Five. That is the number of people who were arrested at Burning Man last year, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Five people out of a population of 54,000. That makes Burning Man just about the safest, most civilized festival in history. Imagine a Super Bowl going that smoothly. More people will be arrested at next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., and not just for political demonstrations.
You might think local authorities would indulge a remote annual party whose organizers have a track record of complying with the law. Then again, you may not have been to Pershing County, Nev., lately.
Earlier this year, county officials passed an ordinance that would raise the bill for Burning Man-related law enforcement services from $170,000 in 2011 to $450,000. Future costs could rise as high as $800,000 in 2013.
Black Rock City LLC, the legal entity that organizes Burning Man, will pay $1.5 million this year in fees and law enforcement costs to the federal government, as well as the local law enforcement fees.
Now, Black Rock City has had enough. The company has sued the county to overturn the ordinance. But Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey has claimed that Pershing County is broke and transparently trying to “balance its books” by bleeding Burning Man drier than the playa.
In response, Pershing County commissioners released a statement arguing that Burning Man’s organizers have downplayed the event’s strain on local law enforcement. “During past events, there have been numerous sexual assaults, domestic violence crimes, other violent crimes, arson, and drug offenses,” the statement reads in part. “While Black Rock LLC wants to portray the event as a fairytale land in their public relations, they fail to mention serious crimes that have occurred in the past and are expected to occur in the future.”
While drug use is undoubtedly a constant attribute of the festival, Pershing County officials didn’t bother to substantiate any of these charges. Burning Man brings an army of well-heeled citizens to a rural county that is home to fewer than 6,000 residents, and they spend money at every business within 20 miles. Black Rock City has donated $400,000 to Pershing County and nearby nonprofits.
The organizers and attendees of Burning Man have been exemplary citizens over the years, and Pershing County has foolishly, churlishly decided to soak them for any penny it can get.
But perhaps there’s another reason for targeting Burning Man. The new ordinance empowers county law enforcement officials to intervene if they witness any “obscene, indecent, vulgar, or lewd” activities, and possibly bar children from attending the festival.
According to the Gazette-Journal, Pershing County District Judge Richard Wagner spoke up at a public meeting on the ordinance last year.
“When they first came, everyone was shocked,” he reportedly said about festival patrons. “Now we’ve accepted them and now we’re embracing them, because what? They bring money to the community? Something’s wrong with that.”
Wagner, the paper reports, was allegedly asked to draft the very ordinance that Burning Man is fighting today.
Greed or prudery, take your pick. Either way, the leaders of Pershing County have displayed a decided lack of manners.
They should remember whatever etiquette lessons their parents taught them and drop this new law.