The Single Cop Theory of Burning Man (In Praise of the Word “No”)

This is a thought exercise.

It’s about the endings of beginnings, the beginnings of endings, and beginnings from endings. It’s about contradiction. But mostly it’s about me and you and us and everything that has ever made up what we now think of as not just the physical manifestation of Black Rock City, but the material and immaterial culture of Black Rock City as well.

Which, as it turns out, is really the story of a cop. And not even the whole story of this cop. Just a couple minutes’ worth. One single police officer doing what he though was fairly routine, otherwise forgettable cop stuff.

For this exercise, we will need to begin with imagining the vast, sprawling emptiness of the Black Rock Desert. Before time. Before Burning Man — a vacant, yawning expanse pouring off into every direction, framed only by the distant mountains and a limitless dome of sky.

Photo by Danielle Hankinson

We are going to now fill this space in 3 separate phases. The first thing we are going to fill it with is EFFORT.

Try to imagine every individual man-hour and woman-hour of effort ever spent by someone on Burning Man since 1990.

Every hour spent by staff and participant alike. Every T stake pounded, every little plastic flag ever stuck in the ground. Every meeting. Every email. Every spreadsheet ever made. Every art car ever constructed. Every camp surveyed. Every piece of art from the smallest to the greatest built over 27 years. Every nail driven. Every screw drilled. Every crude or complex map drawn and redrawn. Every hour spent driving from great distance to and from Black Rock City. Every hour spent by every person who has ever walked line sweeps during Resto. Every call and every response to every single bit of staff radio traffic for almost three decades. Every minute spent pedaling a bicycle by every person who ever rode one across the playa. Every Decompression event around the world and all that went into producing and attending them. Every minute spent on every repair made to something torn asunder by the desert winds.

Take these, along with every single other individual moment of effort spent by every single individual human as it directly relates to Burning Man both on and off playa for the last 27 years, and imagine it collectively (in whatever way you can) as a vast pile of hours and effort.

Renaiximent (Renaissance) by Pink Intruder (Miguel Arraiz and David Moreno) (Photo by Gurpreet Chawla)

Now, on top of that pile, add up every dollar ever spent on Burning Man for this same time period. To the pile of effort, we’re going to add MONEY. Quite a bit of it, in fact.

Try to imagine the aggregated price tag of every sheet of lumber bought. Every costume purchased. Every dollar spent on fuel. Every RV rented. Every piece of heavy machinery bought or leased. Every rental car. Every rental truck. Every ticket sold. Every permit purchased. Every square foot of property bought or rented in the administration of this event. Every staff paycheck. Every reimbursement. Every art grant. Every dollar spent in casinos and hotels throughout Reno and beyond. Every flight purchased. Every dime spent on making stickers and swag. Every staff hoodie or shirt ever bought. Every meal bought. Every gallon of water purchased. Every dime spent on outside vendors. Every shipping container, tent, yurt or carport bought. Every dollar spent on cigarettes and drugs and alcohol. The paychecks of every law enforcement and emergency services worker brought in, along with all their infrastructure. Every fine leveed and paid. Essentially every dollar, euro, pound, yen, shekel and ruble spent somewhere out in the world to buy a temporary society where money doesn’t change hands.

Every penny of it. Each one spent by every one of the millions of people who have touched this event in some way since 1990. Take that giant pile of cash and add it to our giant pile of effort.

Transformoney Tree by Dadara (Photo by Ales Prikryl)

Finally, to these, add SOCIAL CAPITAL.

Imagine every friendship forged over the last 27 years directly traceable to this event. Every marriage. Every child born of those marriages. Every moment of sexual congress. Every conversation. Every shared hardship and joy. Circles of friends formed. Communities built around Theme Camps, villages and staff departments. Millions of strangers well met. Blog posts and think pieces written. Arguments, disagreements and endless kvetching about what Burning Man is or isn’t. How it was so much better next year or 10 years ago or before these people came or that person left. Every moment of human interaction, both good and bad, virtual and real world — both lasting and ephemeral — spawned from this event beginning with its first moments in the Black Rock Desert, culminating in this very moment right now.

Add each of those moments of human contact on top of everything else.

Monkey Chant in the Café (Photo by Waldemar Horwat)

Imagine all of this in a colossal towering pile. Heaving off into the infinite horizons. A practical universe within itself of almost incalculable human value.


all of this…

is reducible to a single “NO.”

