By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s Sunday night on the playa at the end of the Burning Man Festival, and the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, in ivory preacher’s garb and playafied blond-streaked hair, is giving a sermon about forgiveness. A choir sings gospel behind him, and a crowd of a few hundred have gathered around, many of them sitting at the reverend’s feet, others standing in tightly packed rows around the Temple of Forgiveness, designed by fabled sculptor David Best with artist Tim Dawson and built out of 15 tons of plywood, which will soon go up in flames.
I listen as the reverend, in his Southern evangelist accent, speaks of people we may have known who died before we had a chance to finish our conversations with them. He then asks us to turn to the person next to us, even if that person is a stranger, and tie up those ragged edges. “Clear it up!” he commands. “Clear it all up right now!”
The people next to me are occupied with each other, so I turn around to look behind me. I stare straight into the face of the law.
She is a stout, apple-cheeked woman, and she smiles. She has a radio hanging off her belt, and a gun. Her shirt identifies her as a federal agent working for the Bureau of Land Management.
I could forgive a lot of people today. I want to, in fact. But not her.
I feel as if a federal enforcer had just marched into a church, or barged into a spiritual meeting. The Reverend Billy may be funny, he may declare that Starbucks cravings are a form of demonic possession, and he may call Jesus of Nazareth “our fellow Burner.” But just as this annual pilgrimage to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is, among many things, a sincere religious ritual for many pagans, heathens and otherwise damned, the reverend is leading a sacred ceremony, for real. As the names of the dead are read by a big-eyed blond woman in the choir, as the sun sinks behind the temple, as eyes mist over and throats choke and we reflect on the inevitable regret that accrues in a lifetime, the focused gaze of this woman in the light brown shirt of law enforcement feels profoundly like an insult.
It would be easy to write off the presence of the BLM agents as a natural response to the week’s events, specifically the early Tuesday-morning arson attack on the Man, the giant effigy that stands at the centerof Black Rock City and typically burns on Saturday night. A San Francisco performer named Paul Addis is charged with the crime and becomes an antihero martyr; “Free Paul!” graffiti springs up on art across the city. Even Burning Man founder and self-described “messianic personality” Larry Harvey seems to forgive Addis. “People haven’t gotten to see the building process in years,” he says at a press conference announcing the rebuilding of the Man. “It will remind them that it’s our dedication that makes the city what it is.”
But the officers making their watchful way through the Reverend Billy congregation aren’t on the hunt for more arsonists. They’re looking for people with drugs.
Drug arrests are not unusual at Burning Man. A couple of years ago, I watched federal agents in an SUV with a K9 emblem shake down an art car — a big, silver shark that had been cruising happily down the street with its door open, reason enough to send the dogs in.
“He really likes it in there,” said an agent of his German shepherd, insinuating that something wicked had been stashed away and quite recently removed.
But this year is different. K9 Ranger vehicles prowl the playa in numbers to rival art cars. Our friend Jamal witnesses a man in a dance club raising a mushroom to his mouth when the authorities move in and handcuff him. Another friend, a first timer, snaps a photograph of a man in handcuffs kissing his girlfriend goodbye one morning as BLM agents on ATVs prepared to haul him away. Arrests are as ubiquitous as neon wigs.
Which seems ironic, because as any Black Rock veteran knows, the once-ubiquitous psychotropic substance of Burning Man, MDMA — Ecstasy — has been disappearing from the playa over the last few years, along with its side effects. No longer can you count on ravers on bicycles to greet you at dawn as you head from your tent to the rank Porta Potties, shouting, “I love you!” People talk of drug busts up and down the California coast — $2 million in MDMA seized in San Francisco, a major family ring broken up in Los Angeles — but as far as I can tell from here, the only major bust in the last few months happened in Utah.
I suspect what’s really happening is that MDMA has fallen out of fashion. People are getting tired of hugging strangers and jaw-grinding hangovers. They’ve moved on to other things. Like the bottle of Jack Daniel’s that some British partiers pass around as we wait out one dawn, 20 feet up in the giant metal lotus flower called “Guardian of Eden,”or the vodka tonics that pour from two chilled tanks the day we visit “Crude Awakening,” the 90-foot effigy of an oil rig that would explode two days later in an epic cloud of propane-fueled fire. Alcohol flows generously now, from stationary bars and roving platforms, day and night. Tequila shots, peach daiquiris, boxes of wine. It’s possible to spend the whole week drunk, even if you didn’t bring a drop yourself.