“You can’t put a price tag on human dignity.”

– No one ever, probably

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Welcome back to Wednesday, Tabletoppers. You can come out from under there. I see you.

Previously, on Bargaining Table: I wrecked the ~*MTG Finance*~ metagame, leaving naught but bile in ~my wake.

As in many games of Magic, somewhere around the words Bile and/or Wake, it was time to scoop—I had to take an indefinite leave of absence as the very thing that brought me to Hipsters of the Coast was demanding too much of my time to let me keep the column going, or at least to keep it up to my strict bar of quality.

Shortly thereafter, my real-life buddy and fellow trade grinder Colin Bevis took up the…post…with his Trading Post column. (Protip: artifact for artifact is always a fair trade!) He too, however, lives the grind, and so it was his time to take leave from writing about living the grind—a built-in tension I have alluded to and/and addressed.

I wish that for this, the auspicious thirteenth Bargaining Table column, I could have phoned in a goofy title like “TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA: 13 Hot Innistrad Specs to Watch Out For” and charged right into Shadows of Bargaining Table block full-steam ahead with the irresponsible, ill-considered financial advice I know you all leaned on me for.

Unfortunately, nearly a month ago, the cold and unfeeling world that surrounds and slowly swallows us decided that making my living had to be much harder than just perfecting a plucky combination of charm, chicanery, and chance. No, spake the World: it also had to involve police and some kind of arcane zoning politics.

 

Some of you have already heard about what happened at #SCGPHILLY; some of you have not. I have been relatively silent on the matter in public, at least since the event weekend concluded, between a combination of the stress I walked away with, the time I needed to gather advice, and some sort of like actual work I have to do.

So for better or for worse, on the advice of people who know better than I do, today’s column will be a long, more cut-and-dry affair than usual after the section break. I felt I needed to do this for both my own sense of closure and for the public record of our little community; for either purpose, I need to report a factual account.

For those of you who are just here for the cold, hard advice I’m gonna give you to not waste your money speculating on Magic cards, take this episode as a tantalizing trailer for Season 2, teasing you to anticipate my return to your screens next Wednesday—and alternating Wednesdays thereafter—so that you can wonder just what way I will tell you not to do whatever awful thing you’re doing with your money.

But hey, buy foil Rooftop Storms and Lotleth Trolls. Might as well, whatever.


Disclaimer: Parts of the report below can be read to suggest the possibility of discrimination based on gender. I want to make it clear up front that in no way do I subscribe to any hateful, bizarro “Men’s Rights Activism” nonsense such as rears its head at times in the gaming world—and I want nothing to do with the support of anyone who does. If in fact my gender played a part in this experience, it is by far the exception, not the rule.


 

B&W Ceiling Interior

 

 

 

I arrived at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday morning, February 27, with my 13-year-old brother and our friend, also a minor, whose parents often let him travel with us for events. My intention for the weekend was, as always, to work: selling cards to the vendor booths and trading on the event floor. On the way in, we stopped at what appeared to be a convention center cafe, “Eco Grounds.”

I bought a coffee and stood nearby for several minutes, setting up a spreadsheet for my weekend expenses while the children waited. Then, like many other SCG Philly attendees using the cafe or simply passing through this area, we nonchalantly crossed a rope toward the hall holding SCG’s event.

We entered the event. I bumped into several friends by unrelated chance and sat down to do some trading. After one or two trades, the seats around us began to fill up. The event had been moved to a different hall apparently at the last minute—even SCG staff that I met later in the day suggested it had been a surprise to them, as late as that morning—and in a smaller hall, it is not unheard of to find little to no unused seating early on day one.

I was about to start discussing a trade with my friend, “A,” when we had to get up to make room for event players. I suggested we walk out to the cafe and sit down for a while to trade until some seating freed up. As we approached the same rope that I and many other attendees had crossed earlier (in the opposite direction), a woman on security staff addressed me directly, stating that we were not to cross the rope. In short, through some back-and-forth with her, it was presented to us that “people from [our] event” were not to use the cafe or any other facilities on the far side of the rope, which included the overwhelming majority of the building—and that we were in fact not even supposed to leave the building through any exit but the one closest to our hall. (This latter claim, which I found strangest of all, was later contradicted outright by either SCG or venue staff.)

