Burning Man festival participants endure a dust storm on the playa at the Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nev., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007. (AP/Brad Horn)

Exclusive: Burning Man calls itself a safe space. Assault survivors say it's got a sex crime problem

The Playa is a "lions' den" where security responds to sex crime scenes by trying to sniff out "consent accidents"


Nicole Karlis
May 17, 2019 6:38PM (UTC)

Ena O’Daniel is no stranger to festival culture. Growing up in the town of Rough and Ready in Nevada County, the kind of small Sierra Nevada canton that gets ranked among the “best hippie towns,” she became acquainted with counterculture celebrations as a kid, and the enthusiasm persisted into adulthood. Over the years, the people that she met at small festivals, like the Earthdance Global Peace Party, often raved about the mother of all transformational festivals: Burning Man. So in 2014, the 36-year-old hospice nurse packed up her grey, 2007 Honda Element and drove to Black Rock City, the home of The Burn.

Every summer at the end of August, tens of thousands of people from all over the world make the journey to the week-long festival. For many, attending Burning Man is a definitional personal experience, part of their identity. What started as a small summer-solstice gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 now draws 70,000 festival-goers to Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nevada. Burners pay anywhere from $200 to $1,200 for a ticket and $80 per car to enter Black Rock City, a sun-blasted, nearly six-square-mile patch on a 200-mile Pleistocene era lakebed, the talc-like silt of which whips up in squalls covering everyone and everything (“I got dust in curious places” reads a billboard in Black Rock City). The excursion is an escape from what Burners call the “default world.” An authentic human connection, that feeling of being in the moment, is what O’Daniel loved about the smaller festivals — and what she looked forward to experiencing at Burning Man. “You can just be,” O’Daniel said.

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O’Daniel took the 340 mile-drive from San Francisco to Burning Man alone, meeting up with campmates at Black Bear Diner, the last restaurant before the final stretch of County Road 34, a narrow, two-lane, straight shot through the wasteland. Sitting with four veteran Burners whom she met at the High Sierra Music Festival, O’Daniel ate corned beef brisket with shredded griddle-fried potatoes as her “pre-Burning Man” meal. It is wise to attend your first Burn with veterans. There is plenty to learn about life on the playa, which is what Burners call the festival zone,  as attendees are expected to bring their own food, water and shelter to survive for the week. But for all the advice she received about what to expect and how to prepare, one subject did not come up: Protecting yourself from sexual assault.

The final eight-mile stretch to Burning Man takes two hours as thousands of cars and RVs crawl toward the main gate. At the checkpoint, O’Daniel handed in her ticket, and baptized herself in the dust, a ritual for all virgins of the festival. “You can jump out of the car, ring the bell,” she said. “Then they say ‘Welcome home’ and you roll around in the dust.”

On the playa, she set up her tent and changed into a white lace slip and black yoga shorts, then tucked her dust mask behind her dark-brown and white ombré hair. A costume is a hallowed tradition on the playa. Later, biking around on an old mountain bike that she decorated with gold paint and LED lights, she met new friends at different camps, loosely organized communities that collaborate to make an offering to fellow Burners — sometimes cookies, sometimes massage or music — and paid a visit to The Temple, a meditation and memorial space that is ritualistically burned to the ground, along with the central effigy, at the culmination of every gathering. While the raucous burning of the “man” on Saturday night is perhaps the most familiar symbol of Burning Man, many Burners find more meaning in the somber destruction of the Temple on Sunday.

“It is really powerful,” O’Daniel said. “[In The Temple] you can leave a picture of someone who has passed away,” and many do; by the time the temple burns, its insides are decorated with thousands of photos of loved ones.

O’Daniel had been close to many of her patients at the hospice center where she worked for four years and brought pictures of them to hang in The Temple. Not a church-goer, O’Daniel saw the temple as an opportunity to ritualize loss and grief. “It is kind of a structured way that you're able to appropriately grieve, or let parts of yourself go that you don't want anymore so that part I really enjoyed,” she says.

On August 26, 2014, “Tutu Tuesday” at Burning Man, frilly dance skirts bloom like peonies across the playa. O’Daniel wore a multi-colored tutu and spent the entire day hanging out around her camp with new friends. “It was a mellow [night],” she said, explaining that she had been told to conserve energy in order to stay out late and party later in the week.

