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Growth and Change, part deux -- 2003

Yet another essay about changes at the Burn.

I really hate to talk about the old days, but here I go.

The ranger on the right is taking the photo of the othe ranger and the woman.

Louise and I first went in 1996. There were a couple of BLM Rangers out and about on foot, and a few sheriff's deputies, also on foot. They not only posed for photos, but had their cameras and took pictures and asked to be photographed with Burners. It may be that they asked to be photographed with certain attractive, topless babes, but back in the old days, nobody cared. People offered the BLM Rangers hits off their marijuana cigarettes -- it was always (well, we think always) refused with good nature, but smoking a joint in public was not a crime back then.

Notice the spiffy uniform on the male ranger as he retrieves his camera.

And the cops loved our art cars. I'd see a gang around the jet car or some tricked out four-wheel drive monster (as here), and they'd let me take their picture posing with the car (as here). The Disgruntled Postal Workers cruised around in art cars carrying real guns and screaming at people.

All that changed in 1997 and later.

Now we are the enemy. Cops cruise the dirt streets of Black Rock City in, well, police cruisers. I asked a couple of cops on ATVs if I could take their picture a few years back, and they refused, saying it was against department policy. Cops at home don't refuse to be photographed when they're out at public events. Heck, cops in towns I've lived in are proud to be asked if you can take their photographs. I've got photos of Philadelphia's proudest on horseback at every parade I went to in Philly. The department that dropped a bomb on the MOVE house and burned down a city block, killing 11 people and leaving 250 others homeless in 1985, has no policy prohibiting photographing its police. The town I live in now doesn't, either.

But at Black Rock City, we are the enemy. Apparently, we're all seen as criminals. One year, the cops searched people's tents without their consent; the excuse: We were on public property and therefore had no expectation of privacy. How dumb was that? How criminal was that?

In my home town, I am not the enemy of my police department. On the playa, I am. In my home town, I can walk down the street and not be subject to search and seizure because I'm on a public street. On the playa, I am.

A few years ago, a female cop saw a naked man taking a leak on the playa. Urinating on the playa is not a crime, but she wanted to get him for something, so she wrote him a ticket for indecent exposure. The lesson: if the cops on the playa want to get you for something, they will -- even if they have to make up a false charge to do so. We are the enemy.

This year's fiasco involved a couple of Burners who set up a replica of the original Burning Man from Baker Beach on the ashes of the burned Man. Sunday night, they set fire to the replica. Up screeched a cruiser, and the two guys got a ticket for burning something at Burning Man. It was alleged that their burn was not authorized; unfortunately for the two guys, (a) it was authorized by BMOrg but BMOrg forgot to get the required advance permission, (b) one of the guys had his two small daughters with him who got to watch their dad get arrested, and (c) that same guy had an outstanding warrant for an unpaid a traffic ticket. This poor guy was hauled off to Lovelock and spent Sunday night in jail. His daughters spent the night with friends. (The cops will haul you off to some town an hour or two away, but they won't bring you back -- get your own ride.) We are the enemy.

If you have gotten a traffic ticket somewhere in Nevada and haven't paid it, take care of it before your next trip to the area. Here are some URLs for more information:

On the night of the Burn, Louise and I went around to the 12:00 o'clock position and sat down in the dirt with front row seats to the burn. After the fire dancers had started, a group of people in their 40s or 50s arrived and stood next to us. One of the women started telling all the guys that men couldn't keep their hands off her, but dressed as she was, that was to be expected. A Black Rock Ranger asked them to sit so that people behind them could see. They squatted down or knelt so as not to get dirty; when the Rangers wandered off, they stood again.

One of the guys offered me a drink from his container: cranberry juice and vodka. I told him no thanks, I'm happy with my water. He seemed offended and demanded to know how I got my buzz, listing a litany of stuff. I told him I was here for the burn. He started off on a tale of having to move to some town in Colorado just so he could have his drugs in peace. Meanwhile, talkative woman turned on a flashlight and started searching through her fanny pack, which she held up to her chest, the better to see in her pack, I thought. Burners who had arrived early and were sitting got the light right in our faces, and I asked her to mask her light. The guy said, yeah, but look what she's showing (she had on a fishnet sheer bra, it turned out). All I can see is the glare, I said. He was not happy, and neither was she, but she did hold her hand over the light while exposing herself.

When the burn started, some other guy stepped right in front of me, blocking my view completely. I asked him to move, and he did -- but he held his camera down and out in front of my face, taping the burn from my angle. Sheesh! What jerks.

