While there were some great moments at Nine Worlds, my convention experience did not start fantastically. I was a little disoriented, truth be told. I was moderating one panel and taking part in another over the weekend. I didn’t feel prepared because I had spent the week getting more and more anxious that the guidelines for moderators and panelists hadn’t arrived. These guidelines are vital for ensuring an inclusive space, and this was hugely important to me. The guidance finally came through on Wednesday, 8th August, the night before we would travel down for the convention.

Three weeks before, I had been told I needed to prep a 140-character summary of my panel, with 24 hours’ notice before the deadline. I only found out because I had emailed about something else.

I’m autistic, and the uncertainty and last-minute tasks put me into a bit of a tailspin before the convention. Something felt off, and my anxiety ramped up. I put this down to just my usual issues raising their head again. I tried to reassure myself that I was just stressed, and that things would improve.

However, things seemed to get more ominous each day. I had a great day on Friday, but that night I caught an article that had been posted to Medium about Nine Worlds back on Thursday. In it, an attendee and participant, Rammi, relayed how she and other members of her panel were due to give a talk about Intoxicants in Fiction. The problem was that they had not been consulted about who had been added as a panelist.

Something felt off, and my anxiety ramped up…. I tried to reassure myself that I was just stressed, and that things would improve.

The extra panelist was a police officer, whose participant bio mentioned their profession. A police officer on a panel where panelists might share their personal experiences with intoxicants, Rammi explained, was obviously going to be uncomfortable as it was. However, the main issue was they also did not feel safe around the police due to past trauma. When the moderator flagged to Nine Worlds that no one was comfortable with a police officer being on the panel, organisers suggested the moderator step down as the organisers did not determine the panelist being a police officer to be a problem.

Rammi explained what happened next when concerns were voiced, including the response from Nine Worlds. It felt dismissive, and it seemed like the organisers hadn’t understood the issue at all. As I read it, I was worried about how the situation had been handled by the organisers. This wasn’t the first time I had seen a panel featuring an attendee who was also a police officer, usually there to comment on the realism of police portrayal in fiction.

This year, there was a Top of the SFF Cops panel due to take place on Saturday. I had brushed past it when first looking through the schedule as, honestly, police depiction in SFF or any fiction doesn’t really interest me. There was also a likelihood that there would be at least one police officer on the panel. I’m Filipino and white British, but am aware of the enormous privilege I have thanks to my “white passing” skin. Growing up, I was acutely aware of the way that government institutions attacked POC, having seen it happen to friends and family. I was, therefore, not that keen on listening to people talk about positive representations of the police.

What I didn’t know until much later was that the panel was made up entirely of police or law enforcement officers.

The article was updated several times, at one point the panel having been cancelled without consultation, then reinstated. It seemed resolved, but the whole incident left me uneasy about what was going on.

…the whole incident left me uneasy about what was going on.

Suffice to say, nothing about the Nine Worlds approach to police officer presence on panels had been properly addressed.

This came to a head on Sunday, during a session on The Future of Nine Worlds, hosted by Dan Whitson (one of the original founders) and Kate Keen (deputy director). The organisers do this every year to update attendees on any developments, as well as for transparency. Before going in, I saw a tweet about how it was very urgent that attendees go if possible.

Knowing that Nine Worlds ran at a loss the last year, I was slightly alarmed, wondering momentarily if this would be the last event. However, the big announcement was that Dan Whitson was stepping down. The financial burden, which Dan had met himself, as well as the time and effort it took to organise Nine Worlds were taking their toll.

A new organisational structure was going to be considered. Kate Keen called for the organisers, tech crew, and volunteers in the room to come to the stage. Those interested in shaping Nine Worlds were also invited up. This was all to reassure attendees that, despite a founder leaving, Nine Worlds would continue.

