Speaking Out About Hackerspace Brisbane (HSBNE): Covering Up Misdeeds & Silencing Victims

The following is a guest post by Mike’s partner and past HSBNE inc executive member Meka, and is written as a follow-up to the previous post on this matter. This post has been reviewed by many others – current and past HSBNE members, multiple past HSBNE executives, and those who have no relationship with HSBNE – who all have seen the underlying evidence behind what follows and consider it to be true and accurate.

A toxic environment at HSBNE

First, I want to stress that Mike’s objective from the start of all this trouble was the protection of vulnerable people within HSBNE. Having been a very involved member for 8 years, he felt a responsibility for its members and assumed he carried a reasonable amount of respect there through his regular volunteering, assistance with fundraisers and long-term membership. Through our social networks, Mike and I ended up hearing from many dissatisfied and upset former members and guests who encountered cultural issues at HSBNE. That feedback helped both of us realise we were part of an organisation which enabled a culture of microaggressions, misogyny, and excusing unacceptable behaviour, and we were not content with that. However, when Mike tried to address the executive with concerns, he met a shocking level of resistance to every attempt at long-term institutional change. This post comes a long time after many of those incidents, and the reason for that is because the conciliation process through the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has only just recently finished, and it was not appropriate to publicly discuss these issues until all avenues for an amicable resolution had been explored. I’ll say more on that in a bit, but suffice it to say, HSBNE and Mike were unable to come to an agreement.

Therefore, the primary audience for this post is current or future HSBNE members/supporters who wish to be part of an inclusive and safe club, and more importantly, vulnerable people still considering attending HSBNE. And there is a second motivation for making this post. We’re hoping for some healing closure for Mike and me.

Mike has been in a state of crisis since the events that happened at HSBNE in 2020, which has had a devastating effect not only on his life, but on the lives of those who love him, including myself. As a result of prolonged abuse and becoming a target of aggression from his colleagues, he developed complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD), a serious condition causing physically and emotionally painful flashback attacks. cPTSD is a daily struggle, and having been his partner for almost 10 years, I can assert that the bullying and silencing by members in authority at HSBNE is the direct cause, as can his doctors who diagnosed the cPTSD and who have the continuity of care with him to be able to ascertain this. While they could not have predicted this specific effect on him, the members involved with the incidents were well aware that he is a vulnerable person, and I believe the behaviour he was subjected to goes well beyond the threshold anyone would tolerate.

I try to be compassionate when assessing these situations. I know most people are not terrible at heart, so I want to believe that the people involved in covering-up the abuses Mike experienced, spreading rumours about his mental health, blocking his ability to speak on his own behalf, and escalating the situation, did so out of ignorance or a misguided reaction to a dilemma. Yet actions have consequences, and even after finding out how damaging their actions had been to Mike, those people continued to cause harm. I was left with the question of whether their choices were being made in the best interests of the members or simply the well-being of the club as an entity, and whether these were conscious choices. Through much of the time I was a devoted member of the club, I dealt with my own cognitive dissonance about the culture there with excuses about lack of time, the belief that I was making small differences, and that my presence was a net benefit.

By the time I realised I had been deceiving myself, I had already seen the negative effects on my own behaviour that being deeply involved with a toxic social group had fostered, and I carry guilt over my role in enabling and expanding the reach of that group. My values demand that kindness and justice must come above personal gain or convenience, and reflecting on them revealed that HSBNE could not be saved for me. Ingrained cultural issues, the involvement of a small number of toxic individuals who had infected the group like a cancer, and the exodus of good people who were quicker to this realisation than me, were all clear indicators that I needed to leave. No matter how mentally strong a person is, the continued draining of emotional energy into an unwilling recipient is a fast track to burnout.

HSBNE’s actions have had lasting consequences for vulnerable members

Mike had more difficulty with the idea of just walking away, though. He feared that some of the more serious issues would continue to be perpetrated. As we had no small part in refining the club, he felt a responsibility to stay and swim against the tide to enforce some minimum acceptable boundaries. He settled on simply making sure Australian law was followed, particularly considering the reports we’d heard from some people regarding sexual misconduct and non-consensual touching. Unfortunately, taking these things to the police is hard in the most clear-cut circumstances. Add in the culture of protecting the club above all else, and the possible hostile witnesses that may produce, and you have a recipe for traumatised victims and no justice. It’s also near-impossible to fight someone else’s battles if they themselves do not have the willingness or ability to take on that fight, so that often leads to people with a strong sense of justice feeling overwhelmed with the weight of inequity and pain this leaves behind. Mike, therefore, decided he would focus on smaller battles, such as petty theft and destruction of member-donated & member-loaned property that he had experienced regularly over the years – easier to prove and of much less risk to the group’s reputation. Start small and build up.

