Fire dancers are not all warm and fuzzy. It sounds like some shit went down backstage at last weekend’s officially sanctioned Decompression party in San Francisco – an assault, or nearly one. The Black Rock Rangers who were volunteering in a security role and the event managers refused to call the police, preferring to downplay the incident.
“Safety third” used to be a funny Burner saying, but this year we have had to deal with the tragic death of a Burner who was crushed by an art car, and several suicides of Burners – 1 who jumped into the fire in front of 1200 people at Utah’s Element 11 Regional Burn, and 2 (or is it 3?) DPW workers since the Man burned. Safety and mental health issues are extremely important. Maybe it’s time to put safety first, instead of third.
In every story there are usually three sides: his side, their side, and the truth. I am publishing this story because a reader asked me to, and we encourage the whole community to share their opinions here. I believe it highlights some safety issues that might otherwise remain un-addressed. Other people involved in the incident have come forward to describe a slightly different version of events. Usually, in this type of incident, if someone was drunk they don’t turn around the next day and say “it was all my fault because I was drunk”. Denial is a common strategy. If there were any other witnesses to the event, please comment. I’m presenting both sides, I trust that you can make up your own minds, readers.
JG: My name is John Goodwin and I have been a fire performer for 18 long years. I performed at Burning Man as part of Fire Conclave in 2011. I have been a part of the fire stage for Unscruz, the Santa Cruz Regional. I have been a fire performer and worked hard part every part of the fire stage and back stage facilitating others’ performances for the San Francisco Burning Man Decompression event 2010,2011,2012,2013 and my final year this past sunday october 12th 2014. I’ve been a part of the Union Square Fire Dance Expo the past 3 years. I worked from around 1p to 10:30 this year back stage at sf decompression. I helped build out and tear down the fuel spin out structure and with the fuel depot. I have also been to a lot of renegade fire and spin jams and watched a large community of fire dancers grow and develop in the San Francisco Bay Area. Most fire dancers are warm, overly nice open-minded people. Unfortunately that means that they don’t always speak out when they see a problem that might stop their fun. Many times these illegal renegade spin jams happen because permits or safe private property with owner’s permission is expensive. They’ve been wearing out their second chances and warnings from the police and fire dept. in San Francisco, so they come to the ghettos of Oakland or by Lake Merritt. Drinking and drug use are both serious problems that no one wants to address in the fire dance community, even though everyone gives lip service to not drinking and doing drugs as a part of safety. I left the last fire conclave I practiced with, because they had a nasty habit of proving themselves unsafe,untrustworthy, smoking by fuel, drinking and playing fire and occasionally starting fires that they couldn’t put out or hurting each other. Every time somebody gets hurts, they say that’s what happens when you play with fire and don’t address the issue. These include their leader, [name removed] and others who volunteered to be fire safety for the stage the day of. That’s because the stage manager did not line up any professionals long before hand! That means I had to explain and argue with her twice, that no you don’t put everyone at risk by having untrustworthy, dangerous criminals in a position to do the most damage as “safeties”!
I have also been emailed some of the counter-arguments:
Hey there Burners.me, I would like to reach out and make contact because it has come to my attention that one John Goodwin, is making allegations that certain groups at SF heat the streets decompression fire performance stage were under the influence of alcohol, and are criminals…..
Well I was present, and witnessed a good deal of how John claims to have handled the situation. I was filling in as center safety, as the one who volunteered did not show up. While I was backstage, I witnessed John yelling and moving around aggressively some dude in a red shirt. now I have been apart of the Bay Area fire scene for some years now, and I have noticed this kid likes to stir up drama, and cause conflict when his views are not accepted by everyone.
I have studied and practice de-escalation techniques to resolve conflicts, and what I witnessed from Johns actions of yelling in the guys face, and poking him with a fire staff as opposed to just walking away and getting security (before security was called on him for being aggressive to others) Is a joke to me being present when the event happened. Then to make sweeping generalizations about the the “criminals” working safety can be offensive. I for one was not intoxicated in the least as fill-in center safety for the performances.
I am writing on my behalf as well as my friends with the FAC and Ministry of Flow, that we put safety first when it comes to public/private performances. While John Goodwin is going around blocking people who disagree with him on social media, Facebook, i just wanted to put it out there that a vast majority of the community realizes his tendency to cause drama, and would like to have both sides of the story present.