From my hearing of their conversation, they got to BRC on Friday and were departing on Sunday. Some years ago (sorry, talking about the old days again), BMOrg instituted a policy of no admissions after 6:00 pm on Friday, in an effort to keep out the yahoos: in those days college frat boys who came on the day of the burn, drank beer all day, and generally harrassed naked or topless women and aggravated fully clothed women to show these yahoos more skin. We seem to have a new yahoo at the burn: Jerks with money and a need for a buzz, but no concern whatsoever for the Burn or Burners.

Yahoos of yore.

Last year we had something similar happen. Louise and I were in the second row back from where rangers allowed people to sit, and we were all sitting down for the burn. When the fire dancers started, I heard a commotion behind me, and got kneed in the back: a man and woman were walking over people, cocktails in hand, to sit in front of the front row, inside the fire circle where we had not been allowed to sit. A guy in the front row leaned forward and said something I could not hear -- the couple immediately got up and moved to block someone else. Jerks.

By the way, did you notice there were exit lanes around the Man this year? Exit lanes? How dumb is that? We've got over 14,600 square acres of empty South Playa, and somebody is afraid that if the Burn goes horribly wrong we're going to be trapped and not be able to get out. Just throw some yahoos on the fire, okay?

For additional ranting, see Yes, Virginia, there is a Burning OSHA, written in 1999 by someone entirely different. See Growth and Change, my essay from 2001 about the changes that have come about in the event and the loss of participation in rituals no longer carried out.

We've grown and become more like what we were.

Larry Harvey, in an interview on NPR, September 6, 2003.

The Jack Rabbit Speaks is the email newsletter of BMOrg; the last several issues before this year's event were filled with advertisements for people selling items to Burners and with notices of fund- raising for groups; the year-round calendar for August is also filled with fund-raiser announcements ("$10 mandatory donation/ $5 if you bring an entree for the potluck" -- gotta love those mandatory donations -- and "Admission is $10, or $5 if you come in playa gear"). While vending is prohibited at the event, free ads in the JRS and calendar for sellers and fund- raisers is no problem for BMOrg. It's gotten so expensive to mount a theme camp at Burning Man that individuals can't do it alone anymore, so I'm sure any help from BMOrg with these ads is much appreciated. I have to wonder what it is in the application process that demands so much money from people who want to get theme camps at the Burn. I'm waiting to see what happens when BMOrg makes having a theme camps so expensive, nobody's willing to do one. With the high costs of theme camps and no approved way to charge people for the entertainment, I'm expecting mandatory donations to rear their ugly head on the playa (and don't expect a discount for playa gear). "Want a ride on the tiki bar car? $10 mandatory donation, $5 if you contribute a fifth of vodka. Unopened."

I stand by my comments; nevertheless, Louise and I had a wonderful time this year as in the past (the good old days). We plan on attending for years and years. The major reason we enjoy going to Burning Man so much is not the Burn itself (and not even the theme camps), but our longtime friends and our new acquaintances from succeeding years. Our friends are not mere participants at Burning Man, they are major contributors to the ongoing well-being of the event, operating completely outside the organization. The spirit of friendship and giving continues in our small circle of friends, who share a moral and spiritual life at the Burn and at parties and events outside the playa. While individuals in the circle may come and go, the unity and cohesion remain. And no fund raisers.

UPDATE: In mid-October 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle ran two articles about "urban tribes." The articles are linked to here:
"Ethan Watters studies Gen X for 'Urban Tribes'"
"A look at some Bay Area urban tribes"

In addition to Craig's List (a San Francisco Bay Area online institution) and Burning Man, the articles mention family ties as a source of friendships and tribes (Armenians are one example given). If it were not for Burning Man, I would say that you could not set up what Watters refers to as an urban tribe on purpose -- one would just have to happen (a Grand Falloon, as it were). Check the articles out and see what you can do for your own Burn next year. But start now.

Yet another UPDATE: D. Brian Burghardt, with the Reno News & Review, has an essay called "About a man." It gets a little slow, but it is worth reading all the way through. Louise and I have friends who say they don't like to camp, and we tell them that if they think Burning Man is about camping, they shouldn't go. Mr. Burghardt learns about this from a meditative Frenchman on his way through the article, then he gets to the point:

People don't look at other [Reno-area] events like Hot August Nights, Artown or the Nugget Rib Cook-off with a critical eye, inquire into finances or question the quality of the art.
The reason people want to read about Burning Man is because Burning Man matters.

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Copyright © 2003, The Civilized Explorer