Pub date August 22, 2006

› steve@sfbg.com
There’s an intriguing confluence of anniversaries coming up that together offer an opportunity for societal awakening.
This week I’ll be among thousands of Bay Area residents leaving for Burning Man and the 20th birthday of the most significant countercultural event of our times. Five years ago, right after my first Burning Man, the Sept. 11 attacks ushered in radical changes to US foreign policy and political dialogue. And last year during the festival, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, another event of international significance, which New Orleans writer Jason Berry explores in this week’s cover story commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
Burning Man, Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina — aside from the timing of their 20th, 5th, and 1st anniversaries, what’s the connection? Before I answer that, let me layer on a more personal anniversary: this summer marks my 15th year working as a reporter and editor for various California newspapers.
I got into the business mainly because I felt like the American people were being duped, at the time about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a war used by the first President Bush as a pretext for establishing permanent US military bases in the oil-rich Middle East.
American bases in Saudi Arabia caused Osama bin Laden to threaten a terrorist war against the United States unless we withdrew — a threat that we seemed to ignore while he carried through with a series of attacks that culminated in Sept. 11. Rather than reevaluating our relationships with oil and the Islamic world, this Bush administration upped the ante: invading and occupying two more Islamic nations, adopting energy policies that increased our oil dependence, and withdrawing the United States from international accords on global climate change and human rights.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit, opening up a second front of attack on the choices this country is making. I was already at Burning Man, in an isolated bubble of ignorant bliss that was eventually popped by the news. As we left the playa, burners gave significant money, supplies, and people to the relief effort. An eight-month cleanup and rebuilding encampment turned into a movement dubbed Burners Without Borders, which is still developing ambitious goals for good works and greening the event.
I believe Burning Man will be using its 20th birthday as a transition point. We’ve built our community and allowed it to mature, and now we’re talking about where we go from here. Most of those discussions are happening right here in San Francisco, where Burning Man was born and is headquartered. There is tremendous will to use our creation as a force for good.
Progressives will use the anniversaries of Sept. 11 and Katrina to urge our government to reevaluate its relationships with oil, other countries, and its own cities and poor people. Unfortunately, San Francisco isn’t where those decisions will be made.
But if there is a will to change this country’s direction, what better place to launch that movement than here? And what better army than Burning Man’s attendees, expected to number more than 35,000 — people known for their resourceful ability to build a city from scratch, clean it up, and leave no trace?
We’ll be back in a couple weeks, ready for what’s next. SFBG