SAY YOU LOVE SANTA: A Cautionary Tale

Image: AFP

Image: AFP

by Whatsblem the Pro

We all know there was more of a police presence than ever at Burning Man 2013, along with several alarming law enforcement innovations, like the partnering of officers from different agencies for the duration of the event. Vehicle searches, often with K-9 units in on the fun, were eyebrow-raisingly common right up until well after the event was over. Numerous reports have been bandied about of aggressive traffic stops for trivial infractions like driving seven MPH in a five MPH zone; there was even an incident in which a DPW worker was reportedly threatened with sex offender status for peeing on the playa, and handled like a potentially dangerous perp who might need to be gunned down because he had a knife on his belt.

None of this is acceptable. It’s not fair, however, to be one-sided about it and simply blame the police as the sole responsible entity in creating and perpetuating the problem. The police certainly should be held to high standards and made to answer for any and all abuses they commit; the Org, too, should be questioned and pressured to find a way to keep local, State, and Federal agencies nearby but at arm’s length during the burn. As self-reliant burners, though, shouldn’t we be looking to our own responsibilities and setting our own bar high as well?

As individuals, we’re never powerless against the police, unless individual officers choose to abandon lawfulness themselves and behave like jackbooted thugs. Even then, our power is not diminished; it is simply not manifest until we can communicate with higher authorities like Watch Commanders, Internal Affairs personnel, and judges. . . which is why it’s so important to write down things like time and date, badge numbers, etc. Just remember: cops can be pretty tricky without breaking the law, and most of your rights may as well not exist at all if you don’t know what they are.

With all this in mind, I decided to use the power of shenanigans to test a random sampling of burners on their ability to handle a police encounter properly.

*       *       *       *       *

It’s shortly after dawn on the morning after Gate and the weather is perfect. The playa is burgeoning with new people; long lines snail-track their way through the checkpoints and into Black Rock City. Heavily-laden vehicles creep through every neighborhood, seeking their friends or just an open spot to set up camp.

I’ve been burning all night, and in the cool of the early morning I’m still comfortable wearing the full Santa suit I’ve been sporting. I’ve run into my friends the Mag Aoidhs, and they’ve invited me to a tea ceremony at their camp, featuring some very fine teas the likes of which I have not tasted since I returned from my long trip to China.

We’ve been talking about the troubling stories of encounters with over-zealous law enforcement that have been circulating, and in a lighter moment my friend points to a device mounted on the back of his bicycle. “I have a siren,” he says with child-like joy. His finger jabs at the button, and my own inner seven-year-old thrills at the impressively realistic sound and sheer volume of the thing.

A light bulb goes off over my head.

“I have an idea. . . follow my lead,” I tell him as I step out into the road. A car is approaching, and I get right in front of it and start rolling my hand in an authoritative circle at the driver: keep on coming. As the car inches toward me, Sean hits the siren, and I show the driver my open palm in the universal signal to stop.

The driver rolls down his window, puzzled, as I come around to the side of the vehicle. I nail him with a steely gaze and tell him that I’m going to need to see his license and registration. For a moment he seems taken in; then he turns to his passenger and they exchange significant looks. “No way,” they say, laughing, and I grin too. “Welcome back!”

After a similar experience with the next vehicle that happens by, I begin to think that people just don’t respect Santa Claus the way they respect other authority figures. . . but the third vehicle changes my mind. It’s a small Mutant Vehicle driven by a countercultural-looking fellow in his middle 40s; when I ask for his license and registration, he admits uncomfortably that he lacks both.

“I haven’t had time to register it yet.” His tone of voice is both apologetic and tinged with anxiety. I shake my head slowly, tsking ominously, one fist on my hip in a bossy pose.

“You know what’s going to happen now, right?” I am staring daggers into his eyes.

Just as I’m about to ask him for permission to search his vehicle, he blurts out hopefully that taking the seat off would render his vehicle perfectly legal, and I have to agree that this is the case. He has the necessary tools in his hand when I tell him it’s just a joke.

