Thursday, September 23, 2004

Burning Man 2004 4: The Man

Once camp was mostly set up, labor dropped to a more or less low rumble. People made dinner, people sat around and talked (remember, many of us had never met, or hadn't seen each other in months--for instance, I hadn't seen Joel, one of the PDX people, since BM 2000), or soldered on LEDs or cracked nitrous canisters. It was a good time, and I sat around and realized how quickly I'd gotten to know these folks. How comfortable we seemed around each other, and how comfortable we'd become living in our structures.

Our friend Annie showed up, a sweet hippie woman who had lived in Denver when I first met her, but was now somewhere in Northern California, which suits her much better, I think. She was head cook for a camp two down from us, which is one of those odd things about Burning Man--if you hang around on the Esplanade long enough, you're bound to see someone you know. Anyway, she kept popping up during the week to offer us food, which was sweet--Sunday afternoon she brought over shortcakes with whipped cream and frozen strawberries. Oh man.

Then the Bee El Emm showed up. They're basically park rangers, entrusted with the job of keeping the playa safe, and also entrusted with the job of keeping us as law abiding citizens. Right. We aren't law abiding citizens in real LIFE, so it's tricky to negotiate at times.

First, yes, let me say that there IS a police presence out there. Washoe and Pershing County sheriffs and the feds, driving around in plainly marked cars. They don't get out of their cars much, unless they're fucking with someone, but you really, really, really have to be behaving badly for the sheriffs to mess with you. In four events, the only interaction I had with a sheriff was to ask him for a jump, which he would have given me if I hadn't had a deep cycle battery. Good guys.

I don't have anything good to say about the feds, really. Every single incident I've heard of that contained rudeness, assholish behavior, or downright illegal search and seizure has also contained Bee El Em agents (and since they're freakin' feds, I'm going to try to avoid google searches by not using the abbreviation).

The third "law enforcement" organization out there are our own Black Rock Rangers, who aren't really law enforcement at all, but there to remind you of the (few) rules of the community. If you have trouble with the cops, you'd best find a Ranger. If you have trouble with your neighbors, Rangers can help. They're more conflict resolution than cops, and they're volunteers. And they do a fucking fabulous job, even if one of them did protect Chirp from getting his ass kicked on Monday morning.

Rumors fly every year that the cops are using undercovers, using night vision goggles, acting in blatantly rude and illegal ways. I don't know--I follow the same rules as I do here at home--don't walk around with drugs on your person, don't take drugs in public, and in general act like a freakin' human being. I know, it's a hard distinction to make--you can walk around naked all over the damn event, but you can't smoke a joint? It's hard sometimes, especially since the cops are pretty low key. Seems like every year they make a few busts to show they mean business, write a few tickets, and maybe take a few folks to jail. Then they back off, or maybe busts just aren't rumor mill material after day 3 or so.

Regardless, the feds are a fucking problem. Every one of them I've EVER had to deal with has been an asshole, or very plainly playing the "good cop" side of things. They tend to operate in pairs, with one who comes in loud and obnoxious and just plain RUDE, while the other one comes in a few seconds later and plays nice, once the other guy's thrown his fit about kicking you out of the event or otherwise hassling you.

Two years ago I saw the greatest bit of cameraderie I've ever seen take place. We were camped in Disturbia, and Disturbia had a lot of fuel barrels. Like, eight fifty five gallon drums. These barrels were properly vented and stored outside the generator shack, within spitting distance of the radial street. They stayed there all week, until the feds saw them.

Now, I approached the scene in mid-scene, actually. My girl and I were walking back from the bathroom, still half asleep, and I noticed these two guys with freakin' GUNS and UNIFORMS eyeballing the genny shack and fuel, one red faced and fuming, the other fairly calm. Since I was one of the people in charge of the fuel, I felt required to interact with them (as little as I wanted to).

Red Face: This yer fuel?
Me: Yessir. Is there a problem?
Red Face: Where's yer friend (imagine a most disgusting and salacious emphasis on "friend," here) in the pink nightgown?
Me: Excuse me?
Red Face: The other guy, the guy in the pink nightgown.
Me: Dunno, but I'd be happy to go find him, if you can describe him.
Red Face: Never mind, here he comes.

And up came Daud, in black hotpants and a pink nightgown, with a Black Rock Ranger.

A small crowd began to coalesce.

First, the dickhead told us we just couldn't have that much fuel. Then, he told us we could have had it if we'd informed the BM Org, which was why we had the Ranger there. HE told the guy we were cleared for it.

Then we got into bureaucratic bullshit. The pink nightgown had plainly ticked the cop off, as had Daud's fuck you attitude (which I thought was great), so he was going to do everything in his power to make our life miserable.