Hey just wanted to let you guys know that the story that John Goodwin is writing to you is all fabricated and full of lies. He was the instigator with his situation, threatened to beat people of with his fire staff, is lying about FAC, and everything else. We have multiple witnesses who saw what happened and were backstage. [libellous statement removed]. If you would like anymore information please feel free to contact me.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about this on John’s Facebook page. His wife RL was traumatized by the incident.
JG: at one point he asked all stupid are you really going to hit me with that and I had to say “yes! If you come near me and make defend myself” All my fire dancing was spent keeping from not fighting him, because a staff is also a pretty serious melee weapon. I wouldn’t let myself get hurt, and the charges are the same even in self-defense. So, seriously all just dancing away and gentle,gentle pokes with a padded end, a couple shoves with hands while yelling for help. Danced and yelled around backstage like that, easily 5 minutes, definitely longer than my stage in time was meant to be all used in gracefully avoiding a serious fight against a determined assailant while calling for help.
[name removed] witnessed at least some of this. He told me to put the staff down and I would not. He criticized my self-control. I did not actually come to blows with my assailant, I did not swing on him with my staff, all my martial and fire dancing arts were instead used to avoid violence – the essence of mastery according to my traditions. Of course i will not disarm before such an enemy, however I would not seriously hurt such a drunken fool either.
Carolyn: You should never have been put in that position. Back stage is supposed to be a safe space.
Isa: Sorry this happened but good for you for not working free. I gave up performing at Decom and BM events years ago in part for this reason.
John Z: I stayed away this year, for the first time, partly because of the negative comments about the producers of Decompression I’ve read from [a sound camp]. Stage security is so important at any event, and relying on volunteers to maintain the peace is asking for trouble. Getting paid to perform is a step in the right direction towards professional productions, which take the safety of their talent seriously. Needless to say, consider the drinking establishment before you say yes to performing. Sorry you had to suffer a jackass to cement your resolve.
Bekka: I’m glad you’re ok, John. I didn’t see this happen, but I do know the person you’re accusing of attacking you and his account is drastically different than what you describe here. I’m not saying he’s right or you’re right. I care about both of you and am ultimately glad that nobody got hurt. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see your performance and that your night was disrupted in such an extreme way. I do know that this person was sober- at least most of the night while he was working backstage, certainly when he and his wife gave me a ride home- and had a very good reason to be backstage. Whoever claimed that only performers should be backstage is forgetting about the multitude of crew members (from stage hands and managers, to emcees, to djs/drummers/sound and light crew, to fire safeties) that actually facilitate the execution of a show. Performers would not be able to perform without these hidden hands making it possible. This person facilitated a lot that happened that night by helping to set up and strike as well as carry the massive drumset for our drummers in his truck. He wasn’t some vagrant off the street that randomly snuck backstage. As to the fire safeties, they were respected and very experienced members of the fire community and I’m not sure what makes them criminal, but I certainly admit I don’t know the full story as to why you dismissed them, so perhaps something happened I’m unaware of. I do know that they have been spinning and teaching for years, run a collective and have organized conclave multiple years, host fire jams regularly, etc so they seemed qualified to safety and like you, they were volunteering their time to do so and had nothing to gain other than making a contribution to their community. Another thing I know is that you, John Goodwin, and the other person involved in this encounter are both well respected long standing members of the Burning Man community- you as a fire artist, he as a welder at American Steel and member of DPW and he is often volunteering his time and energy to the fire community via his wife who performs (and she performed with us last night). I don’t think either of you are bad people, and suspect that there was a misunderstanding, and we all know tensions are always high during performances. I just feel compelled to offer my perspective that both of you are unique talented individuals who were both trying to contribute in your own way last night. It really sucks this happened, and I’m sorry you had to deal with the stress. I have a lot of appreciation for the many hours you volunteered to make the show happen last night, John. I also think it’s totally acceptable for anyone to draw the line and reject unpaid work at any point in time. I do, however, feel it’s worth noting that this was a charity event. We weren’t just performing for free for kicks… we were donating our time and passion to raise money for the Burning Man Project and you can read about the awesome ways they make art accessible to the public on their website and I think that’s a cause we all cherish. Thanks again for all your hard work John. I hope I get to see you perform soon. You are an inspiration to many. Much love.