“Ha! Thanks,” he laughs good-naturedly. “I half suspected you were just messing with me, and I actually do know what you’re supposed to say to cops, but I didn’t want to take the chance.” He looks sheepish and shrugs. “You’re pretty believable.”

“As what?” I ask. “I haven’t identified myself as a police officer; I haven’t shown a badge; I’m not wearing a gun. I didn’t impersonate a policeman, I impersonated Santa Claus. . . and you bent your knee to Santa and did what you were told.”

“I guess that’s true,” he replies. “I’d better work on that.” He hugs me and we part friends.

By this time I’ve got spectators, and I’m hitting my stride with the role. I actually manage to look bored and slightly irritated as I step in front of a big white van and stop it in the name of love.

The driver and his passenger are 20-something males, and something tells me they’re first-timers. When I tell them I’m going to need to see the driver’s license and registration, they ask me if it’s a joke. I laserbeam the kid at the wheel with my eyes. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way, sir. . . now shut that off and give me your license and registration.”

Incredibly, he shuts off the engine. A moment later he’s pushing his vehicle registration into my hands. He digs out a large trifold wallet and opens it, pulls a card with the words NEW YORK across the top out of an inner pocket. He’s got two more in there just like it, and when I demand to know why, he starts falling to pieces with nervousness.

“No no, it’s cool,” he assures me breathlessly. “This one is my learner’s permit, this one is my motorcycle endorsement, and this is my license.” His hands are shaking visibly as he pulls the other two cards out of their little leather pockets and hands them to me as well. I furrow my brow and pull a suspicious look as I scrutinize the cards, looking back and forth between the pictures and his face.

“Alright, this looks legit,” I say at last, and hand him back the learner’s permit and the motorcycle endorsement card. “but whose name is this on your vehicle registration?”

“It’s my mother’s,” he says, and I know he’s lying.

“Your mother’s?” I ask with eyebrows up.

“Well, my stepmother’s.”

“Oh? Then why does she have a different last name than you? She’s married to your father, right?”

The kid starts coming unraveled right before my eyes. “OK, OK,” he babbles desperately. “She’s just a friend of my family, but she told me to say that!”

I signal my friend to come over, and hand him the kid’s license and registration. “Frank, I think you’d better run these.” My friend, whose name is not Frank, nods alertly and disappears into his tent. We don’t even have a vehicle, just a Santa suit and a tent. . . but the kid in the van and his passenger both reek of fear.

I take it to the next level, leaning in and drilling straight through the driver’s head with my eyes. “You boys got any drugs in the vehicle?”

They are horrified. Four hands go up in protest; two heads shake frantically ‘no.’

“Look, you can give me your drugs now and I can go easy on you, or I can call the dogs in and find them anyway. You know what’s going to happen if I have to call the dogs in, right?”

“I swear we don’t have anything,” fibs the driver, perspiring freely in the cool morning air.

I decide to press my luck. “You mind if I look in the back?” I ask through a nasty smile.

He freezes for a moment and then his ashen face crumples. “Okay,” he says in a voice laden with utter defeat.

Image: King Diamond / Worth 1000

Image: King Diamond / Worth 1000

As I go around to the side of the van with the big door on it, the passenger suddenly grows a brain and half a ball. “Hey,” he protests, “what’s your probable cause?”

I level a rigid index finger at his nose. “The driver of this vehicle just gave me permission to search it,” I bite off quietly but angrily. “I suggest you keep your mouth shut, sir.” My patsies exchange a hurt, broken glance with each other and bite their own lips.

I open the sliding door of the van and discover two of their friends inside, hiding from me. They cower openly, prepared for the worst. Just then ‘Frank’ comes out of the tent with the paperwork. “Hey,” he calls to me, “it looks like this guy has a warrant for failure to appear.”

