Babylon Cowboys

Photo: mkgraph

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.”

Photo: Jon Mitchell, from the 2008 WDYDWYD? exhibition

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.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

, a.k.a. Argus, was publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website from 2016 to 2019. He joined the Comm Team as a volunteer in 2010 and as year-round staff in 2014. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. His first Burn was in 2008.

31 Comments on “Babylon Cowboys

  • A says:

    Thanks for this post. as much as we dislike the idea of the default world and laws infringing on our sacred time out on the playa, it’s sometimes necessary to have law enforcement out there.

    my husband is a police officer and although he’s never worked Burning Man, he will be going as a participant with me this year to, you know, “check it out”. (his words) honestly, i don’t know how he’ll do, what he’ll think, or how i’m going to fare out there (i’ve been before a few times w/o him and i liked it that way), but it is important to realize that law enforcement officers are just people after all. some will “get it”, others won’t, but as long as everyone is respectful of each other i think everyone should do just fine.

    Good for you for taking the time to talk to those guys and giving them a chance to prove that they are people who can appreciate some really cool freaking stuff!

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Hey there! Thanks as always for reading. If my posts make you happy, follow me on Twitter @JonMwords, or contact me at

    A Says, thanks for your message! Glad the first one was friendly, because I’m sure this post will rile others. But I’m really glad you’re bringing him Home with you. The way I see it, the more lawmen and law-women we can get out to the playa, the better civil society will be for it.

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  • Deborah says:

    I thought I would share my unexpected experience with BLM.
    Thanks for sharing your story. DebO

    from my blog:
    Sept 26, 2008

    i found this (art) bomb in the Black Rock desert during the burning man festival.
    when approached (in between the ticking…..) a voice recording was activated in the device
    bush’s voice talking about war, about the future… “Bring it on!” … etc … etc …

    a few minutes later
    two Bureau of Land Management law enforcement fellows came up to me
    we talked awhile. pleasant fun conversation.
    one of them gave me a new BLM chapstick, with hemp oil, (kindly pointed out to me by one who gave it to me)

    i gave them a collapsible frisbee with a pie chart depicting the federal budget… and whooee! what an enormous CHUNK for the Pentagon! (about half!!)

    just one short moment with the BLM security..

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  • Kat says:

    I think my best idea about the “sheep mentality” of people pushing to get AWAY from the police is that most dont want trouble. Some of us really understand that we are still on US soil, and thus are subject to the Federal law. So, the last thing they want is trouble and they just subconsciously find themselves shying away.

    Even if law enforcement is “the enemy”, and trust me there are some that come to this event hoping to make a quota somewhere and bust as many people as possible, to an extent it might be the best medicine to kill them with kindness.

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  • Emilie says:

    In my real life, I am a lawyer who represents police and fire unions. Not surprisingly then, one of the first things I did after arriving on the playa in 2010 (first burn) was to say hi to local law enforcement driving by. They were very cool and laid back, and let me take plenty of pictures to show my law enforcement clients back home. The officers I talked to expressed how much they like the assignment every year, and what a great experience it is. Their attitude seemed to be live and let live, so long as you keep your law-breaking on the downlow and don’t act like a complete ass about it.

    I think commenter Kat has the right idea: if you treat them as the enemy, that is how they will respond to you. Kill ’em with kindness instead.

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  • Jennifer says:

    What a great tale from the playa. I think the “cops are on the hunt” warnings are way over-blown. I’ve barely noticed the Law at the two Burns I’ve participated in, and my dealings have been universally friendly. I did have a friend get arrested for smoking weed, but he was smoking out in the open at a large event (probably asking for it.) He was back to our village in a couple hours and sheepishly shared how cool the cops were. I think he walked away from the exchange feeling stupid for getting pinched so needlessly. The cops have a necessary job to do and I hope they get to have some fun and mind expansion along the way.

