Holy War in Black Rock City

One hot Thursday afternoon in Black Rock City, Root and I stopped at Center Camp to catch some shade. We lucked out; the first Jamaican reggae band to ever play Burning Man was on stage, and people were getting down. I danced by the stage while she hung out in the front row. There’s nothing better than the ecstasy on dusty faces when a live band breaks through the week-long fog of indistinguishable DJ sets.

The band finished playing, and we all rejoiced. Wiped out, I sat down next to Root to watch the next act, a couple of lawyers dressed like ancient Egyptians who were there to tell us how to deal with law enforcement on the playa. That sounded useful.

After all, it had been a big year for run-ins with law enforcement on the playa. We had read plenty of stories about severe and surprising busts in the run-up to Burning Man, and we heard more tales of woe from friends after we arrived. The Bureau of Land Management had insisted on tighter control at the gate. It seemed like a good year to brush up on our rights.

For a while, this talk felt righteous. We were becoming better citizens. But the conversation gradually turned toward philosophical pronouncements, indignant rants, and wild warnings about undercover narcs. “This is a little too us-versus-them for my taste,” Root said to me. “Plus, I’m getting kind of paranoid about there being cops everywhere. Aren’t you?”

I sure was. So we hopped up off our floor cushion, hoisted our packs, and stepped out of Center Camp into the afternoon heat, only to be greeted by an enormous convoy of federal agents in SUVs with their lights flashing, rolling right through the middle of Black Rock City.

BLM1

What in the hell?

At least 30 heavy law enforcement vehicles — looking so alien amongst the rubber duckies and smiling dragons driving around the playa — were grinding up the 6 o’clock spire in menacing formation.

We jumped on our bikes and rode in parallel, keeping our distance. After a moment of terror, it became clear that these vehicles weren’t after anyone. They were going somewhere. Root remarked that it felt like we were gazelles on the savanna after the lions already made their kill. We could relax. They weren’t hunting us.

We rode in closer, and other Burners began to ride along, too. It was an unlikely procession, drab, armored trucks and blinky, furry bicycles.

bm13 162

My friend Sean rode up close to the convoy as it moved, as he told me after the Burn. He asked the nearest officer if this was a parade.

“No,” the agent replied. “Fallen officer.”

Sean immediately took off his hat out of respect. The BLM agents smiled solemnly and gave him the thumbs-up.

It gradually became clear: the feds were rolling up to the Temple. So we followed them.

At attention

When we arrived at the Temple, the BLM vehicles clustered a ways away from the entrance. BLM personnel started to form up military-style, lining the entrance. Burners crowded in behind them and filled the courtyard of the Temple.

BLM2

A man’s voice called the feds to attention, and they snapped to. I found myself garbed in weirdo Burner clothes, standing right next to an armed man in khaki drab with the words “FEDERAL AGENT” stamped across his back. We were both still and silent.

BLM3

A woman in civilian clothes walked with a uniformed agent down the aisle, into the Temple. BLM people followed, and Burners followed them. The feds took off their hats. Some Burners did, too. Others did not.

My mind buzzed with contradictions. I realized that this was some kind of memorial, which made perfect, beautiful sense. But I couldn’t quiet an angry voice in my mind, raving about Romans and Christians. Why are the forces of the state entering our Temple? I was trying so hard to parse it that I couldn’t concentrate on what was actually happening…

… until I heard the eulogy for Michael Dwayne Bolinger read out over the radio, and I saw the emotion well up in the faces of the federal agents surrounding me. Kind words were said, tears were shed. The BLM rangers screwed a memorial plaque onto the Temple wall.

BLM4

Then the man officiating said something nice about our festival, and everyone applauded. I watched myself clapping as the BLM squad filed out of the Temple and disappeared. Before I knew it, it was Burning Man again, and the never-ending Temple vigil resumed.

BLM5
BLM6

I wasn’t finished, though. I had to sit with this one, let it sink in, figure out how it felt in there. I sat cross-legged in the dust and closed my eyes.

I saw the fearful, beating heart, the masculine drive, the need for security. All this was churned up in me. I saw it in the presence of federal agents in our Temple. I also saw it in me.

I felt loving embrace, the open arms, the endless acceptance in the Temple, too. Darkness has its place in the Temple. The Temple has to hold the darkness. We had to hold what just happened.

