That Time the Society for American Archaeology Blocked Me on Twitter

Chris Polt made me this amazing meme. I love it.
Last night, @SAAorg blocked me on Twitter. I figured it was coming -- after resigning my position as the Media Relations Committee chair in light of the #SAA2019 #MeToo fiasco earlier this month, I've been vocal about changes that are necessary for the Society to repair its relationship with its members. Not just on Twitter, either.

I've written emails to SAA President Joe Watkins and the entire Board of Directors, pleading with them to read the tl;dr version of what happened on April 11 and continues to happen. As anthropologists, we are trained to understand past events as part of a process, and we are trained to synthesize multiple accounts of the past in order to approach a truth, so I was optimistic that the Board would see what I saw. That they would see what thousands of us saw unfold on Twitter, Facebook, at the conference, and by email, and what thousands of us signed an open letter protesting.

But two weeks on, I am no longer convinced that I can get through to the SAA Board of Directors.

They haven't listened to me, in spite of my years of public education experience, which actually won me an award from SAA and which the SAA asked me to use when teaching an online seminar for them last year in "outreach, engagement, and advocacy."

They haven't listened to Jason De León, who is a MacArthur Genius award winner and co-chaired the #MeToo symposium at this year's conference. [His statement is here.] Or Pamela Geller, the other #MeToo co-chair. [Her letter is here.]

They haven't listened to Holly Norton, the archaeologist for the state of Colorado, who resigned her position on the Committee for Government Affairs. [Her letter is here.]

They haven't listened to Sarah Rowe, who bravely spoke up in the SAA business meeting and also penned a letter to the Board [here], or to Justin Walsh, who publicly resigned his membership [here], or Brad Lepper, an SAA award winner and committee member [here], or Sara Juengst [here].

They haven't listened to their Student Affairs Committee. [Their letter is here.] Or to the Queer Archaeology Interest Group. [Here] They haven't even listened to the SAA's own Committee on the Status of Women in Archaeology. [Their letter is here.]

But most importantly, they haven't listened to the three women most traumatized by this: Norma Johnson, Annalisa Heppner, and Liz Ortiz. I would encourage everyone to read what they have to say.

Finally, for those of you who haven't followed this for the past two weeks, here's one last attempt to summarize what happened and what continues to happen. (Feel free to skip down if you know all of this, or feel free to read the full timeline, curated by Liz Quinlan.)


Norma, Annalisa, and Liz were attending the SAA conference in Albuquerque. They all had checked for weeks to make sure that archaeologist David Yesner had not registered for the conference, as they were three of the nine claimants against him in a Title IX case at the University of Alaska Anchorage. That case was public knowledge in archaeology circles for months, and about a week before the SAAs, UAA banned Yesner from campus and from any events involving students in light of their finding of Title IX sexual harassment/assault violations he had committed.

When Yesner is first spotted at the SAAs around 8am on Thursday, April 11, the women frantically text one another and decided to enlist the help of their UAA faculty members, including Ryan Harrod and Gerad Smith, as well as that of journalist Michael Balter, who is at the conference to participate in De León's and Pamela Geller's MeToo session that happened on Sunday, April 14. In order not to "out" themselves, the women ask Balter to intervene on their behalf with SAA staff, in an attempt to have Yesner ejected from the conference.

Balter goes to the SAA press room and talks to PR/press coordinator Amy Rutledge about Yesner. According to him, Amy does not tell him about any official reporting channels but does say she will look into it and get back to him. When Amy does not handle this situation in a swift manner, Balter decides to ask Yesner to leave and walks with him until Yesner is outside the conference center. Balter continues to try to extract information from Amy, who has given him her cell number and invited him to ask for updates, and is met with silence.

By late afternoon on Thursday the 11th, Twitter and Facebook are lit up with posts from people shocked that Yesner is there, that SAA hasn't asked him to leave, and that Balter is being stonewalled. The SAA is silent on both social media platforms, publishing only what appear to be scheduled posts. And the UAA Chancellor, Cathy Sandeen, attempts to contact the SAA Executive staff, on Thursday after Liz alerts her, but cannot reach anyone.

On Friday morning, Balter is ejected from the SAA conference by executive director Oona Schmid, as Yesner (or perhaps Amy?) appears to have filed a harassment report against him. Oona suggests that Balter can talk to her about his concerns after the conference is concluded.

Also on Friday morning, Amy suggests via email to Norma, Annalisa, and Liz that the previous day's reporting of Yesner was not official, and they should file an official report. Norma attempts to make a report at 9am, and finds that the conference room where harassment reports are to be filed is occupied by an unrelated event. At 10am on Friday, as the three women are filing their report, they are on the phone with UAA Chancellor Sandeen, who was still unable to reach anyone on the SAA executive staff by phone.

Throughout Friday the 12th, the women and their supporters attempt to get an update on whether or not Yesner has been ejected, as they grow more fearful of seeing or having to interact with him. Journalist Kristin Romey of National Geographic inquires in the press office when getting her badge if an announcement will be forthcoming, and is told that it will be eventually.

By 5pm Friday, the time of the SAA Business Meeting, the three complainants still have no answers, social media outrage swells to epic proportions, and several people at the meeting report that then-president Susan Chandler was dismissive of the reports and refuses to say anything more, even after Sarah Rowe speaks up in the question period.

Over the next few days, the SAA says almost nothing on social media, while the claimants get more and more upset that no one at SAA has responded to their official or unofficial complaints.  Even by April 16, the Tuesday after the conference was concluded, none of the three claimants has been contacted by SAA except to confirm that they filed a report.

