Black Rock Rangers: A case study of private police

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.

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7 comments

  1. The main thing that makes Rangers work is that they are part of the community. To be ranger you must have attended two prior Burning Man events, then pass a mentoring shift where you work with experienced rangers who screen out those who are too timid or too badge happy.

    Rangers bristle at the “security guard” label, they are “non-confrontational community mediators”, they don’t guard things or property. They don’t generally stop you doing stupid things unless you are going to hurt somebody else doing it. They do mediate all sorts of issues, deal with people who are not sharing the same reality due to drugs or alcohol, and in a city with no 911 phone system they can summon the amazing Black Rock Emergency services faster than most cities can get to an ambulance.

    The unofficial ranger motto is “first do nothing”. Rangers Find out what’s going on, Listen to all the people involved, Analyze the situation, Mediate as needed, Explain the outcome to all involved (FLAME). Rinse and repeat until the situation is handled.

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    1. I agree that coming from the community is an important aspect of being a Ranger that I should have pointed out.

      I used the label of security guard because it is not immediately clear what a :non-confrontational community mediator” is, though I agree that Rangers do not fit a traditional role of security guards. Thanks for clarifying.

      My overarching point was that non-governmental who play a somewhat analogous role to police/security guards can outperform government police in certain environments, of which the Rangers are a prime example.

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      1. “Security guard” is not particularly close to “non-confrontational community mediator”. If simplying the Rangers to “security guard” is the best that you can do, then you have failed. If this is a lack of understanding, then you do not understand well enough to write the article. If it is a problem with your ability to explain without the simplification, then you should examine your prose and consult others for advice. As it stands, your prose does a disservice to those who would care to actually know something about the Rangers..

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      2. My article is not aimed to inform Rangers or Burners, it is aimed at wonky DC libertarianish types who are unfamiliar with Burning Man. To do so in a blog format I refrained from trying to completely encapsulate what Burning Man is, which could take 1000 words alone, as well the totality of the function of the Rangers. I tried to describe what they do by explaining some of the positive interactions among them I witnessed. If you can offer a paragraph description of the Rangers activity I would be happy to include it in an edit. However, if you read the rest of the article I tried to make clear that Rangers defy easy categorization from the default world.

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    2. BTW, if you want to write something longer clarifying the role of the Rangers and sharing some of your Rangering experiences I’d be happy to post it on this blog. The audience here tends to be libertarianish and wonky. They will have heard of Burning Man but most haven’t attended.

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