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

This article originally appeared in the June 28, 2017 edition of The Burning Man Journal;

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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






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