As many know, group dynamics like this make disrupting the status quo a fairly risky move, but neither of us expected the extent to which some members would go to protect the establishment, nor how conditioned the inner circle members were to protect the group from all dissent without question. It was shocking, to say the least, to see people I regarded as friends suddenly turn on Mike, twisting facts beyond recognition or totally rewriting events in order to diminish the issues he brought to them. It was so fluid, so easy the way the truth reshaped into half-truths and then complete fiction in so little time, it has made me wonder about the club disagreements I weighed in on during my 7-year stint. How much did my rose-tinted glasses obscure my perspective, and was it “groupthink” or was there a pilot at the helm? The sudden and unexpected transition from in-group to out-group was eye-opening and revealed the situation was far worse than I had even begun to unravel. Again, I don’t believe most members of HSBNE have ill will towards others, nor do I think most were particularly cognisant of the specifics of their actions. Rather, we had a social structure that was ripe for exploitation by bad actors, and many members who were caught up in the pull of group dynamics. There were certainly those who tried to fight the tide, but they were always fighting a losing battle and I watched many paddle themselves to the end of their tether. All I can say to anyone I may have hurt due to my behaviour, decisions or passive approval of others’ actions, is that I’m sincerely sorry, and I hope that my late but eventual realisation of my role in your pain is enough to earn forgiveness.

I have walked away, and wise folk would tell me to forget about HSBNE and use this time to develop into the person I want to be. I work at looking after myself and developing as a person, yet I’m unable to forget. The cPTSD Mike suffers from affects us daily, and doesn’t let me clear HSBNE out of my life. I can only imagine what it’s like being him, stuck in that place, reliving betrayal from your best friend, finding out a number of people you trusted are conspiring to eject you from your main social group, clearly remembering every detail of the situation, but with no opportunity to defend your reputation amidst a torrent of ever more fanciful lies.

I gained some inkling of the pain Mike lives with when I had a brief experience of insomnia-induced mania after a surgery, and the filters that normally calm our unwelcome, intrusive thoughts and memories temporarily stopped working for me. With ADHD, I usually have trouble slowing down my mind, but this experience was particularly horrible and I couldn’t ignore it. cPTSD seems to be like this, giving painful memories amplification without context, no alternative to raw emotion except to distract it as best we can. Every day I regret not somehow convincing Mike to walk away from the group earlier, before he had to live through the social rejection and aggressions that now run on random repeat in his brain. Before an influential group of his peers solidified fears instilled by a life filled with bullying, abuse and betrayals. The disappointment I feel over the behaviour of people I once considered friends has been the hardest emotion for me to deal with.

Illegal discrimination is acceptable at HSBNE

For brevity’s sake I am only going to present evidence for one instance of the discrimination Mike experienced, as it levelled up the seriousness of the entire situation, however you can view more of the story here. I believe this particular example is of great importance to current and future members, as well as any other entities that may interact with HSBNE.

Unable to persuade the executive of the need for any action, and blocked from speaking to other members about it or to even tell others that the mediation service exists if they need it, Mike found himself without recourse but to file a formal complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). This is an email that Mike received from HSBNE‘s executive within hours of them finding out he had filed the complaint:
Screenshot of an email dated 31 July 2020 at 9:35pm, from secretary@hsbne.org, subject "HSBNE Ban Notice". Email text as follows: Hello Mike, In light of your official complaint to the AHRC, The HSBNE Executive has voted to ban you for three months pursuant to the following policy: 'Making legal or other threats in an attempt to coerce, intimidate, or act in bad faith towards HSBNE or any member acting in the interest of HSBNE.', as the escalation process for AHRC complaints is mediation and then court. HSBNE cannot reasonably continue with your membership in light of an ongoing legal process. All future communications with HSBNE must be sent to executive@hsbne.org. We have removed your access to HSBNE resources as appropriate, effective immediately. Your Ban will Expire on November 1, 2021. Regards, HSBNE Executive

Mike was given HSBNE‘s toughest ban for simply submitting a human rights complaint, so apparently, reporting illegal behaviour to external entities can be a punishable act at HSBNE, despite their claim to be a “Safe Space”.