The driver loses it completely and wails “No, no, I swear, I got that cleared up!” He’s brown-towning himself with terror, and his friends are keying up right behind him.

“Well boys,” I cluck, “you know what happens now. . . WELCOME TO BLACK ROCK CITY!”

The tension thus released is like a taut steel cable snapping. The front-seat passenger holds his head and screams incoherently; the driver climbs, monkey-like, out the window of his van without opening the door, straight up onto the roof. His entire body spasms and quakes in silence for a moment until he gets enough of a grip on himself to cry out at the top of his lungs: “SANTA IS A FUCKER!”

When relative calm returns and he’s back on terra firma, I put an avuncular hand on the driver’s still-shaking shoulder. “Listen,” I say, “the ACLU has a monkey hut over at 5:20 and F; go there any day between 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM, and they’ll give you a necklace with a pamphlet on it that tells you how to talk to the police. . . because you suck at this!”

How many of us suck at talking to cops? Considering the legal backup we are gifted with in Black Rock City, we are protected like nowhere else when we are on the playa. The ACLU is there during the burn; after the burn, Lawyers for Burners is there to lend you a helping hand in court. The Org itself is interested in collecting your anecdotes regarding contact with the police, though what good that might do you is anyone’s guess, as they don’t much seem to care how many cops invade our city to brush aside our hard-working Black Rock Rangers and conduct constant unwanted and unnecessary surveillance on our population.

The point is, we’re all responsible for some part of the problem, and we all have to do our part. We all need to put pressure on the Org to keep the police outside the city waiting to be called in, and not roaming around in it, looking for trouble. We all need to go through the proper channels and steps to hold individual cops responsible when they overstep the bounds of their authority. We all must see to it that without resisting or being confrontational, we politely and appropriately assert our rights.

Be self-reliant. Educate yourself, burner!

Busting Man: RIOT Calls for General Strike at Burning Man

by Whatsblem the Pro

The Critical Snitch Parade? -- PHOTO: Getty Images

The Critical Snitch Parade? — PHOTO: Getty Images

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. Whatsblem the Pro interviews a cabal of DPW workers who wish to remain anonymous, other than to identify themselves as members of a group known as Reform In Our Time (RIOT):

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Tell me about your group. Why is it called RIOT?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: Not because we’re trying to start a riot, if that’s what you’re wondering. RIOT is a quiet organization of people who feel that there are certain issues at Burning Man that need to be addressed. The name is meant to convey our sense of outrage and urgency; when there’s a problem that doesn’t really need to be solved right away, you can work within the system. When you need change immediately, you might have to kick harder than that! You can’t wait for it, you have to make it happen, right now.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: “In Our Time?”

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: Yes. Some things are just not acceptable, and if we believe in what we’re doing, we shouldn’t just continue to let those things happen. . . we shouldn’t take it, and we shouldn’t walk away from it. We should demand change, and if our demands are not taken seriously, we should enforce change.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You want change? What changes are you looking for?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: Our demands are simple: We want law enforcement excluded.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You want to kick the police out of Burning Man?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: People at Burning Man have each other to rely on, and they have Black Rock Rangers. We don’t need outside law enforcement, and we can call them in if we do.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: I’m not sure the various agencies involved would be willing to give up the annual infusions of cash they get from Burning Man without a struggle.

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: You’re right, it’s all about money in the end. We could find a different way to pay the powers that be, though. A way that doesn’t involve filling our city with police officers from other cities when there’s no emergency.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Would the basic deal with local law enforcement need to change at all, if they stayed just outside Black Rock City and only entered when called in for a specific purpose?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: That would work. The problem is a huge growth in outside law enforcement officers invading the playa, not the money it costs. We would really appreciate them if they stayed outside and only came in when we really wanted them to.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: What about radical inclusion?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: Of cops? (laughs)
If the cops would leave their badges and guns at home and just be burners like everyone else in BRC, 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!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: You said something earlier about also wanting DPW to be paid. You want them to have a union?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: We want DPW to have a union if DPW wants to have a union. It’s hard to say how much support there might be for that. It isn’t a new idea and it may not be the direction we want to go in. Paying DPW volunteers would be a step in the right direction, though.