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  • angelicfiend says:

    my experience was direct contact with them. they were all nice, if a little green to the burn mentality (when they took things from me, they left ‘litter’ on the playa, which i picked up but found interesting that ‘these’ people of authority were people who littered.

    also, they do not always haul you off playa, but may just give you a ticket, let you our on your merry way!!!

    when i jumped out of their truck, i let out a huge whooooop! and a yay!!!!!!! JUST CUZ THAT IS WHO I AM. i wanted everyone to know that one does not need to feel beaten, sad, or anything negative. it was what it was. i took it, i deserved it for being dumb, remembered i was at the burn and moved on!!!!!!!!

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  • Tony Rocha says:

    Not all LEOs who go to the event volunteer for it.
    A few draw the “short straw” within their departments.

    Luckily, they are outnumbered by veteran officers who usually clue them into the unique aspects of their details. Most get it, thanks by and large to open minded burners who see past their “badges”.

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  • larry says:

    That is absolutely the right what to approach the situation. This works in the real world too. I can’t tell you how many times as a teen and young adult that I was at a party when the gestapo busted in. All it takes is a couple people to treat them like human beings and before you know it everyone safely on their way to the jext stop without a single ticket being issued or search being conducted. Most cops are as desperate for a peaceful happy ending as we are. As always there are a few assholes in every bunch though.

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Yes! Bring it to the default world. That’s the most important part of any lesson we learn Out There.

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  • James Sheehy says:

    Cool article. If we want cops to treat us like people, we need to, um, treat cops like people, yes? I’ve talked to cops over the years and a consistent theme I hear is that the Burning Man gig is great for them. They tell me that getting OT at an event full of non-violent people beats the weapon-wielding, aggressive drunks at Hot August Nights any day of the week. Let’s help that positive attitude spread throughout the entire LEO culture at Burning Man…

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  • djs3 says:

    In a similar vein but unrelated:
    I learned a long time ago to always be completely open and honest with all law enforcement officers all the time. BRC or ANYwhere or when.
    If, for some reason, you ever happen to be patted down, do yourself a favor. Tell the police what they’re going to find FIRST. I always have and it’s always been returned to me. Except one time when a cop roofed my pipe.
    But LAPD and NYPD have both handed my sacks back to me on more than one occasion, and told me to be on my way.

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  • Screaming Eagle says:

    I think they should send a few new officers each year from different states .So that way more of them could change their views a little on our burner culture. Maybe it could make a small change in law enforcment nation wide. I think burning man has a profound effect on any and all who participate… even law enforcment officers. KeeP (aLm aNd Burn oN )'( S(rEamInG eAgLe

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  • Deva says:

    Nice. 2010 was my first year and on the way in, we got stopped for an obstructed headlight. We were detained by the side of the entrance for about an hour and during that time, I decided to just be friendly with the police as well. As it turned out, there were thrilled to be there. The one I was talking to basically said the same thing as you described above, it was his first time, he was having the time of his life, had already seen things he never would have imagined (this was within hours of the gate opening), and that he wanted to return as a civilian.

    As “default” as they are, when you get that many people together, there’s going to be law enforcement involved, and as you said, they are every bit a part of it as you and I. More than anything, they’re there to make sure it is a safe event. Don’t make them do their jobs and everything will be just fine.

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  • Dustin says:

    The author got lucky because he experimented on BLM officers — almost all of them are fantastic, friendly, and helpful. Try it again with the either of the county sheriff departments, and you’ll probably have a less pleasant interaction.

    Regardless, the advice to treat them like fellow human beings is always a good strategy.

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  • fox says:

    djs3 you’ve got to be kidding. Perhaps in LA and NYC the cops have better things to do than to bust you for what’s in your bag of kicks, but most everywhere else with too many cops and not enough real action to keep them busy, your advice will get someone busted. Without your consent, the cops can’t pat you down or otherwise search you unless they have a readily explainable reason to believe you are a safety threat to them or you’ve engaged in some legal activity. Anyone telling them “o.k., this is what’s in my pockets” justifies a search and acts as your consent to the search/seizure as well as being their admission that they knew the stuff was there and what it is. In the reality world I’m a criminal defense attorney. I’ve often thought of giving a lecture at burning man on search and seizure law, but I’ve never gotten around to it when I’m out there.

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  • fox says:

    That should read “some ILLEGAL activity” in my post above.