The Disability Discrimination Act (Part 2, Division 4, Section 42) clearly states it’s a criminal offence to punish someone for filing a Complaint, with a penalty of 6 months imprisonment. This also applies to those who incite, promote or threaten the illegal act, so whether or not you agree that all seven pages of Mike’s original AHRC complaint are valid, this unlawful ban by the executive shows a severe lack of judgement on their part.
Part 2, Division 4, Section 42 of the Disability Discrimination Act - Victimisation. Text as follows: (1) It is an offence for a person to commit an act of victimisation against another person. Penalty: Imprisonment for 6 months. (2) For the purposes of subsection (1), a person is taken to commit an act of victimisation against another person if the first‑mentioned person subjects, or threatens to subject, the other person to any detriment on the ground that the other person: (a) has made, or proposes to make, a complaint under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986; or (b) has brought, or proposes to bring, proceedings under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 against any person; or (c) has given, or proposes to give, any information, or has produced, or proposes to produce, any documents to a person exercising or performing any power or function under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986; or (d) has attended, or proposes to attend, a conference held under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986; or (e) has appeared, or proposes to appear, as a witness in a proceeding under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986; or (f) has reasonably asserted, or proposes to assert, any rights of the person or the rights of any other person under this Act or the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986; or (g) has made an allegation that a person has done an act that is unlawful by reason of a provision of this Part; or on the ground that the first‑mentioned person believes that the other person has done, or proposes to do, an act or thing referred to in any of paragraphs (a) to (g) (inclusive).

Victimisation is a serious (and illegal) matter. HSBNE violated the Disability Discrimination Act, and with HSBNE’s rules still as they are, they are primed to repeat that if they so choose. Just having the relevant rule on the books constitutes an illegal threat. As such, I advise avoiding HSBNE if you are someone who feels you are at risk of discrimination due to your race, gender identity, sexual preference, disability, neuro-diversity, age, religion, or other protected class. My experience alongside Mike has shown that discrimination is not only accepted at HSBNE, but standing up for one’s own human rights is viewed as an unforgivable offence.

HSBNE is not a Safe Space

Due to conciliation dragging on so long, multiple executives were involved in the AHRC complaint, and no agreement could be reached with any of them, which leads me to believe they are all content for discrimination and issues of other kinds of safety to go unaddressed and to perpetuate that culture in the organisation. I say this as someone who served on the executive at one point, and I take the responsibility of serving on the committee of any not-for-profit very seriously. I believe individuals on the executive/committee/board of an organisation have a duty of care to maintain a safe and functional organisation, and if they lack the required skills or knowledge to do so and no other capable members are able to step up to take that role, then the only ethical option is to pause operations and divert efforts and funding to fulfil these minimum requirements. It is regrettable and unfortunate, but if volunteers cannot maintain the minimum standards, the remaining option is to scale back operations or close, not to cut corners and risk the safety and well-being of others. Therefore, HSBNE calling itself a “Safe Space” and giving itself labels like LGBTQ-friendly is, in my opinion, dangerously misleading. As demonstrated in Mike’s case, it has failed to meet the bare minimum required by law, let alone having the extra management, training and cultural awareness needed to create a Safe Space.

After conciliation concluded without success, Mike had to decide if he was going to proceed to the federal court with his complaint. Legal counsel advised that this would result in only financial compensation, expected to be in the mid-5 digits based on other similar cases and the clear-cut evidence of victimisation. Not only does Mike not want to see the complete financial destruction of HSBNE, but he also did not want to deprive Brisbane of a potentially valuable community resource due to the bad actions of a few. He simply wished to have his voice heard, for the club rules to be applied fairly to those who violated the Safe Space policy and the law, for harmful policies to be removed, for retractions to be issued about defamatory statements and for restitution over having to fight for years over his mistreatment. These are things money cannot fix, and the toll the whole process was going to take on him and me was likely to be severe.

In the interests of transparency, Mike is sharing the full, unmodified text of his AHRC complaint, which does not cover all the abuse Mike has experienced at HSBNE, only that which relates to his disability. This includes both direct and indirect discrimination, but does not include the additional discrimination that happened after filing the complaint, such as his ban or the further silencing by removing his Google review. The accompanying evidence and additional misc texts have been removed through caution of third-party privacy, however the document and supporting evidence spent nearly a month being reviewed for accuracy and objectivity by both current and past HSBNE members, multiple past HSBNE executives, those who have no relationship to HSBNE, a Justice of the Peace, and two lawyers. It was not filed lightly nor without great thought and consideration.

