Tomorrow, an army of Philadelphians will storm Washington Square Park armed with pillows. They’re planning a “surprise” attack at 3 p.m.
The Philadelphia Pillow Phight (yes, that’s its official name) is a haphazard event organized annually by a loosely knit throng of grassroots organizers, both local and international. It coincides with International Pillow Fight Day and the roughly 150 cities worldwide that now partake.
Caleb Derby, a Norristown resident, is in charge of planning Philly’s event. He took over from a Drexel University group called Urban Playground, created in 2010 to plan free social events in public spaces. The group has essentially disbanded since then, with its members graduating and relocating, but Derby’s been committed to making sure some of the events they introduced to Philly – like the pillow fight and the No Pants Subway Ride – keep happening.
He’s not totally alone in the effort, though. Ray Wall, owner of the laundry pickup and delivery service Got Laundry?, has been helping him coordinate ways for these events to serve the community. This will be his third year taking pillow donations and getting them in the hands of Philly’s homeless population.
Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, and Project Home reports over 6,000 individuals in Philadelphia were living in cars, on the street, or in abandoned homes in 2015.
Wall said he’s always felt compelled to use whatever resources he’s had to create positive change in the community. He reaches out to his customers through his business’ social media to help get the message out for people who may not have heard about or don’t participate in pillow fight day, and last year he collected around 100 pillows from both participants and customers.
The first few years he coordinated with Share to distribute the donations. It’s a small, locally run group with the sole purpose of getting goods to people who need them.
Amy Ortell, who started the project with some friends five years ago, said they’re usually able to handle the donations they get — they sometimes have to use vans to transport them between locations – but occasionally they’ll receive so many pillows that they’re able to share some with other local charities.
Wall said he plans to keep working with the pillow fight for the foreseeable future, both to give back to the community and just to have fun with his family.
“We got started as just participants,” he said, “then we saw there was a greater need to do more.”
Now, despite having a job to do, he, his wife and their seven kids still bring their own pillows and battle it out.
“Kids love it,” he said, “I mean, who doesn’t love swinging a pillow and, you know, banging someone upside the head, right?
“I think it’s just one of those things we’re going to always participate in.”
Other cities’ events also have ties to local charities. New York’s organizer, Kevin Bracken, coordinates pillow donations with local youth shelters. He’s also responsible for organizing the first public pillow fight in Toronto that led to the creation of International Pillow Fight Day.
A native New Yorker who fled to Canada during the Bush administration, Bracken had been working with other local organizers for years hosting massive public events throughout Toronto — unauthorized parades, giant LED installations, capture the flag. He held the first large scale public pillow fight in 2005.
Part of the inspiration for the events was performance and public art, particularly a 2005 installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, for which the two environmental artists hung saffron curtains over the pathways in New York’s Central Park.
“It occurred to me that the cheapest medium with which to create public art is people,” said Bracken, “If you can use the internet to mobilize a sufficient number of people, then you can create massive art.”
With these human installations, he also meant to promote a general movement in Toronto that emphasized the importance of public space in urban environments. He said most people within the organizational ranks of pillow fight day believe in the importance of public space to democracy.
Despite having a very real, very political goal in mind, he still wanted to ensure he created opportunities for people to have fun. Often when brainstorming ideas for events, Bracken and other organizers thought about games they played as kids, or even random childhood endeavours like using the cardboard pole from a roll of wrapping paper as a sword (This idea eventually led to the creation of the Glow Battle Tour).
The popularity of the events took off, but they were still mostly confined to Toronto. When people from cities in the US and around the world started reaching out to Bracken to ask how they could get involved, he seized the opportunity to turn a collection of sporadic events into a “cohesive and coherent movement.”
He picked the simplest event to organize – the pillow fight – gave it a name and a date, and in 2007, the first Saturday of April became International Pillow Fight Day.
Taking part in International Pillow Fight Day is a pretty simple process. Anyone can submit a request to hold a pillow fight, and, once approved, can get started organizing an event. Other than that, individual groups and organizers don’t need to have that much contact with Bracken or one another. Sometimes they share pictures or clean-up tips, but that’s pretty much all there is to it. Each city’s event is unique.
Derby said he wasn’t even aware of the meaning or the inspiration behind the original initiative when he got involved with Philly’s event.
“Honestly, I didn’t think twice about that,” he said, “Everybody always needs an excuse to have some random fun and embrace their inner child, so I took the initiative and started hosting it, and I’ve been hosting it ever since.”
Spencer Lewis, a Philadelphia based photographer and videographer who’s been to two Philadelphia pillow fights in the past, equated the scene in the park to a WWE showdown.
“People are really motivated,” he said.
Derby expects tomorrow’s turnout to be the biggest so far. Even if it rains, he said, there should still be a good showing. So far, over 700 have checked that they’re “going” on the Facebook event page, and he usually anticipates about half of those who respond to turn out.
Keeping in mind the safety of participants and everyone else at Washington Square Park, he does offer some guidelines:
- Soft pillows only
- Swing lightly
- Don’t swing at people with cameras or glasses
- Take off your glasses beforehand
- Feather free and cruelty free pillows only
- No memory foam
- All ages are welcome, but participate at your own risk
He also asks people who plan on attending to show up at Washington Square Park just before 3 p.m. with their pillows somewhat concealed. At exactly 3 p.m., whip out your pillow and hit someone with it. Just make sure it’s not a passerby.