An Open Letter to Burning Man (and Law Enforcement): Locking Down a City to Find a Missing Teenager is Illegal


Trojan Horse, Burning Man 2011
Oh, a gift! Open the gates, let it in! [Art @ Burning Man, 2011]
Burning Man is a festival of art, music, culture, and spirituality, held annually in the vast deserts of Nevada.  Over 60,000 attendees gather and literally build a temporary city — roads, emergency services, a mail system, and structures of every shape and size — for one week.  Some of the most brilliant art projects in the world are showcased, many of which are ritualistically burned to the ground by the end of the event.

I find the experience I’ve encountered there to be like none other and treasure the learning and good times I’ve had.  But, the organizers of the festival consistently do one thing that, were they anyone whom I did not hold in such high esteem, would have been sued a long time ago: any time a “child” goes “missing,” they block the exits of the festival until found.  And almost invariably by “child” I mean “teenager,” while by “missing” I mean “has voluntarily gone off partying and some parent is worried.”

Open Letter to Burning Man
An Open Letter to Burning Man (.pdf)

This is literally the definition of false imprisonment.

Traditionally, at common law, false imprisonment is defined as the 1) confinement of another, 2) within fixed boundaries for any period of time, 3) who is aware of, or injured by, his or her confinement, 4) without consent or privilege (Nevada law takes a substantially similar view).  The “within fixed boundaries” part deserves clarity: the boundaries could be a cage, a house, a 100-acre estate, or even an entire city.  The “privilege” part also deserves clarity: there has never been a “privilege” to detain a single person without reasonable suspicion, let alone to detain 60,000 persons, 99.9% of which assuredly have no idea where the missing person is.

Cut that shit out.  It fails to uphold the community’s value placed on consent and self-reliance, and it’s just plain illegal.

14 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Burning Man (and Law Enforcement): Locking Down a City to Find a Missing Teenager is Illegal

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  1. Thank you for standing up for what is right, even against a good organization who is doing the wrong thing.

    Can I ask why the gap between your receipt of their response (dated last October) and this letter (dated this June, approximately 8 months later)?

  2. Isn’t this just an implementation of Code Adam, as they do in many department stores? Are you against the Code Adam practice all together or just against how (or how often) they implement it at Burning Man?

    1. If a department store is refusing to let people leave, then yes, I would oppose that and call it false imprisonment. A store has even less justification: at Burning Man, you’re leaving in a vehicle, but when walking out of a store, you obviously do or do not have a child in your possession.

      1. I was wondering the same thing. Someone else asked before I got here.

        Another question. Do you remember them closing down a whole city while looking for I think it was one of the Boston bombers? From what I recall, they told people to stay home and indoors for at least a day or two while police were roaming around looking for the guy. I think he was hiding in a boat in someone’s back yard. Anyway, how can a police dept. order people to stay in their homes on such a level? On one hand, I can see them telling people that there is a danger and we RECOMMEND people stay at home and indoors but I seem to recall, they were TOLD to stay home and indoors. I recall rumors of arrests but can’t recall if they were ever confirmed or not. After all, what would they be charged with? Going outside??

  3. Why would you ever want to leave the burn anyway? I think you’re just looking for an excuse to write an article…

  4. Actually, from someone who has been to BM, I can speak from experience.

    Most 99% of the patrons at last years event didnt even know why they could not leave.

    Its not exactly a web friendly environment. Not to mention how one feels after not showering in the effing desert. For an effing week!

    Self reliance includes EVERYONE. And if not, then it applies to NO ONE.

    Bring your children with you and YOU are responsible. And if you are NOT responsible then leave the lttle brats at home to baby sit the dog.