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: A lot of people seem to think that volunteerism is sort of part of it all. . . and of course, some DPW people do get paid.

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: They should all be paid. Even if it’s just minimum wage, they should all be paid. DPW workers volunteer to work long hard hours under very harsh conditions, and many of them turn their backs on perfectly good jobs to go to BRC and do that. They have to spend money just to get to Burning Man. That’s enough volunteerism all by itself. Making them work for free on top of what it costs them to drop everything and come to the desert is just unreasonable, especially when paying them a modest wage would still make them the most cost-effective work force on Earth! Making them work for free and then turning an army of cops loose on the playa to harass and bully them? That has to be addressed, as soon as humanly possible!
Really, the main problem we see right now is law enforcement, and everything else takes a backseat to that. We believe the Org has the economic leverage to deal with the current situation, so we want to see our concerns regarding law enforcement taken seriously, and we want something done. If we can’t get that. . .

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: That’s my next question. . . if you can’t get the Org to pay attention, how does RIOT intend to make them?

RIOT SPOKESPERSON: To start, as a show of strength and solidarity, we intend to stage a general strike, to prove that we mean business. On the Friday of the event, at dusk, those of us not doing jobs that are absolutely critical to safety will stop working, lay down our tools, and refuse to continue until the police leave the city. We call on all our sisters and brothers to spread the word and honor the strike. Friday at dusk, without violence, we take our city back!

WHATSBLEM THE PRO: Good luck!

Victory! But for Whom?

by Whatsblem the Pro

Nevada State Assemblyman David Bobzien (D)

Nevada State Assemblyman David Bobzien (D)

The Nevada Assembly passed AB374 in a 26-15 party line vote today.

The bill, which prohibits county commissioners from imposing fees or regulations on festivals operating under a federal license or permit, was sponsored by Assemblyman David Bobzien (D). The version that passed this morning is the second rewrite since our last report on March 30th of this year.

Opponents of the bill sought amendments to remove county liability and responsibility of prosecuting crimes, due to the high costs of providing law enforcement at Burning Man. Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen of Sparks said the bill would undermine the county’s authority, and make funding law enforcement difficult. In response, the bill was amended to give the counties the right to contract with and charge the Burning Man organization (and other event promoters) for law enforcement services. The new provision reads as follows:

2. A board of county commissioners may:

(a) Enter into an agreement, with a person or organization which has been issued a license or permit by a federal agency for an assembly, event or activity occurring on federal land, for the county to provide reasonable and necessary law enforcement services for the assembly, event or activity and to receive compensation for the provision of such services; and

(b) Regulate or license, or require any type of permit or fee for organizing, managing or attending, any assembly, event or activity occurring on federal land that is the subject of a:

(1) Lease between the Federal Government and the county; or

(2) License for recreational or other public purposes from the Federal Government to the county.

What this means is that while the corporation that holds the trademark on Burning Man will be more profitable thanks to the elimination of the necessity to pay county authorities for permits or other fees, the Org may still choose to contract with the counties to bring their law enforcement personnel to Black Rock City. It’s possible that this won’t even be a choice; one of the “special stipulations” of the 2012 BLM permit, after all, was this:

23. BRC shall complete formal agreements with all affected parties e.g. Pershing County Sheriff’s Department, Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, Nevada Department of Public Safety-Investigations Division, Nevada Highway Patrol, and Nevada Department of Health and Human Safety for the purpose of addressing concerns and impacts associated with social services e.g. law enforcement and emergency medical services and physical infrastructure e.g. transportation systems and human waste disposal. Written evidence of these agreements showing compliance with this stipulation must be provided to the BLM by BRC 30 days prior to the start of the event.

