AFTERBURN REPORT 2001Government Relations
In 1996, Burning Man was held on the Black Rock Desert, but in 1997 the event moved to nearby Hualapai Valley, where it was held on private land at Fly Ranch in Washoe County. The Project's government relations effort started as an outgrowth of this experience. Only by a significant struggle did the event reach fruition in 1997.
That summer of struggle brought a painful awareness of a lack of relationships with officials, media representatives, and citizens in Washoe County. Although the event had occurred annually on federal land in the Black Rock Desert since 1990, it suddenly appeared on the county's radar in 1997.
The application for a Washoe County Festival Permit met with fear and mistrust. Unexpected fees of every kind multiplied. Burning Man's representatives were not allowed to speak at public Commissioner meetings. At one point, a million-dollar bond was requested. Criminal background checks were required of organizers. Roadblocks were threatened, and the county police force was dispatched to collect all of the money from ticket purchases at the event gate.
Many misunderstandings about Burning Man hindered communications. It has taken five years to reach the relative stability of today.
The experience of 1997 taught many lessons, and most of them were about the importance of communication. During the event, Burning Man was covered by a variety of media outlets. In particular, Nightline, the network news program, chose to report on our plight. They told the story of a group of beleaguered idealists attempting to create an alternative to consumer society. The piece focused on the conflict with the county government.
This version of the story told movingly by the Nightline crew looked very different from the version of events reported in Reno's newspaper. "The truth will set you free." Larry likes to say, "but only if a camera's rolling." This show was broadcast nationally, and it began to put things in perspective.
In the midst of the controversy surrounding the event, the Reno newspaper had also published a statement by the director of the Washoe/Sparks Tourist Authority. She contended that participants in Burning Man contributed nothing to the county economy. An Internet poll conducted in response demonstrated that participants had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on supplies, rental vehicles, gasoline, and hotel rooms. The Project published this information and forwarded it to Nevada authorities.
But perhaps the most important fact that emerged in the wake of 1997 related to participant behavior in the desert. That year was expressly styled 'The Year of Community." In the midst of a tense situation, with police at the gate and helicopters buzzing overhead, participants in Burning Man were model citizens. Afterward, the county sheriff showed the Washoe County Commissioners a videotape of the event, stating, "I don't see anything bad going on here. It looks to me like a lot of people having a good time."
In fact, just such face-to-face encounters with the people in the county
agencies probably produced the best effect on government relations. These
folks were public safety professionals doing their jobs. Black Rock City's
current street system and city layout are largely based on basic principles
learned from them.
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