One year ago, Burning Man's sex assault and labor issues were exposed. Has anything changed?

A blinded volunteer left to suffer. An ignorance around sexual assault. Will Burning Man face its demons?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published August 20, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

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)
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)

The last weekend in August marks the start of Burning Man, a week-long, festival in the Nevada desert consisting of freewheeling performance art, fanciful costumes, and a lot of drugs. The anarchic party with more than 50,000 attendees constitutes a pilgrimage for many attendees, lured by the promise of leaving the “default world” behind in exchange for a transformative or even spiritual experience.

Yet the renowned gathering is not as utopian as it might appear. Two Salon investigations in the past two years have revealed that the supposedly liberating environment has also provided cover for predators of all kinds, including some who work for and even run the event. It has also fostered exploitation of its most vulnerable workers, in a manner that rivals any corporate machine in the “default world.”

Now that these harrowing stories of exploitation and abuse on the playa have been made public, we were curious if the organization had sought to reform itself or merely doubled-down on denying and protecting its abusers.

Back in August 2018, my coworker, Keith A. Spencer, and I published the results of a year-long investigation into claims of labor abuse within the Burning Man organization. We spoke to former and current employees and volunteers for the festival who painted a picture of a dangerous and stressful work environment. Some shared stories about a toxic management culture which they claimed was ignoring and creating a serious mental health crisis among workers within Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (DPW), seasonal workers who build the bulk of the infrastructure that allows the desert festival to function.

[Read our exclusive investigation into how Burning Man abused its volunteers and seasonal workers]

Between 2009 and 2015, seven DPW workers died by suicide. That number is statistically significant enough to be alarming, according to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and the lead of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “To give you a benchmark, in a community of 1,000 people we would expect one suicide death in one decade,” she told Salon in 2018.

Ricardo Romero began working with the DPW in 2008. He had originally volunteered with Burners Without Borders, assisting disaster relief in Pisco, Peru, after the 2007 earthquake, where he met a DPW manager who offered him a position on the playa. He worked for the DPW during a period in which many of his colleagues took their own lives. “In less than 12 months we had three suicides [from 2013 to 2014],” Romero told Salon in 2018.

Romero said there are often high rates of depression because you have the effects of institutionalization. “It is a remote location. It can be a long season,” he said. “It's mentally and physically stressful and you’ve got a lot of camaraderie and it's a place where you feel important.”

It was not until Romero and dozens of co-workers brought the suicides to upper management’s attention in 2014 that the organization took action. “Myself and some co-workers created a survey about the most pressing issues, work-related issues that DPW was facing,” Romero explained. “It was in response to me bringing out a labor lawyer in 2014 and wanting to kind of negotiate how DPW is treated and represented in the company.”

Since 2016, Burning Man has extended its company's Employee Assistance Program benefits to DPW workers, according to Romero, which includes a work-based program designed to identify and assist employees with personal problems. The Employee Assistance Program is a common short-term benefit for workers, often who are not salaried, that provides a limited amount of mental health care or other benefits.

No additional measures have been implemented to support worker and volunteer mental health on the playa for these workers since Salon’s investigation. However, there is a stronger emphasis on mental health in the DPW handbook, which appears to have been revised since Salon’s investigation, and encourages workers to reach out to a manager or Ranger if they are feeling mentally unwell. As Salon reported in 2018, suicides in the DPW are so common that the manual distributed to workers each year — which can be found online — includes a memorial section. There is also a memorial in the DPW workers’ saloon at Burning Man. In the 2019 manual, six more people in the department have died since last year’s event. It is unclear if any of those were death by suicide.

The handbook also has a section dedicated to volunteer rights. “Ultimately coverage is determined by our insurance carrier, but if you get hurt while working, we will support you every step of the way,” the 2019 handbook states.

That line might be too little, too late for Burning Man volunteers like Kelli Hoversten, who was permanently blinded by a laser, disabling her for life. Hoversten was a Black Rock Ranger, part of a group of respected volunteers who help patrol and manage the playa during Burning Man, and who are a crucial part of the festival's logistics. Rangers frequently intervene in dangerous situations and prevent them from escalating to the point where law enforcement might need to be involved, often assisting intoxicated guests or providing help to lost or confused Burners.

On Aug. 30, 2014, Hoversten, in her capacity as a Ranger, was working as a “Sandman” — Burning Man terminology for the Rangers who wear heat-protective gear and ring the central effigy that is ritualistically burned on the final Saturday night of the festival. The imminent danger to her health turned out not to be the fire behind her but the lasers shone in her face by participants in front of her.

“So that is what I was doing: Standing there in the dark with the man behind me,” Hoversten explained. “With handheld lasers coming at me, before the man was finished burning I was completely blind in my left eye.”

Lasers have been banned since her injury, with a few exceptions. Lasers mounted on art cars or at camps are still allowed. Prior to Hoversten's injury, she was an arborist and worked on her parents’ farm.

The events that followed the accident made Hoversten’s recovery process more difficult. After being injured, Hoversten contacted the Nevada state workers’ compensation system. According to Nevada state law, volunteers are eligible to file when injured while volunteering, though this is not the case in every state. Nevada state law also requires that when an injured worker receives workers’ compensation, he or she cannot sue the employer. Hoversten connected with an executive claims consultant, as directed by Burning Man, who told her to file her claim in Missouri because that was her permanent place of residence — advice she says was legally incorrect. Hoversten says she was never told that there was a 90-day filing period in Nevada. By the time she figured that out, it was too late to file a claim.

