A guest post from Kevin O’Neill.
How I Got Kicked Out of Burning Man
By Kevin O’Neill
I got kicked out of Burning Man last year. To this day, I can’t quite tell you what offense I committed heinous enough to warrant it. Neither could the law enforcement officers or rangers that escorted me out, for that matter. We were all shrugs, head nods and baffled faces, as we drove through the desert night, kicking up a cloud of dust behind us on the road to Reno.
It all went down the Thursday before the burn. I’d been looking forward all week to my girlfriend arriving to meet me that afternoon. Her birthday was burn day this year and she could only make it in from Chicago for the weekend. I had gotten early entry as a plus one to a veteran ranger friend of mine, who I had driven to my first burn in 2012 with. This year we were all camping together at Ranger Outpost Berlin.
Having rangered 5 times at the Great Lakes Regional Burn, Lakes of Fire, I thought camping with the BRC Rangers would be a good opportunity to learn from the pros, get immersed in the culture, and ready myself for my third trip to the playa, when I would finally be eligible to start training for dirt shifts on the playa. If nothing else, they had a kitchen, I didn’t really use, and a shower, which I was able to use once to rinse off the layers of dust skin I had grown during 2 windstorm greeter shifts. I had to be presentable for my girl. After all, she was flying in from across the country to be with me on her burn day birthday at our favorite place on earth.
My girlfriend flew in from Chicago to Reno Thursday afternoon during my last greeter shift. I called her when I got off. She was at the airport, about to board the Burner Express Bus. We arranged to meet at the shuttle drop off location by 3 and G, a couple blocks down 3 from Berlin, which was next to the keyhole at C. Just about the only thing I was on time for during the burn was arriving at the moment the shuttle dropped her off. It was serendipity, really. While walking back to camp with her stuff, I broke the news to her that our Ranger friend, who brought us to Berlin, was still out and about with her bike. A week before, in Chicago, all three of us were loading up my bike and hers on the Cobra bus to transport them 2,000 miles to the middle of the northern Nevada desert. It was there that my friend agreed to lend her bike to our Ranger buddy for the week until she arrived. There was one explicit condition she had: that the bike be returned to her upon her arrival at camp.
Suffice it to say, when we reached camp the bike was not there. Having had a negative experience where her bike was stolen from her during her first burn the year before, she was disappointed by her new bike’s absence. The bike was still where it had been locked up since the day before, when we rode it to the naked greeter shift, somewhere between Rod’s Road and 5. By the time it did make it back to camp, it was dark, cold, and we were about to evicted from Black Rock City.
I knew my friend had a shift that night, but I didn’t know when. After asking the rangers around the outpost Berlin if they knew the whereabouts of our ranger friend or when he might be expected back, we had no answers.
My girl and I decided to go for a walk in the meantime. She had had her heart set on having a dusk bike ride out to deep playa as soon as she got there, but a stroll around the neighborhood would have to suffice. We met our neighbors at a campsite toward the keyhole at C. They asked how we were, and we told them about my girlfriend’s birthday, how she had just arrived from Chicago earlier that day, and how we were walking around until our friend got back to Berlin with her bike. They encouraged us to seek help with the rangers at Tokyo Outpost, on the other side of the playa, because they might be able to look up his schedule to see if he was working that night and when. They said the Tokyo rangers would be more helpful.
We, instead, returned with this idea to our campsite at Berlin. After mentioning the notion to go Tokyo to ask about our friend’s schedule, the Berliners acted like “anything that Tokyo can do, we can do better.” While my girlfriend inquired about our friend’s schedule and when to expect him back, I passed out in my tent from the exhaustion of 48 hours of no sleep, during which time I was working 12 hours of sandstorm greeter shifts. Sometimes you just gotta go to Robot Heart for the deep playa sunrise set. Sometimes you have to lay down before you collapse. It’s all about balance.
I woke up to the sound of yelling. My girlfriend rushed into my tent, telling me that there was a ranger accusing her of going into tents that weren’t hers. Groggy and disoriented, I staggered out of my tent to be met by a guy in a ranger outfit, accusatory and hostile in nature. With an inflammatory tone, he demanded to know who we were, and what we were doing at the ranger’s camp.
“I’ve been camping here at Berlin for 5 days as a guest of my friend, a Black Rock ranger of 6 years,” I told him. The ranger before me said he didn’t know my friend, and interjected his doubt of what I told him and his suspicion that I was not supposed to be here. I insisted that he leave. He did leave by the by, only to return with more rangers shortly thereafter.
By this time the sun was settling behind the mountains, the temperature had dropped. I grabbed the first shirt with long sleeves I could reach, which happened to be my friend’s Black Rock City Ranger shirt. I had mistaken it for my similar Lakes of Fire Great Lakes Regional Ranger shirt that I had gotten a couple of years before, my 3rd time Rangering there. Now I was wearing a ranger outfit too. Similar in color, texture, and size to the Lakes of Fire Ranger issue, it was an honest mistake grabbing the BRC shirt instead. But it did turn out to be a huge mistake.