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  • thanks for the reminder to treat everyone like a mirror. :)

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  • Camo Mike says:

    In the ten years I’ve been going I’ve had a few run-ins with L.E.O.’s For the most part they have always been positive. I have three that stick in my mind very clearly:

    My friend Joe(an RN) and myself (an EMT) were walking to center camp when we heard a large crash. Someone behind us had ridden their bike into a trailer at hi-speed (our guess was he was distracted by topless trampoline girls). But managed to knock himself out cold and lacerate his face fairly bad. We sent a runner to medical while we stabilized him. The first responder was a county sheriff on a beefed up golf cart. We ran down the scene to him. He asked us who we were in between radioing for assistance. And at first was dumb founded that an EMT and a nurse from Minnesota were at a party in Nevada. He asked us to stay and maintain control until the REMSA ambulance arrived and we could transfer custody over to them. After the ambulance pulled away we had a very long conversation with him on the rest of our walk to center. It was the realization on both our parts that we are “normal” people. That was 2006

    This past 2010 I had two:
    The first I was joined on my walk into center for a shift at coffee. It was about 2:30 – 3 AM and two BLM agents on quad runners did a slow roll next to me. They joined me almost as soon as I came out of camp. The streets were mostly dead. They stayed conversing with me for about 15 minutes. Where ya from?… How you liking it so far?… this your first year?… It was pleasant conversation and very welcomed on the long dark walk. As they turned off one of them told me I should check my battery on my head lamp.

    The last run in was also very pleasant and helpful. Friends of friends camped with us this year(first years). One of them was found open playa; passed out by the trash fence. The officers not only took him to medical; but also located our camp and found his wife at roughly 2am. The went the extra mile.

    Bottom line is they are out their to do a job. They are also people, BM is just as magical to them as it is to us.

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  • Jeckel says:

    I had a rather nice ~40min long conversation with 2 LEO’s on top of Mal-Mart this past year. We discussed things like the view, how they came to be assigned to BM, what each did before joining up, etc.

    One was a secret service agent during the Clinton administration, the other was former air force. Both of them volunteered to be on detail at BM, as they had done the past several years.

    Shortly after they got to the top of the structure, we noticed that the top platform had become almost void of other people, and that nobody else was coming up. The officers mentioned that it was probably due to their presence and people wanting to avoid them. So they thanked me for the chat, and for not “running away”, and left the camp so others could enjoy the view.

    In another encounter with BLM and a few county sheriff’s, my camp has a customary night to go out deep playa with our flame throwers for a bit of camp fun. Its the one night where our camp members can shrug off the duty they signed up for during other event nights and let loose a bit.

    In 2010 we were out with some pretty big effects, and we drew the attention of a number of law enforcement vehicles that parked about 200ft away from us. Eventually 2 of our camp mates headed over to talk to them, basically find out if we were in for some trouble.

    Turns out that they had seen our fire, initially thought something was not right, and when they got closer they saw what we were doing. They stuck around to “watch the show”. We thanked them for being diligent in their duty (after all, from a distance it was just a mob of people and a LOT of fire where nothing was scheduled), and they told us to carry on.

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  • Withalamu says:

    Goes to show LEOs shouldn’t be reacted to in fear. Be cool and they’ll be cool, most of the time. They don’t like the bad apples cops any more than we do. But there are also bad apple burners, so in a way, LEOs are an important filter at burning man, keeping it a cool event, for the most part…

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  • YNOT says:

    Hi there,

    I met a BLM officer at Opulent Temple last year and he was really cool. He also seemed very relieved to be talking to me and was impressed with the good vibes of the night. He said he would like to come at some point, but now he was working.

    I really felt as though he was here to protect us and the playa, not to “try and get us.” I wish there were more like him around…

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  • Duane says:

    Well, yes and no. As a former LAPD officer, I’ve witnessed some really bad cop behavior. Not a few are drawn to that line of work for the opportunity to exert power over others in the guise of authority. For sure, treat cops like humans and the encounter will play out least badly. But always be on guard, lest you be brushing up against one who would take advantage of your situation. Best to avoid them if there’s any potential for you to be taken down, rightly or wrongly. I’m just sayin… as a guy who used to wear blue but over 6 Burns prefers to freak.