  5. Ok I do get what you’re saying here. I understand that it’s technically considered false improsonment, but I have to say that a 9 hour exodus isn’t abnormal. Especially on one of the latter days of the fest. Only thing I can say is, ya it’s not great for the people leaving, but I feel BM is ethically doing the right thing. Kinda can’t be in a hurry in that city or you’ll end up being very aggravated as you were/are. I mean, if you go to the burn, you can’t expect to get outta there in less that at least 5/6 hours. Plus, they’re doing everything they can to help the community find On of its own. Also, the exodus is one of the best and most memorable parts of the fest. I personally feel like this is just a little hardcore, but you’re more than entitled to your opinion. Just imagine if it were your child or loved one who was “missing”. You’d def feel the complete opposite am I wrong?

  6. During the closure, LE has a process of searching vehicles and clearing them to exit. It’s slow, but the line does move. It’s unfortunate when a child goes missing, whatever the age, and doubly so when it happens during Exodus. Honestly though, a 9 hour Exodus is not unheard of. 2014 & 2015 spoiled people with no lines… I suggest that you try not to leave during peak times.

    1. Assuming I’ve reached Christine. 🙂 I certainly don’t have the experience that you do, but of my 6 years on the Playa, exodus last year was the worst, clocking in at over 12 hours from 4&D to Reno. Regardless, LE should not have a process of “searching vehicles and clearing them.” We live in the land of the free, not the land of “LE gets to say whether we can move or not.”

      Would be happy to engage in further discussions to come up with a solution. Let me know if you or someone else would like to talk. The issue is important to me, so my time is yours.

  7. BMorg calls it an Amber Alert, when it’s not. The Amber Alert system is used only during a known abduction (Suzy seen thrown into a white van), and to use it for every angsty teen girl at Burning Man who wants to lose her virginity on the playa, undermines the entire system. It puts actual abducted children in danger because the public assumes the next Amber Alert is just another teen girl ditching her parents.

    What they’re doing at BM is exactly false imprisonment. It’s also a violation of many men’s 4th Amendment Right. During these shutdowns at BM many men are stopped and have their property searched, even their bags opened by LEOs who are presumably looking for Suzy’s dismembered body.

  8. If you can’t inconvenienced for a few hours when a kid is missing (assuming anyone is wanting to leave at all) then you are just an ass. Let the cops or whoever do their job and they will then get out of your way. They don’t like that shit anymore than you do when it happens to them but they are out there to protect. When it’s your kid you won’t cry about it so much.

    1. Again, being falsely imprisoned is not a mere “inconvenience,” and when done to 60K+ people for 8+ hours, the amount of life time lost is nowhere near negligible…. especially when done to find a ***17 YEAR OLD*** who was not reasonably thought to be in danger.

      1. 17 year olds disappear under suspicious circumstances every year. Look, I understand what you are saying. Nobody likes being told that what to do by cops. Not even cops. But I’ve actually worked false imprisonment cases. This is isn’t it. Cooperate with the police. None of them wake up in the morning wondering what civil rights they can take from you. They just want to do their job and go home (for the most part, I did know a few psychos). I was actually in a similar situation when I a crime occurred in an area that I was in and I couldn’t leave (even though I saw nothing) until I gave a statement. I read a good book and left 5 hours later. I didn’t die and the Constitution was still in place the next day. Well, not really, Trump got elected the next day. Dammit, you’re probably right.

  9. If We Don’t Have Accountability, There’s Nothing to Stop Unlawful Detention From Happening:

    Janine Jackson: The Supreme Court has just reversed a federal Appeals Court ruling that would have allowed former top officials to be held accountable for the violation of the rights of the hundreds of Muslim, Arab and South Asian men swept up by programs and policies crafted by those officials in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Brought in on the strength of “tips” from people worried about the Arab-looking guy down the hall, men like the plaintiffs in Ziglar v. Abbasi had nothing to do with terrorism; there was no real reason to think they did.

    Nevertheless, they were locked away, abused grievously, with, in some cases, family and lawyers misled about where they were. After they were cleared of terrorism charges, the men were deported on immigration violations.

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