“The Great Leaf War” began last Sunday about noon because of a small matter. Two cars had a fender bender on the Sag Harbor Turnpike, tying up traffic and thus stopping 300 demonstrators carrying gas-powered leaf blowers who had been trying to march down the turnpike toward the Founders Monument in the center of Bridgehampton.
“Had there not been that delay,” Hampton Police Chief Brody told the press on Monday morning, after the war was over, “the Leaf Blower group would have passed through the center of town without incident.”
Of course, as everybody knows, that is not what happened. The leaf blowers, after the half-hour delay, continued on toward town, carrying signs and marching in a precise formation, alternating shouting “Down with the Ban” and “whoop whoop whoop,” as they headed for town. What they were demonstrating against were the new proposed laws that would ban leaf blowers because of the monstrous noise they make. They’d turn their blowers off and on in time with the “whoop, whoop, whoops,” creating quite a racket but making their point.
At the same time, unaware of the delay, a second group of protesters, about 400 of them carrying leaf rakes, were now walking briskly down Lumber Lane toward the center of town, thinking the leaf blower march had passed the Founders Monument. They walked as a ragged crowd, holding their rakes in front of them, tines up, banging the bottom ends on the asphalt with every other step as they shouted “rake, rake, rake” over and over again.
Crowds of spectators stood on the sidewalks facing the Founders Monument on every side at this time, preparing to hold their ears when the Leaf Blowers appeared, first to hand out their leaflets as they came through and then welcoming the more rural Leaf Rakers, banging their rakes, handing out still more leaflets. These spectators were hoping to hear from both sides and form opinions.
“We could hear them coming from far off,” spectator Bobbie Rossett told this reporter later that day. He said he was standing on the corner in front of Starbucks, just next door to where the roads come together. “It was a strange sound, filled with whoops and bangs. We just didn’t know what to make of it.”
He soon found out. The two groups of demonstrators arrived where Lumber Lane and the turnpike merge in front of the Founders Monument at the same time, with the leaders out front shouting for the others to give way, they were coming through. But neither group would do that.
Then all hell broke loose.
“It was just like, well, their coming together like that, I can’t explain it. I tried to run away. But there were other spectators behind me, blocking me.”
People began shouting and screaming, tearing down signs and wrestling and punching one another. At first, the Leaf Blowers were getting the better of it. Aiming the blowers at the Rakers, they’d turn them on high, and blow the Leaf Rakers up in the air, where they’d be tossed around like rag dolls in the wind. Rakes were flying everywhere. But then, one group of Rakers formed into a line, held out their rakes butt-end forward and rushed the Leaf Blowers, shoving their rake ends into the ends of the leaf blower machines, causing them to shudder and explode. Pieces of leaf blowers and rakes flew skyward in the smoke.
The police arrived, the first ones on horseback, with police cars following, but the struggling continued and the horses reared up and bolted, sometimes with an officer still in the saddle, sometimes not. Often when the police got out of their squad cars, spectators would lean in to continuously honk their horns, hoping to drown out the leaf blowers, some of whom were now in retreat and trying to re-organize on Ocean Road.
Soon, the Leaf Blowers charged back, this time supported in the sky by a brigade of noisy helicopters owned by rich people—the people who employ the Leaf Blowers—which swooped down over the Leaf Rakers so the co-pilots could snatch away the rakes. They got some, but the working end of others were shoved into the whirring propellers, causing the choppers to veer off and crash in the road and begin to burn. Then came a charge from further down Ocean Road from a brigade of farmers standing in the back of pickup trucks and throwing potatoes at the downed helicopters—the potatoes banged off the sides of the choppers, leaving dents—and also at the Leaf Blowers, who shouted “ow!” and fell holding the spots where they had been hit. The spectators were now fighting, too, some shouting in support of the Leaf Rakers and others shouting in support of the Leaf Blowers.
Out from the stores, particularly the stores where both rakes and blowers are bought and sold, came the merchants who barehanded fought alongside the Leaf Rakers, sometimes picking up and rattling the rakes of those Leaf Blowers who had fallen to confuse the Blowers further.
Real estate brokers, bankers and lawyers carrying ballpoint pens now joined the fray in support of the Leaf Blowers, but they were soon overwhelmed by a brigade of local homeowners carrying huge black plastic bags filled with leaves, which they dumped over the heads of these brokers and lawyers, lowering them far enough so as to leave the professionals bumping and banging inside against the black plastic ineffectually.
Fishermen arrived and set loose dozens of un-rubber-banded lobsters to attack the Leaf Blowers with their claws. Surfcasters in waders threw dead bluefish at the Leaf Blowers. Surfers appeared and banged surfboards on people’s heads.
Finally, the local firemen pulled up in their pumpers and hooks and ladders, attached their hoses and began firing high-powered jets of water over the whole scene, and with that, the police, now joined by a contingent of National Guard troopers and SWAT team members, were able to take control and begin arresting people. They hand-cuffed chopper pilots, rakers, fishermen, lawyers and farmers and brought them to stand in long lines, drenched and exhausted, to be processed, told their rights and led off in yellow school busses to the jail in Riverhead.
Remarkably, although there was lots of damage—broken windows and trees uprooted, cars and choppers burned, signs shredded and leaf blowers still moaning mournfully—nobody was killed and the wounded were quickly attended to by the Bridgehampton Ladies Village Improvement Society administering oxygen, bandaging wounds, doing CPR and providing psychological help to those in shock.
And then Alice Booker, the Chairman of the Bridgehampton Library, strode out with a bullhorn and a black book titled Village Ordinances, climbed onto the pedestal upon which the Founders Monument stands and, after looking both ways up and down the Montauk Highway to the traffic jams extending as far as the eye could see, began speaking.
“This is what happens,” she said, her voice amplified by the bullhorn, “when people cannot get along. There are those of you who make their living creating beautiful landscaped estates by using their leaf blowers, among other things.” She looked down at a wilting flower on the pedestal.
“Including that.” She pointed.
“These people are out for beauty and grace and I don’t blame them. I also don’t blame the other side, which favors nature and silence and the scraping together of the leaves with their rakes, bagging and hauling them off to the dumps.
“But now this is a time for healing, for calm voices and for proper give-and-take between civilized people of all races, sexes and religious beliefs to solve a problem by talking to one another in a rational manner.”
She looked out at the crowds, and glanced at the Starbucks, where wide-eyed customers stood clutching their coffee and looking out windows to the melee. She lowered her head.
“Let us pray,” she said.
A lone police horse cantered by.