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O’Daniel went to bed wearing layers to protect against the cold desert night, donning her tutu, black yoga pants, a tank top, and a fleece. She awoke unexpectedly as the sun was rising, to the sound of someone unzipping her tent. At first, she thought it was a campmate waking her to watch the sunrise.

It wasn’t.

“I felt someone who came up behind me, and ripped down my pants, and I felt a hard penis, and then he bit my neck really hard, trying to pin me down, and then he tried to penetrate from behind,” she said. “Because I was laying on my side I was able to use my elbow to get him off and say ‘fuck off,’ I was trying to yank up my pants up and elbow him at the same time.”

O’Daniel said the man — who was five-foot-nine-inches with black hair, had a tattoo of large praying hands on his neck — didn’t run out. He just left.

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“He wasn't upset, he wasn't pissed, he wasn't anything like that,” she said. “He just took off. I was just so surprised.”

O’Daniel burst out of the tent, in a state of shock, and told her friends she’d just been attacked. At first, she wasn’t sure how to respond. “I had not been to Burning Man, so I didn't know if this was just like, well, crazy stuff happens,” she said, but her bite mark darkened her fair skin as the morning progressed. When O’Daniel shared what happened to her with Burners throughout that day, they were incredulous. “Everyone you share with, most of them are very supportive, and like, ‘Oh my god, this doesn't happen here, this is a safe place, this is a one-off,’” she said.

“Like walking into a lions’ den”

On its website, Burning Man publicly positions “sexual misconduct” as “uncommon and unconscionable.” But Salon has obtained Pershing County Sheriff’s Office records detailing 62 sexual assaults, including rape and attempted rape at Burning Man dating back to 2002. Burning Man spokesperson Jim Graham told Salon in a statement in any given year there are five to 20 sexual assaults are reported, but some of those don’t qualify as sexual assault under Nevada law. That number is likely underreported as nationally only 23 percent of sexual assaults are reported in the United States.

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From hundreds of documents reviewed, rangers and victims spoken to, it is clear that, contrary to Burners’ perceptions, women are at considerable risk of being sexually assaulted on the playa. Moreover, their false sense of security is due, in part, to the disorganized way that Burning Man discloses sex attacks — and the improper instructions and training that the all-volunteer internal security force known as the Black Rock Rangers and their supervisors, called Khakis, receive from Burning Man staff and administrators of Black Rock City LLC, the organization that runs the multi-million dollar event. An inadequate self-policing system has the effect, intended or otherwise, of silencing and dismissing victims of sexual assault and other forms of abuse before they have an opportunity to report the crime to law enforcement.

Additionally, Burning Man’s official response to reports of sexual assaults, when brought to their attention by victims, has been directly dismissive.

In the “default world,” only an estimated 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement. Sexual assaults in the United States are under-reported for many reasons, one being that perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail than any other criminals. According to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 0.7 percent of rapes reported to police result in a felony conviction and 0.6 percent result in incarceration. Still, it’s much worse for women on the playa.

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At music festivals, the only type of event with data available that is useful for comparison to Burning Man, the numbers indicate sexual harassment and assaults are far higher than other events. In 2018, Calling All Crows, an organization based in Boston whose mission is fighting sexual harassment at music festivals, surveyed 686 people of all genders who had been to a music festival in the last five years. Those 686 people reported 1,006 incidences of sexual harassment or assault, meaning many had experienced an assault more than once. Of those assaulted, only 58 people — just eight percent —  chose to report the incident to authorities or seek assistance at the festival.

Burning Man is more than a music festival with camping, however. The playa is a place where people abandon real-world inhibitions, and experiment with a variety of drugs — psilocybin (mushrooms), marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine are among the most popular, but nearly every drug imaginable is available, despite the presence of two dozen Pershing County Sheriff’s deputies and 20 rangers from the Bureau of Land Management. In addition to outlandish, often provocative, costumes, Burners adopt playa names like Fuzzypants, Sexy Bacon, Turtle, and Cactus, which provide an opportunity to try out a new identity for the week; O’Daniel’s playa name was Fucking Awesome. “People are supposed to name you,” she explained. “So this girl I had only just met came up and gave me a bracelet with that written on it, and said that was my name now.”

