Sunday, March 15, 2009

The pillow fight that got out of hand

Flash mobs -- groups of people who gather in public at random times, commit random acts and disappear back into the woodwork -- have been around for a while now. They're particularly popular in San Francisco because, well, it's San Francisco. Like many things in San Francisco they've been tolerated by the authorities because, well, it's San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the authorities are now having second thoughts, after a pillow fight that carried on from 6pm to around midnight left the city with a bill for $20,000. Since one of the key features of a flash mob is that any random anonymous person can get them started, and many do, there's not really anyone to send the bill to. And times is tight.

Oh, those irresponsible net.hooligans, trashing the place with no thought for the citizenry at large, right? Well, not really. The text messages that got the thing started said "Rules: Tell Everyone you know. ... Arrive with pillow hidden in bag. ... Practice responsible fun and help clean up. ..." and it's not like people suddenly went nuts and started breaking windows.

What actually happened was that pillows started breaking, spreading feathers on the wind. San Francisco weather being what it is, the flying feathers soon became wet, soggy, hard to clean up feathers. I'm pretty sure people anticipated the first part, and to some extent the second.

What they didn't realize was that cleaning up involved, among other things, draining a local fountain (which had just been filled) and checking the pumps and plumbing for clogs. Raking scads of feathers out of the grass was no fun either. Pretty soon you've got a $20,000 bill. This does not include $10,000 worth of damage to a nearby restaurant flooded when a second fountain overflowed.

The city would prefer that anyone planning a flash mob get permission, pay the appropriate rental fees, etc., etc. For obvious reasons, this is not going to happen. I don't get the impression that many people really want to crack down on flash mobs, but it's easy to understand why the city might see this as the most feasible option.

My personal opinion: Stuff like this is going to happen, particularly in a city like San Francisco (or New York, or London, or ...). To some extent it should be figured into the budget and the insurance bills of local businesses. On the other hand, the Right Thing for the flash mob participants to do would be to take up an anonymous collection and send the proceeds to the appropriate city departments (at least the Public Works and Recreation and Park departments were involved) and to the damaged restaurant to the extent it's actually liable. There were an estimated 1500 - 3000 participants. A donation of $10-$20 per head for hours of pillow-busting anarchic fun doesn't seem out of line.

[As the article I originally linked to implies ("This year's Valentine's Day pillow fight") the pillow fight itself was already an annual event in 2009.  As of last year it was still going strong.  This all seems like the antithesis of a "flash mob", or at least a fairly loose interpretation.

In any case, participants are still encouraged to clean up after themselves --D.H. Jan 2016]

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