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Climate change activists who blockaded Burning Man accuse police of excessive force

A coalition of individual activists said a tribal ranger who responded to the scene told them “I’m going to take you all out” while pointing a gun. The tribe said the ranger’s conduct is under review.
An aerial of Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nev., on Aug. 28, 2023.
An aerial view of the Burning Man festival in Black Rock, Nev., on Monday. Maxar Technologies / via AP

Tribal police shut down a group of climate change activists who blockaded the sole route in and out of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada on Sunday after, they say, someone erroneously reported they were armed.

A coalition of individual activists under the name Seven Circles Alliance set up the blockade to protest the festival's consumerism, which they said is antithetical to Burning Man's counterculture origins. Members of the group chained themselves to a trailer in the road and held signs that read "Abolish capitalism" and "Mother Earth needs our help."

In a statement Tuesday, the group alleged a responding Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal ranger who was pointing a gun told them, "I’m going to take you all out."

"The excessive response is a snapshot of the institutional violence and police brutality that is being shown to anyone who is actively working to bring about systemic change within the United States, including the climate movement," the statement said.

Seven Circles Alliance also said a civilian falsely reported to the rangers that the activists had a firearm.

Michelle Lhooq, a journalist embedded with the group, posted a video on X on Sunday of a pickup truck belonging to a Pyramid Lake ranger station driving through the displays. In Lhooq’s article for The Guardian, she reports that the blockade lasted for about 36 minutes before police intervened.

A longer, edited video posted to YouTube by FreedomNews TV showed angry drivers trying to move the blockade themselves in expletive-laden exchanges with protesters. It also shows rangers handcuffing the protesters and asking them about weapons.

"We're nonviolent, please. ... We have no weapons at all," a protester yells in the video, seeming to cry as two rangers hold a friend to the ground. "We're environmental protesters."

The rangers were alerted to a group blocking the highway, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe said in a statement Monday. Five activists were cited and released.

"One Ranger used his patrol vehicle to move the blockade debris out of the roadway to allow Burning Man traffic to proceed," the tribe statement said. "The involved Ranger's conduct is under review."

Tribe Chairman James Phoenix didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Burning Man is a six-day festival of self-expression that culminates in the torching of a 40-foot effigy. The practice originated with the burning of an 8-foot wooden "man" in 1986 on San Francisco's Baker Beach, which evolved into an annual event in Black Rock Desert.

The festival has its share of critics, including those who believe attendees have negative impacts on the land. According to NPR, the Bureau of Land Management capped the festival's attendance in 2019 at 80,000 because of concerns about excess trash being left behind and safety issues.

The same year, the festival reportedly contributed 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide, The Guardian reported.

Burning Man organizers announced a commitment in 2019 to go carbon negative by 2030, promising not only to take on a "Leave No Trace" approach but also to become a "regenerative force for the planet."

In a news release before the blockade, Seven Circles Alliance accused the festival organizers of "greenwashing" its event. The activists urged organizers to lose their "apolitical" stance by calling on attendees to commit to direct actions that would push climate change policy.

"The blockade is also in protest against the popularization of Burning Man among affluent people who do not live the stated values of Burning Man, resulting in the commodification of the event," the release said. "The group emphasizes the current existential crisis and importance of honesty when social collapse is at risk."