By Sarah Ferguson
Global terror, the NYPD’s increasingly restrictive rules governing public gatherings, and a city economy based on honing New Yorkers into efficiency drones has sucked much of the spontaneity from New York City’s street life.
So it was a rare act of liberation to watch a crowd of thousands—sans permit—swamp the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday for a renegade street party known as “One Night of Fire.”
More amazing still, the cops let it happen.
Perhaps the NYPD brass figured there was just no stopping the exuberantly costumed hordes who began converging from both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge at the assigned time of 7:57 pm. Organized via email and listservs, the party came with instructions to “wear white, the more costumed the better. You are the angels that keep this city alive and untamed.” People did that and then some, showing up in wings, festooned in sequins and gossamer threads, smothered in white plastic bags, or covered in face paint.
Prodded along by “coaxers” dressed in red and black with flaming cherry motifs, all sorts of drummers, pipers, stilt-walkers, angels, devils, and curious creatures filled both the pedestrian and bike pathways—to the great annoyance of commuting cyclists forced to dismount and wade through what felt like a cross between Mardi Gras, Burning Man, and a Grateful Dead show parking lot.
No one knew where the party was headed, which was half the fun, the point being just to be there and test the bounds of what’s possible in this increasingly bounded city.
A 9:01, a great whooping went up as a txt msg came through to “follow the cavalry!” That turned out to be a guy in a rubber horse-head pedaling a bike and blaring what sounded like a foghorn. We flooded back into Manhattan and into City Hall Park, where people frolicked in the fountain for several minutes, then on to the Q and R trains to Brooklyn.
It was so packed, it took half an hour just to get on the subway, despite the gyrating exhortations of several half-naked stilt walkers and Carny gals urging people on. For a second, it looked like things might turn ugly when a half dozen cops armed with with assault rifles jumped out of a black SUV on Broadway, accompanied by several police vans. The cops eyed the crowd warily, then just as quickly got back in their SUV. But that was the closest things got to conflict.
Subway cars became moving discos, jammed with marching bands, ravers blaring boomboxes, pole dancers and a guy toting a cooler full of liquor-drenched cherries and other libations.
And at Coney Island, police watched as a dozen or so fire twirlers whirled flames on the beach, accompanied by scattered bursts of fireworks. The commanding officer clapped as he ordered the cops to shut down the pyrotechnics. Later these same officers watched as skinny dippers dashed into the waves. They eventually ordered everybody out of the water.
Such official indulgence was a strange—but welcome—sight, considering the NYPD’s efforts to shut down Critical Mass bike rides, Reclaim the Streets parties, and other such “spontaneous” events—culminating, of course, in the new parade statute requiring permits for processions of 50 or more people.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, despite its libertine overtones, “One Night of Fire” was not labeled as a protest. Perhaps it was because of the emails that went out urging people to be polite to the cops, “respect their direction,” and “don’t do anything that you’ll regret when you’re 50.”
Or perhaps even the NYPD is coming to realize that sometimes they just need to kick back and cut people some slack.
“We had no contact with the police before the event but they were amazingly cooperative throughout,” says organizer Will Etundi of the Danger collective, which “sparked” the event. “We simply explained that we are artists celebrating the city we love and they got it. At some points, it looked like the police were having as much fun as the rest of us.”
Click here for a photo slideshow of “The One Night of Fire” party.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2007