Burning Man Law
It’s been another year and another glorious burn with some amazing friendships made and highlights seen and a dose of creativity injected into the burner conscious. We reached a capacity of 61,000 Black Rock City Citizens, that’s our biggest burn yet, and un-official word has it that our air-port was the second busiest airport in the state of Nevada during TBTITD. Yep, that’s right, we were second only to Las Vegas’s airport, and we were (again) the third largest city in the entire state of Nevada during the height of our population. You know what else? We’ve been getting reports of a higher law enforcement presence than previous years. That in and of itself might not be so scary or even unexpected with an increase in our population, but there have been some alarming details coming out (and doubtless more will surface as they did after the 2012 Burn) of bad interactions between burners and police including increased car searches and inter-agency cooperation and the use of K-9 units. Is this going to be the norm from now on? Are we to expect a ramp-up of inspections and citations? How will this affect, even change the way we burn? What precipitated this?
In November of 2011 Pershing County tried to amend the Festival Ordinance to apply to Burning Man. Some of the proposed changes would have severely changed the way that some burners participate in the event. While these new proposals would have imposed hundreds of thousands of dollars in new fees on the event (higher ticket prices) it would also have banned minors from the event (No kids). It would also make the Burning Man event contingent upon and subject to the laws of Pershing County. While it isn’t surprising that Pershing County would want to increase the fees it levies on the multi-million dollar golden goose that rolls across the arid bed of Lake Lahontan every Labour Day Weekend, the new restrictions coupled with the new price tag are perhaps more alarming.
Contingent upon the laws of Pershing County, lets think about what that could mean for a minute. Outside of Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada is a RED STATE. While legal Washington State and Colorado, Nevada does not recognize Medical or Recreational Marijuana use. Unlike Oregon, Public Nudity is illegal in NV. While few of us may be sad to see the shirt cockers go, that means no more Naked Bike Ride, no more Critical Tits, and No More Nudity. If Black Rock City was made behold unto the laws of Pershing County then wave goodbye to your art cars as you know them, Pershing County has laws against open containers of alcohol in vehicles, what does that mean if your mutant vehicle is a mobile bar? What does that mean if your art-car has multiple levels? Same-sex marriages are still in a gray area in much of the U.S. and Nevada does not currently recognize same-sex marriage, so that means spousal immunity doesn’t apply in federal prosecution, and seeing as how Black Rock Desert is Federal land, crimes committed there could fall under Federal prosecution. It may not seem like much, but a recent case in Kentuky illustrates just how important spousal privilege rights can be:
What about group sex? Sex positive camps could fall under scrutiny because public sex acts are still illegal in the state of Nevada. While the sodomy laws were repealed in 1993, public lewdness is still on the books and it’s definition is extremely broad and can carry fines, jail time and label one a sex offender. How would it affect long time camps like Poly Paradise or Orgy Dome? The definition of Open or Gross Lewdness in the state of Nevada usually boils down to the two following circumstances:
1. Any intentional sexual act performed in public or in private places in an open way where others could see it.
2. Any sexual encounter that is non-consentual but falls short of actual rape.
Lets face it folks, everything from what we put on our bodies to what we put in our bodies (and how) could have potentially fallen under the scrutiny and boot-heel of Pershing County if they were successful.
So BMorg did the American thing, they sued Pershing County on the grounds that the festival laws were specifically targeting free speech and expression which is protected by the First Amendment. If the fees were allowed to continue they would reduce the amount of funds that the Burning Man Organization uses to fund art (like grants) and activities (future festivals and events) that promote free speech and expression which is again, protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
What this meant for Pershing County is that they lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue and a leash they had probably intended to use to rein in the burn which, though it occurs on their doorstep, is frequented by festival goers who statistically come from populations outside Pershing County. There is little doubt in this burner’s mind that much of the increased police presence and scrutiny is a direct result of the loss Pershing County suffered in the suit. They want to remind us that our event exists at their discretion and that we are guests in their town, and the only thing they like about us is our money, and unless we spend more of it, this is the kind of treatment we can expect in the future.
When the economy tanked in 2008, Nevada got hit pretty hard. Why? Because people didn’t have the kind of extra discretionary funding to spend on vacations in Reno or Las Vegas. External gambling revenue was down and when state infrastructure is fueled by economic tourism, it doesn’t fare so well when the national economy tanks. The market crash coupled with the rise of gambling in other states as well as online gambling resulted in the bleed off from gambling Meccas like Las Vegas and Reno via the death of a thousand cuts. Now I can’t speak for all burners, but of the people that I am close to and go to The Burn with, Las Vegas is at the bottom of the list of places we would pick to go on vacation. I do not represent the target audience for Las Vegas or Reno, there is nothing in Las Vegas that appeals to me. I only travel through Reno on my way to somewhere else like Tahoe or Utah or on my way back from The Burn. I imagine more than a few burners would say the same thing. I suspect many of the people I go to the burn with aren’t frothing at the gash to see Wayne Newton or Celine Dion in concert or drop a house or car payment at the Flamingo, and clearly we aren’t alone in that because as gaming revenue have dipped since the market crash in 2008, Burning Man has been increasing in size and profitability. So why not press burners and Black Rock City LLC for a little…ok A LOT more money? Clearly they have cash to burn and there’s more of them than ever right?
Here’s the flaw with that logic: When the rent’s too high the tenants move-out. What the law makers in Pershing County probably were unaware of, but many of us in the Burn Community are probably savvy to is that back in the months leading up to the 2012 burn when it looked like the Festival Laws were going to encompass Burning Man, is some of us started looking for other places to hold The Burn. Just because they weren’t successful this time doesn’t mean they wouldn’t try something again in the future (and it looks like they are going to do just that on Sept 24th, 2013), and while the Playa has long been our home, The Burn got it’s start on a beach in California. This would not have been the first time it moved and as the event grows in size in the future, we may be forced to move yet again, or break down into smaller events held multiple times a year. Fourth of Juplaya is an example of this, burners fissioning off to do their own thing, to preserve a way of burning that has been lost within the massive influx of new attendees since the 1990’s and early 2000’s. If Burning Man were to leave Northern Nevada and go somewhere else, say, New Mexico or Central Washington, the results would be economically disastrous for Pershing County and Washoe County who rely heavily on our business. Black Rock City LLC and the burners who attend the event inject upwards of $24,000,000 in annual revenues from the event which lasts a little over a week.
There is only one certainty in life, and that is change. Someday we may say goodbye to the Playa the way the first burners said goodbye to Baker Beach in San Francisco. The face of our population has changed over the last two decades, and new burners join the tribe every year. Wherever we go, the burn goes with us. it goes where every burner goes. We have become a force of change, artistically, economically and ideologically, and we will keep on burning.