“If I would have filed in Nevada, my case would have been much stronger,” she said. “When Burning Man [tells] you that they are helping you with workers' comp, they are not.”

Six months after the accident, Hoversten’s medical bills were piling up. In March 2015, one of her friends set up a GoFundMe to try to help her cope with the cost. At that point, Burning Man management finally took notice and offered her a $10,000 anonymous donation, attached to a nondisclosure agreement. A standard life insurance policy will generally pay $250,000 to someone who is rendered legally blind in both eyes on the job.

Hoversten had two weeks to accept the offer, which she says turned into two weeks of harassment by an employee in the human resources department. She did not accept the offer.

Salon has learned that Burning Man has still not offered to help secure her financial future.

“They say there is no way to help me in that way,” Hoversten said in an email. “I have lost more of what little vision I have.”

She added the loss of her vision is impacting her parents’ retirement and family farm.

“We are losing over half of it at the end of September,” she said. “A direct result of my not being able to do the work I used to do because I’m legally blind now.”

Workers and volunteers aren’t the only Burning Man attendees at risk. Stories about gender inequality, physical and sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and efforts from the organization’s leaders to cover up abuse also surfaced during Salon’s reporting, which eventually led to a separate story published in May 2019.

From hundreds of documents reviewed, and dozens of rangers and victims spoken to, it became clear that, contrary to Burners’ perceptions of the playa as a safe, welcoming space, women are at considerable risk of being sexually assaulted there. Moreover, their false sense of security is due in part to the disorganized way that Burning Man discloses sexual assaults— 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.

[Read Salon's exclusive investigation into how Burning Man minimized reports of sexual assault on the playa]

The 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.

Since Salon’s investigation was published, the organization has implemented a new resource called the “Survivor Advocacy Center.” “You can decide who you want to talk to and when you want to leave,” Burning Man explains on its website. “Should you wish to speak with law enforcement, your advocate will make sure they are available when you are ready.”

The Center will be open 24/7 from Monday, August 26, through Monday, September 2. However, forensic exams for victims of rape are still not available. Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 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?”

Cate Edelstein first went to Burning Man in 2012, when she was 19 years old. One night she got caught in a rainstorm and decided to wait it out at a nearby bar on the playa. She thinks a glass of water she was offered there was drugged. Edelstein was found unconscious behind the bar and was taken to 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.”

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.

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 to get transported to Reno, as a day had passed since the attack and she had already taken a shower.

According to police 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 told Salon the number of women seeking rape kits is considerably higher because victims sometimes choose to go to Reno without filing a report. In the “default world,” only an estimated 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are ever reported to law enforcement.

“When I was attacked, the only thing I heard over and over and over again from people I spoke to was that doesn't happen here,” Edelstein told Salon. “And I knew that that wasn't true, because people I talked to that had happened to besides me.”

Edelstein says she thinks that the company “tries to push that forward that this was just some utopia that this doesn't occur at, and I don't think they really wanted to take the responsibility of the fact that just like anywhere else in the world, there are bad people that come even to this event.”

While the rape was talked a lot about in Burning Man circles, Edelstein never heard from the organization. Her mother, Rachael Black, 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 and quietly locked by site administrators, meaning the comments were disabled.

Ena O’Daniel was sexually assaulted on the playa in 2014 by an employee of one of the festival’s vendors, United Site Services, who supplies portable toilets on the playa. A stranger burst into her tent early in the morning.

“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.”

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,’” O’Daniel told Salon. “I didn’t even get past the door situation, I was turned away.”

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

It is unclear if Burning Man as an organization has changed how it responds to reports of sexual assault and treats sexual assault survivors. The company did not respond to requests for comments last week.

Several sources told Salon Burning Man, intentionally or otherwise, went to great lengths to depress the number of sexual assault complaints associated with the event.

“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,” Bryce Shields, Pershing County’s District Attorney said. “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 year, Burning Man does appear to be more vocal about encouraging sexual assault victims to report the assault to law enforcement if that is what they would like to do.

Throughout our investigations, Salon found that this cover-up culture dated back to at least 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 very much involved in the festival.

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 then a paid employee of the department. 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. 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.

Roger continues to represent the Burning Man community in myriad ways. This summer, Roger promoted a photography book he authored titled “Compass of the Ephemeral: Aerial Photography of Black Rock City through the Lens of Will Roger.”

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.”

Despite the internal chaos at Burning Man detailed by Salon’s investigations, many Burners this year have been organizing to preserve what are perceived to be bigger threats to its culture. For example, as part of the new standards proposed by the Bureau of Land Management, dumpsters around the perimeter and security checkpoints at the entrance, Burning Man said, are existential threats to the event.

Lucky for Burning Man, there won’t be any dumpsters this year so as long trash does not build up on the side of Nevada roads after the event. As far as drug screening goes, there won’t be any this year, although that is still up in the air for next year.

Burners often spend months preparing for the week-long event. The closer it gets to the week, the more the excitement and pre-parties build, the more the hope of systemic change seems to get lost in the fold. At this rate, such a change might be more realistic in the default world. If that is the case, there won’t be a need for Burning Man anyway.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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