We Burners were full of both fear and love. The BLM, the feds, the human beings in the gray trucks and the khaki uniforms, they were, too. We all stood like holy warriors on the same ground. As I worked hard in my heart to unify these opposing forces, I felt… no, I saw the Presence that underlies them both, presiding over our Temple rituals. I swear to God I did.

I sat in the Presence for as long as I could, and then I opened my eyes. Root found me soon — she said she wandered the Temple several times but couldn’t see me at first — and we walked slowly to the Temple threshold. She told me the procession made her think about history, the eternal back-and-forth between old, conservative forces and the wild ones that spring up and try to squeeze through cracks in the foundation. I told her it made me think about war and peace, love and death, masculine and feminine.

Was the BLM ceremony warlike? BLM rangers aren’t soldiers. Nor are Burners, though the men in my camp sure do wear camouflage. It sounds dangerous and privileged to compare Burning Man to war. But the culture surrounding Burning Man calls many things “war.” The War on Drugs. Culture Wars. The War on Christmas. Who are the warriors in those wars?

For the rest of the Burn, I wondered if we were all warriors.


Second photo by Kiley Lynch. All other photos used with permission from the excellent blog post by Mark Turney, Winnemucca District, Nev. Public Affairs.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

32 thoughts on “Holy War in Black Rock City

  • Jon,

    I thought it was really interesting and thought provoking that you compared this event to Roman soldiers entering a Christian church. That commentary is poignant in a way you didn’t draw attention to. The Romans were an occupational force in Judea, and the tension between Romans and Christians does in some way mirror the tension between BLM and Burners (though I have yet to see any hippies crucified on 447). However, Christianity soon began to take hold in the hearts of the Romans, presumably beginning with the soldiers who comprised the occupational force, and then began to spread through the “known world.” I think it’s incredibly significant that not only did one fallen officer request a memorial at the Temple, his fellow officers complied with his last wish with pomp and regalia.

    After so many years occupying BRC, the Romans are starting to get it. They recognized our space as sacred, and in so doing have made it their own. Michael Dwayne Bolinger is one of us.

    Report comment

  • This makes me think of Kid Beyond and “I Shall Be Free”. It’s too long to quote, though the gist is:

    One day I went walking
    Down a lonesome road.
    And I came upon a stranger
    in some faraway clothes.

    He said he was a soldier
    I said, “where’s your gun?”
    He said, “I don’t got no weapon
    and I don’t need one.”

    “I don’t need no weapon
    cause I don’t fight no war.”
    I said well then Mr. Soldier,
    what you fighting for?

    Well he didn’t say nothing,
    he just smiled at me.
    And then I heard him whisper,
    “You shall be free.”

    More lyrics: http://www.lyricsmania.com/i_shall_be_free_lyrics_kid_beyond.html

    Report comment

  • One has to think that these officers, like just about any other human who experiences the event, are changed by it. I can’t imagine these guys who took part in this procession and the posting of the memorial in the temple could not have been moved. I wonder if they were there for the Temple burn?
    As much as I wish the officers at the event would be there in case of trouble rather than actively (IMHO) looking for trouble, I do think the best way to deal with them is radical inclusion. The more the Burning Man community opens up to them the more subversive and insidious it will be on the minds of these men and women.
    Last year as a greeter, I gave an apparently memorable hug to a big burly BLM officer. It apparently made an impression on the man. I only found this out towards the end of the week when I was approaching BLM officers for the really cool blinky light swag they were giving out.
    I walked up to a table in Center Camp where three officers were sitting. One of immediately reached his arms out and up to me like a pleading child and said “give me a hug”. Umm shall we say I experienced a little cognitive dissonance? He stood up and we had good long hug, gun belt, bulletproof vest and all. I was rather taken aback by it until he said “you hugged me at the greeters station, don’t you remember?” Only then did I have a faint recall of it. Do you think Burning Man made an impression on him?
    At this year’s Temple burn dust storm, I got entirely disoriented. After about 45 minutes of wandering around utterly disoriented trying to find my bike I saw three officers with a dog conducting a bust. At first I hesitated but being as there were three officers there, and they are ostensibly servants of the people, I grew a nut and approached them and asked one of them the simple question of exactly where we were in the clock coordinates relative to the temple. One officer did speak briefly with me. The tone of his voice certainly sounded to me like he was very unhappy in a sad, not angry way. I got the feeling he did not like what he was doing at that moment. I’ll never know.

