At 2:35 pm, it was a typical, busy Wednesday at the Temple. Bikes formed a thick circle around the Temple boundary. People quietly looked around, left offerings and memorials, some sat by themselves, a few were crying. A large group sat in the central sanctum and chanted “OMMMMmmmmmm” together; it felt a little showy, but then again, they were all perfectly in tune. It was hot as Venus out, as dry and dusty as Mars.
Sometime around 3:00, as the dust picked up a bit, a Black Rock Ranger on bagpipes started warbling out “Amazing Grace” just outside the Temple complex. This announced the arrival of a group of law enforcement vehicles coming up 12:00. It was time for the Fallen Officers’ Memorial procession, a new tradition I’ve been watching with interest since the first one in 2013, which scared the hell out of me.
Things have changed since then, though. Reports from all the big city meetings indicate that this might be the smoothest, nicest year we’ve ever had with law enforcement. It’s not just that there are fewer run-ins; there’s more collaboration between agencies and Black Rock City departments, more trust, and a less obtrusive presence.
I can’t help but think that first BLM procession had some effect. Yes, it was scary to see all those cops at the Temple, but it still ended with hugs and gratitude. I hoped this year’s memorial would reflect how far we’ve come as a city.
The 2013 march was a pure BLM affair. They rolled right through the center of Black Rock City in a long convoy, lights flashing. The first noteworthy difference this year was that the memorial was planned by a Ranger, name of Ranger Paragon. Paragon made a route plan that would go over better with BRC residents, who can get a bit skittish when the Five-O roll through. The convoy would circle the outside edge of the city, drive in on 10:00 to the Man area, then turn left to approach the Temple from 12:00. As soon as I heard that plan, I knew this memorial would feel different from the last one I attended.
An even bigger difference was that Paragon had put out the call to law enforcement agencies across the country to submit the names of their fallen officers. The first BLM memorial was all for one longtime member of the Burning Man detail, Michael Dwayne Bolinger. This one had a list of over a hundred names from all kinds of places, from the Policía de Puerto Rico to the Cherokee Indian Police Department, local, state, federal, and military agencies. The list also included 25 canines.
There were far fewer LEOs and vehicles at the Temple this time, so the power felt much more balanced. Black flags with thin, blue lines flapped in the wind. There were a bunch of Rangers in attendance, and, just like last time, a significant showing of curious Burners not in uniform. But there wasn’t a single moment of tension, only sympathy and eye contact. This mood reflected another wise decision on Paragon’s part: the procession stopped outside the gates of the Temple. That’s where the Eric Boik from the Bureau of Land Management and Nathan Carmichael from the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office made brief and heartfelt remarks.
“Law enforcement is a tight-knit community,” Boik said, explaining why he and his comrades needed this ceremony. He celebrated the Temple at Burning Man as a place for all communities to remember those they have lost, side by side. He and Carmichael both talked about duty and service to others, reaching out to the people of Black Rock City, offering support. “We don’t know you,” Boik said, “but we would gladly sacrifice our lives for you.” They were generous words.
Then Paragon spoke and prepared to read the names. “If I get to the name of my friend and start crying,” he said with a big breath, “I apologize.”
“We love you, Paragon!”, someone replied.
And he did cry. We all cried. It was just beautiful.
After the reading of the names, the bagpipe resumed, and the procession entered the Temple just for the briefest moment, placing the list against a post and walking out quietly, not disturbing anyone. Temple ministrations carried on.
The emotions of this memorial were not complicated like last time. These LEOs are part of our city and were treated as such, and they treated the Temple and all in attendance accordingly. The relationship has healed here.
Off the playa, this was not a good year for the relationship between citizens and law enforcement. It was racked with violence and betrayal. Officers fell, and so did citizens. Temples around the country were filled for painful vigils.
But here we are again, rehearsing new rituals in the dust. We’re making the time and effort to try different ways to live and build together. We don’t have it all figured out, but we’re trying. And we should keep trying. Can our ability to stand here together and mourn — civilians and officers, fauxhawks and crew cuts — be seen as anything other than a good sign?