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.
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.
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.
When we arrived at the Temple, the BLM vehicles clustered a ways away from the entrance. Personnel started to form up military-style, lining the entrance — BLM rangers as well as Black Rock City Emergency Services staff. Burners crowded in behind them and filled the courtyard of the Temple.
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.
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.
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.
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.