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  • cellery valley says:

    At a SoCal BeachBurn, a l.e.o. told us to decamp because of alcohol. As a criminal defense attorney, I pleasantly asserted that no one had been drinking (because I didn’t see anyone drinking). The Ranger shined his flashlite down; at my feet (but not mine) was a clear plastic bag with beer in it. Embarrassed, I thanked the guy for his courtesy (no citations, no searches, no hassle). Everyone left after teasing me about boasting about how clean we were … with beer at my feet.

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  • Jon Mitchell says:

    Wonderful comments, everybody. Thanks for reading! I’m enjoying all the incredible BM photo albums in your links.

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  • JayhooRay says:

    Last year I rode through a bad scene…couldn’t tell quite what but it felt trashy and full of booze in the wrong way. I wasn’t in any position to intervene in a beneficial way…nor did anyone else seem to be. A few minutes later, from the top of the Man or the Ant Farm…can’t remember which…I saw the flashing lights arrive at the scene. Later, I chose to ride back to the scene and talked to some LEOs on quads. I asked them what it was like to do law enforcement or public safety on the playa. The response I got was thoughtful, reasoned, and formal…in short, professional. It was exactly what everyone around two drunk dudes with something/nothing to prove pounding on each other and anyone in reach required. It was why we have cops…and why when I’m in other countries sometimes…I miss American cops. Fo Sho…some of those people in the default world are dicks…and I’ve had friends busted for lame shit on the playa…but in the messy balance of life it seems like a little law enforcement on the playa might be better than some of the alternatives. As cool as we are even with maps and guns at our back we still can’t just behave ourselves… until we can figure out how to employ professional handlers we’re stuck with cops.

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  • Dawne McCubbing says:

    My campmates and I took shelter from the huge storm that ended in the double rainbow 3 (4?) years ago on an open topped double decker bus out in the middle of the playa. The guys went straight upstairs as we were more looking to get out of the way of blinded vehicles than of the dust, but my girlfriend and I stayed downstairs to catch our breath and met a great friendly guy who gave us a shot each and we got chatting.

    We asked him how many burns this was for him, and he smiled and said it was his first as a participant, but his 3rd Burn, as he had been a law enforcement officer for 2 before that. For a second we were a little wary, but he expressed the same sentiment as the guys Jon talks about above. That there are dangerous people and vulnerable people in any crowd this size, and above all they are here to keep us safe. He had loved the Burn from his very first moment, loved the vibe of the participants and was LOVING the experience of being there without any responsibilities. We parted over an hour later with hugs and photos.

    Kill them with kindness, treat them like the people they are, and they will join us :)

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  • drutter says:

    Sadly, a lot of sheeple in here, begging for more control from “above” to protect them from themselves. Radical self reliance has to take a back seat to the police state, like everything else, I guess.
    Funny, I don’t see NEGATIVE law enforcement stories posted on the front page. And I know that’s not because there aren’t thousands of them.
    That said, well written post.

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  • Max says:

    IMHO in the best case scenario after meeting with cops you will be in the position you started from in the first place – they are not at the playa for the reason you’re there for, whatever your reason might be.
    And this is the _best_ case.
    They may be more or less harmless, however I see no point in pushing my luck getting in contact with them in any shape or form.
    Don’t trouble trouble…

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  • H3RETIC says:

    Monitor them. They monitor us. We have no real credible statistical data to suggest that they aren’t overstepping… What, we’re gonna trust their reporting? Yes some are nice. Yes it’s good they are there when camp Douchebag births a new black swan. But if stopped, I would feel a hell of a lot better if I looked past them and saw you, brother or sister, standing behind them…reminding me that I do have rights, and my people have my back.
    Oh and we should have monitors monitor the monitors. You know, in case they are infiltrated… All joking aside… A Playan Mob Squad would be the shit. [H3RETIC]

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  • ellerycELlery says:

    Ditto what “FOX” said, from someone in the same profession.
    Don’t lie, don’t consent, just keep your mouth closed, and your attitude pleasant.
    2011 Burn, I plan to display “Playa Patrol,” seven large four-panel cartoons, either at 6:30 and Esplanade, or at Center Camp. – cELlery (Pleasure Garden)

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