trademarks are used by other foundations, and I personally really like the approach used by the Python Software Foundation (PSF) described here. One worry is that inexperienced organizers may just not know about the techniques you describe, and the section on PyCon here seems like plausible avenue to help well-intentioned organizers find good resources and create safer events.

I understand the fear that working towards this “may actually drive attendants to lower their guard” but I also feel like it is very much worth working towards the implementation of the kinds of ideas you describe. I think things like “having someone responsible for actively and periodically checking that everyone feels safe” and “having a clear policy for exclusion with a security team” help strike a balance there. I’m not saying that’s The Answer, but rather that I think I get what you are saying about there being surprising risks here.

About asking questions as a speaker, obviously I cannot guarantee that an event is safe by asking some questions, but if it reveals that something is off in even one case, it seems worthwhile to do. Especially if your talk may be a draw for the conference. I’ll amend my post to try to make this clearer. It’s more that I feel a responsibility to ask, not that doing so is any sort of guarantee. Let’s DM about this if this still sounds off to you. I am no expert, and I do not want to be recommending bad practices.

Finally, I personally found the book Trauma and Recovery very helpful in thinking about these issues, and I want to recommend it to any well-intentioned readers or posters who may be getting caught on certain specific phrases. The first chapter (“A Forgotten History”) is particularly relevant, and I ask that any such people will read through it before posting further on the topic. The chapter is very aptly named.

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To add a little bit of depth to the stats: For the people here living in a legal system that somehow inherits from Roman’s law, the presumption of innocence might be a pretty important thing. Better letting a guilty person in the wild than condemning an innocent person (cf quasi-Voltaire). So it may be frightening to hear what seems to be the complete contradiction of this principle.

However, when we say “We believe you”, it’s not a heuristic for the truth. It is not even a heuristic for justice. It is a performative statement enabling care and healing for the people who have been silenced, distrusted, and abused for too long. The question here is not “How can we know for sure that they says the truth” but more “How can we create an environment where they feels safe and happy ?”. Believing and taking action is the correct path.

What does it even mean for a person to falsely claim aggression? Who’s going to fact-check that? Your boundaries are not mine and we can’t define official limits without excluding at least one’s experience.

If the price of that is to temporally ban someone from the gathering, who cares? I agree it can be harsh for the guy’s feelings who “just” made a misplaced compliment but we are not talking about putting someone in jail. We don’t have to make a scandal out of that. Plus the guy has an entire broken system at his disposal to heal.

It doesn’t even have to go to this point. Someone who knows intimately that they will have the support of organizers if something goes wrong can talk to the compliment-guy to get an apology and the compliment-guy who knows that he won’t be supported by the organizers will probably apologize. He may even learn something during the process!

Finally, if someone reports an aggression serious enough to become a criminal case then a precautionary measure would also be to ban and protect. If someone lied, there are processes in any legal system to shed light on it.

@evancz, I agree with you. If there is any chance to challenge the status quo through a legal path and if you have the resources to explore this you should totally go for it.
That said, I also believe that your voice alone has a strong impact on organizers of elm gatherings. And if you push for new conventions, organizers will probably follow. In particular, if they are involved in the creation process. And if it comes with new material that can ease the organization of good events like this hackathon guide, it’s even better!
Also, do you read French by any chance? I may have resources to share.

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The person who reports aggression is, by default, always right.

No, this is wrong, as it violates the principle of innocence and we shouldn’t ever get there. We can do better. I’d rephrase that sentence as: “The person who reports aggression requires, by default, immediate measures of protection”.

By adopting cautelar measures of protection we don’t affect the principle of innocence, we don’t need to assume anything or judge anyone in order to help. I’ve worked as a lawyer and I’ve helped many victims to get those measures in place (panic buttons, police custody, etc).

false reports happen a lot

It’s hard to believe statistics when there are too many interests in the game. I have none.
I’ve seen countless cases of violence and abuse. I’m now retired as a lawyer but I’ve also seen too many cases of (bad) lawyers recommending their clients (mostly in divorce cases) to falsely accuse their partners. And that happens if we promote the violation of the innocence principle: we create an incentive for that to happen, which is bad for everyone, specially for the victims in the long term.

These are sad days for the Elm community.

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What happens more often? Someone is sexually assaulted, but does not report it, or does but the case is not prosecuted, or fails to secure a conviction in court. Already we hear that 7/10 are never even reported. That is the false negative case.

Or someone makes a false accusation. And without any real evidence, and such a low rate of success with real cases, a false accusation is very unlikely to go far. That is the false positive case.

I don’t have any stats to back it up, but I am willing to bet there are far more false negatives than false positives.

