Melvin Patterson and Branton Stewart use Culture Ties to Exploit Burning Man

By Mary Pat Luetke-Stahlman

Bloomberg published an article by Robert Burnson yesterday that announced two people from the Deaf community are proceeding with a lawsuit against Burning Man. Burnson wrote, “One of the men who filed the suit said he asked the festival earlier this year to hire him as a Deaf interpreter.” The man in question is Branton Stewart, a Certified Deaf Interpreter. The second man involved in the lawsuit is Melvin Patterson. 

The Burning Man Festival is best described as a journey of self-awakening. It is intended to be a communal event that allows a very large group of people (roughly 80,000 people estimated for this year) to come together and establish an intentional community that lasts only nine days. During those nine days, attendees are encouraged to share their skills in ways that benefit the collective community. This is done with the understanding that there is nothing expected in return. Some people do receive non-monetary gifts for their work; however, the skills or talent that people share is basically expected to come out of the goodness of their soul.

To better understand what the Burning Man Festival community truly stands for, go review the Ten Principles that Larry Harvey, its co-founder, wrote in 2004.  Keep in mind, these principles were written only to reflect the community’s “ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.” By initiating a lawsuit, Stewart and Patterson have demonstrated either a failure to understand or a complete disregard with some of the Ten Principles.

The principles that are being violated through these actions are: Radical Self-Reliance, Decommodification, Communal Efforts, Gifting, and Participation. 

Radical Self-Reliance is where the individual discovers, exercises, and relies on their own resources so they can benefit more fully from the experience(s).

Decommodification is more than just the festival outright rejecting commercialized sponsorship and staying true to themselves… it also includes the refusal to use any money (cheques, bills, or coins) during the festival and for compensation towards anybody’s work. It takes over 2,000 people to build, run, and disassemble the Burning Man Festival, and all of them are volunteers

Communal Efforts are about the community getting together to provide services and resources for each other. As mentioned on the Ten Principles, specific instances include efforts that “produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, work of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.”

Gifting is done through deliberate acts, whether it is a homemade product, a skill, or a service; when one gives something, it is done with no expectations for anything in return or exchange.

Participation is explained in the following quote, taken directly from the Ten Principles: “Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”

The key principles outlined above explains why the attempt to coerce the Burning Man Festival organizers into paying for interpreting services does not sit well. Stewart’s request for the organizers to hire him directly conflicts with the organizers’ core values of decommodification and gifting. The ironic thing is, the Burning Man Festival is all about self-discovery and self-reflection about the person’s personal journey...and Stewart’s interpreting skills is one such service that has been gifted in past festivals without any expectations for financial compensation. If Stewart and Patterson went to the Burning Man Festival before, they would have known that there is already a volunteer system in place for interpreting and this lawsuit effectively goes against the volunteer system that the entire festival community is built upon. 

Some former Burning Man Festival attendees have pointed out to The Deaf Report that the “Dirty Hands Camp” is almost exclusively (if not exclusively) deaf attendees, and the attendees within that specific camp rarely--if ever--go out and interact with the larger group of hearing attendees. It is possible that the festival organizers could no longer justify the financial provision of interpreters when there was not enough use of the interpreters in interaction with other attendees to begin with. According to Burnson, one of the festival organizers submitted a response by citing two of Burning Man’s key principles: radical self-reliance and communal effort. "Through these guiding principles,” the organizer wrote, "we encourage our participants to rely on their own resources in discovering Black Rock City” (Burnson).

Word has been going around that some people believe both Patterson and Stewart wanted to attend the festival for free and were infuriated when they were not going to “be paid for their services” or given reduced tickets. This leads to the question of integrity. Stewart is not available for comment, since he has gone to attend the festival this year. 

It is important to mention that the Burning Man Festival does offer 4,000 low-income tickets priced at $190 each (the full price is $390) for those with proof of financial hardship, and they also do gift some tickets to “volunteers who build the city and make the event possible.” Had Stewart volunteered with his interpreting services as a gift, chances are that he might have been gifted a ticket to the festival.