JG: No, that asshole was a crazy drunk that got in my face to start a fight back stage you want to name him [name removed]? Because I want to press that charges on that guy,he was crazy! As for FAC my advice is to stay away, they proved crazy, you will get yourself hurt and get involved in arson or other illegal activities. As far as I’m concerned, they are a gang of criminals, not artists. Also fuck the big, well funded Burning Man Project that ain’t why volunteered my time.
If that guy wasn’t a drunk that snuck in, that is so much worse! His coming to fuck with me back stage only proves what I say is right! No way he wasn’t all kinds of drunk, if he was not, that also only makes it so much worse, because that must mean he is always so violent and stupid! Also, he didn’t have shit to do with our backstage, i was there all day and night, because I don’t just perform I do a lot of other work facilitating others’ performances.
RL: What kind of thoughtless jackass considers a situation like this “just a misunderstanding”? It’s not a misunderstanding when one guy has to be fended off until the second guy can get away, leaving the second guy feeling so unsafe he can’t even go onstage for his set. This was a giant fuckup on the part of the stage manager, security and the drunken asshole who tried to start a fight. John was not at fault, he was trying to get away from a violent piece of crap. I also don’t understand those who want to stand back and criticize how John handled this situation, and call that “helpful”. It’s not helpful. It’s victim-blaming. Fuck off.
JG: He got into my face, stepping in so close as to be touching me and spitting in my face to argue about our decision to not let untrustworthy people “help”. Like waaay to close in my face, trying to be intimidating. I was busy and in no mood to have stage management decisions questioned by a crazy drunk ass hole I don’t even know, so I told him so. We don’t let drunks backstage anyway or shouldn’t. I moved away after telling him as much and he chased after me. There was lots of him chasing after me. There were times he lashed out trying to punch me and he simply couldn’t land a hit on me because i kept dodging and moving away and keeping him back with a staff. It wasn’t much of a fight or an assault, however he definitely attacked me and chased me around over 5 frustrating minutes until security came, they didn’t act like real security either, wanting to talk instead of do their jobs. i get really upset just thinking about and trying to type it all out.
Thing is it didn’t have to be an epic battle with someone getting hurt for it to be a fight or an assault. Touch when someone doesn’t want touch, move in too close when its not crowded, keep messing with someone who doesn’t want to talk to you, thats assault and harassment and fuck conflict resolution, that shit gets resolved when dumb drunks get bounced, preferably in handcuffs.
Andrew: I was backstage when it happened. I feel raising your voice and holding up a prop is the opposite of de-escalation. Walking away works pretty great. From my point of view I only saw you moving around agitated making loud shouts. I don’t have a judgement, just what I saw, and then chose to walk away from the area.
JG: So you saw and you did not get the police or security? That’s bad! Walking away didn’t work with that crazy drunk violent asshole! He needed to be ejected or better yet, not allowed backstage to fuck with me in the first place! That’s “de-escalation” not being attacked by an angry drunk in the first place!
Andrew: I thought you were the instigator from my point of view, I didn’t hear what you were saying i just heard yelling and felt aggression.
JG: Mostly I was yelling “Help!” and “Police!” and “Security!” and ordering the drunk to “Get away from me!” I can see how it may have looked from your point of view, because I was armed. That’s one more reason I didn’t lay him out cold like [name removed] suggests and instead poked him back very gently all things considered with the padded end. I trained in 5 different martial arts and a shitload of fire dancing to be able to dodge and run away and keep out of reach, instead of escalating use of force. That’s how come i’m sitting at home explaining to you that the next time you see some shit like that -“yes get away is right, and then do the right thing and get a police officer or security to sort it out!” instead of my being with a police officer behind bars along with that asshole.
Next time you sense that much aggression the back of a fire stage or similar setting, seriously be safe and get security or the police quickly, it is too dangerous to mess around.
