I’ll never forget the first time I was out by the Temple at midnight, scribbling something by the dull light of my headlamp, when the flashing red and blue lights of the default world streaked past, causing everyone around me to nearly jump out of their skin.
A gunmetal gray SUV skidded up to a scene maybe ten yards off into deep playa, where a bunch of EL-wired nightcrawlers stood stock-still. The doors opened and slammed, men in khaki uniforms stepped out brandishing bright flashlights, and they encircled those hapless hoodlums, while the red and blue lights swirled around us.
I didn’t know the reason for this disturbance; those midnight ravers may have fully deserved their run-in with the law. But I was unable to determine how I felt about the situation. Part of me felt intruded upon. Who did these Babylon cowboys think they were, zapping everybody with their lights like that?
But on the other hand, there was something profoundly hilarious about it. The action was beyond earshot, but I imagined this whole absurd scene playing out:
“Awright, son! Put yer hands on yer head! Toooo much fun! Burnin’ Man’s over fer you!”
Of course, the notion of getting arrested at Burning Man irked me deeply. I’m sure it’s unsettling to lots of us. This is the kind of event that attracts anti-establishment, self-determining people; that’s why we go out there. Who wants to deal with this all-too-default authority out on the playa?
But then again, where else but Burning Man would we be able to stand toe-to-toe with a cop in such a uniquely absurd situation?
What about radical self-expression? Participation? Immediacy? Why should we treat an encounter with law enforcement differently than any other encounter on the playa?
I got it in my head that I would treat a playa cop just like I would any other Burning Man participant and see what happened. It wasn’t long before I got the chance. Fortunately, unlike my busted brethren out by the Temple port-a-potties, I was the one who took the initiative.
It was a dusty, windy Friday night. Dr. Megavolt was rumored to be making his last appearance at the 2010 burn right on the esplanade. Some camp-mates and I were biking back from camp Sukkat Shalom, and we decided to join the throng of people milling around the big truck with the Tesla coils on it. Someone said something about an alleged “time” at which this “event” was supposed to “start,” and that it was running “late.” We chuckled at the amusing notion of “times” and “events” as we waited.
After about 20 minutes, I heard the hum of motors and the crackle of radios, and two four-wheelers rolled up and stopped a few yards short of the crowd. Bureau of Land Management. Federalees.
They kept their distance, and they didn’t have their flashlights out, but I noticed the people on the outer edges of the throng instinctively pushing in, away from these intruders. This felt like awfully sheep-like behavior to me.
“I’m gonna go talk to the feds,” I told my friends, and I trotted off before they could stop me.
“Here to see the show?” I asked the BLM rangers as I approached.
“Oh, yeah,” one of them said, dismounting his four-wheeler. “We heard there was some kinda demonstration.”
“Yeah, it’s a…”, the other ranger balked. “What is it again?”
“It’s a Tesla coil,” I explained, and then I proceeded to pretend like I knew how a Tesla coil worked. “Basically, he plays with lightning.”
“Man,” said the first ranger. “So cool.”
This was a very good moment. My skin got tingly. I could tell the feeling was mutual; these guys weren’t acting like they’d been chatting merrily all week. They seemed positively relieved to be talking to me.
They were from Oregon, which was neat, since I had just moved there a couple of weeks before Burning Man. I didn’t know where their town was, but they laughed it off. “Once you’ve got Oregon plates on your car, you’re good,” the second ranger explained.
“Is this your first burn?”, I asked them.
“Yup. I really want to come back, though… like, as a civilian? This thing is so amazing.”
He was damned right about that. They explained their whole enforcement philosophy to me after that. They said they weren’t worried about drinking or drugs or other personal choices. “We just, we know there are kids here, we know some people are underage, we just want to make sure everybody’s safe.”
It seemed like they were justifying themselves to me, making sure I knew they weren’t bad guys, but I knew that already. They had volunteered to come out there, to help satisfy the demands of the U.S. government and the State of Nevada and Washoe County, so that we could have this festival. They were just as much a part of it as I was.
Hey, there has to be a speed limit, right?
Not too long into the Megavolt show, they got a call over the radio, and they slowly turned their 4x4s around and drove off. It’s too bad they missed the finale. It would have blown their minds.