D.C. snowball fight 'fun and games' until gun appears

A D.C. police detective angrily confronted a group of snowball fighters, at one point even drawing his weapon, after they pelted him and his Hummer with snowballs near the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW Saturday, witnesses said. Responding in part to this and other videos, D.C. police said the detective, who they have declined to identify, has been assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter.
By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009

The call went out on a Web site and over Twitter, and hundreds of 20- and 30-somethings, tired of being cooped up, gathered at 14th and U streets NW on Saturday for a little restless indulgence.

Snowball fight!

People squealed as they hurled balls of snow across the largely deserted road. Then, a snowball or two slammed into a Hummer. The driver, a plainclothes detective whom D.C. police refused to identify, got out, drew his gun and exchanged angry words with revelers, according to video footage and witnesses.

Police said initially that the detective had not flashed his weapon. On Sunday, the officer was placed on desk duty after Twitter, blogs and YouTube appeared to show otherwise.

If the final investigation shows the officer pulled his weapon after being pelted with snowballs, D.C. Assistant Chief Pete Newsham, head of the investigative services bureau, said that "would not be a situation in which a member [of the force] would be justified."

"We have to see what the entire circumstance was," Newsham said Sunday. "But just a snowball fight, not in my mind. That doesn't seem a situation where we would pull out a service weapon."

The snowball fight was the brainchild of Yousef Ali, a 25-year-old former Apple Genius and aspiring "rock star" who is forging a career in media and technology. In an interview Sunday, Ali said, he was inspired to start the snowball fight by a friend's Facebook status and used a dormant personal blog, http://www.futuremagining.com/?p=3, and extensive Twitter promotion to expand the participant list.

With Ali's nonstop efforts, the event was making the cyber rounds. Even the D.C. Department of Transportation seemed to embrace it, Tweeting on Saturday soon after the fight began: "SNOW UPDATE as advertised, there is a large snowball battle at 14th and U. Keep it safe."

"Basically, I used a lot of my social media promotions techniques and on Twitter to really push this thing pretty big," Ali said. "I pretty much did this consistently until about 5 in the morning Saturday, so it was almost like 11 hours straight staying in my apartment working on this stuff."

Jason Grishkoff, 24, said he read about the fight online and considered it a must-go. Growing up in South Africa, Grishkoff said, he had hardly seen snow.

"This was my first snowball fight," he said. "I've always been a fan of the flash-mob type of things. I kind of figured it was along those lines."

Grishkoff said he arrived at the intersection promptly at 2 p.m. to find just 20 people milling about. By 2:15 p.m., he said, there were 100; by 2:30 p.m., 100 on each side.

Some cars passing by rolled down their windows to taunt the warriors -- and were consequently pelted with snow. Gas-guzzling Hummers became a particular target, Grishkoff said, because of the crowd's political leanings. (A few people, witnesses said, brought an antiwar sign, although the snowball fight was not a political protest.)

Police, at least initially, were tolerant, witnesses said. By some accounts, a D.C. officer asked the revelers to disperse, but when they didn't, he didn't raise a fuss. At one point, witnesses said, the snowball fighters helped push a police car out of the snow.

"You can criticize it for being immature . . . but it was pretty safe," said Matthew Bradley, 28, an amateur photographer who showed up to shoot pictures. "It seemed like everything was what you'd expect."

Then a maroon Hummer pulled up and was hit by snowballs. A man in plainclothes got out with a gun in his left hand.

According to witnesses, the man did not identify himself, and at least one reveler threw a snowball at him. Most witnesses said the man kept the gun at his side. But some witnesses said the detective holstered the gun and then charged into the crowd, pushing at least one snowball fighter with his finger and threatening to haul others to jail.

"There was this general mood of everything's a good time, and then he pulls out a gun, and everybody's just fearful," said Peter Witte, 30. "It was a little bit surreal to see somebody get out of the car with a gun."

Soon other officers arrived, including one who also approached with a gun drawn at his side, police and witnesses said. Police said that officer knew only that witnesses had reported a man with a gun, and when he learned that the man was a detective, he quickly holstered his weapon.

But the confrontation continued. The snowball fighters, some chanting, "You don't bring a gun to a snowfall fight," demanded the detective's name, and he admitted to them that he had pulled his gun after being struck by snowballs, according to video footage and witnesses. Then, as the detective was walking back to his Hummer, witnesses said, he was struck again by a snowball and ran back into the crowd to grab the man he thought was the culprit.

The man was eventually released, witnesses said, and the revelers were sent on their way.

But some remain unsatisfied.

"It was actually kind of just fun and games until all of this happened," said Lacy MacAuley, 31, who came to the snowball fight from Adams Morgan. "I feel that this is just an example of people asserting our basic right to have fun, and the police not being okay with that."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company