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."
In the early aughts, the family sailed its vessel to Florida, docking in Fort Lauderdale because it's so boat-friendly. From there, Prows and his mother both took jobs as baggage handlers at Delta Airlines at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The work was difficult, but Prows says he enjoyed it because "it was chill." He notes that he had no criminal record at the time: "I needed a completely clean record to get [hired] there."
But that record soon took some splatters after he discovered a Brazilian man with dark, gelled hair slacklining one day on the Fort Lauderdale beach across from Rock Bar. It was December 2012, and Prows had recently been laid off from his job at the airport. Always drawn to athletic endeavors, he hopped atop the Brazilian's slackline, and a new obsession took hold. "I just thought it was sweet," he recalled on a recent breezy morning, hands at his hips. "I just wanted to bust mine out. I had one, but I never used it. But after I saw him, I thought, 'Oh, man, this is something I just gotta do.' "
Over the next several months, he added to the routine, first juggling balls while walking across the slackline, then bowling ball pins. Finally, he hoisted three long knives and, their blades glittering in the sunlight, whirled them while keeping his balance. Sometimes he would handcuff his hands and feet together for extra drama. Sometimes he would bring a baby rabbit. Sometimes his friend with a lemur would join him. Slowly, he became one of Fort Lauderdale beach's most recognizable characters.
A short and baby-faced cop approached him, Prows says. "You can't do this," Prows recalls the cop saying. "He told me, 'You can't juggle anymore.' " The cop issued a warning. Prows says he went to the cop's supervisor, who said Prows was allowed on the beach but could not slackline. But a week later, the same cop arrested him for trespassing, even though Prows says he was not slacklining at the time.
Both sides became entrenched, refusing to yield. On March 23, Prows, convinced he hadn't broken any law, defiantly materialized back on the beach, slackline, American flag, and pirate mask in hand. He claims he was not read his Miranda rights but was asked in the police car on the ride to the station whether he ever showed people how to slackline and if he accepted tips. He said sure, sometimes. Prows says cops used that conversation to justify detaining him.
According to city records, he was told that "permission is necessary for the private instruction of your tightrope activities and/or to solicit on public beaches." On March 23 and again on the 28th, he was issued "Notices to Appear for Trespass After Warning."
On March 29, Phil G. Thornburg, director of parks and recreation, ordered Prows "to remain out of City Parks and beach areas for the period of six months," pursuant to the city's Parks and Recreation Enforcement Rules. He warned Prows could be arrested for trespassing "or other exciting [sic] ordinances."
"But I've read all the rules, and there's nothing in there about slacklines," Prows contends. "The closest thing they can come to is 'no hammocks.' Nobody could figure out what was going on."
(He says Miami cops never give him any problem.)
His attorney, Russell Cormican, says he's asked prosecutors several times what rule Prows had initially violated to trigger the subsequent trespass violations. "First, they said there was a rule prohibiting hammocks. Well, it's obviously not a hammock. Then they said there was a rule that you can't damage a tree. I don't think they've found any evidence that he was damaging the tree."
Prows' arrest report over the next several months became as varied as his slackline routine. On May 4, he was arrested while swimming in the ocean. He was arrested on May 10 while riding his bike through a beachfront park. He was arrested on June 9 while sitting against a tree. That incident also brought charges of resisting arrest and "unlawful possession of a concealed handcuff key" -- an item he had in his pocket because he uses it as part of his pirate act.
The city's website shows that part 7.5(g) of the city's Beach Rules and Regulations states that "Attaching hammocks to trees, showers or structures is prohibited." But a copy of the ordinance that city spokesman Chaz Adams provided has the same statute, rewritten to read, "Attaching any objects, including but not limited to, hammocks, ropes, slacklines, clotheslines, flags or banners to trees, showers or structures is prohibited." Adams declined to say when the city had updated its rules.
Attorney Cormican is trying to find out when the rule changed. If it didn't exist prior to Prows' first warnings, then all the subsequent arrests should be moot, he argues. "It seems like a simple question: When did you amend this rule? It didn't exist at the time they were warning him. If there's no rule, they can't arbitrarily pick and choose what they want people to do on the beach."
Asked by New Times to explain, Adams would say only: "It's not merely the slackline that's in question but rather the totality of Mr. Prows' actions, decisions, and disregard for parks rules and city ordinances. They continued even after city staff and police made numerous attempts to inform and educate Mr. Prows."
On a recent Thursday morning, as emerald waves hammered the beach, Prows, who now does property management at apartment buildings, sat at the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and A1A -- on the sidewalk, where he is technically allowed -- contemplating his clash with police. The indefatigably cheerful character couldn't understand why police think he's such a threat. "They tell me that I can't do anything," he sighed.
But then, he looked up, and his expression twisted in alarm. Three cop cars had just rolled up.
"Oh, man! Here they come!" Prows plunged a finger into his pocket and furtively removed a handcuff key -- lest the authorities charge him with another felony. He buried it in the sand and looked back at the cops glaring at him. "As you can tell," he murmured, "they won't stop harassing me." He felt lucky not to have his slackline with him.
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