Though the details were left vague, it was indicated to us that this rule had been requested by the organizers of the event that was running on the other side: a gymnastics competition called the “Pink Invitational.” (It seems worth noting here that the SCG event was obviously populated with a majority adult-male demographic, while the other event appeared to be attended predominantly by a mix of adult women and young girls—though I do not want to imply too much about this distinction and will leave it to the reader to interpret its relevance.) Somewhere in this explanation was included the fact that the Pink Invitational was a “ticketed event,” seeming to imply that only ticketholders were meant to access nearby facilities.

I found this confusing, considering that I was one of many Magic players who had already used this cafe and crossed this rope. I explained to the security staffer that I was not formally associated with the event: I was not working it in an official capacity, I was not entered in it as a player, and I had no badge representing it—there in fact were no badges, nor even the wristband/backpack-tag combo SCG sometimes employs for security. When asked what actions would be taken if, in theory, I had come in off the street with my luggage instead of from the hall, the security personnel continued to insist that it was simply “people from our event” that were not to cross.

I stated my opinion that this was an unenforceable rule, considering that there were no actual indicators as to who was “a person from our event” as opposed to a random individual who had entered off the street. I stated that all I intended was to patronize the venue by buying a coffee and sitting down for a short time, and yes, I went around the rope. (“A” seemed uncomfortable with the whole situation but came along when I insisted it would be fine, for which I take full responsibility.)

After walking around a large column to avoid the rope, we entered the cafe’s seating area. There was a (white) woman seated there with a look of shock on her face, who started conversing with me to the effect of: “What the hell was that? That’s discrimination!” She stated that she too had walked to the cafe from the SCG event—completely without incident. Nobody had even stopped her or spoken to her.

.   .   .

“A” and I were standing there for a few minutes conversing with this woman when suddenly, I alone was unexpectedly accosted from behind by an armed, uniformed Philadelphia police officer.

The officer singled me out and separated me from what was now a group of three total SCG attendees present in the cafe, shouting directly in my face and ordering me to leave. I was in a complete state of confusion and shock not only as to what was happening, but also as to why there was even a city police officer present and involved at all in what had appeared to be a very minor private-security situation.

In total shock, I tried to calmly ask the officer some simple questions for an understanding of what was going on. I was in such shock I may have even been holding my hands in the air for some part of this exchange, out of concern for my own safety. The officer ignored almost every attempt I made to communicate or to ask simple questions about the situation I was finding myself in, choosing instead to continue to bark in my face and shout orders at me.

I keep reiterating the fact that I was in shock because I cannot overemphasize—for the reader who has never been approached by an armed officer with immediate aggression, total hostility, and unrelenting efforts at domination—how frightening this experience was. I suddenly found myself needing to simultaneously determine what was actually happening, on whose behalf this officer was acting, what the consequences might be, and what I needed to do. My mind was racing a mile a minute, much faster than words could possibly come out of my mouth; my body was practically frozen.

I underscore this in order to hammer home the full weight of the fact that, at one point, the officer grabbed me by my coat and started trying to physically drag me to the exit.

I very quickly said something to the effect of: “Please do not put your hands on me, officer.” In this one case, the officer did appear to listen, removing his hands from me after pulling me towards the door and attempting to remove me by unprovoked physical force.

At some point in this exchange, the officer threatened to “put handcuffs on [me],” which may have been what prompted me to ask: “Am I committing a crime, officer?” The officer’s response was: “You’re about to be.”

If I had to make sense of this statement, I could try to generously interpret it to mean that if I continued to remain in the building, I would be considered trespassing. It came across, however, as a threat, seeming to suggest that the officer could decide, even retroactively, whether I was or wasn’t committing a crime—based on his personal feelings.

.   .   .

I gave up hope of being able to communicate with this officer and decided that it wasn’t worth it to find out how serious he was about arresting me. I walked to the door and stepped outside, where the officer followed me and continued to harass me. (“A” managed to record video of this outdoor exchange, but unfortunately our voices cannot be heard clearly through the heavy glass doors. Numerous others, however, witnessed the entire indoor exchange—words and all.)

The officer stood outside, continuing to shout at me, stating that I was “banned” from both the event and the convention center and “not to come back.” When I stated there were two minors inside the building that I was responsible for, the officer’s response was “You shoulda thought of that before.” The officer proceeded to verbally attack me in a variety of ways, shouting at me that I “wasn’t doing what I was told,” that I was “ignorant,” and that he “didn’t want someone like me” in the convention center.

