Cops at Burning Man

In this one time at burning man by summerburkes3 Comments

Well this is a relief. Law enforcement at Burning Man seems to be acculturating into the community — displaying far less heavy-handed tactics than in previous years. With Ferguson on everyone’s mind, we’re all more tuned in to that channel than usual.

Working DPW and Gate at Burning Man has given many of us on staff our first taste of what it feels like to be an Enforcer. Of any type. In order to build and run a city out of thin air, sometimes a bunch of anti-authoritarians have to figure out how to tell other anti-authoritarians what to do, in the way we’d like to be told ourselves.

We workers are enforcers of necessary rules like: Don’t bring your guns or dogs here, don’t run towards the burning thing, and what if you’ve tried to stow away a hippie and now they’re suffocating underneath your bad plans.

Yes, it can be fun to role-play alpha tribe-protector out here, all fancy with a radio. Yes, the Stanford Prison Experiment was real, and we’re sure the lead Black Rock Rangers have had to pull some “excited fake cop” people off their Burning Man Ranger routes and take their radios away. That’s human nature. Working through it is what happens next.

For us regular blue-collar workers in Black Rock City, sometimes in this heat we get to feeling harsh, whether from a long work day, a few bad apples’ stupidity, or their mis-assumption of our stupidity. Worse yet, sometimes, as Enforcers, we harsh someone who doesn’t deserve it, because someone else tried to run and hitchhike through fast-moving intake lanes just a minute ago.

So the workers of Black Rock City have a heightened sense of empathy for Burning Man’s law enforcement. In Black Rock City, we have DPW who builds and stewards the town, we have Rangers who walk around and interact with the community, we have Emergency Services which provides medical and fire protection to anyone and everyone who needs it, and we have Gate and Perimeter as our internal “border security.” Together, these Burning Man departments handle all the regular, run-of-the-mill problems a society might have, such as power outages, dehydration, or domestic disputes.

Burn Your Television by Rachel Kadner – photo by Andrew Polson

Then the big guns are also here — the BLM and local law enforcement — whenever we need them.

We have always been glad they’re here. We workers have dealt with some scary shit, and while we talk a big tough game, DPW doesn’t know what to do with a transient one-armed man who’s wandered in from the desert during setup 2003, bleeding from his crazy-eyed head, talking about having just murdered a friend and his dog. Uhhhh, that’s beyond our scope of knowledge and ability.

We call the cops. We need cops. End of story.

We’re proud of our Gate and Rangers for offsetting so many of the more minor duties police are forced to deal with in the real world but not here, such as traffic control and too-drunk people. This shows the real world a different model of non-interference and enhanced social contracts, and we’re happy at how law enforcement has trusted us to know how to do this part on our own.

They’re here at Burning Man already, as you may have heard. Law enforcement is certainly enforcing the law, but with an enhanced understanding between the parties. The XRT (External Relations Team) has been working all year with Burning Man’s police and BLM, and no jinx, but our relationship seems to be better than ever.

The anecdote yesterday was how strongly the BLM have taken to Mr. Blue and Old Man Gravyfoot’s recycling program and extensive trash-separating Ecotopian services which have reduced our footprint and waste stream exponentially. After all, first and foremost, the BLM are here to protect this land on our part of Earth, which belongs to the American people.

The BLM showed remarkable restraint in the Clive Bundy situation — did anyone notice that? Like, a laudable, incredible amount of restraint? Compared to recent events in Ferguson, say? — and hardly anybody notices when Law Enforcement finishes strong. Hardly anybody notices when everything goes well, for the most part — but in the role of Enforcers ourselves, we noticed.

An overwhelming majority of Burners and Burning Man workers we’ve spoken to are extremely proud of our record of zero major negative incidents with our BLM and local police forces. More importantly, we only seek to further this atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation, and we’ll be damn good at it, too. Pebbles that drop in Black Rock City ripple out all over the world; let’s not forget that.

Burn night crowd, 2010 (photo by Neil Girling)

Burn night crowd, 2010 (photo by Neil Girling)

Cop Whispering is a thing in the Cacophony Society, and a very important thing at that. Cop Whispering is a cute name for a serious skill requiring a sober person with a competent and respectful attitude.

In the Cacophony Society and its outlying (and sometimes unwitting) spokes-shows like Cyclecide and the Life-Size Mousetrap, we always designate a Cop Whisperer. This person is THE person who talks to the cops.

In the Cacophony Society — that’s the parent organization of Burning Man and other cultural juggernauts which was fictionally portrayed as Project Mayhem in Chuck Pahlaniuk’s book Fight Club — participants did and do lots of really weird pranks and happenings in abandoned locations where usually only crackheads and/or methfaced hillbillies dare to tread. It was and is necessary for Cacophony leaders to devise a plan for convincing the police responding to calls of “odd people with flashlights wandering around [insert usually-deserted place here].”

Imagine you’re a police officer answering an unknown-intruder call in San Francisco in the ‘90s. Scenario one: You walk into an abandoned building, where crazy freaks seem to be dining in full formal attire at a candlelight banquet, the contents of which all seem to have been carried in by hand. You, policeperson with off-the-chart adrenaline washing through your system as always, are ambushed by most of these kooks, who all get up from the table to start speaking to you at once, making jokes and snapping flash cameras. Some drunk idiot starts yelling platitudes about knowing his rights. Cringe and duck, right?

Scenario two: You, policeperson, respond to the call in the same abandoned building, where amidst the dust, broken glass, and a strange full-formal banquet table, a group of weirdoes are calmly and quietly sitting in a circle on the ground, with their empty hands resting visibly on their knees. One of these people is in a gorilla suit, inexplicably. You, cop, are approached by one person — the designated Cop Whisperer. You, cop with heart pounding and adrenals pumping, not knowing what you were just walking into, are overjoyed to see a circle of weirdoes? maybe art students? or whatever, AND a gorilla suit guy, sitting in a circle why? are they a weird religion or … ? and for heaven’s sake you, cop, may even be laughing by the time the Cop Whisperer talks to you.

