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This is why we can't have nice things: Spurned feds want to wall off Burning Man

This is why we can't have nice things: Spurned feds want to wall off Burning Man
The Burning Man festival is being menaced with an act of architectural aggression as authorities hurt by a society that doesn't need them threaten to force organizers to sabotage their own festival with a giant cement spite-fence.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal authority that controls the land where Burning Man builds its self-contained techno-hippie utopia every year, has declared that after nearly three decades of good behavior – painstakingly cleaning up after itself and keeping the peace during the week-long "experiment" – the festival has been doing it wrong all this time. Instead of the volunteer and paid security personnel (and legions of undercover cops) who already patrol the playa, the BLM wants the organization to shell out for a Blackwater-esque "private security force." And instead of the fence constructed around the perimeter every year, they want a 10-mile cement wall – an expensive, environmentally-disruptive structure the physical ugliness of which is only matched by its spiteful symbolism.

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Like Trump's own promised wall on the US-Mexican border, the Burning Man barrier is more about form than function. The "trash fence" organizers build and take down every year already keeps intruders out and trash in, but a 19,000,000-pound cement barrier is a statement of official disapproval by the powers-that-be, who instinctively distrust any scenario in which 70,000 people can come together and have a good time without requiring heavily-armed thugs with earpieces to "protect" them from each other. The new measures imposed by the BLM would require the festival to increase its already-hefty ticket prices by a further $286 each, rendering one of its founding principles – "radical inclusion" – even more of a joke than it already is, and the cement barrier itself would severely deform the environment by creating huge dunes, skewering another festival principle – "leave no trace."

With relationships between Americans and their government strained to the bursting point, it's no surprise that the feds have zeroed in on Burning Man as an easy target. While there's no simple way to categorize its attendees, running the gamut as they do from itinerant "professional partiers" to Silicon Valley tycoons like Elon Musk and the founders of Google, none of them are armed – not like the BLM's last choice of targets, a group of Nevada ranchers and their supporters who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in defiance of what they deemed federal overreach by a corrupt and power-hungry BLM.

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The heavily-armed ranchers spent 41 days staring down the authorities, only surrendering when the agents shot and killed one of their number. In the ensuing trial (on charges that included the dreaded "conspiring to impede federal agents from their jobs"), the ranchers were acquitted, while the BLM was exposed as at least as corrupt and power-hungry as the makeshift militia had claimed, with much of the evidence having to be excluded due to being illegally collected and other evidence illegally withheld from the defense. It was certainly not an experience anyone involved wanted to repeat. Who better to target than a bunch of hippies in the desert?

Burning Man partially has itself to blame. Class resentment has been brewing at the festival for years, as the early tech crowd – who largely behaved themselves, spending their millions on elaborate toys that everyone was allowed to play with (Musk, for example, founded the "Solar City" camp in 2004) brought hangers-on and celebrities, who betrayed the festival's "radically inclusive" nature by closing their camps to outsiders and charging exorbitant fees for "plug and play" experiences – fancy RVs with electricity and running water, catering by gourmet chefs – complete with "sherpas" paid to haul everything in and out. Patrollers caught luxury brands staging photoshoots on the playa.

This year, Burning Man has finally put its foot down, disinviting a camp called Humano, which charged $102,000 for a two-bedroom tent with all the perks. Last year, Humano campers reportedly left their trash over entire campsite blocks, then literally and figuratively pissed all over Burning Man, their pristine indoor bathrooms leaking toilet water and violating the cardinal rule of the festival, the only reason it is allowed to come back year after year to tightly-controlled government lands: leave no trace. That means picking up your garbage, something alien to most individuals willing to pay the price of a small house to spend a week in luxury in the desert. The camp was even accused of facilitating prostitution, with rumors circulating that some of the high-end six-figure packages included "companionship of multiple female models."

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The BLM has demanded a wall and armed thugs out of spite. As if there were any doubt, another line in its absurd 372-page proposal seeks to ban the use of lasers because of their risk to migratory birds – which don't fly in the summer, and never migrate during the night. The new requirements would cost Burning Man $20 million every year – a large cut of which would go to the BLM. Former head of law enforcement Dan Love, who was finally fired in 2017 for his conduct during the standoff with the ranchers, supervised "law enforcement" at Burning Man in 2015 and was accused of using his position to treat his family to the BLM's own version of a plug-and-play camp – at the taxpayer's expense. Having had a glimpse inside the gates – at what is possible when one doesn't treat people like criminals by surveilling and searching them every moment of their lives – he and others like him have been working to kill it ever since.

Humano's "leaks" – and the wealth-worshipping culture that created them – gave the BLM vultures the opening they needed to go after a society that doesn't need armed coercion to exist peacefully. How Burning Man reacts will be a lesson to Americans on the receiving end of an increasingly intrusive police state. If a self-built city in the desert can fend off authorities bent on destroying what they cannot possess, perhaps there is hope for the rest of us.

Helen Buyniski

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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