After the event, back in the default world, it is not uncommon to hear Burners refer to each other by their playa names, a means of maintaining camaraderie post-Burn. Burning Man’s founding document, dubbed the “10 Principles of Burning Man,” is defined, among other things, by “radical inclusion,” “gifting,” “radical self-expression,” and “acts of gift giving.” Nothing can be purchased on the playa, with the notable exception of coffee and ice. The enshrined tenet of “radical self-reliance” encourages festival goers to “discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” In recent years this free-wheeling atmosphere has attracted tech billionaires and celebrities.

Yet this liberating environment has, over the years, also prepared a fertile ground for predators. What was meant to be an open journey of self-expression or reinvention has exposed many to vulnerable and dangerous situations, and not entirely unexpectedly this liberated culture has provided Black Rock City LLC an opportunity to avoid responsibility.

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The more O’Daniel thought about what happened that morning, the more upset she got. A few hours passed, and she reported the assault to the volunteer security agents known as Black Rock Rangers, who immediately called rangers from the Bureau of Land Management, many of whom are retired local sheriff’s deputies.

Since O’Daniel was sober when the attack occurred, she remembered her assailant’s tattoo and the blue uniform shirt he was wearing — the same one worn by United Site Services, the company that supplies portable toilets for the event. Two BLM agents took her clothes and bedding as evidence and escorted her to the barracks where the United Site Services workers stay. She identified the accused perpetrator, Joaquin Ramirez.

Jack Bullock, a retired district attorney with Pershing County, told Salon Ramirez had three prior felony convictions. Ramirez was arrested by Sheriff’s deputies on the spot — one of only three arrests for sexual assault since 2002, according to the reports obtained by Salon.

In a statement to Salon, United Site Services said employees who staff Burning Man are “subject to the pre-employment qualification process we have in place for anyone who joins the company.” Among other things, this includes an employment eligibility screening with the Department of Homeland Security. United Site Services declined to comment in more detail because employee records are confidential.

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O’Daniel remained at Burning Man for the rest of the week, but spent more time within the safety of her camp, and did not wander off alone at night. O’Daniel says she would consider returning to Burning Man, but does not believe it is a safe place.

“If I have friends that went, I would tell them [to] stay in groups . . . .  You can’t just wander off and be safe,” she said. “I have even hitch-hiked by myself across Europe, and I would still do that, on the playa I would not do that.

“You know it’s not a safe place,” she added. “It’s like walking into a lion’s den.”

“I thought Burning Man was a safe place”

Cate Edelstein first went to Burning Man in 2012, when she was 19 years old. She was struggling after her first year at San Francisco State University. She lost a job and an apartment, but had a ticket to Burning Man, thanks to her mom.

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“My mom had gone for several years before me,” Edelstein said. “So she introduced me to the scene.”

Edelstein admitted she was a little unsure about going — The Burn was her mom’s “thing” — but wanted to give Burning Man a chance. “I wasn't really sure what it would be like,” she said.

“I saw some amazing things,” she said, of the first few days. “I felt very safe and very comfortable and was taken into this community that's very freeing and kind.”

“That's kind of a double-edged sword for all of this because that mentality of ‘this is a safe place …. people here are all good and kind’ — it kind of put me in a position where I felt very safe just going out and meeting people without anyone else around me, in a way that I wouldn't really do under those circumstances in other places,” she added.

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On Thursday night, she wanted to go see an installation called Burn Wall Street. At the time in 2012, Occupy Wall Street was dominating the news cycle, and at Burning Man there was a life-size installation that was meant to represent the financial exploitation of people by speculative capitalism. It was late by the time she set out; Edelstein took her white bicycle adorned with neon yellow, blue and pink ribbons and rode across the playa. As she rode, it started to rain.

“Because the type of dirt out on the playa, when it starts to rain it immediately turns to mud so you can’t bike,” Edelstein said. “I realized I couldn’t ride any further, so I stopped at a bar with a shade structure.”

The bouncer asked for her ID. She couldn’t drink because of her age, but she stayed to enjoy the music and wait for the rain to stop. Edelstein sat there a little less than an hour, she said, and chatted with the DJ in between songs. When it stopped raining, she got ready to head out.

“But the guy who checked my ID said, ‘my friend really likes you,’” gesturing to the DJ. Intrigued, she stalled. The bouncer invited her back to the open-air kitchen, and told her the DJ wanted to talk to her once he finished playing.

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“So I went back there, and I sat down at a table,” she said. “And I remember a girl walking by who was wearing a kind of circus-performer outfit. She had the black and white striped tights on.” The bouncer gave her a glass of water. “I took a sip of it, and that's just where my memory completely cuts off.”

