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Pillows and mp3 players in hand, some turn cities into playgrounds

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Thousands filled Wall Street for International Pillow Fight Day on April 4, 2009. (Photo by Jonah Engle)

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Revellers staged a revolutionary water gun battle in Boston on Aug. 16, 2008. (Eddric Lee/Banditos Misteriosos)

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Feathers fly at the annual pillow fight in New York, one of 120 cities that participated in International Pillow Fight Day on April 4, 2009. (Photo by Marie Claire Andrea)

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"Redcoats" storm Boston's Esplanade Park in a revolutionary water gun battle, Aug. 16, 2008. (Photo by Thomas Kelly)

By the thousands they streamed out of the subway entrances and through the streets of New York’s financial district until Wall Street was so packed no one could move. A few police officers tried to shoo them away but were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd.

At exactly 3 p.m., the signal was given, and the battle commenced. For more than half an hour a furious fight raged on. It was every man, woman and child for themselves as people screamed and attacked each other. No one was hurt, however, and when the dust–or more precisely, the feathers–settled, the combatants were smiling.

On Saturday, April 4, also known as International Pillow Fight Day, this was the scene that played out in 120 cities on five continents from Raleigh, N.C., to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Kevin Bracken, who coordinated the global event, says the number of cities participating more than tripled from last year, the first time International Pillow Fight Day was held.

With all the current anger aimed at the financial sector, the event on Wall Street was also a playful protest for some. Anjoli Anand, a student who traveled from Philadelphia, joked that she’d devised a scoring system, “One point for a banker, five for a CEO.”

The spike in the number and size of these events highlights the rapid growth of what’s been dubbed the Urban Playground Movement, an experience in human whimsy that is taking off even at a time when it seems there is little to be joyful about.

While events like these have been happening in a few cities for years Bracken says the “total saturation” of social media outlets has driven up attendance at events around the world.

Bracken is a 22-year-old DJ and party promoter in Brooklyn who co-founded Newmindspace (http://newmindspace.com/), a group that organizes everything from giant Easter egg hunts through Toronto’s Kensington Market to the recent pillow fight on Wall Street. He coined the term Urban Playground Movement to describe the playful, artistic and participatory spectacles that seek to reclaim public space from corporate control in favor of free expression.

Until a few years ago, such gatherings were relatively isolated affairs limited to in-the-know teenagers and 20-somethings in a few cities, but sites like YouTube changed all that. The ability to record these events and post them online is key. “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t really happen,” says Rick Abruzzo, a 33-year-old ad company employee who organizes many of these events in his native San Francisco.

Bracken says he received more and more e-mails from people in other cities who wanted to do their own events, so he posted a free how-to-guide, “Metromorphosis: The art of city transformation,” on the Newmindspace Web site to help them get started.

In addition, organizers in dozens of cities are connected by an e-mail list through which they share ideas, post photos of past events and plan future public escapades. Not only has the number of groups proliferated, but so has the number of people participating in these events.

When a Boston group called Banditos Misteriosos staged its first event, a pillow fight at the end of 2007, 150 show up. At the April 4 pillow fight, organizers counted 1,500 participants. As the movement spreads, different cities are putting their own stamp on things.

Last August, Banditos staged their first revolutionary-style water gun battle. On the eve of the event, participants were divided into redcoats and revolutionaries and told to meet at two separate locations. At each site, an actor was brought in to play a general—the American recited Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The two armies faced off on a huge field and marched toward each other to the sound of fife and drums. After 45 minutes a “robot army” appeared and everyone started blowing bubbles, after which the water gun battle picked up again.

The Banditos have used every tool imaginable to spread word of their events. “We try to hit up everything,” says one co-founder of the group, a school counselor from Boston in his mid 20s. In keeping with the group’s moniker, its members don’t give out their real names publicly. The co-founder says the movement has exploded “because no one really owns the major event mechanisms anymore” unlike the days when print media was the normal conduit of information.

In addition to a Web site (http://www.misteriosos.org/), the Banditos have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. They use other networking sites like tribe.net and yelp.com.

In Britain, Ben Cummins—who invented the hugely popular concept of mobile clubbing in which people show up in a public place like a train station with mp3 players and have a dance party —is working on a feature on his Web site (http://www.mobile-clubbing.com/Seedsprouts/MobileClubbing/Display/Home.aspx) that will allow people around the world to plan and announce their own mobile clubbing events.

But many, including Cummins himself, are worried that the ease of information sharing that has spread these events around the world has its drawbacks. “I really liked the difficulty,” Cummins says of the pre YouTube and Facebook days. “It’s far too easy now.” And greater cultural currency has meant creeping commercialization.

The Banditos say they have been approached by and resisted major corporations who want to sponsor their events. But rejecting corporate interest is not a simple matter. “We’ve just been bastardized by T-Mobile,” says Cummins. This year the company produced an ad centered on mobile clubbing (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQ3d3KigPQM&feature=related) in the very place, London’s Liverpool street metro station, where Cummins first unleashed his idea on unsuspecting commuters in 2003.

Beyond the commercialization, Cummins is worried that the ads will undercut the power of actual mobile clubbing events themselves. People will think the real thing is not as cool as the advertisement—the ultimate defeat for a movement founded on the concept of reclaiming public space for creative expression in the face of growing corporate dominance. Cummins says he’s thinking about scaling back and finding new ways to do his work.

But some cast doubt on the political claims made by the urban playground movement. Andrew Potter, co-author of “The Rebel Sell: Why the culture Can’t Be Jammed,” says while these events are fun, they don’t do anything to undermine corporate control of civic space.

“Forty years of this kind of playful nonconformity” he says, harkening back to the Yipee movement of the 1960s, have only strengthened consumer capitalism, which thrives on new styles and rebellious non-conformity.

But Bracken believes strongly in the potential of the growing movement which he says is both “free and freeing.” As he sat drinking a chai latte in a Williamsburg cafe the week after International Pillow Fight Day, Bracken was dreaming big. He hopes to take pillow fighting to the ends of the earth. “Next year we want to get one at like Fort McMurdo in Antarctica,” he said, “and we want to get one in the International Space Station.”

E-mail: jge2103@columbia.edu