Bekka: I do not know his last name but even if I did I feel uncomfortable stating names publicly without prior consent. I don’t think a mediated (non-violent) encounter would be a bad thing if that’s something you desired. If you’d like to reach this person, I’m sure I can link you to people who can help you do that. PM me if interested. I am not trying to make light of the stress or trauma of what you experienced. I am not saying you are in the wrong. I am only saying that it’s possible that this man’s intentions were not to physically assault you, and perhaps he approached you more aggressively than was necessary or appropriate and things escalated from there. I think both of you had high emotions about the topic at hand, and neither of you understood this about the other (as the FAC safeties were his friends and they were only fulfilling their volunteer shifts they had committed to [which they actually thought were greeter shifts, not fire safety shifts, and somehow they got reassigned to fire safety] and he was trying to get answers as to why his friends were being blacklisted from an event that, as far as he knew, they were qualified to work for). I also feel that it’s not accurate that he wasn’t supposed to be backstage… he was assisting, and did facilitate [name removed]‘s performances. I honestly have the utmost respect for every single person who was backstage, and both of you are included in this. I hope you can find a way to recover from this and move forward in a direction that’s constructive for your life -whether that’s reaching out to confront this person in a safe, non-violent environment, or discontinuing your participation with Decom if that’s what you desire, or whatever else- and I encourage you to discuss this situation with any other organizers involved with that stage so that such encounters can be prevented in the future. Perhaps something as simple as backstage access passes (which would have alerted you that he was not a rando off the street but someone there helping one of the groups), or each group providing their own safeties (so that you would not have to rely on whatever volunteer coordinator’s decision it was about assigning safeties), could have prevented this situation. I am sorry this happened, and don’t let it get you down. I know how much you love your art and this community. Your passion for fire arts is very obvious and appreciated. I know how much you contributed Sunday by organizing the fire stage, not to mention your contributions throughout your many years as a fire artist. I support you, and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.
RL: How long would this asshole have had to chase John around before you actually got it through your head that he was the aggressor, caused a problem and should not have been there? Is five minutes not enough for you? Where’s the cutoff? Ten minutes? Or does the aggressor have to actually have John’s blood on his fists before you finally understand that he’s not a nice person? Why is John being chased from backstage and feeling so unsafe he had to be escorted out not enough for you? Because the bullying drunk who did it is your buddy? Nobody chases a guy around and has to be fended off with a fire staff for five whole minutes because he’s “looking for clarification”. Stop minimizing what this son of a bitch did to John and the stress we’re both under as a result. You have ZERO idea what it was like for him, or for me for that matter. Your buddy’s “innocent” actions left John enraged, bitter, scared for his personal safety, and completely alienated, and left me having anxiety attacks at home as I worried for his safety. This is not a matter of “misunderstanding”, unless we’re counting your total inability to understand that your friend wronged John and put us both through Hell.
RL: It makes me sick how many people will attack someone for getting justifiably angry and kicking up even a small fuss about it. It’s like they expect you to just help them cover up the situation, avoid rocking the boat and never seek any kind of justice or vindication. I guess they don’t want their fun interrupted by inconvenient realities–like needing to rein in a small but very troublesome group of aggressive, booze-loving idiots. Or needing to make sure security isn’t so fucking lax that a guy can get chased around by an angry drunk for five minutes before any of them notice. Or that job you ended up doing a lot–keeping idiots from smoking while standing over the damn fuel depot. These are all common sense things that responsible people would see to. But being responsible takes work and effort, and that distracts from funtimes. So I guess it’s just more convenient to them to try to silence the person making the complaint.
JG: Rangers as event security was the worst, they would not get the police and help press charges when they had that bastard in custody! They prefer to sweep problems under the rug and don’t like enforcing rules or harsh consequences like when a violent thug needs to be arrested because he’s chased a performer all around a dangerous back stage area! They sure weren’t preventing drunks and smokers from getting backstage!
RL: I’ve been crying off and on at work because this is just so much like what happened to me with the Pagan group where I was sexually molested. The people in that group acted just like the people in this group. They denied, minimized, called me crazy, claimed I was overreacting and otherwise made a million excuses why it couldn’t have happened and I didn’t deserve help. They picked at my responses to being molested. They claimed I was “just sexually uptight”. They did everything they could think of to ignore and dismiss the problem so they could go back to their fun. And when I wouldn’t let it slide like they wanted, they ostracized me. These people defending that thug are just as terrible, and I’m really glad that we’re going where we won’t have to deal with them any more.