HSBNE has a problem with sexual misconduct

One issue needs to be made particularly clear: that of sexual misconduct at HSBNE. Mike was sexually assaulted at HSBNE, by someone who was an executive member at the time Mike first opened up about it on his website post. I myself have also been made to feel uncomfortable from non consensual touching by that same person, and another past executive member who has reviewed this post was also sexually harassed by that same person. Since Mike’s previous post, a decent number of other past members have contacted Mike, saying they had also been victims of sexual misconduct at HSBNE. One name keeps coming up again and again as the perpetrator for over half of the issues, but let me stress that while those who have reviewed this post agree that this individual is clearly an issue, this individual is not the only perpetrator. Banning that one person will not fix the structural and systemic issues of silencing, disbelieving and bullying those who report issues, and I have seen members openly expressing that they value HSBNE’s reputation more than preventing criminal acts within their organisation.

HSBNE silences victims

Mike opened up about his experience due to concern for others and to demonstrate the pattern of concerning behaviours within the club. He had been very clearly told he was not permitted to discuss anything that would shine a negative light on the club or challenge the status quo if he wanted his forum post approved on HSBNE’s forum, completely against what their own rules say about supporting member’s freedom of speech and avoiding censorship. With all his suggestions to improve the situation denied, not being permitted to discuss it with other members, all forms of internal communication being screened, denied posting rights and discussion at meetings blocked, Mike had no alternative but to warn members of these disturbing issues publicly on his website.

HSBNE members need to be aware that another victim who independently contacted Mike after reading his website post, has seriously considered leading a class-action lawsuit since finding out they aren’t alone in this experience. For as long as the executive prioritizes public image over safety, and the disgusting attitudes I saw on the HSBNE forums disregarding any claims of sexual assault at HSBNE continue to be voiced without strong opposition, the chance that it will happen again is tragically all too likely. Isolating and silencing victims of sexual abuse is the weapon of the abusers. Should further abuse occur, I hope that this post prevails as the start of support and validation for those who need it. With such a large number of past members willing to say it’s happened to them, any victim of future abuse at HSBNE now has supporters to make sure they don’t feel alone, and they will not need to suffer in silence like those before.

HSBNE members defamed Mike

As they apparently began to tire of Mike’s attempts to correct wrongdoings at the space, multiple HSBNE members in positions of authority made false claims that he had broken rules, or was guilty of unacceptable behaviours that hadn’t happened, which in my opinion stank of high-school clique manipulation tactics. Execs painted themselves as long-suffering heroes, who had been selflessly tolerating an unstable invalid all these years, despite the story being far different when Mike was (mostly) compliant. Some of their rumours about Mike’s mental state spread outside the organisation in a way that has damaged Mike’s income-earning potential, and has caused severe anxiety regarding the unknown knock-on effect it might have had on his reputation. I don’t know if these false stories came about because the author was being intentionally deceptive or if their own cognitive bias influenced them to selectively remember or create details, but I simply wish to encourage you all to approach these situations with compassion and curiosity, to consider the source and evidence, and to be aware of how emotion and bias might affect your willingness to accept or reject a certain person’s account.

Even if we had been able to secure some form of justice for Mike through the AHRC, he is still going to take a long time to heal from the cPTSD, and without resolution, the road is just longer and harder. Being treated with prejudice and contempt and having his name dragged through the mud is something even the most resilient person would have struggled with. Having to fight for two years in the hopes that someone would stand up and take some positive action to right the wrongs he experienced was more than we could take. He’s suffering almost constantly, and I have used up everything I had left to support him through to this point. We have failed to get HSBNE to make changes, so if we can’t make something safe, I feel it’s only ethical that we should warn others about the danger.

We are finished with HSBNE, and this post is our final attempt to minimise the harm we have feared is likely to continue if we don’t challenge the wrongdoing and try to pull back the veil. As a survivor of abuse, I could not stand by while I saw the same dynamics I recognised all too well unfold before me once more, and the danger I know comes from secrecy. It’s now up to HSBNE’s members if they want to actually change the way their organisation functions, otherwise we hope this post serves as a way for others to make an informed choice before interacting with that group. Whichever way it falls, I will try to move forward from whatever wrongs my own involvement may have caused, and to become a better person having learnt from my errors in judgement and behaviour. Others must make their own choices, and decide for themselves who or what they stand for.

