Tonight is Zozobra in Santa Fe. Think Burning Man where pissing in public doesn’t leave shallow, crusty, yellow-stained potholes in the salt playa, instead just a lot of very wet feet of fellow fools just hoping that’s a warm spilled cerveza on their Birkenstocks and not human urine.

Unlike Burning Man, Zozobra (Old Man Gloom I suppose some gringos call it) is very crowded, like cattle in a stockyard, and just as smelly and rotund. People in Santa Fe enjoy their sopapillas, you see. Yes, go Google your fingers off, I’ll meet you back here.

Okay, so, I went to the burning of Old Man Gloom when I first came to New Mexico in 1988 for college. It was something cultural, it was something different, and it was something to do once and never again. As stated, it’s very crowded starting in a baseball field where they burn this big old effigy that looks like a stage decoration for an Oingo Boingo gig. And then, like cattle, everyone moves down to the Santa Fe Plaza where it gets more even crowded/concentrated with a population density of “Stop grabbing my ass” and “Stop standing on my face.”

The one year I attended, I was with a bunch of friends from New Mexico Tech and staying with a local Techie who grew up in Santa Fe. In fact, he (Terry) was the one who convinced us it was worth our weekend to spend time with loaded folks with as much fungus ingested in their stomachs as growing between the toes of their Birkenstock-encapsulated feet. Look, Santa Fe is a place for rich ex-hippies to retire and die. I’m not fond of Santa Fe.

So considering that pretty much everyone in the Plaza was stoned or drunk or tweaked or not sober, the Santa Fe Police who had the area cordoned off with their patrol vehicles – limiting entrance and exit from the Plaza to foot traffic – were babysitting a lot of folks who couldn’t follow a lawful order any more than they could order only one Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. Because they’re stoned. And have the munchies. I’ll take twenty Quarter Pounders, please. Aw, hell. Just smash them together and make me a Five Pounder, please.

As you know, I help developed training for the Albuquerque Police Department and help train New Mexico law enforcement in understanding the peer experience in crisis, as well as how to help both peers and police remain safe in crisis situations working collaboratively towards moving peers to services rather than incarceration. In 1988, this was well before Crisis Intervention Training came to New Mexico, and looking back on that Zozobra weekend, I can see how important properly preparing law enforcement personnel to handle folks a little less than cooperative was, is, and will forever be.

And, I can tell you this from firsthand experience, and I can tell you that an improperly prepared Santa Fe Police officer almost allowed a ballistic marigold to become a full-on riot. And, I can tell you it was kind of my fault. Not out of malice or “Fuck The Man” spite. It was because I threw a flower in the air, and it landed on his squad car’s roof.

True dat. Walking around Santa Fe that night after the burning of Zozobra, I decided it would be fun to pick flowers and throw them in the air and watch them return to earth often bonking some zonked Shaggy & Scooby Doo flower child on the top of their melon. They would look up and praise Flower Jesus for anointing them with Divine Flower Dust or something like that. I was making up the narrative as I went along.

I’m tall. And it was evident that I was the one throwing the flowers, and many of my fellow Zozobra-ites were amused and gladdened by the Flower Shower I was generating. Until a marigold ended up landing on the squad car. Then things got weird. Fast. Escalated. Fast.

The officer whose car I just anointed screamed. Immediately. At me. He said, “You think you’re funny? Do you know you just assaulted a police officer? You want to be locked up for the night? How funny is that? I don’t want to see you in the Plaza and if I do I’m hauling you off to jail for assaulting a police officer!”

Um. What?

I just kind of stood there. I looked around a bit, to see if someone tickled the officer or something unpleasant for him. Someone close to him. But nope. It was me. And the marigold. I was the one who assaulted the police officer, or at least I assaulted his car’s roof.

Right. I’ve been making fun of my fellow Zozobra-ites, and with some good reason. While to the casual observer my kinfolk were coming to my rescue, the truth of the matter is many folks were just itching for a reason to party down with some good ol’ fashion Kent State rowdiness. Boos, jeers, “fucking pig” battle cries erupted.

“It was a flower! What’s wrong with you?”

“Leave the guy alone! He’s making it happy!”

“The flower didn’t even touch you! You’re a liar!”

“We’re all witnesses!”

Crap. Just crap.

I’m not going to defend or defeat any of us involved in this civil escalation. I probably shouldn’t have been throwing flowers. In fact, I haven’t thrown a single flower since that day. My kinfolk were too eager to step to my defense. And the officer was far too keyed up if a flower landing on his car was impetus enough to feel threatened with assault.

Looking back on that night, and how quickly things escalated, and knowing what I do about police training and the police experience (I’ve taken the APD CIT course, which is cool they invited me), I can honestly state without prejudice or presumption that the officer that night was not properly trained to handle peers in crisis. I say this because those folks who felt the officer was out of line were by and large not sober. That is often what law enforcement run up against when out on a 10-40 or crisis call. A peer who is not sober.

Zozobra isn’t a powder keg civil right protest or political rally. It’s a bunch of people having fun in a festive environment. With what I teach law enforcement about how to deescalate a heated situation that can erupt on the spin of a hummingbird’s heartbeat, what happened that night is EXACTLY what I train officers NOT to do. And this isn’t a condemnation of “Wow, that officer totally f’d up.” It’s more along the lines of “Don’t make things worse for the peers, the situation, and especially don’t make things worse for you.”

Because everyone needs to be safe. And everyone needs to feel they are respected. My friends pulled me out of there within seconds, and what I remember leaving the Plaza is that the officer called mounted police (horse cops) to help him. I remember the shouts getting louder from the officer and the Zozobra-ites. Crap.

Hindsight being 20/20 and whatever retrospective aphorism you want to throw at this tale, the point I want to relate is that the key to positive and productive outcomes between peers and police is 100% reliant upon officers prepared with the skills and wisdom to know how to deescalate volatile encounters. If I could reach out to this officer today, I’d share my life experiences with police – while in crisis – and deconstruct the event letting him know what worked, what didn’t work, and what needed improvement. His anxiety was off the charts. He, in his own way, was a peer in crisis. The training we peers provide law enforcement through Crisis Intervention Training would have been invaluable that night.

Happily, I didn’t read anything in the papers the next morning about a riot in the Plaza that started with my ballistic marigold. And I have great friends for removing me from the escalating situation. I’m sure with me out of the picture things went back to everyone just having a good time.

How to close this off… I know! We had waffles at Terry’s place for breakfast, and my waffles were covered in flowers. It’s good to have friends.