More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism

Remains of the burned Burning Man effigy.

The iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it in 2007.

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. Burning Man centers around an annual festival in a temporary desert city that surrounds a human effigy. This effigy is ritually burned on Saturday night of the week-long event, but Addis was jailed for setting fire to it on the Monday before its scheduled destruction.

Here is a part one of the transcript of our conversation.

Speaking In Tongues: We are fortunate enough to have Kit O’Connell from Austin, Texas. I invited him on the air today to speak about an article he wrote which appeared on his website as well as Firedoglake about Paul Addis.

Paul Addis was someone who was involved with Burning Man and I believe he may have been involved with Occupy as well — I’ll be asking Kit about that momentarily — but his life I believe is one that raises a lot of significant questions about radical activism, the people involved with it and how it can be effectively pursued. Kit, welcome to Speaking In Tongues.

Kit O’Connell: Hi, thanks, it’s good to be here.

SIT: Let’s just start with — as you noted in your article Paul Addis committed suicide I believe on Saturday, October 27th.

KO: Right.

SIT: And he did so by jumping in front of BART train, certainly very evocative for a lot of people here because we ride BART and we’re very familiar with it. Who was he and why do you consider his death to be noteworthy?

KO: He was an artist and I think an activist, certainly in his own mind and very involved in the Bay Area in various ways especially in the art scene. He had also been part of Burning Man since even before it began as a member of the Cacophony Society, which is one of the groups that their culture and activities created an origin point for Burning Man. So he was with Burning Man before there was even a Burning Man and he stayed with it through its earliest years when it was a temporary frontier city and he became disillusioned with it as it became more and more organized, especially in the late 90s after some more rules were put in place due to some tragic accidental deaths on the playa.

So they started putting more rules in place, so he wanted– You know, it’s a classic frontier story of someone watching the city they helped create become more orderly than they want. Of not being a frontier anymore but instead being a metropolis.

SIT: Kit, can I just interject a moment.

KO: Sure.

Movie poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

SIT: Oddly enough, it sounds vaguely reminiscent of the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

KO: I actually haven’t had a chance to see that, to my discredit, so I’ll have to take your word on that. But it’s the sort of story echoed in Westerns and literature as well.

SIT: Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance and Liberty Valance is the man who really created the city. … And then [James Stewart] plays the man who ends up being elected senator. In any event, Liberty Valance, despite his importance to the creation he becomes a sort of drag on the city going forward and eventually he is expelled.

KO: Burning Man always balances a frontier and sort of punk attitude mixed with a sort of loving chilled out hippie atmosphere and Burning Man is often a balancing act between those two personality types to a large extent. And he certainly fell more on that punk frontier aspect of it. As as watched the city become more orderly and more rules-driven he became disillusioned. Of course it’s a running joke that people go to Burning Man and say ‘well it was better last year,’ but he took that seriously.

And he took seriously the joke that people have told for years of let’s shake things up by burning the Man early and he went ahead and did that. He actually did burn the man early in 2007 on Monday night, the first night into Tuesday early morning I believe during a lunar eclipse so much of the city was watching that. All of a sudden they knew the Man was on fire. Paul Addis did it, he was actually charged with destruction of property for lighting the Man early and he served as a felon in jail as a result of that.

SIT: It seems to me that an implication of your article is that this is a serious foundational event in the transformation of Burning Man.

KO: I think it is. If you ask Burners, they are highly divided over it. It’s a moment when a certain amount of unrest in the community about the changes — things that Paul was echoing loudly had been muttered among some of the, shall we say, old-timers of Burning Man, people who remembered when it was part of the Cacophony Society’s Zone Trips to the desert. They wanted something to happen, they wanted to reclaim that. His actions were a chance to do that but they were also a sign that the city had changed. Because for whatever reason — which we can go into — they did press charges against him. He was forced to become a felon for what is essentially a political or artistic expression at the event.

SIT: Perhaps I’m getting a little too abstract here but my sense of this issue based on what I’ve heard elsewhere just in terms of the general evolution of Burning Man is that there were legitimate concerns that led to the changes. So it wasn’t a sort of ideological or cabal or people who decided to create a more hierarchical system for the event.

In this photo from 2007, an officer from the Federal Bureau of Land Management watches the annual Critical Tits topless bike ride.

KO: That’s true. I mentioned I believe it was 1997 there was a pretty terrible accident where there was a car wreck. They had the sound camps separate from the art camps and other environments, other theme camps. And there was somebody driving between those two locations who ended up driving into a tent, I believe someone was killed. It was a pretty tragic event — that’s when they started restricting driving.

And the rules themselves were added in that way. It used to be you could drive around fast and literally shoot guns out the window of your car. As the city grew, just by nature that became dangerous. When you have 1,000 people in the desert you can get away with some things you can’t get away with, naturally, when you have 50,000 people in the desert or tens of thousands as they had at that point when Addis lit the man early.

And of course there was the increasing presence of police, all through the early years of the 2000s especially — that was when the police really started to manifest at the event in higher numbers, to start making more arrests. My understanding is they put more pressure on the Burning Man organization to create an orderly city. Since it is essentially the third largest city in Nevada, it couldn’t really act like a frontier anymore.

[Note: according to Wikipedia, the car accident occurred in 1996 when there were 8,000 people at Burning Man. The car accident resulted in serious injuries, and another motorcycle accident caused the event's first fatality. By 2007, the year Addis was charged, the population of the temporary city had grown to over 47,000.]

SIT: Let me ask you — because I don’t want to make the assumption — I’m guessing that the introduction of the police into Burning Man was as contentious as it has been in recent activist communities like Occupy among others.

KO: ‘As contentious,’ you know, there weren’t pepper spray incidents that I’m aware of. But certainly it was a fall from grace for the event to a certain extent. If you go to the smaller regional events that happen all over the country or the world, there’s really a lot less police presence than there is at Burning Man now, the central original event which is now heavily patrolled. It’s still probably less structured even with the police than most cities of 50,000 people but the police arrival did change the environment.

There’s a back and forth — there’s been more arrests some years and then some years the Burning Man organization and culture have succeeded in kind of gentling the police a little bit so that they are mostly hands off. It kind of goes back and forth. But now you can say there’s undercover cops out there sometimes. I had a friend who was entrapped into a drug bust and that’s not something you could have said when Paul Addis started there, when there was no police to speak of there at all.

In part 2: How questions of police involvement at Burning Man relate to Occupy and other activist spaces.

Effigy photo by Miss Karen released under a Creative Commons license. Critical Tits photo by Tobin released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.