On Sunday, videos of a climate protest that literally got smashed by the police started floating around on social media. Like many protests, this one involved the blocking of a road, and it ended when a police officer rammed his way through the barricade and started arresting the protesters, one at gunpoint.
But, before I share the video, I need to share some important context that the protesters and their allies neglected to share. The police officers in question worked for the Lake Pyramid Paiute Tribe, the protesters were violating tribal land, and they were protesting against Burning Man, an event that has sustainability, environmental responsibility, and alternatives to capitalism as central themes (even if those goals aren’t perfectly lived up to yet).
With all of this in mind, let’s share the video and then discuss why the protest was a vile act of violence against a people who have long suffered mistreatment, and directed against an event that’s on our side.
Nevada rangers drove directly into a blockade set up by climate protestors on the road to Burning Man. An officer pulled a gun out, tackling a protestor and threatening to shoot
— michelle lh࿊࿊q (@MichelleLhooq) August 28, 2023
Some History To Keep In Mind
I know many readers aren’t from the United States, and might not know why the image of a bunch of non-native people trying to take control of tribal lands away looks terrible. So, let’s take a quick look at that history.
When Europeans first entered the western hemisphere, they created some terrible problems for the Native Americans. First, a wave of diseases (Europeans in those days had terrible hygiene, nasty houses, and weird superstitions like blood letting) spread into the whole continent along its existing extensive trade networks, killing up to 90% of the population. In some cases, diseases were intentionally introduced into tribes, but it often spread so far ahead of the settlers that it became a bit of a mystery what happened to the completely abandoned villages and cities.
Conquistadors invaded modern-day Mexico, using superior weapons technology and faster horse transportation against an unprepared population. Empires were toppled, the people were enslaved, and native religions were violently replaced with Christianity. Further north, settlers repeatedly violated treaties with tribes, stealing land over and over.
By the 1800s, only lands in the western United States (much of it taken at the end of the Mexican-American War) were left open to nomadic tribes. Their concept of land was that it was open to all, and when people coming from the east asked for permission to use the land, the natives had no idea that they meant to shut them out of their traditional way of life. This led to guerrilla warfare against settlers, then the United States Army, culminating in the Indian Wars.
At the end, tribes were dispossessed of their lands and largely sent to live on reservations as prisoners, often giving them the worst land for agriculture. Some were sent on death marches across the continent, and many others were just killed in the fighting. Even then, tribal lands were sometimes broken up and given away to settlers, giving native families only a tiny fraction of the lands their tribe once controlled and governed.
Eventually, more enlightened leadership in the United States started to reverse the situation. During the early 20th century, tribes were allowed to form their own governments, individual tribal members were granted U.S. citizenship (something they were entitled to under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution), and later courts strengthened the powers of tribal courts to enforce the laws on their reservations.
The power of tribes to enforce laws against non-natives is limited, but under several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, they have been found to have a traditional power to remove visitors from their lands and hand them over to state and federal authorities for any crimes committed under state and federal law. This leaves tribes with Catch-22 situations where they can’t enforce the law at times, but the authority to kick people off their lands is undisputed.
Today, when non-natives visit tribal lands, we’re their guests. Instead of acting like those who came before us, we should be better people and treat them with respect. Doing anything less brings up bad memories of the past for them and makes us look like we can’t grow and learn as a people.
We still have a long way to go in relations with Native American nations. Poverty and discrimination is rampant. The tribes are often ignored and neglected, with the roads going into their lands suffering from poor maintenance, and there are even accusations of passing them over for EV charging funds that could greatly help their tourism industries. We have to do better, not worse like this.
This Protest Looked Quite Racist (Even If Unintentional)
Given all of this history, it should go without saying that it looks bad when a bunch of non-native people go onto native lands and then take control of it, even if only temporarily for a protest. It sends a pretty clear message to the tribe that they don’t care about the tribe’s right to govern its own lands. When we tell tribes that we don’t care about their sovereignty, we’re bringing up all of the bad memories of earlier people who treated them as sub-human, and stole their lands.
Any protest (other than those conducted or lead by members of the tribe) that wants to have the moral high ground should steer clear of tribal lands, no matter what. It’s just not right to abuse them more after all they’ve been through.
They Were Protesting Against An Event That Isn’t Part Of The Problem
But, let’s assume for the sake of argument that banning private jets and single-use plastics from Burning Man is a worthy cause, and that the protesters didn’t know they were on tribal land resisting tribal law enforcement. I think they’re still in the wrong here.
Let’s take a look at the event’s core principles (from the website):
- Radical Inclusion
- Radical self-reliance
- Radical self-expression
- Communal effort
- Civic Responsibility
- Leaving No Trace
Does any of this sound like an event that environmentalists should be protesting? I don’t really think so. I especially don’t see how blocking the road to the event (that the people on private jets will fly over) really sends a message to the right people. The average “burner” is very environmentally conscious and takes great efforts to protect the desert the event takes place in. They tend to be very skeptical of modern capitalism.
They might have a point about single-use plastics, but given the crowd that attends the event and the fact that most ocean-littering plastics come from a few Asian countries, they’re barking up the wrong tree again.
When it comes to private jets, it’s not the problem the protesters think it is. Jet aircraft do sometimes land at the event’s temporary airport (which is officially recognized by the FAA). There is some controversy about how the visits by Silicon Valley execs clashes with the ethos of the event, but they are also an inclusive crowd that doesn’t want to exclude anybody, even the super wealthy. But, one luxury camp was banned from future participation due to violation of environmental rules, so the event does have its limits.
The fact that the event’s organizers struggle to deal with these issues, and are currently struggling to decarbonize the event, shows us that it’s not part of the problem. Burners are at least trying to do better and care about the problem, even if they’re not perfect yet. The real problem people are the ones elsewhere, who either don’t care about the environment or actively work against efforts to improve things.
The protesters should really focus their efforts on the worst offenders, not the imperfect people who at least want to do better. The only thing protests like this can do is push people away from supporting efforts to combat climate change.
Featured image: A view of the Burning Man event from the International Space Station. Image by NASA ISS (Public Domain).
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