A projector screen containing several points about the direction Nine Worlds' organisers want to follow

Summary of presentation to audience at the Future of Nine Worlds panel

The audience applauded but, particularly in light of what had I had previously read regarding POC and their concerns being ignored, I couldn’t help but notice how the vast majority of those on the stage were white.

We were asked for questions. Some roving microphones came around and Helen Gould, who had participated in and moderated several sessions, wanted to ask a question. She has written a blog post about the panel, the audience’s reaction at the end, and how she felt, as a queer black woman, listening to others say that the police should also be welcome at Nine Worlds. Jesse Panic, who is of Latinx and Indian heritage, has also written about the session, how they were affected by it, and what Nine Worlds can do better.

What follows is what I can recall of the session.

Helen asked whether the panel understood that there was a reliance on unpaid volunteers, and that this would inevitably mean that POC would not be able to participate due to lack of time and the financial cost of doing so. Volunteers would, therefore, mostly be made up of white and relatively privileged people. She explained that this lack of diversity might account for the next issue: that a panel filled with law enforcement/police officers had taken place at Nine Worlds, despite the fact that marginalised people attending have experienced a “fraught relationship” with the police, especially in London. Helen asked how Nine Worlds planned to deal with the lack of racial diversity within the organising team.

The audience applauded but, particularly in light of what had I had previously read regarding POC and their concerns being ignored, I couldn’t help but notice how the vast majority of those on the stage were white.

I listened to the organisers, specifically Dan Whitson, list how they recognised this was an issue, that police should still be welcome (Helen hadn’t suggesting banning police as attendees, but that seemed to be what the organisers thought was meant), that this was a difficult question, and so on.

The problem was that, by the end of the response, I wasn’t sure what had actually been said. This may have been because Dan Whitson was stepping down and did not feel he could commit to an answer. However, when Kate Keen was about to answer, Whitson cut her off to speak to an attendee’s comment.

Dan Whitson stated that Nine Worlds operated a policy of “no-platforming.” I was confused as to why this phrase was being used, when the problem was something completely different, i.e. that Nine Worlds did not seem to understand why marginalised people didn’t feel safe around the police, and that this was partly due to a lack of racial diversity in the organising team.

The non-answer from the panel was questioned, and others soon spoke up to challenge whether Nine Worlds was committed to including the marginalised if they did not see why having police/law enforcement officers on a panel, speaking in the context of their role, was a tacit approval of a force that many attendees did not feel safe around.

There was a lot of talk from the organisers of wanting to hear what attendees were saying, yet they did not seem to be listening. As attendees tried to express themselves, it seemed to me that placating phrases were used to try and move on without providing an answer.

The whole session felt like a mess, not because some attendees had raised valid points, but because there was no coherent response from the organisers. At one point, one of the organisers on stage tried to make some reassurance that they would do better, then directly addressed this to Helen. The effect was that this made Helen the focus rather than the issue that had been raised. As she explains in her post, this made Helen feel incredibly uncomfortable, though the person on stage did apologise as soon as possible.

There was a general sense that the organisers did not want to outright state that police would no longer take part in panels in their capacity as police officers, and they did not appear prepared to deal with this question. This seems particularly strange considering these concerns had been raised before the convention, and were known.

The question about what place (if any) police have at events for marginalised people is not one unique to Nine Worlds. There are often calls for no police at Pride due to the history of police violence against LGBTQAI people. In 2017 at BiCon, there were questions from attendees regarding the organisers’ decision to not only let a police officer attend in uniform, but also staff a stall at the event. There may be videos of police officers dancing at the Notting Hill Carnival, but the decision to allow police to stop and search attendees without the need for reasonable suspicion has drawn questions of whether this event has been particularly targeted by the police because most of the attendees will be black.

I would later discover another blog post by Jaime, the Nine Worlds Kids Coordinator and someone who had been involved in volunteering and writing policy/guidance for Nine Worlds from the beginning. Jaime gives additional background on just how long Nine Worlds had been aware of the difficulties people of colour have experienced, as well as the failure to adequately respond to these. For example, following an incident on a panel at Nine Worlds 2016, Jaime drew up a number of ways Nine Worlds could address the problems POC were encountering. However, despite management stating they would commit to doing better, Jaime writes that these suggestions were “subsequently ignored.”

