Open Letter to the Fire Pony Creative Society

Dear Directors & Members of the Firepony Creative Society (“FPCS”):

Hate has no place in our community. Today we write out of dismay and disappointment at FPCS’s response to the inverted burning cross art piece that has been repeatedly displayed at their regional Burning Man events. We believe, without reservation, that there is no place for racial hatred in any form at Burning Man events.

The burning cross’ appearance at multiple regional events has repeatedly been met with requests for its removal because its presence is both harmful and inappropriate. FPCS’s response to the presence of this piece at their event last year has been to create a section of the event designed to cater specifically to art it refers to as “controversial” and suggesting those who want to give input should join the FPCS arts team. We believe this harms the community by: 1) failing to identify an unavoidable truth for all people of color: that a burning cross is an expression of racial hatred; 2) failing to be strong and responsible community leaders by placing the burden of both participation and resolution upon the victims of racial oppression; and, 3) centering the dialogue around expression at the expense of ignoring the harm caused to people of color. We believe FPCS can do better.

The Supreme Court states in Virginia v. Black : “Burning a cross in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan . . . . The Klan has often used cross burnings as a tool of intimidation and a threat of impending violence. To this day, however, regardless of whether the message is a political one or is also meant to intimidate, the burning of a cross is a ’symbol of hate.’”(emphasis added.)

Displaying a burning cross is an actively harmful statement to people of color in our community that reinforces threatening historical narratives, regardless of artistic intent. In a community that aspires to be opening and welcoming to all, no one should be forced to compartmentalize their identity to participate. This is neither welcoming, nor is it respectful. A Burning Man event condoning this display places the burden upon people of color to ignore their own history of oppression and intimidation to participate in FPCS events.

We believe FPCS has demonstrated poor community leadership in both reducing the character of the work from threatening to merely “controversial” and by failing to even name or describe the piece in its statements. In doing so, FPCS has failed to acknowledge the character of the work as being fundamentally intimidating to members of the community. We call upon the leaders of FPCS to respond to the issue of racial hatred in our community plainly and openly. We encourage processes and policies in collaboration with other community leaders that ensure safety for all and opportunity for those who have been harmed directly to become essential stakeholders in responding to past and future harms.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the debate over this piece focuses on an artist’s right to radical self-expression and whether any attempt to restrict their ability to display their piece is censorship. This issue is not about censorship at all, but about civic responsibility and safety of participants. We believe that strong, decisive, and direct leadership in cases like these will open community energy to more generative art and creative expression. The creation of a mere committee obfuscates and compartmentalizes the process of responding to this issue. It fails to hold the organizers accountable for not meeting the responsibility inherent in their role. It shatters the trust placed in them as leaders of our community. And, it mirrors the uneven power dynamics in a broader culture that marginalize people of color. The good of the community, and preserving the character of a place many of us call home must come first. We must not sacrifice our other beliefs, values, and principles at the altar of radical self-expression.

We fail to see the principle of radical self-expression at work in the burning cross. It does nothing to build upon, challenge, alter, parody, or attempt to thematically change the hateful meaning described above. It is nothing more than a naked symbol of hate. This is an opportunity to take a firm stand against racial hatred at Burning Man events. By merely enacting more complex and bureaucratic rules, the event organizers have only exacerbated the tensions and pain this work produced. This is unacceptable to us.

We acknowledge the role of art in creating change and creating spaces through which we may have a dialogue regarding ourselves, our culture, and our place in it. We believe that we all have a right to explore ourselves through creativity and that sometimes the results of that work may be coarse, controversial, or imperfect. We believe that the right to create is also sacrosanct and that the results of that work may at times be confrontational with the work’s audience. It is our duty as a community to create spaces where people may explore the difficulties of the internal and external world, but we do not believe that racial hatred deserves a protected space in this fashion.

For 30 years, Burning Man has created spaces to step out of the default world and culture, to imagine and experiment with different ways of relating to ourselves, our communities and our experience. For too long, we have struggled to recognize the privilege that is required to fully step out of the context of daily life in modern America. For many who would participate in these spaces, the impacts of racism and other forms of oppression cannot simply be left at the gate. To create inclusive space, we must account for that experience in the boundaries we set. And the truth is that we as a community need the participation and perspective of diverse voices if we seek to continue the growth and evolution of our own culture.

We invite FPCS to join with us and take a strong stand against racial hatred; to be accountable to each other, to acknowledge when we cause harm, and to support each other in healing. We believe that setting clear boundaries would reduce the silent, indirect censorship that happens when people choose not to engage or participate at all based on the perception of disregard by the organizers. Rather than devoting resources and attention to protecting the rights of a handful of provocateurs, let us instead lift up and encourage the artistic expression of those who most need to feel their voices are heard. We want to work with you to make this a reality at FPCS events and to continue investigating how we can deepen this commitment at all events our community organizes.

We know that FPCS understands this ethical and moral imperative, and urge FPCS to remove this and all other symbols of hate and fear from our community and their events. We request that FPCS make a clear and public statement condemning the burning cross as racial hatred, apologize to those whom it has harmed, and take ownership of and responsibility for honoring the right of people of color to engage in our community without having to ignore or compartmentalize their identities. We urge you to stand up and be strong leaders, to do the right thing and show us what a world without fear or hate could look like. Until that time, the undersigned will not support or attend your events and will use every avenue possible to create a better community free of hate and fear.

Finally, we acknowledge our own roles as imperfect allies in driving this process forward. Our effort arose out of empathy, outrage, and sympathy for our friends of color and we hope this letter will be a catalyst to encourage them to engage in dialogue, help us create solutions, and express to us what we can do as individuals and as a community to support them. This letter speaks only for the undersigned, but we invite those most harmed by this issue to speak their truth about how this situation has affected them, and what resolution would make our community feel welcoming and safe once again.

Signed:

Camp Contact // Pedal Pies // Meso Creso // Totenkitten

BCDC // Bangarang // Pyramid People // White Dragon Noodle Bar

Deadly Muppets // Echo Collective // Iguana Chill Camp // Adventure Tribe

Drama Llama // Im/Mortality // Catastrophe! // Celtic Rose Project

Sunset & Chill // Revolutionary Motion

Alan Price — TCO, Barrel of Fun

Leslie Elmore — Constellation Fire Conclave Lead