Theory Vs Field Research

I marched with Black Lives Matter at Burning Man this year. Burning Man is supposed to be an experiment in building a city the right way. Together, we arrive at the literal blank slate of a dry Pleistocene lakebed in the Black Rock Desert. We build a city called Black Rock City completely from scratch – the third largest city in Nevada – and then we dismantle it leaving no trace. During the two weeks we are there, we deconstruct every idea about urban life. We experiment with every fundamental and try to reject orthodoxy and any system of power and control. The result is very cool, very interesting results around better urbanism, better civic engagement, and better personal responsibility. But all is not well.

Going to Burning Man is expensive. It costs thousands of dollars, and several weeks of your life. During this time, you are essentially completely cut off from the outside world. There is a small chance that one or two emails might go through in the early hours of the morning, but that’s it. Later in the event, even that is unlikely. This is a cost that few can afford to pay, not just in terms of the dollar amount, but the power to walk away from work and other obligations for weeks at a time. It should therefore come as no surprise that in a nation with a 16% black population, just 1% of Black Rock City is black and 0% of the board of directors (Burning Man is a nonprofit).

Instead of representing the people they lead, the board of Burning Man is made up exclusively of wealthy white people from San Francisco. This imbalance of power in the hands of a small non-representative group sets up inevitable conflicts between people of privilege and people without privilege. It also excludes many important voices from the conversation and from the experiment. Wealthy white people from San Francisco and elsewhere have the resources and capital to leave their lives behind and spend incredible amounts of money on Burning Man, while people in marginalized communities do not. This conflict is growing.

This year, a coalition formed, made up of many newcomers from the deaf community, the queer community, the communities of color, and other marginalized groups. This coalition rose up to challenge the old guard and the entrenched wealth and power with its death grip on the steering wheel of society. Together, we marched into “Everywhere” (The sort of public headquarters of the board of directors). We disrupted their operations by taking and holding space. We presented a list of demands from Black Lives Matter. The first demand on the list was that the board be made racially representative, as well as committing to making the demographics of the city reflect the broader demographics of the people outside the city.

The board hid behind their power and privilege (Literally they hid in expensive RVs across the street.) and did not respond to the demands of Black Lives Matter. For now, this conflict will continue to escalate. Eventually, with a lot more work from these and other activist groups, the power that was taken from the people will be returned to the people, and in the words of the leaders of the protest, “Black Lives will Matter in Black Rock City.”