JG: they are just mad that I blow the whistle, that I stand firm by my beliefs and decisions and I don’t just cave in. I went to extreme lengths to avoid hitting or being hit by a determined assailant. It is the height of irony that I am now being lectured on de-escalation and avoiding conflict. I was running away, I was looking for help. Why not tell that to the drunk who kept chasing me, determined to fight about that hippy pacifism crap?
Why did event security and others prevent me from making a police report?!
[Update 10/16/14 6:35pm] Bekka has provided further details, an alternative perspective on events from someone who was there.
I am writing from the perspective of someone who was present backstage during all of this, who has been at least casual friends with John Goodwin for years and who is also the close friend of his “assailant’s” wife. Therefore, I don’t have a personal bias and wish both parties involved nothing but the best.
John had a falling out with the people assigned as fire safety a long time before this event. I can’t speak much to that as I wasn’t involved, except that it had something to do with accusations about lapse in safety standards from both sides. When he found out they were assigned as safety, he was upset and claimed they were not qualified (despite that these people are well known in the community [have run conclave multiple years, host fire jams, teach classes, safetied for many events] and all the other performers felt either honored or at the very least neutral to have them as safeties). If John truly felt unsafe, he certainly had a right to express that and I don’t fault him for that (though I don’t agree with his assessment), but for the other members of the community who disagree with his judgment and in fact have high respect for these safeties it is difficult not to view this as a personal vendetta rather than truly a safety issue. Personally, I feel if he truly felt endangered by these people (again, this is not how I felt) then making mention of this is the right thing. What I found frustrating was that he did not have a solution to the problem- he had no replacement safeties lined up. His interests seemed much more aligned with causing drama about these people he didn’t like, than ensuring that a safe show continue to go on as planned. Luckily some of the performers volunteered to safety when they weren’t onstage, so this resolved the problem.
The encounter happened when the husband of my good friend, who was backstage WITH permission to assist in setting up the massive drum sets for our performances with Aries Fire Arts, approached John to ask why he made such accusations about his friends who had been assigned to safety. And just to be clear, they had signed up for greeter shifts at Decom, but upon arrival found that they were reassigned to fire safety. This was not their request- someone (presumably a volunteer coordinator who knew of their qualifications and involvement in the fire community) had reassigned them. My friend’s husband has known these people for years and felt strongly they were qualified and good people, and did not know of the drama from the previous year between them and John Goodwin. Frustrated that the show at this point had no safeties due to John’s allegations (and a fire show can’t occur without safeties), and further frustrated that John’s opinion was evidently not shared by anyone else there and wanting to defend the integrity of his friends, he approached John and asked why they couldn’t safety. John, of course, is not obligated to answer such questions, but it’s not surprising that he was asked repeatedly when refusing to answer.
I did not observe the actual interaction of this man asking John questions. I was, however, (like about 50 other performers) standing about 10 feet away. Therefore, if there had been an assault I’m pretty sure I would have stopped what I was doing and looked at the commotion- which is exactly what I did when I heard the screaming, which I only heard from John. Not a single witness saw any of the things John claims to have happened. We were all right there next to it, and nobody saw this man threaten John, assault him, or touch him, or even scream at him. ALL OF US however, were well aware of John screaming for 10 min or so for security and police and help. I personally approached John to see if he was ok, not knowing what happened. I found him (in the midst of what appeared to be a panic attack) behind a structure backstage hyperventilating. I asked what happened, and he said he’d just been attacked by a drunk man. I offered him some water and asked if I could help, and he waved his hand to dismiss me, as it was clear he was so agitated he could barely speak. Security/rangers DID come promptly, as John requested but John either refused or was unable to speak with them so they were only able to speak with the other person involved. The determined that the situation had deescalated and left. I do not think John’s claims that the rangers prevented him from filing a report with police or speaking to the fire marshal are accurate, as I was told that the rangers weren’t able to speak with John despite their attempts. I didn’t even know that my friends’s husband was the other person involved until the end of the night when he and his wife gave me a ride home. I can tell you that he appeared to be very sober throughout the entire time, as did the people assigned to fire safety. I also witnessed nobody moving any smoking signs. I did not hear my friend who approached John when it happened so it’s hard for me to believe it was truly an attack or assault as John claimed (besides the fact that I don’t believe my friend’s husband would do that). I don’t doubt that he was emotional and defensive of his friends when he approached John, and this may have appeared aggressive and made John feel attacked and unsafe. This probably triggered panic in John, so I am sure John’s feelings are valid. However, his description of the story simply is not accurate, and the multitude of witnesses confirm this.