Since special stipulation #23 demands compliance but doesn’t spell out what compliance actually involves beyond “complete formal agreements,” we’re left to speculate. Doesn’t this put huge leverage into the hands of Washoe and Pershing counties? They can simply demand that one or both of them be contracted with to provide law enforcement services – and be paid for doing so – or threaten to take their ball and go home; no formal agreement means no BLM permit.

It remains to be seen how the Burning Man Org will actually handle this; they could demand a renegotiation of the special stipulations, given that the terrain has changed significantly in the wake of AB374. Given their track record, however, I predict that nothing in particular will get better for those who attend the event. The Org will become more profitable, as is their apparent primary goal always, and the rest of us will be graciously allowed to eat whatever cake we can find in the middle of the desert. The only question is if the Org will be willing to bend over so far backward to county law enforcement that the heavy increase in on-playa officers continues at the alarming pace of the past few years.

How happy I would be if I turned out to be wrong about that.

The Man vs. the Man: Will Local Authorities Be Booted From Burning Man?

by Whatsblem the Pro

Big doings in the Nevada State Assembly! The website of the Washoe County Republican Party reports:

BOB-ZI! BOB-ZI! BOB-ZI! Photo: David Bobzien

BOB-ZI! BOB-ZI! BOB-ZI! Photo: David Bobzien

“Earlier this morning, the Chamber supported AB 374 in the Assembly Government Affairs Committee. This bill, pushed by Assemblyman David Bobzien, came about because of threats by some rural counties to start charging local permitting fees and increasing costs for the Burning Man festival that comes to the Black Rock Desert every summer. This bill would prohibit any local government from interfering with a federally-licensed event on federal land. We strongly support this concept because of the enormous positive economic impact that Burning Man attendees have on our region.”

AB 374 began life as a different bill, introduced by Nevada Senator Pete Goicoechea and State Assemblyman John Ellison, intended to allow grazing in Federal fire restoration areas as a means of limiting the growth of cheat grass, which creates repeat fire hazards. Under the leadership of Bobzien, that bill was amended with some canny provisions aimed at getting the State and County authorities’ hands out of Burning Man’s pocket.

Assemblyman Bobzien – who also sponsored AB 304, a previous bill that clarified and simplified permitting for fire performers – had this to say on the subject:

“I for one prefer to keep politics away from Burning Man. My own experiences on the playa are thankfully partisan-free, and AB304, a bill that enjoyed broad-based support from Democrats, Republicans and Governor Sandoval, was a true example of non-partisan problem solving to help constituents. And by the way, these are constituents who are part of a culture with economic importance in northern Nevada- it’s estimated that the Burning Man festival alone pumps $15 million into the local economy every year.”

As AB 374 has gained support, the authors of the original bill have moved to distance themselves from it, and now openly oppose it. Goicoechea and Ellison expressed their opposition to AB 374 during a conference call last Friday.

“If you have an outdoor activity on public lands of over 1,000 people, then the county has no involvement or enforcement on that activity at all,” said Goicoechea. “It all goes to the Feds. We’re not prepared or ready to let our police powers go. Technically they’d be on the hook for all the emergency services but wouldn’t have the ability to enforce any of their laws or public safeties. It’s just another intrusion into the County and the State’s rights when it comes to any type of enforcements on public lands.”

Pete Goicoechea and John Ellison - Photo: R. Dalton

Pete Goicoechea and John Ellison – Photo: R. Dalton

John Ellison agreed, noting that the bill as rewritten will have an affect on the ability of every County in the State of Nevada to regulate large festivals held on Federal soil. “If we open Pandora’s box and we allow this to happen, this could be on every event on public lands,” he said.

The full text of AB 374 can be found at the Nevada State Legislature’s website.

In an unrelated story, astronomers report that the stars over Nevada have spontaneously rearranged themselves to read “FYD PETE & JOHN.” Authorities at NASA were unavailable for comment.

