That awkward moment when convention security lady tells you that you look like someone who might steal a purse.
— Ron Bronson (@ronbronson) October 7, 2015
So I tweeted this a minute after the incident happened. I didn’t really think about it, but given we tweet everything else, I think I felt the need for someone to know.
Here’s how it went down.
I was helping break down the Bravery Media booth since Joel had to get ready for his presentation. So I was shuttling things to my car. After taking the first batch, I came back and got the 2nd batch of things. On my way back, the escalator is broken so I came down to the 2nd floor like I did several times before today. But this time, I didn’t have my conference nametag on. Two other vendor types were in front of me in the same situation.
The security lady stopped us — she was different than the person I’d seen there earlier in the morning — and she asked us where we were going. She proceeded to tell the people in front of me that they have a lot of issues with “people from the street just walking in,” so it’s important to have our nametags, etc.
Incidentally, this was not the first time I’d heard this. The same thing from someone else at the same desk on Sunday during the pre-conference setup. In that instance, I didn’t have my name badge yet. This time, I’d just put it in the box I was carrying to the car and managed to leave it there when I put things away. It was kind of annoying having something hanging when I was carrying heavy things a decent distance from the exhibit hall to the garage.
Anyway, back to our security friend. She spent about five minutes explaining to us there were cameras and it was her job to tell us why we weren’t able to walk down there without conference passes. The woman vendor told her that “the conference is over. We are vendors and packing up.” Security kept talking to us about what she’d done — “I let someone else go to lunch out that door, they didn’t have theirs either.”
After talking to the vendors, she looked at me behind them. I was a bit surprised, because I just assumed during the initial exchange she conflated me with them since we were there for the same event. Instead, it was immediately clear I had to account for myself separately. I was a bit unprepared for this.
“So the same situation for you?” I said yes. I offered to go back to the car and get it, mostly because I didn’t want to spend another five minutes listening to her talk about it. Instead, she proceeded to keep talking. “Well you know, we just can’t let anybody in here. I mean, you look like you could have come from anywhere. I mean what if you come in and steal somebody’s purse or something? We have a lot of problems with people come in from the outside.” [n.b. I was wearing a shirt and jeans today rather than my snazzy conference attire because I had a five-hour drive ahead of me]
After that, she asked us again where we were going. The vendors in front of me told her back to the exhibit hall to pack up. During this last exchange, I just happened to have Flickr opened and a photo of me that was taken presenting. I said “here is an actual photo of me presenting here…” but that ended up not being necessary. She seemed satisfied after well over five minutes of talking to us, that we could go straight to the exhibit hall, but reminded us that “the cameras can see you and will be watching you all the way there.”
Here’s the deal, friends. I’m not really interested in making this “about me.” My problems with this scenario and Milwaukee were really specific to some of the dynamics of the hotel’s staffing that made me feel at times that we were in the 1950S or 60s. So it wasn’t just this one incident that gave me pause. But for a major convention center to hassle attendees who are spending their own money or that of their company in this city that’s not exactly a “tourist destination” is a really shortsighted feature of their security practice.
Moreover, the individual barking orders was not in any position to stop anyone who might have been an interloper anyway. So I’m not sure that her presence server a purpose beyond potentially crowd control or helping someone find their way.
So yes, this experience soured me on what was otherwise several days of fantastic memories, knowledge sharing and community building. But there are bigger issues here.
People sometimes wonder why I’m so conscious about how I’m dressed. I didn’t always wear a suit jacket because I necessarily felt like being hot. I just expect that situations like this sometimes happen to me. It’s a fact of my life. I don’t feel any particular kind of way about it, but I do think that institutions have a responsibility to treat people fairly.
Having served in the military and being really cognizant of security protocols, if she was so insistent on their protocol that a conference that had several hundred attendees needed to have every single person (trying to reach the bottom floor of a building with a broken escalator) wearing their nametag, then so be it. But in that case, there ought be no exception. She simply could have asked us to go back and get them or worst case, call someone from the conference staff to vouch for us presence. Either way, while frustrating would have at least solved this issue satisfactorily.
I didn’t really get upset with the woman, because it was clear to me that she was just “doing her job,” and so her statement bothered me but it bothered me because I realized that if someone else had been in my shoes it might have gone differently. I mean, I spoke at #highedweb15, I’m an active member of the community and I was there in several different capacities. That made me feel like I knew I’d be heard if I spoke up. What if it not someone like me? Perhaps a first-time attendee who was treated that way? Or worse? Being told you arouse suspicion without provocation is really outrageous.
I'll never go back to Milwaukee.
— Ron Bronson (@ronbronson) October 7, 2015
This probably reads like an overreaction, but it’s not. I was raised to know that you make deliberate choices with your dollars. If a shopkeeper at a local store was rude to one of my parents, they made it very clear we didn’t have to shop there and would go somewhere else. I’ve maintained that belief most of life and I live by it. Milwaukee was full of very nice people throughout the places we went over the days we were there. But this kind of behavior won’t stop and it’s reflective of a city that hasn’t really taken account for its own retrograde thinking.
So there’s my story.
P.S. Milwaukee is not new to me. My first summer away from home was in 1998. I spent that summer in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I joined the Air Force later that summer and I enlisted at the MEPS in Milwaukee. Wisconsin is also where I first had a drivers license. So this isn’t really about Wisconsin at all, but specifically Milwaukee and feeling like it’s not a place that was welcome to someone like me. Which is a bummer, because there are some cool spaces we found across our few days that would have been worth exploring.