    Report comment

  • G, thank you so much for that awesome reflection. I am as perplexed as you are, but getting on with our burns and trying to include everyone there seems like the only course of action. Your hug story is even more moving than the Temple to me as a sign that we’re crossing the divide.

    A while after I posted this today, I remembered that I had another, more clearly positive encounter with BLM on the playa when I was a younger, greener Burner: http://blog.burningman.com/2011/03/tales-from-the-playa/babylon-cowboys/

    Report comment

  • Jon,

    As a new Burner, I had just finished walking the Temple for the first time in my life. The very air at the Temple was different than the air anywhere else in BRC; I was transformed by the atmosphere. I simply walked the building, touched things as I was called to and thanked random people for their gifts. As I was living the Temple I witnessed the convoy, I turned around and went back in. I had heard so much rumor about the Man at the Man on the run up to Burning Man. What was this convoy about? I missed most all of the dedication that occurred but suddenly heard the Temple erupt in applause and immediately ‘got it’. ‘They’ (humans in different cloths and with different beliefs) had come to the Temple for the exact same reason as all of us Burners (humans in different cloths and with different beliefs)!! The applause was radical inclusion in practice, it was and remains the most moving moment of my time at BRC. We as Burners had a choice, put aside our beliefs and exclude those who we may differ from or stand up, open our hearts and include all in Burning Man. All those Feds gifted us Burners with their presence at the Temple that day!!

    The events of that day should be broadcasted widely as a lesson for all to learn from.

    Life is incredible,

    Less is More

    Report comment

  • I have family members who are in law enforcement, and part of their core being is a sort of fatherly protective feeling towards the general public that they are charged with protecting. Because they wear a uniform and gun, that doesn’t mean that they are not spiritual, loving, reflective, or soft inside. I do believe that both sides (attendees vs law enforcement) have to overcome preconceived notions of the other: how many times have you, as a Burner, had people tell you their uninformed notions of Burning Man? That it is a naked, drug-riddled, hippie fest? (Well, OK, it is that but also much much more…) I heard about this memorial at the temple the evening after it happened, and it gladdened my soul to hear that law enforcement on Playa consider themselves Burners. I think it is fantastic. I make it a point to go out of my way at Burning Man to chat up the law enforcement – ask them how its going, where are they from, etc. And I thank them for being there. Helps to break down barriers.

    Report comment

  • As a new Burner myself, I am honored and touched by this story. We talk about our oneness and radical inclusion, and with this story I feel it. We have an opportunity to truly accept all that is. We are in a world where judgement has reigned and differences are felt. We are all traveling our individual souls journeys. Lets continue to come together, knowing we all have a very special energy, presence and purpose in the universe and on this planet. We all desire to be seen, heard, loved and allowed to live our lives in our greatest expression. Thank you for sharing this heartwarming connection of multiple dimensions of BRC. May our journey continue to pull us all together in alignment of the best & highest good for all. Blessings & Gratitude!

    Report comment

  • I’m blown away by this. You did a nice job of building up to it in this piece. After the first couple paragraphs, I was all ready to get righteous about the over-abundance of LOE’s on the playa, and then, bam. Complete 180. Unexpected. Moving. 100% Burning Man.

    Report comment

  • I have an inherent distrust of cops and authority in general; my run-ins with them have all been negative and they have the power to screw my life up and I can’t stop it at all.

    The first time was in 2009 at my second burn while I was walking in the early morning with a friend who had been up all night. I’d waved hello to the BLM officer and kept on my way. Shortly after he rolled up and said I’d been smoking pot. I’ve had pot before but I’m not a fan of it and hadn’t been smoking and I told him as much; his response was to tell me I ‘must have forgotten’, but let us go. My friend figured out later he’d seen me drinking from my camelbak. Minor, but annoying.

    The second time was at a music festival where an officer thought I was dealing something. I wasn’t and hadn’t been, but he wanted to search me. I refused politely, so he arrested me on the pretense of being intoxicated so he could then search me against my will. He did advise me to discard anything I might have prior and I don’t know if he was being nice (get rid of it so I don’t find it) or wanting me to incriminate myself, but I had nothing on me. In the end he dragged me 30 miles away for an overnight lockup, didn’t charge me with anything, and just let me out on the street in the morning – my cellphone back at the festival, only a few dollars on me, and no way of getting in touch with anyone to get a ride – and the bus came on Wednesday.

    Needless to say, I distrust police.