First up, as I said, the paperwork. When he couldn't zing us on paperwork, he told us we didn't have it properly stored. "What's properly stored," we asked, "tell us what to do and we'll do it."

"Well, those barrels are out here in the hot sun. They'll explode!"

"They won't explode. They're vented."

Well, you have to have a shade structure over them. 2 guys from Alien Autopsy and one guy from another camp scattered, and 10 minutes later our barrels had better shade than WE did. "How's that?"

"There aren't any fire extinguishers around it."

"Sure there are, we've got two right over there." (they were actually kind of around the corner, about 5' away from the barrels, but out of sight).

"That's just not enough."

"How many's enough?"

His eyes kind of went blank as he realized we were going to do this--that he could fuck with us all day, and we weren't going to back down.

"Four more," he said, eyes narrowing. Off I went, grabbing the one out of my trailer, and then borrowing three more from Saturnalia, around back. I probably smirked with I set them down in front of him. He got redder.

"This doesn't have a containment system. You have to have a containment system for this much gasoline." You could tell he was reaching...

A guy with a crazy art car, who I'd never seen, stepped forward and said "I'm an engineer. What kind of containment system are you talking about?" and then rattled off an impressive list of different types of containment systems.

"Uh, I don't care. But you have to have one."

The crazy art car guy smelled a win:

"Well, man, we want all this to be to spec. Surely there's some sort of standard you need, right? I mean, how big does it need to be?"

After some discussion about this, we worked out a containment system: four two by fours and a blue tarp, underneath all the barrels. If one ruptured, our system kept the gas from draining into the playa.

He was a broken man. We'd done all he wanted, with him watching, and we'd done it politely...and then we'd shown him we knew more than he did, and wouldn't be cowed.

The incident ended less in our favor. The cop demanded ID, Daud refused to give it to him, and in fact turned his back and walked off (again, I applaud him). Ultimately he received two citations, one for obstruction of justice (refusing to show his ID), the other for refusing to take the first citation. Ultimately, he gave in when they pointed out that while they couldn't force him to show ID, since they had no suspicion a crime was being committed, they could EJECT him from the event, which nobody wanted. And just for being smart, the cop wrote the ticket in such a way that Daud had to show up in person.

Fast forward to 2004. Cops of any stripe, on playa or in your town, cannot enter your home unless they have reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed in there. For this, they need a warrant. And warrants are hard to come by out at the Burn, for obvious reasons. However, if they SEE a crime being committed in what may be reasonably called public space, from a public space (say, the street), they can enter the structure and search it, and ticket or arrest whomever they want. I imagine they have the right to search a ticketed or arrested person's tent, too, but not the private domiciles (tents) of other people in camp.

Or something like that. But as a camp, we're probably seventy or eighty percent potheads, so there was weed in the semi public areas of one of our domes. NOT visible from the Esplanade, at least with me sitting in the doorway talking to folks.

But around sunset on Monday or Tuesday, I noticed a couple of those same pompous, brown shirted, gun fingerin'...uh...gentlemen wandering through the camp BEHIND us. Headed our way. Headed, in fact, directly for the entry to our dome, like they meant to stick their heads in and take a look around.

Let me reiterate here: They didn't see SHIT from the street. They saw me, talking intently to someone, from an adjacent camp.

I suspect they entered the dome because they saw me acting suspicious, if you want to know the truth. I was doing my best to whisper to the guy next to me to put up his stash, but he didn't understand until about 4 seconds before they entered the tent, which was just enough time for him to take possession of it. Which saved us the hassle of establishing possession, for sure.

The cop gave us a big lecture, about how he could throw us all out of camp, and we'd better give him all our drugs or he'd make us take all this down (which was pretty scary, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn they can do just that), and how the Law Was The Law, even if you hippies didn't agree with it, etc etc.

Two of us got possession tickets, and a gang of pot and smoking implements were confiscated. Then they searched tents, delivered another rude lecture, and were gone.

We were devastated, as you can imagine. I mean, it wasn't the loss of the pot or was a feeling of being violated. A feeling (quite purposely administered, I think it my paranoid dreams) of not being beyond the law, even here. Stupid rules and bureaucracy will follow you even into the desert, and will fuck with you just because they can.

I know, we need cops. I'd say we need cops less at BRC than anywhere else in the nation, but I'm willing to concede we need cops. But not rude cops--not cops that are just out to ruin someone's good time. Hell, you'd think it would be a cherry job--drive around, look at naked chicks and cool art, and just make sure nobody gets raped or murdered. The sheriff's department takes it in stride, why do the feds feel it incumbent upon them to fuck with folks unecessarily?

So yeah, that's what our tickets are for, and we've got a fund, or pool, going to help the guys pay their tickets. Email me if you want to contribute.


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