As a man of variable racial presentation and with much visible body modification, I will leave it to you to imagine what constitutes “someone like [me].”

When I asked the officer why he was escalating the situation to this degree, he accused that I had been escalating the situation—by “resisting.” When I asserted that I had rights in this situation, the officer’s response was a clearly dismissive “Yeah, everybody’s got rights.”

The only real piece of information I managed to get from the officer came when I asked whether he was here in his capacity as a City of Philadelphia police officer, or in some capacity as private security. He showed me a laminated card that had a Philadelphia Police insignia on one side, a Pennsylvania Convention Center logo on the other, indicating that he was apparently acting in both capacities.

.   .   .

I eventually walked away, following the sidewalk toward the entrance closest to SCG’s hall, running into the woman from the cafe and her husband. She expressed her horror at what had just happened and said that she had already written a strongly-worded email to SCG about it. I gave her my contact info but did not think to ask for hers, so if she or someone who knows her comes across this, I would love to get in touch.

By the entrance nearest the SCG event, many attendees and some event staffers were milling around, smoking and talking. Many people asked about what had happened and/or commented on it, expressing upset that I had been essentially profiled, either for “looking like” a Magic player—or perhaps for having visible tattoos and body piercings.

I saw a friend of mine who was working for one of the booths at the event, who heard the story and went inside to seek assistance. Some staffers for StarCityGames came out soon after, apologizing for the incident, assuring me that it was a mistake and that they would get me back into the event and resolve the misunderstanding. Through the windows I could see that the officer had followed me over to this side of the building, presumably to ensure that I did not re-enter. Eventually, I could see that SCG staff (and venue staff?) were interviewing him about the incident.

I had also run into my friend, “B,” who is a young-looking (white) teenager. He, too, had apparently crossed the rope toward the cafe without having a single word said to him about it. Amusingly, he heard part of the officer’s description of events to the SCG staff; my best interpretation of what he reported is that he heard the officer sarcastically quoting me in a mocking voice: “Oh yeah, ‘I escalated the situation.’

.   .   .

After this point, there are less micro-level details worth reporting and more macro-level ones. I was let back inside by SCG staff, but the officer who had accosted me was still present around the hall. I was brought to the large event staff booth, to a person who appeared to be the head TO for the event: a gentleman named Ward. I gave him an account of the events. He seemed sincere enough and like he wanted to help, and another SCG staffer came over to extend her sympathy and offer me candy. So far I was of the impression that SCG was handling this well, though it was a little off-putting when another gentleman (in a red shirt, as opposed to blue?) at the staff booth framed his prompt to me as: “So what can we do to get things back to normal?”

That statement struck me as less interested in the well-being of an SCG patron than in getting somebody’s workday back to an easy flow. But I shrugged it off.

I stated that I needed to speak to someone who was in a position to be responsible for this experience. Ward contacted the venue, and after a short wait, I was approached outside the hall by a woman from the venue staff. I’m not going to publicize her name, because although her hands were presumably bound by her position, she was the only person I encountered in this climb up the chain of command who seemed perhaps sympathetic to my experience, perhaps like the human element affected her a little. Her responses to most of my questions were guarded in a way that I can’t completely fault her for, but she did also seem to try to give me honest answers.

One thing I did find amusing and frustrating was that she described the rule about the rope and the use of facilities as a “request.” I asked her if being physically dragged by a police officer for confused noncompliance fell under the definition of a “request.”

Regardless, she explained to me that the officers at the convention center are in fact Philadelphia city police, and that they have a “substation” within the center—essentially, as I understand, city cops who are assigned to the PA Convention Center’s security detail. Though this conversation was rather detailed, the big takeaway for me was her statement that StarCityGames was in fact responsible for hiring and managing all security of their event. This meant, to me, that it was really SCG whom I should take it up with.

.   .   .

I asked her to come back to the SCG staff booth and repeat to Ward what she had just told me. Instantly, Ward’s energy became more anxious and guarded. He told her that, well, yes, SCG had hired all the private security on staff, like the woman who had first told me about the rope…and they had also hired the other police officers working the event—except for, you know, the exact one who harassed me. “We don’t know where that guy came from. He was just here.”