    I saw this procession from the lamplighters’ chapel. A long line of police vehicles with lights on is very intimidating and I’ve read a few reports of people thinking initially the temple was being raided. There is a lot of us-vs-them at burn, and I think this could have been gentler, but this is also their ritual. This is how they honor a fallen comrade. Once I understood what they were doing – and that they had incorporated our traditions into theirs – it brought tears to my eyes. They may be here officially but they’re not spectators or adversaries, they’re participants. It’s bridging the gap between us and them.

    There is a heavy focus in our society about policing personal decisions that don’t impact anyone else (drug use is a big one) but sometimes we really do need the police; bad people and good people doing bad things. I’d love to see an official policy – and training – to step back on policing personal decisions, and that’d really help with the us-vs-them feeling.

    If we were truly a TAZ we’d still have laws, but they’d reflect our culture, not the culture we come from outside of Burn. Veteran officers learn our culture and often will find a compromise between the two but virgins only have their previous experience to go on and may be overzealous enforcing rules that aren’t part of our culture.

    Seeing officers combine our rituals with theirs shows that they aren’t just outsiders and are also part of our culture. I’d love to see more of this, and I hope they get downtime in which they can put on civvies and blend in to see what it’s like from the inside.

    Report comment

  • What an awesome comment, Jennytoo. I was hoping someone would raise the question of Burning Man as a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Certainly, that’s many participants’ ideal, but the event hasn’t fit the bill as a TAZ in many years. I’ve always thought of it as a service we hire to provide us with our choice of (more or less) carefully managed freedoms. Is it still our ideal to be autonomous?

    Report comment

  • G thanks for filling in that detail because I think the story would have been percieved differently if you were a pretty young female that likes to don only skivvies.

    And Jon, thank you for this thought provoking article. I’ve been feeling defensive about this whole thing but as jennytoo mentioned, they could have been gentler but as another friend of mine pointed out, this may be the only way they knew how to commemorate their peer.

    Report comment

  • I sat atop the Mayan temple and watched this; I’d been at Center camp when this started and we ran out on our bikes to the temple, staying clear of the procession. It was interesting to see and hear people’s reactions, to hear that they were doing not just their parade but a memorial (someone else came from the Temple to the Mayan structure and shared that bit) was cool.

    Because that’s what the Temple is for – it isn’t just a satellite of the Man, but now an anchor of the city, each burn rpresentative of our places, our art, our path, and our spirit.

    I like it. And I’m not really a spiritual person – I go because I love camping in the desert and raves and the economy ^-^

    Report comment

  • There is an “LA weekly” website that has some good details and thoughtful commentary.

    Can’t post URL’s here.

    It reported that the lady was the officer’s widow. He worked BRC for a few years and requested the Temple ceremony. He was born in ’66 . . . . never even made it to 50 :(

    Report comment

  • Scary and creepy. Saw this line moving towards Temple being just a few feet away – never thought there were so many of them – I mean I knew there were a lot, but knowing and seeing with your own eyes…
    First thought was – yeah, here we go…
    And don’t think it is along the traditions (read radical inclusion) – just pure demonstration of power and total disregard for others. Nobody can monopolize public space and attention coming from position of brute force multiplied by sheer numbers.
    While many of LEOs might be nice people in regular life and share hugs and whatnot on individual off-duty (& sometimes even while on the clock) level, the procession of uniformed cops/cars with lights blazing as “get out of my way or else” was totally out of place.

    Report comment

  • I hope some officers who participated in this event did understand the significance of the Temple to our community, but I saw direct evidence that others did not understand it at all.

    During the Temple burn on Sunday night, I stood silently with hundreds of other burners near the flames, embracing a crying woman who was overcome with grief and loss. As at past Temple burns, there was a lot of reflection, a lot of weeping, and absolutely nothing that resembled a party atmosphere or any illegal activity. Despite this, two uniformed law enforcement officers were charging through the crowd, pushing people out of the way and glaring menacingly at everyone. It was completely inappropriate and disrespectful.

    Report comment

  • It’s a weird dichotomy, the individual vs the collective. Collectively, the highly-visible presence of law enforcement at Burning Man this year felt oppressive and scary and wildly uncomfortable. Individually, every interaction I had with law enforcement was borderline pleasant and kind.