In the reports of sexual assaults at Burning Man that Salon obtained, most attacks involved drugs. Often the victim thought she was taking a party drug like MDMA that turned out to be a date rape drug, like GHB or Rohypnol. In Edelstein’s case and others, she accepted a drink that had been drugged unbeknownst to her. A combination of the drug’s effects, pseudonymous playa names, and the rich tradition of costuming often makes it singularly difficult to identify an attacker after a victim has regained consciousness.

A few hours later, Edelstein was found unconscious behind the bar. The woman who found her told her that she looked like she was really sick and speaking “nonsense.” Since the Black Rock Rangers were already picking up someone at the same camp for a medical emergency, they took Edelstein with them “The people in the ER tent, the medical nurses were laughing thinking I did too many drugs,” she said. At first she was still too high to advocate for herself. “It really bothered me, because [later] when I took off my dress, it wasn’t hard to see that is not what happened.”

First, Edelstein saw the semen on her chest, then the bruises. “I had a lot of bruises on my legs and my arms,” she said. “I had some bruises around my neck which was where I figured that I had probably been choked.”

In addition to the bruises and the semen, Edelstein had bite marks all over her body. “Like full just teeth marks, open mouth, around my breasts and in between my legs, and there was a bite through my labia,” she said.

Edelstein had some Black Rock Rangers staying in her camp, who talked to her and then contacted sheriff’s deputies. The deputies filed a report and gave her the option to fly to Reno, the closest city with an urgent care unit that had forensic rape kits. According to reports obtained by Salon, only two of the 62 victims of sexual assault were taken off the playa to Reno for an exam. Pershing County Sheriff Jerry Allen says the number of women seeking rape kits is considerably higher because victims sometimes choose to go to Reno without filing a report.

As a matter of policy, Burning Man does not provide forensic exams for rapes on the playa. “Conducting forensic exams is a highly specialized service,” Burning Man intones on its website. Burning Man only began offering to pay for air transportation for rape victims to and from Reno in 2015. The goal, said Burning Man, was to provide “a speedier reconnection with friends and family” on the playa.

Edelstein ultimately declined the offer, as a day had passed since the attack and she had already taken a shower. Burning Man’s website explains to participants that medical stations on the playa are staffed with qualified volunteers, “skilled professionals who have experience assisting in emergency health situations, including sexual assault.” Edelstein said she was “appalled” that these skilled medics did not check for or even suspect rape right after she was found.

“Like, if you had just pulled up my dress slightly, you would have seen these things,” she said. “I think they assumed I must have fallen down or something, but I was really frustrated that they didn't even take that into consideration that something like that might have happened based on how sick I was.”

Two days later, Edelstein returned to the medical tent to talk to the men who worked the night she was brought in. When she asked if she could talk to them, a woman told her they didn’t have a shift then, but that she heard what had happened to her.

“She was very apologetic,” Edelstein said. “But yeah, I really wish I could have said something directly to them because I found it really astounding that they didn't even bother to check for that.”

After the festival ended, Cate’s mom, Rachael Black, says that everything “really came crashing down” for her daughter. Black called the Pershing County District Attorney with limited results. She also contacted officials at the Burning Man organization, but got no response. Frustrated, Black posted on a forum on the official Burning Man website, but found that her post was quickly locked by site administrators, meaning the comments were disabled.

“The [Burning Man] Org got pissed off because other people that had been assaulted started pitching in,” said Black. “By the time this thread had been online not even 24 hours, it had huge amounts of people making comments, tons of people reporting [sexual assaults].... all of a sudden, boom, it's cut off.”

When asked about the handling of the attack on Edelstein, and disabling the comments, Burning Man spokesperson Jim Graham said “we do not discuss the details of specific incidents with members of the media.”

“Who would think the Org wouldn't help you?” Black told Salon. “We paid $400 to get in. It costs God-knows-how-much to stay for the week. Meanwhile, the desert’s trying to kill you and people are trying to rape you in the shadows. But you don't hear about it. You just don't hear about it.”

Following Edelstein’s assault in 2012, some Burners began to question why forensic exams weren’t available on the playa. Burning Man's Director of Communications, Megan Miller, wrote a blog post explaining that “organizers have examined this several times, each time facing the reality that this type of exam requires specialized training and equipment not designed to operate in desert conditions, and which could produce legally questionable results if not performed in an appropriate facility.”

Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), told Salon these concerns are valid, but there are creative ways in which festivals like Burning Man can provide this service.

“I would be curious to know if there are other ways to provide it on site, again looking at how different cities do it in different ways. So, is there a mobile unit?” she said. “Could you have people who are trained in forensics and proper collection who can preserve the chain of command, who have refrigeration?”

"I was turned away."

When Ena O’Daniel returned to San Francisco, she also reached out to Burning Man to let them know she’d been attacked by someone who worked for one of their vendors. She left messages. She sent two emails. She even showed up at their headquarters on Alabama Street in San Francisco.

“I went to their office once in San Francisco [and] went in and tried to talk to someone, and they were like ‘someone will call you.’”

“I didn’t even get past the door situation,” she said. “I was turned away.”

Burning Man had no comment to this since the organization does not “discuss the details of specific incidents with members of the media.”

O’Daniel remembers previously attending a much-smaller festival where she lost her water bottle. She called them to report it, and got a call back from them later. But she never received a single reply from Burning Man when she told them she was sexually assaulted on the playa.

“I was shocked,” she added.“I thought if I tell them what happened it would change the way they do everything…. you would think any normal business would be like, ‘oh my God, I’m responsible for this attendee.’”

O’Daniel said she was encouraged by then–Pershing County District Attorney Bullock to pursue action against United Site Services in a criminal court case. O’Daniel says now she feels lucky that she initially reported the assault to Pershing County Sheriff and the BLM Rangers, especially considering the non-response from Burning Man.

“I’m just lucky that the BLM rangers and the local police force were there to take care of that situation,” O’Daniel said. “Because if they had not been out there, I do not know what would have happened.”

Systemic silencing

Lara Arnott has attended Burning Man 12 times since 2003, and has been a volunteer Black Rock Ranger from 2007 to 2018. Rangers are a crucial part of the festival's logistics, and function as an internal mediation force; often they intervene in dangerous situations on the playa, and decide if and when a law enforcement agent is needed. O’Daniel reported the assault directly to the Black Rock Rangers, who in turn called the BLM.

Yet Arnott says during her tenure as a Ranger, she slowly came to understand that Ranger intervention has the effect of suppressing reports of sexual assault and rape on the playa, keeping the most serious public safety assessments in house.

“While there are several issues that have impacted me personally,” Arnott says, “I am most concerned with the way the Ranger department, and the Burning Man organization, has addressed response to sexual assault and sexual assault prevention on the playa.”

Arnott told Salon that the Ranger manuals have primed untrained volunteers to interrogate victims to find out if their experiences are the result of having sex with regret.

Previous editions of Ranger training manuals included definitions for "consent accident" or “consent failure.” According to the 2017 ranger manual obtained by Salon, a “consent accident” is when “one person perceives an interaction as consensual and non-coercive and the other does not.” Rangers are trained on these terms in order to evaluate if and when consent falls into a  “gray zone.”

The 2017 Black Rock Ranger Training Manual, which Salon obtained, instructs its rangers:

If you are in the “gray zone,” Ranger the heck out of it. Is it a must-report? If not, what do the participants involved need from us? What information, assistance, mediation, or other resources would be helpful here? Every Ranger brings his/her/their unique history, experiences, world-views, and filters to their work. Our personal history may have left us with triggers that influence what we see. This may lead to either over- or under-sensitivity to issues around consent.

When dealing with participants, assuming a consent violation occurred and then having to back down from that is far more difficult than listening to get more information. Assume nothing; first Find out and Listen and then Analyze to determine if a violation or failure of consent has occurred.

Such a response, Arnott says, can be triggering for a victim of sexual violence. “The victim is already complaining to the rangers….and they’re like, ‘do you think it happened?’ They’re not believing the victims,” Arnott said. “Or they ask them more questions to find out if they sought to have sex under the influence and now they regret it.”

Burning Man declined to comment in its statement to Salon on the impact of the wording in the ranger’s manual.

If a clear sexual assault or rape has happened, rangers are instructed to call a Khaki, who is then supposed to assess the situation and activate a protocol; but that chain of command is unclear, at least according to the Ranger Manual. Arnott, who trained as a khaki one year, says that in her experience, training does not correspond with the trauma-informed model that professionals use to respond to sexual assault.

