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IDEAS

The radicalization of the leaf blower

A demonstrator uses a leaf blower to clear out tear gas during protests against inequality and racial injustice near the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore.
A demonstrator uses a leaf blower to clear out tear gas during protests against inequality and racial injustice near the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore.MASON TRINCA/NYT

The man who would summon the Leaf Blower Dads sat awake in the dead of the night. For years, the resident of Portland, Ore., had been following the Black Lives Matter movement against police violence; as a white progressive he supported the cause, but he’d never attended a BLM protest. He felt like he should have — but he had a lot to protect: his family, his white-collar job, the home he worried he couldn’t quite afford. He was afraid.

Now, though, the movement was here in his city, and Portlanders were being tear gassed nightly — not only by local police, but by anonymous federal agents in battle armor. The night before, a phalanx of white women calling themselves the Wall of Moms showed up to face the gas. He’d thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if there was a dad group? Would they wear barbecue aprons and carry power tools?” He went into the kitchen and joked about it with his wife and kids.

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He thought it was funny enough to tweet, so he did.

But then someone wrote back: Make it happen.

So now this dad, Zack Duffly, was searching the Internet at midnight for a symbol. Something synonymous with dads, with patios and two-car garages, with the kind of people who don’t usually go to protests.

He pulled up a picture of a leaf blower.

Since its invention in the 1970s, the power leaf blower has become more than just a smelly, noisy yard tool. Like the leaf-free lawns they tend, the devices have become associated with cushy suburban aspirations, home ownership, a certain degree of comfort and myopia.

Industry demographics back up the stereotype: According to consumer research from the NPD Group, the typical leaf blower owner makes “either $15K to 30K, or $100K to $150K.” The first group probably represents independent gardeners and day workers. The second group are the home owners. The upper cutoff may indicate the point at which the latter are wealthy enough to hire the former.

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Duffly had never owned a leaf blower, but he had opinions about people who did. “I was a blue-collar kid, and I still have kind of a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “Our neighbor would blow his leaves off his roof, and I’d judge him silently.”

There’s something about leaf blowers, he says, that’s inherently “a little bit inward and insulated: Your attention is directed to your home, preserving your little oasis.”

But he also remembered a glimpse at another possibility for the device: Last October in Hong Kong, an older man with thinning hair had used a leaf blower to redirect tear gas away from protesters. The innovation hadn’t caught on with other Hongkongers, residents of a highly urbanized environment, but a video of “Leafblower Uncle” had gone viral worldwide.

That image came back to Duffly now. Everything fit together.

On his phone he used an app to add words to the image of a bright orange leaf blower: PDX DADS, ASSEMBLE! He made a new Twitter account — @PDXdadpod — and posted it. It was the morning of July 20.

Later in the day he bought his first leaf blower.

That night, police tackled him as he was blowing back a cloud of tear gas in downtown Portland.

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But it was too late: Duffly hadn’t just utilized the leaf blower as a physical object, or as a practical solution to tear gas. He’d utilized it as a symbol, too. The leaf blower dads were a message to others like him: You are needed here. This is your fight too.

“It is reaching people who wouldn’t normally be there and don’t have a history of civil disobedience or haven’t bought into police abolition yet, and are just now thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’” Duffly said. “It’s not only a joke around which we can gather, it’s also a very political statement: We are the people who don’t get up off the sidelines, but now we are.”

Leaf blowers had been occasionally used in protests in the United States before, but not in numbers. Now, it was different. The next night, there were more dads with more leaf blowers. By the end of the week they’d fallen into a line formation; the federal agents had bought their own blowers to counter them. Squads of leaf-blower dads were forming in other cities, too. The leaf blower — and the mostly white, mostly white-collar dads wielding them — had been radicalized.

Will this new usage change the leaf blower’s reputation? Duffly hopes so. The other day he saw a joke on Twitter, and like a consummate dad, he retells it: “I saw my neighbor in the yard blowing his leaves with a tear gas blower.”

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at si@arrr.net. Follow her on Twitter @sirosenbaum.

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