See the difference?

Cop whisperer? (1997, photo by Lenny Jones)

Cop whisperer? (1997, photo by Lenny Jones)

The rules for Cop Whispering are simple. Realize that most cops are sometimes-scared, sometimes-vulnerable, flesh-and-blood people doing their best to serve and protect society. One person talks to the law enforcement and others do NOT gather around — a crowd makes anyone feel outnumbered and threatened. Don’t lie to law enforcement, don’t be nervous, and don’t taunt them (doy). Treat them like humans, not Terminators.

As Cop Whisperer, you acknowledge the fact that cops get up and go to work every day not knowing if they’re going to see live bullets whizzing past their heads. Respect them for that, and they will respect you for having a person-to-person conversation — not sidling up to them, obsequiously or belligerently, like some sort of squirrelly hippie with something to hide or prove.

Of course, the fact that Cacophony Society and Burning Man both are majority-white events has everything — everything — to do with our stellar track record on doing wacky stuff without getting thrown into the system. In the default world, things are very broken right now. We can’t solve the default world’s problems in one day, but we can talk about it this week at the dirt rave, and try to figure out how to start fixing things.

An important digression: This writer was talking to a local Army veteran who fought in the Gulf Wars, and he confirmed the Black Rock Desert is practially identical to Afghanistan. A huge bow and curtsey and a heartfelt thanks to those veterans who now serve on the forces. We recognize you put your lives on the line for America, sometimes with little to no acknowledgement or support on your re-entry into America. Our longtime veteran friend on the DPW is now receiving EMDR treatments to deal with his PTSD from over there, and it’s been processing his unprocessed emotions at the times he designates, instead of at random times when he’s stressed.

Robot Heart dancers, 2013 (photo by Philippe Glade)

Robot Heart dancers, 2013 (photo by Philippe Glade)

If you’re a combat-vet-police-officer working at Burning Man, who’s starting to feel wobbly because of the physical similarities between here and that other place which wasn’t as friendly or positively chaotic, please know that everyone who comes to the Black Rock Desert melts down about something at least once. We’re talking crying in a dust storm, starving when you’ve just eaten, totally-bewildered-at-crazy-feelings type of meltdowns. This is because the alkali flats of Lake Lahontan act as a lake-sized purification system for each and every person who steps onto it. We hope y’all veterans feel comfortable enough to seek out someone to talk to, and know that we salute you.

Burning Man officials and liaisons (who are also regular people) have even been holding acculturation presentations the past few days, acquainting new BLM officers with radios, with how Black Rock City differs from plain-ol’-festival grounds, and with the ins and outs of machine- and fire-art. Everything’s friendly.

Dave X suggested something like an “adopt-a-cop” program. As we continue our policy of being friendly and open to law enforcement out here, let’s not forget to invite them to participate as well. The BLM and local officers are as much a part of the Burning Man community as they want to be. Those who are a part of this community, and not on the outside looking in, are protective of this community.

Out here at Burning Man, with no hypnotic haze of advertising, logos, target-marketing, and meganews-channel propaganda, our actual (as opposed to TV-prompted) relationships and social contracts with each other focus into stark and simple realities. We need and appreciate Enforcers in this harsh and challenging environment; the BLM and local police forces serve and protect.

Other societies may let their more awkward citizens crowd around, taunt, and inflame the situation in the name of creating YouTube incidents. Perhaps other people in other suburbs would feel emboldened enough to suddenly be disrespectful to those Enforcers, based on past experiences with other Enforcers.

But we — all of us — have been practicing building a brand new society and interaction-based reality out here. What we do and learn and make up at Burning Man radiates out into the larger world, and we’ve got a real chance to show everyone how we shine together. We all want to make America mean something great again.

We know, what lamely sappy notion, but we’re feeling it. Dusty punk rockers, techno-ravers, and machine-art freaks are out here working on it.

Healthy power relationships are based on many things, but chief among them is respect, and that includes self-respect. Treating everyone how you yourself would like to be treated is easier out here in the dust, when you never know who you’re talking to. Cops may have uniforms on to separate them that way from the herd, but they’re part of our herd. They’re out here to have a great time at Burning Man, too.

It’s amazing how happy a civilization can be when nobody’s being threatened or subjugated or made to have low self-esteem. The default world is bleeding and in pain right now with horrifically lopsided race- and authority-relations … but at Burning Man, the slate is new and blank, each and every year. In all the enforcing departments, we have no reason not to lift each other up here and let each other do our jobs.

next year we're hoping for a BLM vs. Rangers round at Friends and Family Nite in Thunderdome. Photo by Gabe Kirchheimer

next year we’re hoping for a BLM vs. Rangers round at Friends and Family Nite in Thunderdome. Photo by Gabe Kirchheimer

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.


  1. Pingback: Who Is Your Cop Whisperer? | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

  2. Summer,
    what, exactly, is an “enhanced social contract”?
    Just FYI: though it may seem like it today, police going about their jobs in a respectful and restrained manner is nothing new, and definitely not an original concept pioneered at burning man.
    Feel free to visit Black Rock Legal Defense Fund ( to read about the contrast between responsible law enforcement, and everything else.

  3. I have serious life threatening conditions. Cops will arrest me and cage me if they find me using my medicine.

    “They’re out here to have a great time at Burning Man, too.”

    Uh, no. They are there to crush people, to destroy lives, to steal property, to cage innocent people, and otherwise commit mayhem and wreck carnage upon the earth.

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