Guy W. Farmer: Burning Man has gone corporate

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal

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Regular readers of this column will note that I didn’t write my traditional “trash Burning Man” column prior to this year’s edition of the naked drug festival, which took place in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach over the Labor Day holiday.

This year, Bay Area organizers of the desert bacchanal, who publicly look down their hypocritical noses at money and commerce, raked in more than $20 million from 61,000 Burners who participated in the festivities. In other words, Burning Man has gone corporate, and that worries some veteran Burners.

“Because Burning Man is commerce-free, meaning no one bought or sold anything except ice and coffee, community services were created by the participants,” one newspaper reported. That’s all well and good, but what about the millions of dollars that poured into the coffers of Black Rock City LLC, the affluent San Francisco-based entity that organizes the festival? Of course they have organizational expenses and their landlord, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), collected about $2 million to pay for law enforcement and other services on the desert playa; however, simple math tells us that organizers wound up with several million dollars in their collective bank accounts.

As usual, the Burners complained about an “oppressive” law enforcement presence on the playa. That’s a ritual in which the “free spirits” complain about the cops, who reply that they’re just enforcing applicable laws. At the heart of this issue is the widespread abuse of illegal drugs at Burning Man. Burner websites recommend which drugs are popular each year, and tell their followers how to avoid detection. You can look it up.

This year the Burners’ rather sophisticated medical services operation saw up to 400 patients per day, many of them allegedly suffering from “heat prostration.” That adds up to almost 3,000 patients over the course of the event. My guess is that many of those heat-prostration cases were drug overdoses. However, my main complaint about Burning Man isn’t as much about illegal drugs as it is about the presence of young children at an X-rated event on federally administered lands. I doubt that’s what environmentalists had in mind when they persuaded former President Bill Clinton to create the Black Rock National Conservation Area. Did they envision more than 60,000 people invading a pristine desert playa?

During a visit to Burning Man with my friend Sam Bauman a few years ago, I saw a naked middle-aged man cavorting on the playa adjacent to Kidsville, which is supposed to be a supervised day-care area for young children. But when Pershing County District Attorney Jim Shirley attempted to assert local authority over the issue of underage children at the event, the organizers and an army of attorneys sued Shirley and the county; to his credit, the DA promptly filed a counter-suit and the dueling lawsuits are pending in Reno Federal Court.

According to the Pershing County sheriff, there were 12 sexual assaults at Burning Man this year. Other crimes included open and gross lewdness, drug charges and public drunkenness — a little something for the kids. So I could hardly believe a Reno Gazette-Journal article encouraging families to bring their young children to an adults-only event. The article quoted a clueless mother who brought her 9-year-old daughter to the festival to “introduce her to a world where people are generous and kind ...” Unfortunately, some of those generous and kind people were stoned out of their minds.

Although Burning Man generates millions of dollars’ worth of economic activity for Northern Nevada, going corporate doesn’t mean that you’re above the law.

Guy W. Farmer of Carson City is a longtime critic of Burning Man.


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