    I’ve had only pleasant interactions with law enforcement over my 10 years at Burning Man. I was at Greeters one year, and was confronted with a line of about 4 BLM guys standing off to the side, hands on belts, surveying the cars driving in. I wandered over and offered one of them a hug- because, they’re at Greeters, they must be there for a hug, right? Heh. After getting hugs from a couple of them, the third one held up his hands and said “My wife made me promise: NO TOUCHING!”. So I named him Officer No-Hugs, a name which his comrades fully supported with whoops of laughter.

    I try and balance these small interactions in my brain, as I watch the cop cars drive back and forth all day at Burning Man, watch the busts with cars full of stuff scattered on the ground as they’re searched by hordes of officers. Hmm.

    Report comment

  • having reflected on this, my only objection was the *way* it was done. just as burners we embraced the police honoring one of their fallen in the temple, out of respect for what *they* wanted to do in *our* temple (after all, we all collectively create this temple, in a place outside of everyday’s norms and religions), then the police should have come to this place in a way that respected the giving soulful energy of the temple. not in an aggressive “show-of-force” convoy, but maybe in a much smoother, calmer and less intimidating way. maybe they could have car-pooled, and had less trucks. maybe they could have come in one-by-one, over the space of 30min or so, instead of as a “deployment”. maybe they could have sent a few people out ahead of time, to psread the word, inform, and so on, and not in some reverential version of “shock & awe”. that’s my $0.02….maybe a cop will read it too.

    Report comment

  • I struggled with that, too, Frosty, but I came away almost okay with it. BLM rangers aren’t soldiers. They don’t march around in formation all the time. The formalities they used at the Temple are totally ceremonial to them. It’s how they display reverence and respect in their culture.

    I know that, to private citizens, this is the way that soldiers behave, and that makes it inherently warlike. But we can also relate to these practices like we do to those of any other culture on display at the Temple, and if we’re serious about Radical Inclusion, I think we should.

    Report comment

  • I was raised in law enforcement, and work for a law enforcement agency in my locale (the fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree, blah blah). I also celebrated my 17th consecutive burn this year. I don’t have the same knee-jerk distrust of law enforcement as many burners do. They are in BRC to do a job, some are awesome, and some are assholes — just like any profession.

    To do a procession to honor a fallen officer in BRC is a very big deal, and definitely shows that BLM respects the temple and the event, and wants to participate in our community. I think it is amazing.

    Some above posted criticism about the procession, about how jarring and intimidating it was. If you’ve ever seen officer memorials, this is how it is done. As burners, I think it’s important to accept a little bit of their culture, since we ask them to embrace ours. Perhaps to mitigate the ‘shock and awe,’ it would be a good idea to post it in What Where When (or maybe they did?!?!), so it’s not unexpected. My feeling is that they were either keeping it under wraps so as not to draw too big a negative crowd (they are well aware of burners’ distrust of them), or that it truly was a spontaneous gesture.

    I know I hope to see more of this at future burns.

    Report comment

  • frosty, remember that two of the ten principles are radical inclusion and participation.

    Perhaps by default there’s an us-vs-them expectation when it comes to LEOs on the playa, but when an event like this happens (or the many other positive interactions that occur between LEO and event participants) I want “us” to accept “them”, to include them.

    As I heard the story, Bolinger had served at Burning Man numerous times and come to appreciate the event to the point where he would bring his family. This service was held to honor his service, and was a beautiful participatory expression on the part of these individuals. Everyone burns differently, everyone participates differently.

    When this community of humans who are out there in the dust and heat and madness, just like the rest of us, decide to participate and honor their fallen colleague in their own ritualized structure, why should we reject their participation because we might not as comfortable with their ritual as the forms our own expressions are likely to take? Why not instead include them, thank them for participating – for recognizing the sacred intent of the temple and honoring this man, this agent, this burner-in-uniform, if you will, in that sacred space where the rest of us honor our lost ones?

    Report comment

  • You are a warrior, they are warriors, we are warriors. Truth. The farther you put the “they” away from the “us” the farther burning man gets from its’ goals. Radical inclusion, radical inclusion, radical inclusion. The cancer is any burning man ascetic, wardrobe, thought process. I am sorry you are afraid of officers, they are human bellies like any other human belly.

    Report comment

  • p.s.it was his dying request and blm delivered….tax dollars well spent…some people will never understand,dedication to service…i am proud of blm for granting his final wish,and i can only hope others might understand one day…apparantly while he was on duty,he must have been to the temple…and it touched him…case closed

    Report comment

  • Leave a Reply