Culture

Police Crackdown at Burning Man Alarms the Community

"The pigs are here. And uncommonly badge heavy."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/lkpro

Workers and volunteers who arrived early to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert  for the annual art, self-reliance, and free-expression event called Burning Man are reporting an unprecedented police presence on the playa, and whispers of a police crackdown on the event are spreading. The "burn" does not officially kick off until August 26, but as it appears the police have already arrived.

A law enforcement presence always exists at Burning Man, but this year's is markedly more severe, according to a Burning Man participant, or “burner,” of 18 years named Aaron Muszalski—screen name “sfslim.” As usual, Muszlaski arrived at the event early this year. On Tuesday he posted a photo of ranger trucks to Instagram, accompanied by the following message:

“The pigs are here. And uncommonly badge heavy. Earlier tonight, the #BLM pulled over El Couchino [a Burning Man staff vehicle, marked as such] for a registration violation. In 18 years on the playa, I’ve never seen a more aggressive police presence than what’s been going down today. Deeply upsetting, outrageous stuff. One DPW [Department of Public Works] member was issued a $275 ticket for urinating on the playa, and threatened with being forced to register as a convicted sex offender. (a note for people not familiar with Burning Man, the “Playa” is what Burning Man attendees or “Burners” call the land that this event is held on.) I suspect this is fallout from the lawsuit BMORG won against the BLM earlier this year. Whatever the cause, know this: Law enforcement is going to be VERY AGGRESSIVE at Burning Man this year. Keep your shit as right as you do back in the world. Don’t give them any excuses. Be extremely cautious, and MAKE SURE TO TELL YOUR FRIENDS. Things are changing. #BM2013 #LEO #police IF YOU DO GET STOPPED: Make sure to file an incident report with Burning Man. And before you get here, LEARN YOUR RIGHTS.”

While one of the key tenets of Burning Man is the absence of rules (other than those that serve to protect the health, safety, and experience of the community at large, according ot the Burning Man website), Black Rock City—as the temporary Burning Man metropolis is called—does not operate outside the law. Federal, state and local laws apply. Every year six different law enforcement agencies patrol the event, which takes place on federal land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. These include local county sheriffs departments, BLM rangers, and Nevada Highway Patrol. 

On the Burning Man website page regarding law enforcement it says:

“It is not the mission of these agencies to police your lifestyle or inhibit self expression. They fulfill the same function as the police in any city. In the past, they have conducted search and rescue missions and assisted us in evictions. It is also their duty to respond to any infraction of the law that is brought to their attention or is in plain view.”

Burning Man has historically been a peaceful event with little to no incidents that would merit increased law enforcement. For example, at last year’s event, which had more than 52,000 attendees, a total of four drug-related arrests were made and 13 nonviolent misdemeanor citations were given (in lieu of arrests) according to the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. All of the violations were for the possession of a controlled substance (marijuana/drug paraphernalia), and no violent crimes were recorded.

Muzslaski, whose Twitter page lists him as a San Francisco resident and founder of other.io  and formerly the Wikimedia Foundation,  also said he suspects the apparent crackdown is a response to a lawsuit the Burning Man organization—Black Rock, LLC—took up against Pershing County’s unconstitutional festival permitting process this year. In April, a district court judge denied the County’s efforts to have the lawsuit dropped.

In response to the police presence, the independent group Reform In Our Time (RIOT) has called for a general strike at Burning Man until the excess authorities have left.

The popular Burning Man commentary blog Burners.me reported the following:

“In the wake of what seems to be the beginning of a serious police crackdown on Burning Man, rumors of a general strike have been quietly spreading among the workers and volunteers out in the Black Rock desert early to build the festival’s infrastructure.”

The site’s reporter identified only as Whatsblem The Pro interviewed a series of workers that wished to remain anonymous other than identifying themselves as members of RIOT.

One interviewee made it clear that RIOT’s call for a strike was not about starting a riot, but rather that RIOT was a quiet organization.

Another RIOT member told Watsblem The Pro: “If the cops would leave their badges and guns at home and just be burners like everyone else in [Black Rock City], we’d welcome them just like we welcome anyone else. We’d even build them a Donut Camp!  We’re not against cops necessarily, we just don’t want outsiders doing law enforcement in our city. We have everything we need to take care of it ourselves without any outside help!”

UPDATE 9/3/2013: A long time Burning Man crew member that wishes to remain anonymous reached out to AlterNet to say there were never any real plans to strike at Burning Man. They sent the following message on Aug. 31:  

“We are not striking; that’d be cutting off the nose to spite the face and it’s not only a fabrication but a terrible one. Our problem is with LEO [law enforcement organizations], not the city or residents. What needs to happen this year is the national legalization of hemp and cannabis with no restrictions; all other fascist tendencies could be suppressed most easily, and surveillance laws re-written, if the drug dogs and the PTSD-riddled desert-storm veterans who use them as intimidation devices out here had no job to do aside from maintaining BLM land-use compliance and catching real criminals.”

April M. Short previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort