Balboa Park water fight was a tragedy of the commons
|By Justin Hudnall|
A blow-by-blow, eyewitness account of what went down at the koi pondI first heard about the Balboa Park Midnight Water Gun Fight of 2012 from an acquaintance, Xavier, on his lunch break.
He asked me if I was planning to go, and I admitted that I hadn't heard about it. He described the concept as a flash-mob cultural happening, organized out of nothing but a single Facebook invitation, circulated organically by digital culture.
Xavier didn't care about water guns or youthful regression; he was excited about the opportunity to witness a communal celebration forming on its own accord in San Diego, the kind of utopian gesture social media was blazing trails for, the kind of unstructured jubilee reported in cities known more for their ingenuity than their weather.
He promised to forward me the invitation, and a notice popped up on my screen in the time it took him to return to his computer. About 300 people had signaled that they'd assemble, as directed, by the Great Fountain on Saturday, Aug. 11. At the time I signed up, it was only the beginning of July.
The event page suggested that participants dress up for the occasion, the more outlandish the better. The online invitation was removed after the event and before I could verify, but, to my memory, there were explicit instructions not to bring water balloons, because of the litter they'd create.
By the time the proscribed date came, nearly 2,000 people had RSVP'd, half of them in the affirmative. I picked up my friend "Diana" (not her real name), a junior-high-school teacher, and parked in the lot by the Great Fountain minutes before the announced kickoff at 11:30 p.m. Only a scant few groupings of 20-somethings were milling around when a man whose physique made me regret having eaten anything, ever, especially while outside of a gym, strode past wearing a Speedo. I recognized his face from the event's Facebook invitation as its originator, Ken St. Pierre.
St. Pierre announced that the starting point had relocated to the reflecting pool because the Great Fountain was down for repairs. "Pass it on," he called.
Clusters of people numbering in the low hundreds had gathered on the Botanical Gardens side of the lily pond, their demographics a diverse cross section: SDSU frat boys in camouflage, several Olympic swim team's worth of statuesque gay men in Speedos, Filipino dudes from Mira Mesa formed into fire teams, a few Muslim girls in headscarves, one heavily accessorized Jack Sparrow look-alike, a small army of men and women dressed up for a casual Comic-Con and lots of ordinary people dressed ordinarily.
Diana asked one participant in a group of men wearing similar grease paint on their faces if he was on a team.
"There are no teams here, only enemies," he joked.
By midnight, the crowd had grown by hundreds, and it would continue to grow over the next hour toward 1,000. At a quarter past, without fanfare or warning, an air horn was blown and the scene erupted into the stuff of adolescent fantasy. Everyone began dashing nowhere in particular, screaming, laughing, blurs of white teeth grinning in the darkness. I have never seen so many people smiling for such a sustained amount of time without the aid of alcohol, the mar of violence or the motives of corporate sponsorship.
The first problem to arise was predictable. Water guns run dry fast, and while several people brought jugs for refilling, the vast majority had not, and the principal preoccupation was how to keep the fun going. Figures hunched along the pond's edge at regular intervals, dipping plastic toys between reeds and lily pads. It became common practice almost immediately.I saw a middle-aged woman shout at a teenage boy to stop throwing water balloons unless he was going to pick them up afterward. The boy hesitated until she'd moved on a few paces around a column, and then resumed lobbing artillery with impressive accuracy wherever the crowd was densest.
Some adolescents jumped into a small recessed portion of the pond but got back out once Diana yelled at them in her practiced teacher's tone. She gave up once a dozen grownups followed the kids' lead moments later.
"This is why you need to designate who the adults are. These are the ones who are going to fuck it up for everyone," Diana predicted.
Going through my photos, I put the number of people who jumped in the pond and fucked it up for everyone at 14.
Those among the crowd prone to excess made their presence known around 12:40 a.m. A tall, gangly man appeared to be living out a fantasy in the storm-trooper helmet of a Star Wars clone, dominating the night with a kind of high-pressure hand pump that disgorged its entire load by the half-gallon in a single deluge. He rhythmically dipped the gun's tip back into the lily pond to suck up another shot, then released again. And then again. And then again.
A college-age guy in a jersey dispensed with water guns altogether and used a mop bucket he'd apparently brought for the purpose of dousing entire groups of people with pond water. Another man 10 years his senior, his waterlogged shorts sliding off his skinny ass, re-appropriated the igloo cooler he'd brought and used it for the same purpose.
Two couples had taken to making out in the pond, forgoing play for romance among the reeds. I wondered if they would contract dysentery. A shirtless, skinny bespectacled fellow floated around them in a sort of alligator impersonation, his eyes the only part of him above the waterline, a lily pad resting on his head like Mr. Toad's yarmulke. He waited until a girl stooped to refill her gun before raising his own to shoot her in the face.
Water ran in the gutters at a volume equal to what a light rain would cause. The enterprising among the crowd who would not raid the lily pond stooped to refill their guns out of the stream.
"That's going to be nasty, with all the dirt and oil they're scooping up," a man in a turquoise thong remarked.The crowd began to thin around 1 a.m., in what I partially interpreted as disapproval of the misbehaving minority. Around 1:30 a.m., the air horn sounded again in a long, sustained blast and lassoed with invisible force the remaining hundreds together into a close mass, cheering and firing in the air. Someone began shouting, "USA! USA!" fueled by what sounded like Olympic medal fever, and the crowd immediately took up the chant in celebration of the freedom that within 24 hours would lead to their condemnation.
As my friends and I walked back to my car, a police helicopter passed overhead and then slowed, seemed to hesitate in its trajectory, then began circling widely within view of the lily pond and the remaining revelers. If a helicopter can look surprised, this one did.
I turned to Diana and mentioned how shocked I was that not a single cop or security guard had shown up during the entire two-and-a-half hours we'd been there. I asked her what she thought would be more surprising: if the police hadn't known about a gathering of that enormity—one that lasted for nearly three hours and had been advertised a month in advance—or if they had known but chose not to intervene.
"They had to have known; there's no way."
"Maybe they didn't think they could control a crowd that big," offered another friend.
"Of course they could," Diana said. "Look at who was there: a bunch of pussy little bitches like us. If they'd told us to go home, everyone would have shuffled their feet and said, oh-kay.' But I'll tell you this right now: If one asshole accidentally killed one of those fish, everybody is going to be in a lot of trouble. Everything good about the night will be forgotten."