– Meka, and all those who have reviewed & stand by this post

3-month update: two different executives, as well as all members, have all done nothing in response to the issues made public about Mike’s abuse. In retaliation for this blog post that Mike didn’t even write, Mike was punished further by being blocked on social media, despite not liking or commenting on anything of theirs for years out of respect for their platform, without any communication of what he has done wrong to warrant further punishment or what rule he broke to justify additional penalisation. More details in the comments section of this post.

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  • Mike Ando says:

    It’s been a little over 3 months since we posted this. I wanted to wait at least this long before following up because of HSBNE’s annual election soon after I posted. I wanted to give a completely fair chance to the previous & new executives, as well as members, to respond.

    The result was both executives, as well as members, all did nothing.

    Well, that’s not entirely true. I was blocked on social media. I’ve not commented on/liked anything of theirs for years out of respect for their platform. The blog post above wasn’t even written by me; it was authored by Meka. Everything went through weeks of scrutiny & revision by over a dozen people, including multiple former HSBNE executive members. Myself and others are genuinely at a loss for what more I could’ve done, or what I’m supposed to do instead, or what rule I possibly could’ve broken to warrant further punishment. And yet, it happened.

    This is how HSBNE operates – someone says they’ve been repeatedly abused & injured so badly it’s going to take them years to heal, providing example evidence of multiple members breaking the law to validate their claims, and the response is to do nothing & punish/silence the victim. It’s beyond victim-blaming to victim-attacking.

    This isn’t how any fair, just or Safe Space operates. This is how abusive people get away with abuse, and how cult-like organisations operate.

    The real irony is HSBNE still displays my personal projects & photos of me over all of their digital properties. I’m blocked, yet still displayed & tagged. How incredibly low & hurtful a blow that feels.

    My cPTSD isn’t a bloody joke. It’s a severe disability. It seriously impacts my ability to work, my ability to live, impacts literally EVERY single hour of every day of my life. And no one who caused it has faced any consequences, while I’ve been repeatedly punished for saying it’s happened to me.

    To any current HSBNE members reading this: do you genuinely feel safe knowing that if the same thing happened to you, you’d be treated the same? Knowing they will silence, attack & punish you without any regard for the law, while fellow members will stand idly by?

    Remember that bad things only continue to happen when good people say & do nothing.

    Current members should also be aware that HSBNE’s reputation in some circles is now so low, if some people find out you’re a volunteering member, they will instantly be cautious & less trustful of you because they know you’re either someone who either agrees with the way HSBNE has treated myself & others despite the public evidence of wrongdoing, or you’re willing to idly stand by & let it happen to others. Being a volunteer of HSBNE is starting to come with a stigma, and this is not an exaggeration or joke or attempted insult but a genuine warning.

    Some individuals who have broken the law against me and the one facing multiple claims of sexual assault/harassment (including myself, my partner, and other former executive members) still hold positions of authority at HSBNE. None have been held accountable for any of their crimes and HSBNE’s rules are still so bad that, as I have pointed out many times before, they violate Australian laws. This continues to be the perfect recipe for continued harm to be done to others, just as happened to me.

    With the organisation’s eviction from their current lease and search for a new home, now’s a good time for any current members to seriously consider if they want to continue being part of an organisation that abuses people to the point of causing lasting mental disability, and engages in cult-like operations of maintaining a veneer of propriety whilst attacking, silencing and isolating anyone who deviates from the accepted dogma.

    Maybe I should get myself a t-shirt that says “I was mistreated, defamed, sexually assaulted, abused, attacked, persecuted & silenced at HSBNE and all I got was this lousy cPTSD”. 🙁

    HSBNE didn’t stop being a Safe Space just because I said so or anything like that. It stopped being one when those in charge & other members stopped treating it like one.

    • Sam Pryor says:

      Hi Mike, firstly I admire and support your strength and resilience. The fact that you keep fighting is incredible. You have a familiar story, I have experienced similar pain of financial loss, bullying and sexual harassment from HSBNE in the past. I hope more people come forward and share their story.

  • Lily says:

    I’m so sorry you experienced this. You are doing a great deal to prevent this from happening to anyone else. This post was one of the first results when I was researching hacker spaces in Brisbane.
    Thank you for being so brave.

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