Regarding safety at the show, it all seemed well organized and safe to me (as someone who has received a lot of fire safety training years ago when I started spinning from Temple of Poi, have worked volunteer safety shifts repeatedly at fire spinning festivals such as FireDrums and Pacific Fire, and as someone who has performed locally and also 3 times in the Great Circle at Burning Man in conclave so I feel pretty competent in assessing safety). The fire marshall was present and inspected every performer’s props before going onstage. The fuel was contained in an area greater than 25 feet from the performance space, as per regulations. There was a temporary drywall structure erected for spinning off fuel from props before lighting up, which prevented fuel or flames from dripping onto the ground or onto other performers. There were multiple safety persons with flame-retardant blankets waiting to put out props after I walked offstage, and I felt safe trusting them to put out any accidental igniting of clothing/performers that could have occurred onstage. Every performer was experienced with their props. Security was called when John requested it… I’m not sure what else you would have happen to boost safety and security, though (as you can see from my comments you copied and pasted) I encouraged John to discuss his concerns with the stage managers and Decompression organizers rather than publicly complaining on facebook about it. Also, I don’t personally feel that the event was unsafe or insecure and I don’t think anyone else (besides John felt that way) and I personally had a great time and felt honored to be there. Safety and security can always be improved, but just ranting about it to cause drama isn’t going to do that. It would be much more productive for John to work together with his community and with the event organizers to ensure that, rather than divisively ranting and making extreme accusations that nobody else can corroborate.
I would last like to attest to the characters of both parties involved. My friend’s husband accused of attacking John is a good person. He has been a longtime member of the Burning Man community, member of DPW, welder with studio space at American Steel. He supports the fire arts, not as a spinner himself, but as an appreciator and via his wife who has performed with multiple conclave groups and been in the community for years herself. He has welded props for us, helped backstage, and put a lot of love and sweat into the performance at Decompression as well as many others. John Goodwin is also a good person. I think most would describe him as very very eccentric. He has some very extreme opinions about a lot of things, and he is often described as volatile, easily agitated, and very difficult to work with though I personally have experienced more good than bad from him. He is a talented spinner and cares very very deeply about his art and his community, even if his behavior occasionally isolates him from that community. I believe that John FELT attacked and physically threatened, but I do not believe the other man involved actually threatened John or assaulted him. This whole situation is very very unfortunate because I don’t like to think of anyone I know feeling unsafe, especially doing something they are so passionate about. I wish there had been a way to handle the situation better but I’m not sure what could have really been done differently. I also wish that John felt comfortable asking for help with this situation, rather than lashing out in a public forum. I think a lot of us (certainly myself) would have been willing to help both during and after the fact if he’d been capable of communicating better about what he was feeling. As I told John on the fb thread, I would have happily linked him in contact with the other person involved if John wrote me a private message about it, but I wasn’t going to publicly implicate that person on Facebook. That’s just inappropriate and not constructive towards any resolution- even a legal one, if that’s what John truly wanted. John never wrote me a private message to get that information, so it was clear that moving forward to resolve things (legally or otherwise) was not his interest- but publicly flaming this person was.
Burners.Me writing now:
Bottom line? I wasn’t there, I don’t know what happened. Decide for yourselves. It sounds like security and safety were pretty lax, and arrangements were changed at the last minute. Having backstage passes on lanyards (like other events do) to indicate authorized personnel in areas that are restricted for safety reasons seems like a pretty basic idea to me – with all this money, you’d think someone could arrange it. I guess this is one of the big problems with a de-centralized do-ocracy – when something goes wrong, everyone points fingers at each other, while BMOrg stays stony silent, hoping it’ll all blow over. I don’t expect them to make a comment on this, any more than they’ve done with Commodification Camps, safety-last promo videos from their Directors, or the poor track record of their charities.
Of course, if some Burner comes up with a good idea to improve safety and security, they will be quick to claim credit for it and point out how clever their model is.