An Open Letter to the Vandals, Press and People Who Condoned the Vandalism at White Ocean

Editor’s note: In the wake of the 2016 event, we need to call attention to some unfortunate incidents of vandalism. The goal is to bring to light the fact that this stuff happens in Black Rock City, to open a discussion about why it happens, and — hopefully — to end it.

This is part two in a series of posts about vandalism in Black Rock City.

This post has been contributed by members of the Burning Man community who volunteered to share their views on this topic. The opinions expressed here are not those of the Burning Man Project. We provide a platform for the Burning Man community to engage in dialogue. If you would like to propose a post of your own, about vandalism or any other topic, you can submit a story here: Submit a Story form.

By White Ocean Family

There has been a surprising amount of noise about the vandalism incident at White Ocean at Burning Man 2016. We are grateful for and humbled by the number of people who have reached out to show their support and share their stories at the stage and within our camp. We have refrained from commenting or engaging with the press, who have chosen to sensationalize and distort facts for the purpose of selling a story and used disinformation to their own benefit. We also witnessed anger from fellow Burners who expressed support for the vandalism, claiming this act of violence was justified to stop “plug-and-play camps” such as ours from coming back to Burning Man.

What Actually Happened

To set the story straight: Our camp wasn’t vandalized by people trying to take Burning Man back from the “parasites.” It was not “class warfare.” The truth that eventually emerged was that the camp was vandalized by a small, disgruntled group of people who had camped with White Ocean for three years building the stage. We decided not to work with them this year because of leadership differences.

With the complexity of building our stage, bringing an amazing sound system and running 12 hours of music every day for seven days, we needed a new team. It was an unpopular decision because the old team, understandably, had an emotional attachment to what we had created together.

It’s important also to note that we recognized their commitment to the camp and that their crew should not suffer because of differences at the top of the organization, so we openly invited them to camp with us, but the offer was declined. Right after the vandalization took place, we worked with the Black Rock Rangers and the onsite police to give statements and file a report about the stolen goods. As the police are still wrapping up the investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time.

What the Press Got Wrong

So why didn’t the press report the truth, and why, more surprisingly, was there so much hate amongst fellow Burners? Explaining the position of the press is easy. They wanted a story and were ready to distort facts for it. The truth would hardly be newsworthy.

We made the mistake of publishing an announcement on Facebook. It’s not the first mistake or the last mistake we have made as a camp, but they all come from a genuine place. Had we not published this message to our community on Facebook, only the few people who had their bikes stolen and RV doors superglued would have known what had happened. It’s interesting to see how, from a minor act of vandalism and a small Facebook post, such a distorted story can spread across the global press.

We were fascinated to see how these acts of vandalism and theft were being hailed by some as heroic. Because of media spin and an angry mob, White Ocean became a target and a scapegoat. We’ve been characterized as being somehow harmful to Burning Man culture, and we don’t think that’s fair.

(Photo courtesy of White Ocean)
(Photo courtesy of White Ocean)

What White Ocean Offers to Black Rock City

White Ocean has only been around for four years and has grown very quickly. With that growth, we have faced many challenges and often questioned why we put in all this time, energy and money to come to the playa. We have also made mistakes and continue to make them every year but we really do try to learn from them.

We believe we bring a beautiful gift to the playa, uniting people through music. We try to bring new musicians that have never been to Burning Man. We don’t pay our artists, we don’t pay for their flights or their tickets. We house some of them in our camp, and they contribute their gift of music. All our camp members contribute in some way. Many work in the kitchen or on the build, some contribute financially, but everyone is equal, and it is only possible because of everyone’s contribution.

Planning our camp is a 10-month process involving a diverse group of people. Aside from the sizable financial investment, the time we dedicate to organizing the camp is a huge commitment, and it’s done for the love of our community and the music. We work with one of the top sound engineers in the world, who is able to calibrate the music so that you can have a normal conversation on the dance floor, meanwhile boosting the surrounding frequencies. We try to approach every aspect with the same love and diligence, to create the best experience we can for those who come to dance with us. Our stage only lives at Burning Man; there is no commercial business for White Ocean, nor do we throw parties outside the playa to make money. It’s a genuine labor of love.

Additionally, we calculate that between 4,000 and 10,000 people visit our stage each night, depending on the night. That’s roughly 10% of the entire population of Black Rock City. Some of these people come into our camp and ask for food, shelter, water, to use the bathrooms and even the showers. We welcome these people as long as they are respectful and polite. We have turned people away who were intoxicated or rude. We served 5,000 meals in seven days in 2016. Our 200 campers eating two meals per day for seven days equals 2,800 meals. That means we fed an extra 2,200 mouths, or 3% of the population.  Come in with a smile and an open heart, and we are always happy to have you.

(Photo by Aaron Glassman, courtesy of White Ocean)
(Photo by Aaron Glassman, courtesy of White Ocean)

Love and Forgiveness

Our magical society needs to learn how to stand united not divided, to show compassion not hate, to spread love and understanding. If we can show the world that side of us — while there’s so much attention focused on our community because of all this — we could send a powerful message.

One note about inclusivity: We’ve received quite a bit of vitriol from other Burners saying we represent a part of the community that many don’t welcome at the event. We think Burning Man, like every other dynamic society, constantly evolves and will never stay the same, and that we should all accept this. We also understand that we need to respect the traditions and foundations of Burning Man.

We forgive the people who vandalized our camp. It was wrong and criminal, but we have all done things in life that we later regret. We are thankful to those who have believed in us and allowed us to learn from our mistakes.

Most importantly, we want to thank every single one of you who has come to White Ocean and forged unforgettable memories dancing through those cold nights and beautiful sunrises. You inspire us to keep coming back.


White Ocean Family

(Top photo by Gurpreet Chawla)