Capture the Flag captures Spokane's spirit

Just after 11 p.m. on a recent Friday in Spokane, Wash., 22-year-old Anthony Moran stepped onto the legs of a Bloomsday statue and read the rules of Urban Capture the Flag to nearly 100 teenagers and young adults.

For those who show up every week to exercise and socialize, it was a routine event. For Moran, it was a privilege to kick off the celebrated game that invades a dozen blocks in the heart of Spokane each Friday night.

"What's cool about this game, really, is it's a chance for people of the Spokane community to experience a little freedom," Moran said after his presentation.

Boys and girls, men and women — from younger than 14 to over 25 — overrun the streets and sidewalks to play the schoolyard game. They break into two teams, sometimes consisting of more than 30 people each, and conspire to cross into enemy territory and grab the opposing team's flag.

They can sneak or they can sprint — but if they're tagged, they go to "jail," where they remain until another team member can tag them out.

If they manage to run the opposing team's flag back to their side, their team wins.

But for Travis Rhiel, the self-proclaimed anarchist who started the event last year, it isn't about winning or losing.

"The idea behind capture the flag is to explore the city in an intimate way and to become familiar with it in a more nontraditional way," the 23-year-old said.

Rhiel said he first had the idea to start publicizing a giant game of capture the flag when he heard about similar games in other cities, including Olympia. Since its inception on July 4, 2006, Spokane's game has attracted new players every week. It's jumped from about 30 attendees to nearly 100 in just a year.

The game spans the sidewalks and courtyards bounded by Spokane Falls Boulevard, Stevens Street, Sprague Avenue and Lincoln Street. Wall Street divides the teams' territories and is the neutral zone where nobody can get tagged and where dozens of other youngsters hang out while their peers play.

Kylie "K" Shelton, a 16-year-old student at North Central High School, said she comes every Friday to make friends she wouldn't have made at school.

A few months ago she met Julius Schott, and the two have been dating since. When he graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in June, the 18-year-old joined the majority of people who turn out for Urban Capture the Flag: college-aged kids.

Schott said he likes how diverse the crowd is hipsters, students, gays, jocks, bookworms of all different ethnicities and abilities. And, of course, he likes the exercise he gets running around downtown Spokane.

"When you're really into it, it's fun," Schott said. "You don't really care that you're getting hurt all the time."

The injuries, though minor and rare, often keep people from playing during the icy winter. Considerably more people play during the summer months, but there are a few die-hards when things get cold.

"Rain, we're good. Snow, we're good," Shelton said. "But if it's snowing for about a week, we'll say, 'Hey, not this week.' "

Sometimes fewer than 30 play during the winter; on an average summer Friday, 90 isn't an unusual turnout, said 21-year-old Nick Gordon. He's played with Rhiel and his friends since the very beginning before the downtown game, when they played in city parks and parking lots.

Gordon said he started because there's not much for people to do in Spokane between the ages of 16 and 21.

On that Friday, he stood on the corner of Wall and Riverside as people strolled and sprinted past him. He's often the "bag man" manager of the yellow "caution" and red "danger" tape players tie around their heads or wrists to signify which team they're on.

"We all know each other pretty well just a bunch of friends having fun," he said. "I mean, sometimes some troublemakers come out here, but we don't want that."

Players said police don't give the group too much trouble. Some said they've had small run-ins with officers, but jaywalking seems to be their biggest crime.

"You can try to follow traffic laws, but when you're being chased by 30 kids because you've got their flag, often it ends up in the street," Rhiel said.

Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said many patrol officers know about Urban Capture the Flag but aren't too concerned. If there's no crime, there's not much the Spokane Police Department can do, she said. And with few businesses open at 11 p.m., it's unlikely the players would garner complaints.

But the department is also well aware that Rhiel organized the weekly games, she said. His affiliation with the anarchist group Alternative Solutions and Possibilities, and the federal Justice Department indictments he faces, could come into play if Urban Capture the Flag draws any future complaints.

"Because it's anarchy stuff, it may be a different response," DeRuwe said.

Rhiel said his beliefs were part of founding Spokane's game; "it breaks the corporate spell that holds people captive," he said. Though he knows most young attendees don't come for the anarchy angle, he said it manifests subconsciously because people start claiming the city as their own.

As for the anarchists who play capture the flag, "some of us look at it as training for altercations with police," Rhiel said.

However, the game's atmosphere has been overwhelmingly innocent. It's just kids having fun, said Jason Talbott, a security guard for the Bank of Whitman branch on the corner of Wall and Riverside.

He stands watch on Wall Street the neutral zone as dozens socialize, keeping people off the sidewalk and from damaging private property. But he mostly joins in the laughter, shooting quick quips back at teasingly sarcastic gals and guys who've gotten to know him over the past year.

"That's really all I do," Talbott said. "I keep the peace and watch people make fools of themselves."

On one of his Fridays off, he even grabbed some caution tape and joined in the game. And he now supplies the team flags that are "hidden in plain sight," often on top of fire hydrants at the extreme edges of the boundaries.

"For the most part, it seems like they respect me or like me," Talbott said. "I try to treat people with the same amount of respect they give me."

And when passers-by see his security uniform and his badge, they seem to feel the teenagers are under control, he said.

Often the biggest problems are newcomers to the game, called "noobs." Steve Yeaw, 22, said he gets fed up by people who don't play by the rules. Now that the game is so large, organization is almost nonexistent. Teams are lopsided, and merely reading the rules doesn't cut it, he said.

"I can't play anymore just because of the sheer stupidity of it," Yeaw said.

Rhiel, walking quickly back to the neutral zone after his team won the first game that Friday, said the game's biggest problem can be people who take it too seriously. It's about fun, not competition, he said.

For 19-year-old John Scott, the game has become a kind of therapy. With troubles at home, socializing with new people made it easier for him to quit smoking pot.

"I started coming to this," Scott said, "and it just helped."

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