The session left me bitterly disappointed that Nine Worlds had badly handled something so vital. I came away thinking that while Nine Worlds could call itself a relatively safer space for some, it could not call itself inclusive if it kept failing to listen to the people it was supposed to be welcoming.

I came away thinking that while Nine Worlds could call itself a relatively safer space for some, it could not call itself inclusive if it kept failing to listen to the people it was supposed to be welcoming.

I went to the Women in Star Wars panel, and tried to carry on with the Disability in Comics panel. However, I had to leave just when it was starting as there was a problem. The doors couldn’t be shut as they locked. This caused an issue as sound travelled from a room right across the hall, which also couldn’t have its door shut for the same reason. Someone near to the door got up to close it, and were told they couldn’t. The person explained they would have to leave the session, then. They said this was because they couldn’t process the sound from the panelists due to the noise coming from the other room. From what I recall, their hearing device couldn’t balance the sounds as the singing and loud noises from the other room were interfering with it.

I remember someone on the panel trying to sympathetically say, “Um, that sucks,” another adding that this was “suboptimal,” especially considering the topic of the session. Someone else got up, a volunteer was called to try and find a solution, and there were some discussions by the door. Unfortunately, by that point, I was fed up and my anxiety had gone into overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, the person affected by the sound from across the hall was completely right to be frustrated and to raise this as an issue. The problem was that, after an already difficult afternoon, it felt like yet another disappointment that no one had thought about this being a potential issue—yet another “oversight.”

As I mentioned in my previous post, I made use of the Quiet Room instead. I calmed down thanks to the help of a comfy cushion and some time away from everything else. We then travelled back from London after Ben had finished his sessions, exhausted and filled with mixed feelings. Yes, I had learned a lot, and it was fantastic to finally meet with Avery and Emily after tweeting back and forth with each other before the convention. However, post-con blues settled in quickly, particularly in the aftermath of the Future of Nine Worlds panel. I tried to keep the momentum going by checking out #nineworlds on Twitter. Over the next few days, I saw and read the blog post from Helen. An apology via the Nine Worlds Twitter account followed soon after, admitting to failings regarding “issues relating to racism and inclusion of people of colour.” Then blog posts by Jesse and Jaime appeared, painting a grim portrayal of their experiences with Nine Worlds. Dan Whitson finally posted a personal apology, which has also been criticised for its poor phrasing and tone, and that there is “not one single mention of race, poc safety, systemic issues surrounding race, or police” in the apology.

Screenshot of a brief listing of time, date, and location of the Top of the SFF Cops panel

The Top of the SFF Cops panel caused many concerns

Reading the posts by Rammi, Helen, Jesse, and Jaime was enlightening if distressing, as they shone a light on a deep-rooted issue. As I read the posts, I became more and more appalled that it had come to this, despite how long organisers had been aware of the problems. While the organisers seemed to mean well, the issue hadn’t been addressed and instead grown.

I kept wondering how many people had stopped attending over the years, feeling unwelcome at a convention that was supposed to be for them.

Nine Worlds is in a state of flux right now. With the last original founder stepping down, the remaining organisers are consulting with attendees and those who would like to be involved about what needs to be changed, and what organisational structure would help them achieve this.

There was a lot to love about Nine Worlds, but the events of the weekend and reading about others’ experiences made me question whether I could really justify returning next year if they did not listen and then act. There is some reason to remain optimistic about this, with new people offering to join the organisers and help them address the issues at hand. Nine Worlds was always meant to be about inclusion and representation, giving people a safe space to be who they are. Recognising that they are failing to do that currently is a good first step towards achieving this goal, but actual changes need to take place. Actions will always speak louder than words.