It is worth noting in the 2017 and 2018 training manuals, there is not a separate instruction for distinguishing allegations of rape from sexual assault on the playa. The 2018 and 2019 manuals actually instruct rangers that, rather than interrogating the victim, they should call Khakis right away so they can determine if law enforcement should be called, or find the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) who would take the victim to the medical tent.

Burning Man spokesman said: “We encourage anyone who experiences or witnesses sexual misconduct to immediately report it to Black Rock Rangers, Emergency Services Department staff, law enforcement or any Burning Man staff or volunteer.”

Houser of the NSVRC said the best practice is for trained crisis responders to attend to the victim immediately. Untrained volunteers who are assigned to determine whether law enforcement or a crisis team should be summoned to the scene often do more harm than good, she added.

"We see that in other settings and institutions — they instruct staff not to take the victims’ story, which is appropriate because, if you’re looking at best practice to handle a sexual assault and preserving the integrity of the investigation, you want trained investigators to do the questioning,” Houser said. “And one of the reasons that has been so effective, whether we are talking about child victims or adult victims, is that the way people respond to what a victim has to say can really make victims feel safe and validated and heard and enable them to give you a full story.”

Houser said if someone is not sure if he or she was sexually assaulted, best practice is to be examined by trained professionals. “And that is really different than listening to the story and making your own determination about whether or not something qualifies,” she said.

Arnott raised these and other concerns about the training for two years. In the winter of 2018, without explanation, Black Rock City uninvited her to be a Ranger.

“I talked about it for two years,” she said. “I started doing it more wide[ly] and then they let me go after two years of trying to get positive changes happening — and somehow now it’s my fault,” she added.

Burning Man had no comment on disinviting Arnott.

While Rangers are meant to be vetted personnel who police the playa, sexual assaults have allegedly occurred within the department as well. Kyle Brun volunteered for six years as a Green Dot Ranger, which is a certification for advanced training to handle emotional support. On Friday, September 2, 2016, he says he witnessed a senior Ranger rape a woman.

“My personal camp was just kitty-corner [to] his, and I could see — sitting in my kitchen, standing in my kitchen in my camp — directly into his truck which is where the rape happened,” he told Salon. “At first, it looked like they were just putting on lotion or something, along those lines, sunscreen.”

But it quickly escalated to sex and did not look consensual, Brun said. “Me and another Ranger who was in my camp saw this and became concerned that this kind of looks like it could be sexual assault,” he said.

A former ranger who declined to be identified, but witnessed the event with Brun, said he was concerned because they looked like a “mismatch visually.” “There would be no reason for those two people to be together except as a fatherly or grandfatherly way,” the ranger said. “He was three times her age.”

Brun and another Ranger tried to find a female Ranger to intervene, but because it all happened so quickly, they weren’t able to respond in time. Partly, Brun says, because this occurred during a Ranger shift change, leaving the camp all but empty.

The more Brun inquired, the more hostile the reaction from fellow Rangers. At Center Camp, a coffee shop always situated at the locus of the temporary Black Rock City, he told a Ranger what he saw, and how it did not look consensual. When Brun asked about the attacker, he was brushed off, told that the senior Ranger was “a little bit of a fuck up.”

Back at the scene of the attack, Brun identified himself to Sheriff’s deputies.

“I identified myself as an eyewitness to the assault and identified that there was also another eyewitness, also another Green Dot Ranger,” he said. “Then we gave our statements to the police, which seemed like a really kind of an odd investigation or set of questions. It was very short.”

When it was clear that this matter was going to be handled in-house, Brun says the senior Ranger became increasingly confrontational. “He started staring me down in an aggressive sort of way and started smirking, like he knew that he was going to get away with this whole thing,” said Brun. “There seems to be a considerable amount of polarization, and very much what is commonly done [on the playa] is that many of the rangers circle around defending the accused ranger and attacking any of the eyewitnesses.”

The victim later told Brun that deputies told her “that she was not allowed to press charges, that there was nothing that she could do, and they convinced her to not file a police report.”

"The only reason I could think that statement would even be made by my staff would be if the report did not meet the legal definition of Sexual Assault under Nevada State law,” said Sheriff Allen, adding that on the playa the letter of the law doesn’t inform all of the Black Rock Rangers’ decisions to call deputies.