Does Burning Man Need a New Home?

by Whatsblem the Pro

Whither goest thou, Man, in thy arty car in the night?

The struggle to allocate dollars for education and road projects has been heated between Northern and Southern Nevada in this session of the State Senate, and now Burning Man has come to the government’s attention as a ripe plum to contend over.

With over 60,000 participants annually and a ticket revenue of some 30 million dollars, “That Thing in the Desert” has become a sought-after cash cow for local and federal agencies.

Nevada State Senator David Parks

Nevada State Senator David Parks

State Senator David Parks, a Democrat representing the 7th District (which includes Las Vegas), made strong overtures toward the Org’s lobbyists after a committee meeting in which a presentation was given on the economic and cultural boost that Burning Man brings to Nevada.

“We have a lot of dry lake beds in Southern Nevada,” purred Parks seductively to the the lobbyists. “Have you ever contemplated, perhaps. . . off I-15, we’ve got the Ivanpah Lakebed.”

“It is definitely bringing people into our state,” said Black Rock Solar representative and lobbyist Tom Clark in reference to Burning Man. Clark also mentioned that a Regional event was at one time held in the desert outside of Las Vegas, but had to be canceled when the federal government began demanding permit fees for the event.

Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed

Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed

It remains to be seen how the Org intends to handle the problems presented by keeping the event in the Black Rock Desert. The cost of running the event has risen significantly as more and more city, county, state, and federal agencies have come to the table with their hands out, demanding larger and larger slices of ticket revenue.

We’ve also got a law enforcement problem on the playa; the number of on-duty officers from various agencies tripled on the playa between 2011 and 2012. Radical expression being arguably the most important of the ten principles, this is a situation that cannot be ignored for long.

Clearly, Burning Man needs to move. . . but where? Relocating to the Ivanpah Lakebed could be just the thing, or it could be going from the frying pan to the fire. There has been talk of purchasing Fly Ranch in the Hualapai Valley, but like Ivanpah, there are some serious challenges with that plan, not least of which are environmental. Private property, however, does seem to be in our future, given the decreased fees and increased freedom that holding the event on private property would bring.

But when?

Fly Ranch, Hulapei Valley - Photo by QPY

Fly Ranch, Hulapei Valley – Photo by QPY

Moving Burning Man would be good for all of us in many ways. Given the inroads made on our freedom to express ourselves and have a good time by the rapidly-growing law enforcement presence on the playa, you’d think this would be the Org’s top priority. . . but do they even care? They don’t seem to mind wasting literally years worth of our collective time with half-baked ticketing schemes, even though that problem could be (and should have already been) solved easily. Does the Org feel the pressure to move, or is that just our problem? They make their money either way; tickets will be in demand either way. . . but if we stay on BLM land, the rank-and-file burners will continue to find it increasingly difficult to find true freedom at Burning Man.

Fly Geyser - Photo by Jawsh

Fly Geyser – Photo by Jawsh

Relocation would also, I think, tend to invigorate our culture. People are highly prone to regarding things as sacred once they become traditional, and this is a corrosive influence. It starts with angry shushing at Temple Burn, and ends with Burning Man transmogrified into the Rainbow Gathering. Moving the event to new digs would help, for a while, to break that unwanted bond of holiness some of us seem so prone to forming with alkaline dust.

What would the downside of moving the Man be? The main reason we are tolerated at all by harrumphing officialdom is because we are a cash cow. If we move to private property and sidestep all those fees and permits, how will that affect, say, the way that police and highway patrol units treat us on our way in, or during Exodus? Local municipalities will continue to love us and our influx of dollars no matter where we go, but moving could have a chilling effect on the way State and federal authorities view burners. Would we rather be interfered with and potentially harassed on the highway coming in and out of Burning Man, or on the streets of Black Rock City itself? That may be the choice that must be made.