Burning Man fans say cops too heavy-handed
Some Burning Man fans accuse overzealous officers of destroying the quality of an otherwise peaceful celebration
By Martin Griffith
RENO, Nev. — David Levin represents entrepreneurs, investors and developers in his legal practice. As an aside, he's a Burning Man barrister — offering free legal advice to those who run afoul of the law at the annual counterculture festival on the Nevada desert.
The Palo Alto, Calif., attorney maintains law enforcement has become so heavy-handed at the eclectic art and music gathering that he was compelled to form a legal defense team known as Lawyers for Burners to help participants who were cited or arrested.
He and other Burning Man fans accuse overzealous officers of destroying the quality of an otherwise peaceful celebration of radical self-expression to be held Monday through Sept. 6. Some 50,000 people are expected to gawk at offbeat artwork, wear bizarre costumes or nothing at all and torch the event's 40-foot signature effigy on the Black Rock Desert, about 110 miles north of Reno
Among other issues, Levin said, female undercover agents in costume have asked male Burners for drugs, drug-sniffing dogs and their handlers have roamed camps, and armed officers have "snooped" on revelers at dances. Last year, almost 300 Burners were cited or arrested by federal officers
"It's a police state out there," Levin said. "There's very little criminal activity at the event, but they cite and arrest people in order to justify their existence."
Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Pershing County Sheriff's Department cite a new study by U.S. Park Police that concludes an even larger police presence is needed. The two agencies plan to have 80 officers at this year's event — far below the 144 recommended in the Park Police report.
"I don't want my guys to be party poopers, but we have a job to do," said Mark Pirtle, special agent in charge for the BLM. "They're not bad people, but they like to use drugs."
Last year, 65 percent of 287 citations issued by BLM rangers involved drugs, largely marijuana, LSD, mushrooms and ecstasy, with cocaine and heroin down on the list, Pirtle said.
"So many people think they can go out and smoke dope openly, but that's not the case," he said. "Pot possession is a felony under Nevada law."
Said Pershing Sheriff Ron Skinner, "(Burning Man) could be classified as an extended seven-day rave that's infested with drugs and alcohol and all sorts of bizarre behavior. I've never heard that complaint about too many officers at it other than from those people who are anti-law enforcement and anti-authoritarian. Anarchy is not an option."
The gathering is staged on BLM-managed land within his county's boundaries.
While the festival has been largely free of major crime since moving to Nevada from San Francisco in 1990, it has been the scene of rapes, driving under the influence accidents, assaults, burglaries and sales of illegal drugs, authorities said.
Burning Man spokeswoman Marian Goodell said while organizers agree with the need for rules at the festival, an ongoing debate is over the number of officers considered adequate.
Burners' complaints about law enforcement spiked in 2007 and 2008 after some BLM officers were accused of conducting unlawful searches, Goodell said.
"I think drug use at Burning Man is greatly exaggerated," she said. "I think most people are out there to be self-expressive. No one wants to find officers training binoculars on a whole street. It's making participants very uncomfortable."
Organizers warn about the police presence in newsletters and the event's "Survival Guide" for participants. They list illegal activities and provide advice to Burners if they're stopped for questioning.
"Not to toss a wet towel on your fun, but ... yes, all federal, state and local laws still exist at Burning Man ... Your best protection is to obey the law," J. Duane Hoover, Burning Man's law enforcement liaison, wrote in a recent newsletter.
Steve Bagley, 26, of Boston, criticized authorities' handling of the event. He's among nearly 1,900 Burners who have been cited by the BLM since 2001. "Generally speaking, Burners are non-violent and peaceful people," Bagley said, while declining to specify what he was cited for last year. "It's a disconnect to see men with guns out there."
Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said she has received complaints that some officers are pressuring participants to consent to searches.
"The bottom line for us regarding Burning Man is that civil liberties need to be protected," Rowland said.
The BLM's Pirtle said federal officers from across the West who will police the event must undergo a day of training by prosecutors on search and seizure laws. New Burners unfamiliar with the rules usually are the ones who get busted, he said.
"They give consent for a search and an officer finds a bag of pot in their backpack," Pirtle said. "Those are the ones who go back and say, 'This officer pressured me.'"
But Levin of Lawyers for Burners said law enforcement's excesses are evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of Burners are allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and pay a smaller fine if they challenge a citation.
He maintains Burning Man organizers don't complain out of fear they could lose a permit for the festival.
"They (BLM) are the intruders and the marauders, and they're inhibiting people's experiences," Levin said. "In the end, BLM law enforcement is an expensive charade, and the quality of the event is deteriorating."