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Burning Man 2010 Was Not a Police State, Not Even Close

To be arrested with drugs at Burning Man means you’re either hideously stupid, or just extremely unlucky. Either way it sucks to be you.

For the uninitiated, the Burning Man Festival is an annual gathering that happens in the Northern Nevada desert the week before Labor Day, culminating with the cremation of a giant wooden statue, the man, on Saturday night. People fly in from across the world to revel and ditch their inhibitions, and in total it is the largest, and perhaps most hedonistic party on Earth.

I attended Burning Man for the first time this year, and while there have been cries that that this year’s festival was a “police state,” reality hardly bears this out. Rather, Burning Man is a place where laws seem not to apply, nor must they, and there are some good lessons about people’s ability to regulate themselves.

Perhaps the best evidence of people’s natural inclination towards order at Burning Man is the absence of street lights or signage of any kind to direct traffic. People are expected to wear enough lights and glow sticks to be seen by other drug-addled cyclists and the folks driving art cars. People who ride their bikes at night without lights are called “darktards,” and they run the serious risk of being hurt by another cyclist or possibly run over by an art car.

There’s no way to get to Burning Man without a car, and once you’re there, you need to have a bicycle because the Black Rock City has the same land areas as a city. The result is tens of thousands of cyclists and art cars cruising through dust storms and in the dark, with very few accidents.

Without stop signs, people drive or ride slowly and lookout for others. When common courtesy prevails, good things happen.

The Wall Street Journal and others, however, picked up on the fact that burners on the whole felt that Black Rock City was turning into a police state, with nearly 300 arrests, mostly for drug-related charges, during the 2009 festival, according to various reports.

Fortunately there was the Burning Man Barrister, David Levin, an attorney from Palo Alto, who offers his services free of charge (naturally) to folks who run afoul of the authorities inside the festival.

Lawyers for Burners was also on hand to make sure that attendees knew their rights and knew how to conduct themselves in the unlikely event of an encounter with law enforcement. The cards were printed by the ACLU of Nevada and preached politeness, but also instructed the best way to talk to law enforcement.

Read more about Lawyers for Burners on Alt Transport