Just two tiny letters with a period at the end. One syllable uttered in a mere fraction of a second on Baker Beach on June 21st, 1990 by some police officer now lost to history.

For four years prior to that “no”, a wooden man burned for whatever reason on or about the June solstice on Baker Beach until that day in 1990. But on that particular day, a single cop under the color of authority of the state decided that man wasn’t going to burn on that beach any longer. And it never did.

The Man on Baker Beach (Photo by Stewart Harvey)

Instead, it was taken down, packed in a truck, and driven out to the Black Rock Desert, where the Cacophony Society’s Zone Trip #4 became something much, much more than just a Bad Day in Black Rock.

Were it not for that single “no” from that one cop, it’s reasonable to posit that maybe, at best, Larry’s crude, anonymous stick figure would have burned a few more years on Baker Beach, and then he and his wooden man would become a footnote in the trivia of the history of the San Francisco underground art scene. Cacophony Society’s Zone Trip #4 wouldn’t stand out in anyone’s mind any greater than the three that preceded it. Maybe the Cacophony Society would have returned to the Black Rock Desert again at some other date, but maybe not either. Who knows?

What we do know for certain, however, is that one single “no” from one single cop started a chain reaction that went on to create every bit of quanta in our imagined yet profoundly real pile.

That pile is the story of us. It changed all of us, some more than others. Some for the worse, but mostly for the better. Think of the doors that were opened to a realm of possibility and impossibility from a single exercise of random, petty authority.

From a single “no”, an expansive ocean of “yes” was born. From a single “no”, a whole lot of “why not?” peppered with the harsh lessons of “that’s why” doled out by the stern mistress of a desert that’s been trying to kill us all for almost three straight decades.

While “yes” gets all the credit for the march of human progress, maybe it’s high time we take a moment in praise of the awesome, staggering creative potential





Top image: Baker Beach Descent, 1989 (photo by Stewart Harvey)

About the author: Buck AE Down

Buck AE Down

Among other things, Buck AE Down is the Central Services Assistant Manager of the Black Rock City Gate, Perimeter and Exodus Department. He designed the Burning Man event ticket in 2008 and 2014, as well as the official event poster in 2016. He was a founding member of the Mutaytor and the Gentlemen Callers of Los Angeles, and was once the Mayor of Gigsville, along with scores of other odd jobs around Black Rock City for the better part of the last 20 years. He is a regular contributor to the BRC Weekly and Piss Clear. He lives in Pasadena, California with his wife, kid and two passive aggressive cats.

21 Comments on “The Single Cop Theory of Burning Man (In Praise of the Word “No”)

  • ira says:

    Yes, to all of this.

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  • Pogamus says:

    No meant go, now it is so..

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  • Bruce says:

    Maybe, just maybe, the best thing ever written about Burning Man.

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  • George Post says:

    Legend has it that the 1990 Baker Beach event included much arguing about whether to go ahead and disobey that “No.” So there was also ultimately a “No” from the gathered Burners who accepted the GGNRA Ranger’s “No” and did not ignite the Man. Also, it has recently come to light, from the journal of an eye-witness who was there in person, that the 1990 would-be Burn was NOT on the Summer Solstice, but rather on Saturday June 30th. Nobody I’ve asked can remember if that was perhaps due to the Man not being completed in time for the Solstice more than a week earlier.

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  • Puddin' says:

    Imagine if all of that time. money, and effort had been spent trying to do something deeper then have a white privilege party in the desert. What if it had been used to feed people right here in SF, what if it had been spent on creating jobs locally. For 70cents a day you can save a child in Africa. Looks like all of hundreds of millions spent on burning man could have ended hunger on at least one continent.

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    • Lance says:

      Imagine if the hundred million needed to end hunger on a continent, or to provide great entertainment to a million priviledged whites, was instead spent on a tax cut for the Walton family.

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    • Third Eye says:

      The ol “give it all to the the starving kids instead” argument. lol Get real. People want to have fun (it’s healthy I promise) and BM is fun. If you read the article you would understand the BM indirectly supports all the things you are complaining about.

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      • Soul Patch says:

        Totally agree. Of the hundreds of folks I have met, friends I have made, and hundreds of camp mates over the years, I have found that these are the very same folks that make a positive difference in the world, in thier communities and at BM.