The woman from the venue, whose job it was to know about the security staffing of events, looked utterly stunned. She didn’t contradict him outright, saying something to the effect that she would need to look into that.

I do not wish to cast allegations of deception without hard evidence, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that this woman, with whom I had just spoken for at least twenty minutes about the nuances of the PA Convention Center’s security protocols, was somehow less informed about the security staffing than anyone at StarCityGames.

After this point, the tenor of Ward’s exchange with me was completely different. He was beyond guarded, clearly interested only in protecting SCG from some appearance of culpability. I expressed my frustration that he and SCG had not made the reality of the security situation clear to me up front—that they were essentially changing their story on me now that I had peskily gone and obtained more information. I wanted to hear that this was not going to happen to me again—or to anyone else at the event—but Ward seemed to dance around directly stating that that was out of his hands and that the rules against SCG attendees using the facilities of the building we were in would be upheld.

I stated my opinion that responsibility for an abuse rests at the top of whatever institution enabled it to occur, and Ward responded with a strange, borderline aggressive comment that “I think you’re thinking of military law, not convention center law.” He stated that I could “make that argument in court.”

.   .   .

Weighing my options after taking some time to think—and feeling rather thrown under the bus by SCG—I requested to speak with the venue again. Ward seemed disinclined to help at this point, even annoyed at having to deal with the pesky repercussions of a patron at his event having been physically accosted by city police on premises—but he relented and called her down again.

This time she and I had a shorter exchange, as I requested to speak with someone higher up in the chain. An older gentleman arrived shortly thereafter, I believe with the title of “General Manager.” To be perfectly frank, he had absolutely no interest in or concern for what I had experienced. He arrived ready with pen and paper, treating our exchange as an information-gathering session for him on the venue’s behalf, looking at every turn for a way to minimize what had happened.

I expressed to him that I knew for a fact that a (white) woman, a (white) teenage boy, and several whiter-looking men than myself without any visible body piercings had been permitted to pass that rope without even being addressed by anyone, much less harassed by an armed officer. I stated my opinion that I had experienced a form of profiling and discrimination, to which his panicked, backtracking reply was: “Well, I don’t know that that’s discrimination. No—that’s not discrimination.” He gave me some kind of loose response about how the security has to just do its best to determine whom to stop and whom not to stop.

My response was something along the lines of: “Right. By profiling people by eyeball.”

When I got to the part of the story where the officer grabbed me, this General Manager’s face instantly lit up with uncontainable shock, eyes wide and mouth almost agape. He was quick to put his composure back on, but I pointed right at it: “I can tell by the look on your face that that part makes it a very different situation.”

He hemmed and hawed as far as I recall, avoiding really engaging with what I had said. I had already figured that I probably wouldn’t get any kind of substantive answers, help, or concern from this individual, but I did learn one thing: in his words, the role of the private security staff was simply to determine when to involve one of the officers available. Once the officer becomes involved, the situation is beyond the jurisdiction of the convention center, as they have no authority over the police officer.

Think about that for a second: the convention center’s official position on a situation like this is that, by the very act of having armed, uniformed City of Philadelphia officers on staff to involve in security matters, they are not responsible for those officers’ actions.

If I permit myself to editorialize for just a moment, it seems an awfully convenient loophole to have such a formal, bureaucratic way out of being held responsible for the outcomes of institutional decisions.

Whatever the case, one of his parting comments to me was that the security situation works this way because they were “helping the event” by having it that way. Frankly, my reaction to this was to laugh.

.   .   .

That’s the nuts and bolts of it. I won’t even begin to get into the opportunity cost incurred—and real money lost—by having to spend an entire day this way at an event I had traveled out of state specifically to work. I managed to get a little bit of trading done that evening and the next day, but my stress and anxiety levels throughout the remainder of the event were too far through the roof for me to accomplish enough to justify having traveled there in the first place—especially when having to walk past that very police officer (and several others) time after time. And that’s not even to mention that I also spent part of Sunday dealing with more venue staff, followed by filling out forms to file a complaint with the city police.

As a frustratingly hilarious side note, when I did sit down to start trading on Saturday evening—trying to earn back some of my costs for traveling this far to be manhandled by police—another (white) friend came in, sat next to me, and handed me a coffee from Eco Grounds. He had one as well. Others we know were right there, stunned and laughing. When I asked him how he got them, he said that he had simply come in from outside and approached from the other direction.