Brun was uninvited to be a Ranger six months later. His companion resigned too, and did not return as a Ranger in 2017. The former Ranger compares Burning Man’s process handling sexual assault an abuse to larger, well-established institutions. “What I have seen and what I have heard from people who have told me similar stories,” said Brun, “is that the rangers and Burning Man [behave] in a similar way [to] the Catholic church."

"The image, the protection, the belief that the people inside are better people and are good and can't do these things,” continued Brun, “seems to create a policy and culture which means that [they] aren't doing any of the things that are necessary to improve the situation to make it a culture [where] people feel safe, witnesses feel safe and one that protects whistleblowers, too.”

This system of self-policing on the playa has been of concern to Pershing County Sheriff’s Office for several years. Bryce Shields, Pershing County’s District Attorney, has been prosecuting Burning Man cases since 2008.

“As the event size has increased, and as I guess it's become more popular and more mainstream and different types of people are attending the event, I think that law enforcement just anecdotally, not really statistically, they would say that there's been an increase in the number of sexual assaults at Burning Man,” Shields said.

“Burning Man has an incentive to keep the number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement and the numbers that hit the media are low,” he said, — often because there were drugs involved or they are unable to identify the assailant — and were encouraged by the Black Rock Rangers to keep the matter on the playa, depressing the number of criminal complaints associated with the Burning Man. “If they want to go to law enforcement, we kind of feel like victims have been dissuaded from taking that route and from taking advantage of those resources because Burning Man has an incentive to do so.”

This tension bubbled to the surface in the summer of 2018, when the Bureau of Land Management required that all assaults be reported to the federal agency so the BLM knows about and records how many sexual assaults Black Rock Rangers respond to on the playa each year. As part of the state of Nevada’s sexual assault initiative, which includes the Violence Against Women Act, victims of sexual assault are not required to report to law enforcement. The BLM asserts that a provision is made in their request that ensures all victims’ anonymity.

Still, in an email obtained by Salon, Burning Man’s General Counsel Raymond Allen used the Violence against Women Act to push back against the BLM’s new initiative. The BLM alleges that framing their response around the law was a cynical effort to hide behind victim protection policy to suppress concerns about safety at the festival. In a certified letter, The BLM responded to General Counsel Allen:

After consultation with the US Attorney’s Office, the Department of Interior Solicitor, and the Pershing County District Attorney, it is incumbent on Black Rock City, LLC (BRC) to immediately report all sexual assault incidents to law enforcement that includes the day, time, and location in the city where the assault occurred. This does not predicate a violation of a victim’s right to remain anonymous. In instances where a victim requests anonymity, law enforcement will not attempt to make contact with the victim. This statistical information is necessary to identify trends and document known instances of assault on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered public lands.

Though Burning Man is now reporting sexual assaults to the BLM, concerns about under-reporting persist — and the BLM’s new permitting requirements reflect that concern. The BLM’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, requires, among other things, that a sexual assault response team must be contracted and located just beyond the festival gates in the town of Gerlach if the festival is to receive another 10-year permit. The BLM asserts this will “ease the burden on victims of assault and allow for a stronger support network to accompany the victim to and from the examination.” The BLM states this could increase prosecutions and provide victims with an alternative to flying to Reno for a rape kit.

A change in rape and assault reporting policy is only one of several proposed requirements in the BLM’s document; another requires more portable toilets be provided to Burners. Some are quite burdensome, such as reducing the amount of light pollution and building a perimeter fence. In response, Burning Man appears to have moved to a war footing, issuing a dramatic call to action to its community, citing a threat to the future of the festival. Burning Man claims the BLM’s proposal would “drastically affect our capacity to do our job hosting the event, and increase requirements for Burning Man’s special recreation permit.”

Burning Man in 2003

This cover-up culture can be traced back to 2003, when the festival’s leadership went to great lengths to protect one of its own: Will Roger, a Founding Board Member and Board Chairman, who is still paid $70,000 a year by the organization according to tax returns.

In 2003, members of the Department of Public Works (DPW), Burning Man’s crew of volunteers and employees who assemble and maintain Black Rock City, banded together to remove Roger from Burning Man after he assaulted a woman named Rose Harden, who was a paid employee of the department at the time. During a confrontation that escalated from good-natured rough-housing to serious physical dispute, Roger became violent and shoved Harden under a burning barrel.

