On most days, the Brooklyn Commons, a cafe and co-working space in Boerum Hill, is a place where the city’s progressives and radical leftists can feel comfortable. It is home, after all, to socialist literary darlings Jacobin magazine, the Marxist Education Project, and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. But on Wednesday night, demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk outside the commons to protest against the night’s speaker: Christopher Bollyn, a self-styled investigative journalist who was there to deliver a lecture on how the Jews did 9/11.
“Why does 9/11 truth matter?” Bollyn asked, early in his presentation. “For all the same reasons the JFK assassination matters.” The JFK assassination matters, Bollyn said, because it constituted a coup d’etat—meaning that the forces that took power following the assassination (the Jews, he argued) constitute an illegitimate government. “If the media continues to lie about 9/11, that means it is controlled by the same people that perpetrated 9/11,” Bollyn said. (He was talking about the Jews.)
Bollyn is not the kind of person one would expect to find speaking at a place like Brooklyn Commons: Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a raging anti-Semite,” Bollyn, who has appeared on David Duke’s radio show, calls the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, “a monstrous Jewish-Zionist crime,” the architects of which are “protected by a gang of like-minded Jewish Zionists in the highest positions of the U.S. government.” At one point, he touted his credentials as a contributor to the American Free Press, an anti-Semitic conspiracy rag, and, as progressive Jewish blogger Daniel Sieradski points out, the description of Wednesday’s event on the Commons’ website originally read, “9/11 and the War on Terror are dual deceptions imposed on our nation by the Israeli/Zionist and Neo-Conservative cabal that controls our government and media,” before the more explicitly anti-Semitic language was removed.
(Incidentally, the Anti-Defamation League notes that the American Free Press fired Bollyn in 2006 for filing false stories, which is really saying something for a publication that recently ran the headline, “70,000 Whites Murdered in ‘Modern’ South Africa; Obama’s African Legacy.”)
In any case, Bollyn’s appearance at the Commons has caused a significant rupture in the city’s progressive community—exacerbated in no small part by the cafe’s owner, Melissa Ennen, having responded to criticism of his appearance first with airy dismissals and later, after a number of the co-working spaces tenants released a statement condemning Bollyn’s views, with resentful platitudes about freedom of speech. In a letter posted to the Commons’ website on Wednesday, Ennen wrote that she had been “bombarded by emails” objecting to Bollyn’s talk. “People are demanding that I cancel the event. Some are threatening dire consequences for The Commons. What has brought us to this?”
On July 14, I received an email from a man named Irving Lee asking to rent the Commons in September for a talk by Christopher Bollyn. Bollyn was described in the email as a 9/11 researcher who had been on a Pacifica/WBAI program called Guns & Butter hosted by Bonnie Faulkner. Irving Lee, the man who booked and paid for the rental, identified himself as follows: “We are not part of any organization. We’re just a group who want to bring Bollyn, a cutting edge speaker to NYC for the 15th anniversary of 9/11.”
I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space. Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although progressive organizations dominate the calendar because I subsidize many of them with free or very low-cost use of the space, the Commons is available for rental by other groups.
By Wednesday night, with former friends holding up signs and angrily shouting just on the other side of the Commons’ tall, glass facade, Ennen had not changed her position. In fact, she continued to insist that she had not yet familiarized herself with Bollyn’s views—the implication being that this was beside the point. (The point being, according to Ennen, that Bollyn’s money was good, and that Ennen needs to keep the lights on, and she can’t do that if she’s just constantly subsidizing socialists.)
“I think safe spaces are important, but I can’t make this a safe space 24/7,” Ennen said. “Nor would I want to. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, or what.” Ennen, it was revealed yesterday, is a former organizer for NY 9/11 Truth. She says she is no longer affiliated with the group.
At one point, a young woman came into the cafe and got into an argument with one of the baristas, telling him that the Commons was losing her business. He told her to “fuck off” and called her a “fat ass.” Meanwhile, Bollyn, in his sad, pleated khakis and blue collared shirt, continued warning the gathered audience about the dangers of “Crypto Jews” and maximalist Zionist Israelis and their “cabals.” He went on to accuse Senator John McCain of meeting with the alleged leader of ISIS during an illegal visit to Syria.
The barista and the young woman he’d been so rude to continued to argue on the sidewalk outside the cafe, surrounded by demonstrators who did little to de-escalate the situation. The barista and another man got into a shoving match, which led to some spitting, which led, apparently, to a thrown punch. Police arrived shortly thereafter. (An NYPD spokesperson had no record of any charges being filed as of Thursday afternoon.)
“Two men decided to get violent, and now we have to deal with the cops,” the woman who organized the demonstration, Berakha Guggenheim, told Jezebel as about a half-dozen police officers milled about and made sure pedestrians had room to walk past the storefront. Asked why she’d decided to organize an action outside the Commons, rather than inside, where they could actually confront Bollyn and interrogate his views, Guggenheim sneered. “I’m not giving money to a fucking Nazi.”
“There is a big difference between people who both deny and promote genocide, using language that tacitly or even explicitly supports the violent oppression of marginalized groups, including Jews, and those who just support bad policies,” she continued, referring to Ennen’s stated position that this isn’t the first time the Commons has hosted ideologically divergent groups and individuals. “‘These two things are both bad’ is not a useful framework of analysis.”
Guggenheim was pleased with the turnout, given that the demonstration was somewhat last minute. “Like a lot of people on the Left, I wrestle with the issue of balancing the necessity of engagement with self-care,” Marion Lipschutz, a grey-haired woman, older than most of the other demonstrators, told Jezebel. “Instead of my usual, Wednesday night yoga class, I took an earlier class instead, because I felt it was important, as a Jewish feminist, and as a Jew, to be here to protest against the irresponsible use of this progressive Brooklyn space.”
“There are non-bigoted ways to question the official narrative of 9/11,” Lipschutz said. “This is not that.”
Update – 6:45 pm
The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research has pulled all of its programming from Brooklyn Commons. “It is impossible for me to teach Adorno’s rather convincing argument that conspiratorial thinking offers a foundation for fascism out of one side of my mouth while remaining silent about the spread of those ideas with the other,” its executive director, Ajay Singh Chaudhry, said in a statement.
“Anti-Semitism (alongside racism, misogyny, class power, and so on) is a pervasive phenomenon. In this year’s political cycle, we have seen it clearly with the rise of the so-called “alt-right” but also, less frequently, in the left too, as well as in mainstream liberal and conservative spaces.”
Also, this piece has been updated to more accurately reflect one of the quotes from Lipschutz.