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.
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!