Harden had to be pulled from the upended fire, leaving her with second-degree burns on her arms, hands and face. This was the last straw for DPW crewmembers, who had witnessed  Roger physically or sexually assault female workers over and over again. In a 2003 letter they wrote:

The workers of the DPW, the glue that holds Burning Man together and ensures the possibility of an event every year, have had enough. We will no longer keep quiet. We will not allow anyone to make our sisters feel unsafe or otherwise endangered in a place that we have come to know as home. In the past, complaints of inappropriate behavior have been swept under the rug and the women complaining have been either ignored or virtually blackballed by Burning Man. This ends now.

As a result of years of sexual misconduct and intimidation, the crew of the DPW has no confidence in Will Roger as a leader or representative to the rest of the Burning Man organization and the outside world. At this point an apology in the form of words means nothing, we require action. Uncalled for behavior while drunk generally reflects far more serious issues. If anyone else in the DPW had acted in this manner even once, they would have been thrown off the ranch immediately and never allowed to return to the DPW. This double standard will not continue.

There were dozens of witnesses to Harden’s assault and the aftermath. She settled a lawsuit with Burning Man for $65,000. Her settlement includes a confidentiality clause that bars her from speaking about the incident.

Salon has spoken to a second woman who alleged Roger raped her, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. In an email obtained by Salon, addressed to Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, CEO Marian Goodell and Chief Transition Officer Harley Dubois, a third woman, who asked not to be identified for this story, raised concerns about Roger’s drinking and violence on the playa. She said she had also been sexually assaulted by Roger.

“He got behind me and picked me up by my crotch and shook me up and down like a rag doll,” she wrote in an email dated September 24, 2003. “He then put me down and grabbed me from behind again, this time by my tits, and proceeded to shake me up and down again.”

On November 23, 2003, the woman received a response from Harvey, acknowledging that other incidents involving Roger had been brought to the attention of leadership.

“During the last two years we have all known that Will had a drinking problem that produced bad behavior,” Harvey wrote in the email from 2003. “I began to deal with this some time ago by speaking to him privately. That is part of my job, and of course, I’m his friend.” Harvey wrote the “onus” was on Will to change. Today, he is known as a “cultural co-founder.”

Roger continues to represent the Burning Man community in myriad ways. This summer, Roger plans to promote a photography book he authored titled “Compass of the Ephemeral: Aerial Photography of Black Rock City through the Lens of Will Roger,” which features his drone photography of The Burn.

Jim Graham, a spokesperson from Burning Man, acknowledged Harden’s incident to Salon in an email last summer: “Fifteen years ago the organization received reports of an incident that occurred on property owned by Burning Man, outside of the Black Rock City event area. While accounts of the incident varied widely, Will Roger took responsibility for the outcome and it was resolved to the satisfaction of the parties involved. After making positive changes in his personal and professional life, has become a well-respected representative of Burning Man Project in Northern Nevada.”

Burning Man had no comment on Roger in its most recent statement to Salon. Roger did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication.

A "sexual playground"

After being shut down by Burning Man, Ena O’Daniel did press charges against her assailant in Lovelock, Nevada. One year later she stood in front of a jury and faced the man who attacked her. O’Daniel today describes the litigation as “horrific.” When she was on the stand, sharing what had happened, she was asked by Ramirez’s defense attorney, if Burning Man was a “sexual playground.”

Hardly.

The jury in Lovelock found the defendant not guilty. Jack Bullock, the Pershing County District Attorney who worked on the case, said he spoke to jurors who believed Ramirez was not guilty for two reasons. “They had a hard time concluding that her testimony was accurate because she had been at a party at night before and had been drinking,” Bullock said. It’s his impression that local residents have limited sympathy for Burners who descend like a storm on the rural county once a year. “I’m also thinking there is a potential stigma amongst Pershing County local citizens in dealing with Burning Man — which is that there is a perception that so many people, men and women, are all going out there and doing illegal drugs and one thing or another and they suspect the testimony is not as accurate as it should be,” he said.

O’Daniel’s case was one of only two sex assault cases Bullock took to trial. Neither defendants were found guilty. In the other case, a verdict was reached in five minutes. O’Daniel eventually settled a civil claim against United Site Services for more than $150,000.

“It was palpable from the jury that they had disdain for me,” O’Daniel said. “It was like, if you go to Burning Man, you deserve this sort of thing.”

Keith A. Spencer contributed reporting.


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

MORE FROM Nicole Karlis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Black Rock City Burners Burning Man Culture Rape Sexual Assault The Playa Will Roger

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