Also consider, in the case of a false accusation of sexual assault, perhaps things did not go so far as the victim made out. But why would someone make an accusation for no reason at all, out of nothing? Perhaps there was harrasment or innapropriate physical contact? And that should be something that is breaking the rules of any professional environment already.

To say “the victim will always be believed”, in the context of the workplace or an event, is completely right. Also to try and ensure that you have diversity within the group of people who are in charge is important. A woman may feel more comfortable reporting an assault to a women. The victim of racist abuse may feel more reassured to report it to someone non-white. When you are in charge, you have to take any report of wrong doing seriously and accept it at face value otherwise you may let down a victim. If its a serious enough matter, then it is up to the police to investigate and a court to decide and apply a more rigorous standard, and that is where the tradition of innocent until proven guilty has its place. But that is a different thing to the natural responsibility of care that should exist within any kind of organisation that is worth being part of.

Anonymous first posting lawyer - this was not a divorce case. It is the unveiling of someone with a dark secret who was involved in our community. It is quite right to offer reassurance of belief just in case that there are other victims struggling with the decision to come forward, which is not an easy thing to do.

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If the price of that is to temporally ban someone from the gathering, who cares? I agree it can be harsh for the guy’s feelings who “just” made a misplaced compliment but we are not talking about putting someone in jail. We don’t have to make a scandal out of that. Plus the guy has an entire broken system at his disposal to heal.

These statements are making me very uncomfortable. You’re mistaking “listening to people, protecting them, and showing no sympathy for abusive behaviors” with some sort of on-the-spot mob justice.

Clearly, no one should feel comfortable in a community where one person could become a pariah because of one report from another.

We as a community have a responsibility for making every effort we can to create safe environments and be as inclusive as possible. What you’re saying is not it.

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I think temporarily removing someone from a situation as as a precautionary first response while you figure out next steps is often a reasonable response to a report. That’s what “temporally ban” sounds like to me. It doesn’t have to mean “making someone a pariah”; it can just be a thing you do to try to ensure everyone feels safe while you decide what action to take.

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If people are interested in reading more about how to respond to things like this at events and/or code of conduct issues in general, Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner wrote a really helpful book on it called How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports. At my work we used it to help with writing our own incident response policy, which is open sourced here in case it’s a useful reference for anyone.

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I don’t want to be rude (provocative maybe but not rude) but it’s made to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. Not enough to ruin your moment but just enough so you can’t feel entitled or carry with you a sense of impunity. A tacit assumption here, we can totally discuss, is that a category of the population behaves like jerks because of a certain sense of impunity. If we remove the safety net people become nicer (or hide better their jerkiness, which is good enough).
Maybe you don’t need that to be a kind and respectful person, maybe you come from a country where it’s not needed, maybe you come from the future! But where I live today it’s actually more than needed.

I read again the beautifully written berlin code of conduct, does the point on “addressing grievances” helps you to go from “very uncomfortable” to “a little bit uncomfortable”?

@neurodynamic thanks a lot for sharing this, it looks like a very valuable reading!

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I find it genuinely frightening how convinced you seem to be that 1) you are part of the “right side” and 2) you have a mandate to decide the demarcation between right and wrong.

It is crucial to listen to and care for people who report problematic actions or words because, as was established before, false reports almost never occur. But it does not mean that those actions or words make their author actually guilty of something. Let’s not turn this into arbitrary trials.

I think it is more important that members of the community make sure they don’t tolerate any abusive behavior or comments, even when made “for fun”. Sexism and and racism is never acceptable, even more so in a professional and public environment. It is our individual and collective responsibility to stand up to that.

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Hey folks,

I’m still shocked by this… Thanks @evancz to take it over, I wouldn’t have done a better job at writing a report of the situation.

This was the first trial and different appeals might change the verdict. I must strength the fact that in France only 1% of estimated cases result in convictions. It’s very rare that it receives a jury trial, and even rarer to see 5 years sentences. It’s the actual severity that motivated me to bring the attention of the community to this. I’m not in the business of destructing one’s reputation, but when a rather lax justice system goes this far, I felt that it was reasonable to warn the community before waiting for appeals that might take years.

This is totally anachronistic, or so I thought. I really hope we can end the rape culture, so yes I stand by and say: You are a victim? We believe you.

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I feel that arguing about policies under this thread might be harmful. I think right step to do right now is to provide potential victims reassurance that they should not be afraid to go forward. It would be nice if other organizers of these elm events can provide instructions on how to do so. I understand the policies do matter and has to be discussed but doing so here and right now might discourage victims to report abuse.

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