In 2004, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in the fourth game of the World Series, taking the series for the first time since 1918. Unexpectedly, the public victory celebration developed into the first mob I’ve ever been in, and it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. Since then, I actively seek out mobs wherever I can.
During the bottom of the last inning, about 40,000 people, mostly college students, poured into Kenmore square. I was listening to the game in a house in the Back Bay with two colleagues, one of whom I found indominatably attractive. The Sox were batting at the top of the ninth, and halfway through, we looked at eachother, then grabbed our coats and ran whooping into the night. Everyone carried red plastic cups and portable radios, and the crowd’s roar at the final out, announced over thousands of tiny speakers, was deafening. And the celebration began. Fueled by drunkenness and the release of 86 cursed years (but mostly drunkenness), Kenmore erupted into the kind of baccanalian orgy ususally reserved for democratic primaries. At that same moment, several hundred riot cops in full riot gear, lined up along the north end of the square, started smashing their billy clubs against their shields in unison. This sound was pure destruction, and it was quite near where I was standing. The sound cut through the cheery atmosphere like a knife, and I remember feeling a strong sense of panic admist the intrigue and bonhomie. Around me, I noticed many of the drunken rioters turning as well, in a kind of lost confusion. The beating stopped ten seconds later, but its impact hung low over the crowd.
Fifteen minutes later, the feeling evaporated to be replaced with sunny drunkenness and an unbridled release of energy. Everybody was yelling and slinging beer. My colleagues made the acquaintance of a couple dreadlocked gentlemen who offered them marijuana cigarettes with a delicate dusting of PCP, and they all went off to a back alley to partake and gibber. I was too fascinated by the scene unfolding about me to pay any notice. For about forty-five minutes, there was just this unfocused expression, multiplied and syncronized by 40,000 people. Crowdsurfers sped by over our heads like sweaty angels. Frat boys climbed up streetlight poles and started humping the streetlights, causing the hanging lights to swing wildly. On the mass pike below, the car horns sounded nonstop. We were all dark wet with beer.
This energy could only remain unfocused for so long. Slowly, like a cloud of fireflies syncing up, the mob began to coalesce around the singular goal of destruction. The first brick went through Citibank’s plate glass window, and like a call and response, was answered with a salvo of bricks from synced combatants. There were three or four cars with NY plates parked in Kenmore, and they were flipped and smoldering in short order. The police hung back, watching us. Everyone suddenly seemed to have a makeshift club. The fireflies weren’t all synced up, but more and more were joining each pulse. Glass showered down from lamplights. Fistfights broke out up and down the sidewalk. I remember seeing a group of twenty drunken college students setting fire to the trees in the sidewalk near me. A bookish student wearing a button-up shirt stomped it out, shouting “are you crazy? stop! Stop!” They pushed him aside and started again, holding a lighter to the tree. He knocked the lighter to the ground and stomped it to pieces. Somebody socked him one to the jaw, and the mob lifted him up and carried him off to Parts Unknown, showering him with punches and leaving a trail of dripping blood along the way. In the dark, you never see what happens to the fireflies that don’t sync up with the group.
After ten minutes of mayhem, about half the windows in Kenmore were in pieces, and a couple opportunistic sports fans had developed a kind of bucket brigade operation to loot a nearby donut shop.
I think it was the donuts that did it. The cops had had enough. Throughout the whole affair, they’d held a line at the edge of the square, faces set and expressionless behind polycarbonate. A few lieutenants ran in orbit, jabbering into walkie-talkies and waiting for someone to tell them what to do. And someone did. One sound suddenly made everyone stop–the cops had received an order to clear the square, and they were walking forwards, sweeping the square, and smashing their clubs into their shields with each step. The rhythmic smashing cut through the night’s pandemonium like a knife. This was a battle trance. I just wasn’t a part of it. The sound of the batons, coupled with the sight of thousands of people, like me, who were fleeing in complete disarray, struck a deeply instinctive terror in my heart. I was standing up near the bridge over the mass pike, and from the slight elevation, I could see the panic setting in, and whatever destructive syncronicity the crowd had found was shattered by the overwhelming authority of a line of pounding, advancing uniforms. Wherever the police line went, people scattered, running in all directions. At this point, I don’t think the cops actually engaged with anybody. The sheer spectacle was enough to sweep people off the square. I suddenly realized that I had no idea where my colleagues were, or what state of mind they were in. And that’s when the first tear gas canisters landed.
After this, there was no battle trance. It reduced to sheer emotion and weaponry. Tear gas is extremely effective at distracting people, and Kenmore was quickly obscured in a haze of gas. Everything I remember from this point on was just small snippets of scenes that I saw through the smoke. All around me, people were running, coughing, holding shirts against their faces. And then the sound of the batons stopped. The cops re-formed in a line at the south end of the square, waiting to see if the mob was subdued. The tear gas canisters sputtered and stopped, and the smoke dispersed into a thin haze over the square, lit by the few streetlights that were still functioning and the fires from a few overturned cars with NY plates.
For maybe a minute, the square was silent, filled with people running to the edges of the square. The middle of kenmore was pretty clear. There were people everywhere, but they were pressed against the perimeter. Nobody moved until the first brick sailed through the air.
I was surprised to see it come from a guy standing right next to me. He opened his mouth and screamed, “fuck the police!” Another salvo followed, accompanied with more shouts, “fuck the police, fuck the police.” It had its own syncronicity, underscored by the rattling of stones crashing against lexan shield. A group of thirty or forty Sox fans formed up, shouting “fuck the police” over and over. The shouts started coming from all around me, from all ends of the square. It seemed like, for an instant, the whole world wanted to fuck the police. The world wanted a fight, and they started walking running towards the line of cops, hurling anything they could get their hands on.
And then the cops were running, too, and this time they were swinging their clubs. A couple more tear gas canisters landed nearby, and a couple people wearing uniforms at the far end of the square seemed to be aiming guns in my direction.
Someone grabbed me, and I turned around to find my devastatingly cute colleague, pupils huge and worried. She couldn’t find our other colleage, who had inhaled an unwise quantity of psychoactives. We started running through the mayhem, looking for his face and coughing gas. Amazingly, we found him pretty quickly. He was sitting under a tree, unconcerned by the madness around him, with a glassy smile on his face. Around us, a number of people were lying on the ground and getting hauled into paddywagons, and it seemed like the crowd was gearing up for another pass. It was a good time to make an exit, and so we linked hands and made our way out, hearts pounding until we passed the Mass Ave overpass. And that is how the story ends.
As an afternote, or perhaps an underscore to the story, a twenty-one year-old girl named Victoria Snelgrove was standing on the bridge, away from the square and madness, about 100 feet from where I’d been. Rochefort Milien, a Boston Police officer, shot a pepper spray bullet into her left eye. She died twelve hours later in a hospital bed.