When the ranger who confronted us and disturbed me from my dust coma returned with more rangers, he saw my friend’s ranger shirt and said I was impersonating a ranger. He claimed I was there to steal from the tents of rangers.
At this point, we had drawn enough attention asking about my friend’s whereabouts, and getting into a yelling match with an unrangerly ranger, the situation was escalating fast. Rangers were gathering by the minute, surrounding our tents. Ever been surrounded by rangers before? It’s a little threatening. I may have offered to jump kick the unrangerly ranger who started this whole defuckle. I wonder if I can even do that.
They said I was trespassing. Without my friend there to corroborate, all I could do was remind them that I had been here all week, that I had seen such and such at the Berlin Outpost party on Tuesday, circumstantial stuff. Of the few rangers at Berlin friendly enough to talk with me all week I’d been there, none of them were there right then. I got mad. They threatened to call law enforcement. I encouraged them. That turned out to be a mistake too.
When law enforcement got there, my ranger friend had yet to return. The rangers at Berlin proceeded to file paperwork with them to have me evicted. They told me and my girlfriend that I was going to be kicked out, but she was going to be allowed to stay. She said wanted to stay with me, sweet woman. She was filming everything at this point on her camera.
I started yelling that this was unfair, and that I hadn’t done anything to deserve this. I was assaulted briefly by a police officer who slammed into me from behind and restrained me.
They stopped short of handcuffing me.
I was allowed to pack up my tent and belongings under the flashlights of a dozen rangers. Right before the time when the packing began, my friend finally shows up with my girlfriend’s bike in tow.
He was immediately confronted by law enforcement and questioned.
“Who’s bike is that?”, the sheriff asked.
“It’s (Kevin’s girlfriend’s)”, replied my friend.
“Are these your things”, inquired the sheriff, holding up the dust-rubbed Khaki garb I had worn earlier.
“Yes”, says my friend after investigating his shirt.
“It seems Kevin here was going through your tent while you were out”, the law enforcement officer informed my friend. “Would you like to press charges?”
“Kevin is my friend, he has permission to go into my tent whenever he likes.”
The law enforcement officer then asked my girlfriend if she still wanted to press charges for bike theft.
“No,” she said. “The bike has been returned”. Albeit too late.
The situation seemed to deescalate. All conflicts were resolved.
The rangers told us that we could stay in festival but we had to leave Berlin. Gladly.
Not 20 minutes later, my Ranger friend came out with the law enforcement officer and told us that they were just kidding about us getting to stay.
“The paperwork had already been started”, he said. You know how it is with paperwork, am I right?
As it turns out, while the situation outside was being diffused, inside of a trailer at Berlin, the Khaki on duty made the tough decision to evict me and my girlfriend from Burning Man. They feared that if we were allowed to stay at the festival, we may retaliate or seek vengeance. That definitely wasn’t a possibility after the paperwork to remove us had been filed with the state sheriff.
The paperwork that we were given was 2 yellow carbon copies of trespassing notices, from the Nevada State’s Sheriff’s office, signed by the khaki on duty at the time. We were escorted out to the law enforcement camp, at the festival entrance, right next to where I had spent 16 hours greeting 1000s of people with hugs all week long. Now it was time for me to say goodbye. 2 hours later, my girlfriend and I, along with all of our stuff (her bike included), were toted in a white van with no windows through the dark desert toward Reno. I fell asleep. When I woke up, that dream that we all share – of making it out to the playa and having our intentions, hard work, sacrifices, resources, and time [combine] into the culminating experience of everything we each bring and believe to be Burning Man – was gone. I’ve been woke ever since.
I returned to the Lakes of Fire this past June, my 7th regional. I attended ranger training. I’m not sure why exactly I felt compelled, but it had to do with forgiveness and closure. A respected veteran to Lakes and Black Rock was leading the session.
There’s no way he could’ve known what had happened with us last year. The rangers that were there didn’t talk about it, and if you’re reading this, you’re one of a few that I’ve told the story to. Still, this veteran ranger looked me in the eye, standing in a crowd full of attendees, and gave a pretty good speech.
“We’re rangers. We’re not cops. We don’t have any authority over anyone else. We’re here to help”, he told us. “Part of Burning Man is radical participation. Rangering is my art. It’s my contribution to this community.”
We all give back in our own ways. While I wasn’t ready to put on a “Khaki Lives Matter” patch, I did end up taking a shift at the perimeter of our 2016 Lakes of Fire effigy burn. Rangers and FAST had to tackle a disoriented participant, who was running toward the burning wooden monster to prevent him from jumping into the fire. Other than that, it was pretty uneventful.