A pink-clad William Wallace, with a hotel pillow and a guttural yell, ran through rival formations in the shadow of the Washington Monument at 2:53 p.m. Saturday.
The futile attempt to keep the masses apart until the 3 p.m. starting gun was doomed. After a moment, the mob engaged — hundreds screaming toward each other and landing thousands of blows with the gentlest of weapons.
In a city full of ritual and outrage — faux and real — the annual brawl on International Pillow Fight Day represented many things: a chance for low-key federal bureaucrats to release some high-energy aggression; an opportunity to wax John Lennon-like about a world where feathers and polyester stuffing are the only weapons; and a venue for a muscular man in a red-white-and-blue unitard to teach the world about Freedom.
“Democracy!” shouted Antwone Walters, a software engineer from Alexandria, who, for more than an hour, assaulted the multicultural quilt of humanity with exclamations on the American character.
“Constitution!” he kept blaring, by way of instant introduction before diving into the white-hot core of the fight and bashing his latest target.
“Are you a Communist, dammit?”
“Freedom never dies! Liberty always goes on. The Republic never dies. Pay your parking tickets!”
When Walters screamed “America!” Azat Bizhanov, a Web designer from Bethesda, fought back with a pillow and chant of “Kazakhstan!” Bizhanov is from the former Soviet Republic, but he also heard exclamations of “Germany!” and “Russia!”
Bizhanov thrashed about with a pillow in each hand, riding on the shoulders of Maryland programmer Meder Omuraliev. “I hope the world war is going to be like that, not real fighting,” Bizhanov said, gasping to catch his breath.
The battle was almost shockingly good natured, with one monster-size dude knocking a waifish kid with enough force for both of them to maintain a semblance of self-respect, but not enough to knock the boy silly.
It was the short and nerve-wracking pathway from bystander to full-on shellacker that was the most satisfying for some. Where else can you hit a stranger in a big American city and both walk away giggly and unbloodied?
Certain targets were bigger than others.
“You try to find someone to attack. Like this guy in the fox hat,” said Abbey Ashley, a stay-at-home mom. It was her fifth time at Washington’s pillow fight, and she drew up homemade “Pillow Panther” shirts with her friend Ashley Munteanu, an administrative worker, “and pillow fighter extraordinaire.”
International Pillow Fight Day was launched seven years ago by organizer Kevin Bracken after his events in New York City and Toronto caught attention elsewhere.
“I e-mailed every wacky event organizer in the Western world and got them onto a private mailing list. We held a vote and decided to hold International Pillow Fight Day on the first Saturday of every April,” he said. Events were scheduled this year from Ireland to Vietnam.
His organizational philosophy: Don’t ask for permission. His underlying philosophy: All would be better if urban spaces were more like playgrounds.
Human nature being a complex beast, there were some particularly aggressive types. Some specialized in the sucker thump and quick escape. Others joined a series of duels that felt more like Ultimate Fighting Championship matches. But a man in a toga with leather straps would declare a winner and pull the participants off each other after a series of major blows.
Anthony Hill, a Federal Aviation Administration contracting officer, guided his two grandkids into the furious fray.
“My people would have a fit if they see me down here. ‘Not him, Mr. Straitlaced himself,’” Hill said.
Granddaughter Nya Davage, 13, was still stinging a bit from one blow. “I got hit in the head and it hurt,” Davage said.
“You’re supposed to get hit in the head,” Hill responded. “Everybody hits you up with a smile after they hit you.”
By about 4 p.m., they were ready to head out.
“Anybody need a pillow?” Hill shouted into the crowd.
Daniel Gauthier, a French-Colombian who is studying at American University, took up Hill’s offer, then began to swing wildly at everyone around him.
“I needed a weapon,” Gauthier said during a lull in the mayhem. “It’s a good way to avoid being violent.”