Two hours north of Reno, smack dab in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, is Burning Man. The week-long festival, which is intended to celebrate art and inclusivity, has also become synonymous with party culture and drug use. But despite its remote location, the event takes place on federal land, with law enforcement required to Reno Public Radio’s Paul Boger reports,
It’s a hot afternoon on the Playa, the winds have been kicking up large dust devils all day, and many Burners have begun the daily ritual of seeking a shady place to wait out the heat.
In the middle of it all sits a small trailer emblazoned with the Bureau of Land Management logo.
The “Mobile Command Station” serves as a way for law officers to meet with Burners, but it’s also a reminder to passersby that law enforcement is on patrol.
“For the most part, what we do here is public safety,” says Patrick Brasington, a BLM ranger from Phoenix. A veteran, this is his ninth burn.
“The agency issues the permit to allow the Burning Man event to occur here, so we’re an integrated part of the event.”
It’s almost shocking to see law enforcement so highly visible at a festival with Burning Man’s reputation. Nudity is common, public drunkenness is celebrated and no one bats an eye at the use of cannabis or psychedelic drugs like mushrooms or LSD.
But Burning Man takes place on BLM land, and most of those things are illegal, which leaves many law officers walking a narrow line between allowing participants to have a good time and enforcing either federal or civil laws.
“We’re not going out and stopping every single vehicle or adamantly running every person through a search. It just occurs, based on a legal violation, that we stop and check on the vehicle,” Brasington explains, “and if there’s something there in plain view, then we address it and take care of it.”
But BLM is not alone out here, they only have between 50 and 80 officers on duty during the event, leaving quite a bit of slack that needs to be picked up by more local agencies, like the Washoe and Pershing County Sheriff’s Offices. There are even some officers here from as far away as Elko, and having that high visibility helps some, like Michelle Moscove from Reno, feel safe.
“I don’t know that I anticipated seeing any of them. I’ve heard that there are undercover people that hide around, and I said, ‘Oh, no, there in big trucks riding all around.’ That’s comforting to me that I know that if something goes down, someone is here.”
Some Burners, however, are not convinced all law enforcement officials are here to keep order. One Burner who refused to give his real name but is known on the Playa as Fire Soup says some officers are not content with just keeping the peace.
“You know, there’s like probably eight or nine different police forces out here and some of them are here for public safety, and some of them want to bust some hippies.”
But back at the station, Brasington says that particular sentiment is rare. He mostly hears encouragement from Burners thankful somebody is here to make sure everyone is safe.
“They have a sense of comfort and security knowing that if somebody is out of control, we’re here to go take care of that person so that they don’t hurt anybody while they’re here at the event. That’s really what we see a lot of is people thanking us, waving to us, saying ‘Hey, Ranger, hi!’ They want to talk to a ranger, they want to know what we’re doing, where we’re from, just like we do with them.”
But there is a jail here on the playa, and if Burners are acting in way that may present a danger to others, Brasington says law enforcement will not hesitate to arrest them.