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    • moopie says:

      There is no need to argue as to which good is most beneficial to the world. We as artists must seek to serve through our gifts and there is plenty of good to go around. As someone who spends the bulk of my living hours dedicated to the kinds of causes you mention, I choose to sustain my spirit by balancing my precious time on earth. I work hard, and I art hard…and to that end, here is a quote that I’ve kept at my desk for over 25 years now:

      “Be a half-assed crusader, a part-time fanatic. Don’t worry too much about the fate of the world. Saving the world is only a hobby. Get out there and enjoy the world, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, husbands, wives; climb mountains, run rivers, get drunk, do whatever you want to do while you can, before it’s too late.” — Edward Abbey

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    • Azathoth says:

      Oh, Puddin’, if you only understood…..

      That money WAS spent on feeding hungry children in SF–and it DID go to feed other hungry children all over the world.

      That is the fundamental truth of the Gift Economy–it returns sevenfold, and sevenfold over that.

      There is no ‘white privilege’ at Burning Man, none, whatsoever–because there is no ‘white’ at Burning Man.

      Only Burners, coming home.

      And then, spreading out into the default world, more and more, every year, with a set of beliefs that speak to people’s desires, that makes every person a distinct shining spark in a great cosmos.

      Some go home every year, some only once–some never go home–but all of them burn.

      They burn with a fire that knows that we can all have this, that if we all take care of the people around us, there will come a day when everyone will be touched by that fire, when we will all see those sparks

      And we will all know that the fire is us.

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    • Clax-The-Destroyer says:

      The big mistake people make is thinking burners are loving stewards of the earth hippies, when the opposite is obviously true. Burners are modern day fascists, a byproduct of a materialistic consumer society where everything is slowly being destroyed… or in the case of burning man, very quickly. What a massive waste!

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  • Gerflash says:

    Beautiful article! It does forget (perhaps conveniently) that I believe there was actually a reason for that “no,” that reason, in a nutshell, being that our ur-revelers lacked most if not all of the 10 principles in those nascent events. The main missing principle being: “LEAVE NO TRACE.” In fact, I understand that one principle that was followed might better have been expressed as: “LEAVE A CHARRED MESS WHEN YOU’RE THROUGH.” The SF city fathers took notice, and sent that nameless cop out to say “no” for a reason. Thanks to evolution, and plenty brain power and muscle, we have all evolved to the LEAVE NO TRACE principles, and the nine others. Burn on!

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  • King Richard says:

    Beautifully written Buck.. Yea, I agree with Bruce.
    Funny how, seemingly insignificant decisions or events can change the direction of your life..
    & by the way.. Gawd Bless them Cops.. All of em

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  • Blue Bike says:


    Thank you for your eloquently woven story. I enjoyed it immensely and share your understanding of how an apparently otherwise insignificant event in the lives of a relative few can be a catalyst for compounding and spreading ideas, energy, and actions. So many great lessons in your piece. It put a smile on my face, added to my inspiration to always look to be part of something that I believe in, and reminded me that my seemingly least significant actions and words can have profound and lasting unanticipated effects.

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  • Juno says:

    Great read. As someone who very recently married someone I met because of )'(, I’m feeling especially grateful for that particular ‘no’. Thanks for writing!

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  • Dragon says:

    Reminded of local Buddhist monks years ago who were denied a building permit for a peace pagoda. When asked why they were so jubilant at this denial they replied “the first stage of construction is completed.”

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  • Burning Dan says:

    All is not lost to history… yet! I was the one who negotiated with that cop. Funny thing, that “no” had been as much of a ritual as burning the man, thing was, the cops in prior years showed up post match strike, by 1990 they finally caught on to our summer solstice cycle and showed up as we were huffing the man parts down the steep sand dune cliff of Baker beach (as noted in lead photo). Hence the “no” came in in front of cart instead of behind, and that’s where your story kicks off.

    The “no” was because there was a regulation that a beach bonfire could not be larger than 3′ cubed. The first “yes” came from that very cop only moments later, when after I reasoned with him that we had always come back to clean up the next day, that we took pride in our fantastic beach under the golden gate, we were citizens… not vandals. He took faith in us and said yes to allow us to set the man up, just have a smaller bonfire to the side. This we did… and the rest is history, a rich history piled legions high, right?

    A dozen or so years later, I was at a burning man rally/event and this guy, in regular clothes, comes up to me and introduces himself as that cop. It was a shared moment of reflecting on essentially what you say in your story… this was many years ago and I don’t recall his name now. He knew he did the right thing, letting this this carry on despite our guerrilla tactics.

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