More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism, Part 1 of the KDVS Interview

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. This is part 2 of the interview, in which we talk more about the effects of police and pranksters on countercultures and activist movements.

A cluster of NYPD arrests an activist on a night march

Arrests at Occupy Wall Street. The question of when and how to involve police in activist or countercultural movements is often a controversial one.

Speaking in Tongues: It might be useful for me to clarify or to be more specific about my intention with this question. One of the issues which emerged in relation to Occupy, and it occurred in Oakland, and I think Occupy Wall Street and Sacramento as well, was this question about assaultive behavior within the occupations, particularly as directed toward women. And so the issue of whether or not to report such crimes to the police — essentially whether to engage the police at all — was at times a controversial one. Was there a similar type of response initially in terms of seeking police assistance at Burning Man?

Kit O’Connell: I think the police have been involved when something like that happened. At the very beginning, there are stories of people taking it into their own hands and telling people to leave or things like that. But police have been called out for specific incidents. It’s something where the Organization does make that call from time to time.

But I also think the police to some extent arrived on their own, just suddenly becoming aware that there was this huge gathering happening in their midst every year and it was an opportunity — obviously there were safety issues but of course also an opportunity for revenue generation as far as giving out things like speeding tickets to people driving around in the desert. So I think there was a need for order at some point but also there was this sort of encroachment of the police into this separate space much like in Occupy where they weren’t always invited but they appeared anyway and had to be negotiated with one way or another.

SIT:  One of the impressions I’m getting from hearing you describe what transpired with Addis in Burning Man, it draws my attention to what has been sort of a — I don’t know if conflict is the right word, but competing social perspectives within anti-authoritarian movements whether you want to call them anarchist or whatever — between those who see such movements as an opportunity for individualization and celebrating the individual with the least amount of social constraints possible, and those who see autonomous communities within the tradition of someone like Colin Ward, who celebrated communal forms of social organization within the United Kingdom that often took extremely mundane forms like house squatting or organizing a sports league where people were acting nonhierarchically and were working autonomously outside of a capitalist relationship. That’s the type of tension that I perceive when I hear about this situation with Addis within Burning Man.

KO: In any group that is — whether deliberately or through artistic drive — creating a separate society, whether it’s an Occupy camp or Burning Man, there has to be a choice between individualization — or one way I look at it is an inward versus an outward focus. Burning Man has certainly had an effect on the world at large, and there have been things like Burners Without Borders, which helped a lot during Katrina [and is currently helping with Hurricane Sandy recovery -Kit]. But for the most part Burning Man is very inward facing, it’s about individualization, it’s about expressing your true self. These are all things that are very powerful but it’s also trying to create a space removed from the world. It’s not necessarily plugged into it, or even necessarily trying to change the world in the way that Occupy is, or mutual aid groups like Occupy Sandy or some of the examples you were giving. And the choices you have to make when you encounter police are going to be different in both cases depending on whether you’re looking to change the world or whether you’re looking more to change yourself.

Clowns at Occupy Wall Street. A prankster spirit is welcomed at both Occupy and Burning Man, though Addis' actions may have gone too far for some.

SIT: You posted an article on your website as well as Firedoglake, because you felt that [Addis'] experience was one which provided some potentially cautionary lessons. What motivated you to post on it and what issues do you think his life and death present.

KO: What motivated me to post on it — I’ve been involved in the Burning Man community for over a decade, I’ve been involved in Occupy now for a year. I’ve written about Burning Man a lot on my website. It seemed natural to bring the two together because both Burning Man and the Occupy movement and other activist actions like it try to create this separate space. Looking at what I saw in the camps before they were broken up and just in general when you have a movement that’s open to the whole 99% seemed very similar to the radical inclusion which is one of the core values of Burning Man so it made sense to parallel the two.

Having spent a year working with Occupy Austin, we definitely did encounter people who had an Addis-like spirit of pranksterism and chaos to them, which when channeled in productive ways has made for some really amazingly effective art and direct action but has also sometimes been destructive, come back to bite the activist movements themselves. I think that’s where the parallel comes from that interested me so much. What lessons can we learn from someone who does bring this valuable but so difficult energy to a movement or a counterculture?

SIT: In effect, Addis death was really a tragedy in the sense he had a potential that was unrealized.

KO: I think so. It’s my perception — I never personally met him — but my perception is of someone who had a space where he felt at home and saw it become a space where he no longer felt at home. And it’s tragic because however you feel about his actions he was a free spirit in a place that is perceived as one of the freest places on earth — Burning Man, where we all go to express our true selves — and his actions expressing his true self made him a felon. It’s hard not to look at his trajectory, ending with a death by throwing himself in front of a train, and not at least partially blame two years in jail as a felon for contributing to that eventual outcome.

Photos of OWS arrest and Occupy clowns by Joe Lustri released under a Creative Commons license.