One of the primary critiques of private cities is how private police would act. Would police be responsive to powerful interests or would they act in favor of justice and dispute resolution. The Black Rock Rangers at Burning Man offer a glimpse as to how police might act in a private city.
Black Rock City is the name for the temporary city of 70,000 people in the Black Rock desert which houses Burning Man, an art festival, for lack of a better descriptor, for a week. Having recently returned from the event and having had numerous interactions with Rangers I realized they are a model for policing with lessons that can be applied more broadly.
First it is necessary to clarify what the Rangers do. They are closer to security guards than police (Edit Rangers prefer the term “non-confrontational community mediators”). They have no arresting power, in fact, the most power they have is to turn off the sound systems of noisy camps. A full list of their duties is here. In my experience, most of their time is spent helping to mediate disputes between neighboring camps and ensuring intoxicated people get home safely.
There are several reasons why working at Burning Man would be more stressful than other locations. First, many norms of interaction are different at Burning Man than the default world. There is a great deal of nudity, sexual expression (I was camped near the orgy dome), and hugging. As such, boundaries are different from the default world. This is a potentially risky situation as people can overstep boundaries that aren’t clearly established. For example, the numerous “Nudity is not consent” signs around Black Rock City suggest some people come to Burning Man believing that nudity is consent.
Burning Man also has a lot of drug and alcohol use. I would guess that per capita drug and alcohol use at Burning Man is comparable, if not greater, than Mardi Gras in New Orleans or St. Patrick’s day in Boston. The ubiquitous drug use means people are in a strange environment, with unusual rules for interactions, with many of them intoxicated. This could easily be a recipe for a great deal of conflict.
The Rangers are at least partially responsible for ensuring there is a minimal level of conflict.
Comparing the perceptions of the Rangers and police officers at Burning Man shows how, at least in limited circumstances, private police can be more responsive and helpful to community needs than traditional law enforcement.
Law enforcement at Burning Man consists of two groups, officers from the Bureau of Land Management, and officers from nearby towns. The perception of them is similar. They are seen as intruders in the city who primarily try to bust people for using illegal drugs. Visiting popular forums prior to Burning Man there are often guides on how to deal with police and reports on how aggressive they are pulling cars over. In fact, positive interactions with police are so rare than some people post their positive interactions just to counter the prevailing sentiment of negativity towards them.
Rangers, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly viewed in a positive light. During my first interaction with a Ranger, she clarified that she was not a cop and did not care if you were “tripping balls.” She stressed that Rangers were there to help and facilitate, not get people in trouble. Another rather intense interaction involved the leader of a camp and some Rangers. The leader of the camp had been placed next to a very loud sound stage, loud enough to shake the trailers in his camp. At around 3 in the morning the leader was very irate and implied to the Rangers that if they had been doing their jobs correctly they would have shut down the sound camp. The Rangers handled it very professionally, articulating the process by which a sound camp gets shut down. Given that it was loud, early in the morning, and everyone was tired, it is easy to imagine an escalation. However, the exchange ended with a hug and the leader saying he loved Rangers.
Ultimately it is hard to generalize from the Black Rock Rangers. Burning Man is a unique event, the Rangers are all volunteers for example. However, at the very least it shows that private security can be more responsive to local needs and form strong community bonds.
Edit: Former Ranger in the comments below pointed out two things that warrant mentioning. First, Rangers come from the community so they understand and respect community traditions. This is very important in formal policing as well. Second, Rangers do not like to be called security guards. I apologize for that. However, in my defense, like the rest of Burning Man, Rangers are difficult to classify in traditional terms as there are few comparable examples in the default world.