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All The News That's Fit To Burn : 2003 Summer Newsletter

Preserving Community By Preventing Theft
by Tom Price & Ray Russ

Preserving Community By Preventing Theft

For many of us, creating and participating in a community built around personal responsibility, gift-based interaction, and openly sharing of ourselves is more important than anything else that happens on the playa. Many leave Black Rock City profoundly changed in their perceptions about how community and society can function, going back to spread little seedlings of open-mindedness back home. Nothing shatters these feelings like theft, and sadly the playa isn't exempt. With that in mind, read on:

In a city built on a gift economy, it can start innocently enough: someone helping themselves to an open pack of cigarettes, snagging a beer out of a camp's communal ice chest without asking (or being offered), or even hopping a ride on an art car without thanking the artist who built it. But theft is more than just someone "borrowing" an unattended bicycle at a port-o-toilet, sneaking someone into the event, or lifting a $2000 generator while the owner is watching the Man burn. It's also taking your image, your energy, your efforts and your creativity without your consent. It occurs any time there is an unwilling or uninformed exchange of goods. It is a breakdown in our shared social contract. The good news is it can be largely prevented.

Stopping It Before It Starts
Though some thefts are calculated and premeditated, most occur on the spur of the moment, when someone walks by an unattended camp or public area and sees something just sitting there, and then greed and dehydration and god knows what other unmet needs rise to the surface and bang — there goes your EL Wire Pogo Stick.


To stop theft from happening, here are a few common sense ideas:

  1. Know your neighbors. Thieves prey on people not knowing each other. March right over to that truck that just pulled in and share your plate of seven-layer bean dip and packets of Emergen-C to say hello. See someone near your camp you haven't met? Introduce yourself. Most people will appreciate it, and thieves will be discouraged from going anywhere they're recognized.
  2. Organize a Neighborhood Watch in your little patch o'BRC. It can be as organized or loose or as tight as you like — the important thing is giving your neighbors the gift of watching out for each other. Doing so encourages interaction, engenders familiarity and establishes trust.
  3. Keep a safe and secure camp. The open nature of most living in Black Rock City is custom made for opportunity thieves. Save them from themselves: when you leave camp, even for a few minutes, place valuable items out of sight.
  4. Don't bring things you can't live without. If you bring your $3,000 titanium-framed, grip-shifted, tricked-out mountain bike to the playa to ride back and forth to Johnny-On-The-Spot, you're making a mistake. If you bring it without a lock, you need to have your head examined.
  5. If you take something, take it back. Sometimes the moment gets the best of us. Maybe you borrowed a bike, a six-pack, or a sequined muumuu without asking. If so, take it back, apologize, and do something to make up for it — nothing says, "I'm truly sorry" like washing someone's crusty playa feet, hint hint.

The Cost of Art Theft
Probably nothing tears at the soul of the city like stories about art theft. Art theft has immediate consequences. It discourages artists from putting forward their best efforts. It might even prevent them from returning to the event. A case in point: people wandering the playa at night in 1997 sometimes stumbled across a sound installation made from hundreds of small poles, each holding two speakers. Because it operated only at night and completely devoid of lights, just discovering the installation was a gift, and lying amidst the soft tumult of noise in the darkness was for many their fondest memory of that year. Sadly, most will never experience this art: several speakers were stolen, and the artist, quite understandably, has refused to bring it back. Just last year, some extremely selfish people stole some of the pieces from the Lily Pond installation, a thoughtless act that both deprived everyone else of another's effort and vision.

Art theft is wrong. Art theft destroys the community. Art theft will rain hot karmic death down on you sure as kicking a puppy. If you really can't live without a souvenir, find the artist — many might be willing to work something out.

Meanwhile, take responsibility for protecting art. If you see someone acting inappropriately — pulling a bulb from Y2K, pulling decorations off a barter bar — ACT! Call them to account. And don't put up with anyone saying, "it's going to burn anyway, what does it matter?" Only the artists decide when and if to burn their work, not the Vox Intoxici.

Thief in Your Midst
Say that in spite of all your neighborhood watch group's best effort, someone slipped in and stole something — or tried to, because you caught ’em red handed. Now what? You have a couple options. Remember: Black Rock City is about radical self-expression AND responsibility. Accept responsibility for your interactions, and if you feel comfortable doing so, deal with it within the confines of your personal community. If you work it out to everyone's satisfactions, without having to bring in los federales, good on ya. On the other hand, if you don't feel you can or want to deal with this, call on the Black Rock Rangers, with outposts located at 3:00, 9:00, and Center Camp, open 24/7. They will work with you to create a solution.

Which brings up a perfect opportunity to speak directly to a would-be thief: are you sure no one's looking? Without giving away trade secrets, we'll suffice to say the Black Rock Rangers are incredibly well equipped and organized, and pity the fool who thinks they can hide under cover of darkness from the speeding cyclists of the Black Rock Ranger's RNR, or Rapid Night Response.

Common Sense, Uncommon Interaction
Remember that the worst times for theft are during the big burns, which makes sense in two ways: most everyone has left their camp, and in the frenzied rush to get gussied and fueled up for the big night out, you may not take time to put everything away. Do. Five minutes locking up your stuff now equals one hour you don't have to spend down at Playa Info waiting in line, only to be told that no one has returned that 17-inch Powerbook you left on your coffee table.

Again, remember that most theft takes place on impulse, involves strangers, so ipso facto the fewer people who are strangers the less theft. Most people want to do good, people on the playa especially so, but not everyone can easily express themselves or meet strangers. Stretch yourself — go out of your way to talk to that new neighbor. Hey, you never know what may come of it. As an anonymous note left hanging in a dome once said "Love doesn't always call. Sometimes it whispers — keep listening."