Meanwhile, national media covers the controversy between April 12 and April 18 -- The ScientistKTVAScience MagazineHyperallergic, and Science Magazine again. And, according to a reputable source, Oona sought recommendations for a crisis management PR firm on April 14. It's unclear if SAA ever engaged one, though.

[EDIT (5/9/19) - The crisis PR professional SAA engaged is Adele Cehrs. I learned this when she accidentally tweeted a personal link to the SAA's Twitter account on May 6. She has since deleted that link as well as her LinkedIn profile. I also learned that Cehrs is the one responsible for blocking SAA members on Twitter.]

On April 17, the SAA puts out a statement about Yesner laden with falsehoods about the timeline of events. Both their Twitter and Facebook accounts are blasted with corrections and outrage. SAA starts quietly deleting some Facebook comments, and removes the "rate us" feature on Facebook due to the overwhelmingly negative comments about their handling of the situation.

On April 18, whoever runs the SAA social media accounts implies that Balter's report of Yesner on Friday the 11th was not credible as he was not participating in the meeting as a journalist. Later that day, Joe Watkins delivers a short video and text statement that engenders hope in many SAA members who have been frustrated with the opacity of the organization for the past week.

On April 22, the SAA finally talks to Norma, as well as Chancellor Sandeen and others from UAA, about what happened. Norma reports that the call was unproductive, and there is a general consensus that the SAA, specifically Oona and lawyers, are preventing real change and healing from happening.

Shortly afterward on the 22nd, the SAA tweets (and then a few hours later deletes) the suggestion that "UAA inaction put its students in a hostile environment." Norma forwards a screenshot to Chancellor Sandeen, who forwards it to UAA legal. UAA public relations and a KTVA reporter are astounded by this insinuation and publish a response.

As resignations roll in and other professional organizations (RPA, AAPA, AAA, SHA, CAA, SEAC, and more!) re-commit themselves to their anti-harassment policies, the SAA is largely silent on social media.

On April 23, SAA posts an announcement that they've been in contact with the survivors - which is demonstrably untrue as Annalisa still has had no proactive contact from anyone. Once people begin to call them on this tweet, the SAA deletes it and blocks an archaeology undergrad student.

The person running the SAA Twitter account (who I can only assume is SAA staff member Amy Rutledge) continues to block people over the next few days -- Elizabeth Smith, Hanna Marie, Akshay Sarathi, the Alternative Archaeology Conference folks, me, and Michael Balter.
My badge of honor!

The social media person then deletes all of the SAA's previous tweets -- everything between the April 18 posts of Joe's video/text and a new April 25 job post is deleted. Dozens of us had responded to SAA tweets encouraging engagement. Those responses ranged from dispassionate to constructive to angry. Not one of them was ad hominem (I mean, it's hard to write ad hominem tweets to a person who does not reveal themselves!).

As others have said, the last two weeks have truly been a masterclass in how NOT to engage in PR with members of an organization. The damage done by the lack of a swift response to the Yesner situation at the conference is being compounded by the completely incompetent social media and PR done on behalf of the SAA.

Joe has said repeatedly that he and the SAA are listening. But SAA staff are demonstrating the exact opposite.

[EDIT 5/9/19 - A leaked email has been published by Michael Balter in which Joe responds in writing to an SAA member (maybe of the Board?), providing point-by-point explanations in response to that person's questions. It's fairly damaging, as it suggests the SAA Board/staff are still trying to place blame on UAA and/or the women. It also echoes Joe's repeated calls for "civility" and "being nice", making it clear to me that he does not respect people who use social media for outreach, activism, or change. It also shows that Joe does not think the working group's petition for a bylaw referendum is appropriate. His desire to move at a snail's pace and drag out the status quo is clear.]


So. Where do we go from here? I truly don't know.

For two weeks, I was willing to give Joe the benefit of the doubt. After all, he inherited this mess when he took over as president in the middle of the conference. And I was willing to give the Board the benefit of the doubt, as the vast majority of them are not on social media, and they are not empowered to speak on behalf of the SAA -- only Oona Schmid and Joe Watkins are.

But they've all been informed of the timeline. They've all had time to see what went on, and to read about the SAA staff's roles in ignoring the Yesner situation, in not informing the Board in a timely manner, in lawyering up, and in covering their asses by putting out incorrect information and shutting down social media dialogue. And yet all Joe and the Board have done is set up a task force -- that's currently shrouded in secrecy and, let's be frank, is just doubling down on something SAA already had and something that didn't work to prevent or fix this situation.

The main failure in this whole debacle is clearly the inaction of SAA staff at the conference. 

Can the membership remove the staff, whose salaries are paid by our dues? Based on the bylaws, it doesn't look like it. We can remove Board members per the bylaws (and talk of this is ongoing), however.

What we -- all of us -- can do at this moment is to pressure Joe to do what's right:
  1. talk to the survivors;
  2. tell the entire membership what's going on; and 
  3. remove and/or reassign any staff members who are not contributing productively to the inclusivity goals of the SAA.
Perhaps if enough of us email Joe with our concerns (joe.watkins.saa @, he'll start listening. If he doesn't, I'll be leaving the SAA for good and encouraging others to do the same.


Hector Neff said…
I have followed this, but I wasn't at the SAA meetings. One possible place to start it seems to me is with removal of Oona Schmid, who I infer orchestrated the inappropriate responses of SAA staff during the meetings.
Jon Lohse said…
That seems like the most important place to start.

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