The Great Snowball Fight of Malcolm X Park and the Political Power of Laughter

04/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Elk Labor reporter at POLITICO; Member of the Washington Baltimore Newspaper Guild

With two feet of snow on the ground, there wasn't a car on the roads of Northwest Washington, D.C.

However, the roads were packed -- packed full of people walking to the great snowball fight of Malcolm X Park. The fight was the talk of my neighborhood, organized spontaneously through Facebook, Twitter, email, and more traditional means like actually talking to people via the telephone, or even face-to-face

There were hundreds of people in Malcolm X Park of all ages and colors from the recently gentrified neighborhoods surrounding the park.

It was one of the few times that all the people of this neighborhood marked by gentrification and racial tension had gotten together in Malcolm X Park. Even the name Malcolm X Park was a source of contention in the neighborhood. Many of the young white residents referred to it as Meridian Hill Park -- unaware of the history of black residents renaming it after Malcolm X in the late 1960s.

Nobody cared about that today, as we all ran around enjoying ourselves in the beautiful snow.

There were the young, white yuppies that had recently moved into new luxury apartments in the neighborhood in the last five years and older African American families who have lived in the nearby housing projects for generations. There were the staff of the nearby embassies, political hacks -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- and illegal immigrants from the nearby neighborhood of Mount Pleasant.

Ironically, for what had been labeled a "snowball fight" few were people were fighting. Hundreds of people of all colors were merely standing around, talking, and enjoying the beautiful white flakes of snow so rare to Washington D.C.

People were talking and laughing: laughing as they improvised sleds from pieces of cardboard. Laughing as one group of people even brought a keg of beer for people to share.

Young and old, black, white, brown, gay and straight laughed in the snow, getting to know people that, despite living so close to them, they had never known before. The rare event of a blizzard in heavily segregated Washington, D.C. allowed people to let down their guard and come together in this city in a way I had never seen before -- laughing as friends.

Why couldn't it be like this every weekend -- the laughing together?

Why did it take the rare event of a blizzard and overhyped snowball fight to bring people together? Surely other games could be impoverished that would produce as much laughing and smiling among such a diverse group in a public space.

This is exactly what they did in Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Everybody was friends with their neighbors, despite the fact that they were all the children of immigrants with equally deep racial stereotypes. Italians, Polish, Germans, Jews, Irish, and even African Americans, would all get together for big carnivals, barbecues and to laugh and enjoy life together. My grandfather would go down and drink with his buddies at the union hall or the VFW. Then on the weekends when he was building his house, all those same guys would come up to his place and help him out for free.

Western Pennsylvania was a wonderful, working class utopia for a brief time. Despite having strong racial tensions, it had a sense of community that shaped everything about it in a progressive way, including its politics.

Even in 1988, when only 9 states voted for the Massachusetts liberal Michael Dukakis, the rural Western Pennsylvania County where I was born, voted for Dukakis by an 11 point margin. However, last year Westmoreland County voted for McCain by a 17 point margin of victory. What happened in those 20 years that turned Pennsylvania so Republican. What had happened to this wonderful working class culture?

The culture of Western Pennsylvania was completely destroyed as hundreds of factories closed and people lost their jobs. Communities went bankrupt -- both in financial and emotional terms. People began to turn to cable news to get that same sense of belonging and community that they used to get from real people.

As Robert Putnam described in his book about the decline of community in America, Bowling Alone, more Americans are bowling in US at any time in our history, but more alone as league bowling is at all time low. While politicians will often talk about the need to rebuild our roads, our education system, our health care system etc -- they thing we really need to rebuild before we can build any of that is our sense of community.

When people fail to interact, they begin to fear each other. They instead listen to political demagogues on TV whose solutions to their problems whether on the left or right is to make jokes and laugh at the other side.

Instead of laughing at our political adversaries, we should laugh with them.

We don't need to wait for a president, TV talking heads to say its okay or a dc organization to organize a multimillion dollar campaign, in order to get people together in a public place laughing. Nobody paid a dime to organize the Great "Snowball Fight" of Malcolm X Park. We can do this now!

With cutting edge social media, old-school mouth-to-mouth communication, and a new desire to connect, we could easily build thousands of more events like this across the country that bring us together as communities. To throw snow in each others' face, to laugh, and to share in our desires as Saul Alinsky said "of what we are all looking for -- laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create."

This is what I want to create, do you too?