Later on Saturday night, a friend alerted me by Facebook that SCG attendees were erupting on Twitter about this incident and other elements of the truly bizarre security situation at the event. Just to make sure injury did not go without insult, Cedric Phillips of SCG fame was making some rather dismissive, absolutely unprofessional comments about it on Twitter. I believe he has since deleted some, but I have numerous tweets screenshotted, and a few still stand. When I repeatedly confronted him with the fact that what he was dismissing so casually was an SCG patron’s on-site experience of police harassment, he eventually niced up his game and offered with a smiley emoticon that I could come talk to him in person. I thanked him and let it go, but I did not see the benefit in engaging any further with any SCG figureheads at the event.

In terms of how I feel about the hierarchy of responsibility here: I was abused by the Philadelphia Police, manipulated without concern by the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and possibly manipulated—but certainly plain-ol’ Let Down—by StarCityGames. Each of these institutions treated me, my experience, and my need for answers—in varying ways and to varying degrees—as a nuisance.

At no time in this entire experience did a representative of any of those institutions every say anything to me even remotely like: “We’re so sorry this happened to you. Are you okay? Were you hurt? This is not representative of how we want things to go.”

Instead, what I got were excuses, denials of responsibility, and preemptive defensive plays.

.   .   .

And that’s one of the things that stings the most about it: it would have been so simple for any one of these figureheads to show a little human decency, a little basic respect for my having had a physically and emotionally threatening experience at their venue/at their event/at the hands of their officer. No one even tried—except for the one woman from the venue who, it seemed to me, felt she couldn’t say what she was really thinking.

I don’t have the PR training I would imagine some of these institutional representatives have, but I do write my own customer-service and issue-resolution emails, I do respond to my own customer messages and order complaints, I do hand-prepare all my own packages…and time and again, even when approached with hostility by a customer over a legitimate error, I end up with a satisfied patron—and boatloads of feedback declaring that those little touches of humanness and displays of sincere effort have set my business apart ase one they want to return to.

It’s truly not that hard to resolve situations like these with sincerity and tact—and it can be done while remaining as mindful of liability as a representative of a business might legitimately need to be, without admitting anything that might amount to legal culpability.

.   .   .

I walked away from that event almost ready to quit traveling to Magic events. Two friends heard me having that dialogue with myself, as I packed up a binder: “I can do this job just fine online. I don’t need these events. I don’t need to put myself through this kind of stress.” Even now, weeks later, I feel the lingering effects that this experience has had on my anxiety, causing me to feel extremely unsafe in the presence of police officers and to panic at seemingly random moments in public spaces. I can now just barely begin to imagine what it must feel like for persons who know they face the threat of police harassment everywhere they go because of their identities, who don’t have the privilege I have of presenting as “just white enough” to usually go unnoticed.

I’ll be rethinking what events I take my business—and my business—to in the future. People say a lot of things, both good and bad, about the role of StarCityGames in the Magic community and in the Magic economy—but one positive thing I like to mention, which always gets a round of nods, is the quality of their customer service. “We’re the good guys” is, I have read, their driving ethos.

Now I’m not so sure about these things.

.   .   .

Thanks for reading, Tablehoppers. If you made it this far, you get an Achievement most veritably Unlocked: it looks sort of like a table leg, but sort of like a turkey leg, and sort of like the last leg of your dark night of the soul.

Join me next Wednesday, when I can guarantee I will not be writing about any set named Innistrad nor what cards you should buy at retail, probably forcing you to think about something else that’s wrong with the ice-cold world.

 


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I am the Burger Queen

Stefano Black is an NYC-based writer, filmmaker, hamburgler helper, and cardboard-drug dealer. (Law enforcement note: collectible cards not an actual drug.)

He can be found on Twitter as @StefanoBlackest, sharing humor, criticism, super short fiction, and Garfield-related poetry.

He is available for hire or collection buying, but not for his goddamn health, buddy.

To support the Table, buy my foil German Scalding TarnAlso share and leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this critical look at Magic life, try CARDNAME: Why MTG Finance Sucks.

If you want more scalding wit, read 20 Reasons Why Storm Crow Is the Best Card in Magic.

If you can’t get enough ~*existential*~ commentary with your cards, see the Bargaining Table archive and check out RAW MATERIAL, the author’s daily creative writing project.

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