Benjamin Prows settled a pirate mask over his brown eyes, took a deep breath, and tiptoed out onto the slackline — nothing but 12 feet of air between him and the ground. Anything but a conformist, Prows dresses like Jack Sparrow, juggles daily, and lives on a 65-foot catamaran. But as this most unusual South Florida character eased across the slackline on March 23, he was treated as just another criminal.
"Come out of that tree!" a cop bellowed, as a crowd of several dozen swelled around four Fort Lauderdale Police officers glowering up at Prows. "Come out of the tree! If you don't come down, you'll be charged with obstruction of justice!"
"Please," yelled the tall and scraggly Prows from his beach overlook along A1A's main Fort Lauderdale strip. "Please don't arrest me, and I'll come down." But as soon as Prows' feet touched sand, a brown-haired cop jerked Prows' long arms behind his back, cuffed him, and thrust him inside a squad car.
A blond woman in aviator sunglasses looked to her boyfriend. "Seriously," she wondered, "why is that illegal?"
It's a question a lot of people are asking right now. In the past five months — on his way to becoming quite possibly City Hall's most despised figure — Prows has been arrested six times, jailed five times, charged with a felony, and banned from every city park and city beach in Fort Lauderdale. For a guy who didn't have a single charge against him before March, it's been quite a run.
First the city gave him warnings about his "tightrope activities." Then came a slew of arrests for trespassing and resisting arrest. Now, the city seems to have changed its rules because of him.
Prows has a hearing on September 9, but his clash reflects a larger debate that's lassoed the nation. Over the past two years, slacklines — which are made from webbing, provide as much elasticity as a trampoline, and can stretch hundreds of feet — have infuriated police from Seattle to Brazil. Baffled authorities haven't known what to do. Are slacklines dangerous? Do practitioners need permits? Does the activity violate city code? Their clash is reminiscent of confrontations between graffiti artists and city officials, skateboarders and cops. Once again, says Scott Rogers, who operates slackline.com, "the authorities don't get it. They don't know what it is and don't understand. Authority figures are always scared of things they don't understand."
Today, 30-year-old Prows, who arrived in Fort Lauderdale in 2004 via boat, has found himself in the peculiar position of representing the movement's battle for legitimacy.
The sport was originally conceived as a pastime for rock climbers. According to slacklining yore, in the late 1970s, at Yosemite National Park in California, two men named Adam Grosowsky and Jeff Ellington looped elastic ropes around trees and began walking across them to develop better balance for climbing. Different from tightrope walking, a slackline has a lot of give, like a loosely strung guitar. As slackliners get better, they'll bounce onto their stomachs and back to their feet or do flips and land on the line. They slackline over canyons, rivers, and crevasses.
"It's psychologically addicting," Rogers added. "And the beauty of it is, it can go anywhere with you. You can carry a slackline in your backpack." The sport reached a zenith in February 2012, during the Super Bowl halftime show, when a competitive slackliner named Andy Lewis performed onstage with Madonna while dressed in a toga. He was subsequently profiled in the New York Times and made the talk-show rounds.
In a 2010 interview, Lewis explained: "There is pretty much no reason to slackline except for the sake of slacklining itself. That is the slacklife. Rules and regulations involved in the habitual and ridiculous effort to remove risk entirely from society has made living the slacklife inside of society damn near impossible." He called slacklining "a pseudo-religion."
For Prows, whose only degree is in massage therapy, slacklining adds just one more oddity to a life already teeming with them. His has been the existence of a wanderer. Originally from the Salt Lake City area, he grew up in a Mormon household, the oldest of seven children. Sixteen years ago, when Ben was a teenager, the Prows family traveled east to the Atlantic Ocean and climbed into a new 65-foot catamaran that they would charter. Days later, they landed in Jamaica, where they stayed for four years, working odd jobs. During that time, while her husband managed a marina, Christa Prows homeschooled all of the children, inculcating them with "free thinking."
"We're just not conventional," Christa says. "All of our children are more free thinkers. But Ben is definitely unique in our family. No one else is like him."
It's unclear, she says, when Prows started dressing like a pirate. It was one of those slow takeovers, like moss stretching across a tree. He skateboarded as a youth, but that nascent look of rebellion soon gave way to vests and capri pants. Prows explains simply: "I live on a boat."