Gone are the days when people thought of flash mobs as brief gatherings of people organized via social media uniting to perform harmless and often unusual acts for the purposes of entertainment, parody and/or artistic expression. The first flash mob occurred in Manhattan on June 3, 2003. Organized using social media by Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, 200 people gathered in the lobby and mezzanine of the Hyatt Hotel and simultaneously applauded for about 15 seconds. Since then, flash mobs have become an International phenomenon. Some include groups of people gathering to dance, sing or even pillow fight. In his article, The 10 Most Viewed Flash Mobs of All Time, Kevin Allocca provides links to an assortment of flash mobs that vary in style, size, and language.
Recently, however, some flash mobs have become much more ominous. For example Fox News describes the Arab Spring as a flash-mob style series of revolts across the Middle East in the winter and spring of this year that was a fulcrum point in history on par with the fall of the Soviet Union. Those who hold true to the true definition of flash mobs argue that the Arab Spring protests do not qualify as flash mobs because of their political purpose. Nevertheless, most would agree that Arab Spring could not have occurred without social media tools like smart phones and the Internet.
Flash mobs that recently overtook London and other British cities were fueled by those protesting the death of Mark Duggan, a man shot by the police during his arrest. There are conflicting reports about whether Dugan aimed a weapon at Police, or whether the incident was a result of racial discrimination. In her article, Flash Mobs: Children in Need of Parental Discipline, Jeneba Ghatt writes, the “scenes [were] reminiscent of similar civil unrest in Los Angeles in the wake of the infamous police beating of Rodney King, which was videotaped and broadcast worldwide.” Protests turned into days of civil unrest, looting, rioting, destruction and the murder of five people. Criminals eluded police by using social media to stay in contact with each other and to report every move the police made. Now the police are publishing pictures and video of the riots in an attempt to identify the rioters’ faces. Thousands of people have been arrested and over 1,000 have been charged.
In the United States this month twenty-eight teenagers and young adults entered a Maryland 7-Eleven, gathered items from the shelves, and left without paying for hundreds of dollars worth of items. Police posted surveillance camera footage online and were able to identify at least half of the people in the video within a days of the robbery. Police believe the participants used social media to organize the event. In Los Angelos, Rapper Jayceon Taylor may face criminal charges for tweeting the phone number of the Compton Jail, and inciting a telephone flash mob that overwhelmed the emergency phone system for more than two hours at one of county’s busiest stations. Taylor claims the tweet was an accident and finally took it down after the third request from police officials.
Over the past year Philadelphia has been experiencing some of the country’s worst flash mobs. In his article, Philly Officials Consider Earlier Citywide Curfew, Patrick Walters describes two horribly violent flash mobs that occurred on the same day last month in Philadelphia. First a flash mob of teenagers sent a man to the hospital with a broken jaw and broken teeth. Hours later, four men were assaulted by a crowd of young people. An 11-year-old boy was among the four people arrested in the case. According to Tom Ramstack’s article, Police Grope for Response to Flash Mob Robberies, in Chicago violent flash mobs have struck the downtown shopping district four times this month. Ghatt writes, “Though thousands of miles apart, the incidents in London and Philadelphia [and the United States] are similar. In both cases, young people are influenced by mob behavior and take advantage of situations to gather in massive groups, harm others and reap unearned material benefit by robbing stores en masse.” In short, this behavior is not unique to a specific demographic. Consequently it is harder to determine the reason for the violent flash mob phenomenon.
Whether technology, unemployment, discrimination and/or poor parenting are to blame, something must be done to limit the instances of violent flash mobs. The Cleveland legislature went as far as trying to criminalize the use social media or cell phones to start a flash mob. However, Mayor Frank Jackson vetoed the bill, asserting it infringed on the right of all citizens. In his article, Flash Mobs: Is Technology to Blame? Daniel Tovrov wrties, “Not only does criminalizing technology not get to the root of the problem, it will do little to deter youths.” Moreover, it is superfluous to criminalize flash mobs when the activity flash mobs participate in (i.e. assault, battery, robbery, etc) is already illegal. For now, it appears that government-imposed curfews have helped limit violent flash mobs in several jurisdictions. Also, some police departments have started monitoring Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn for evidence of potential flash mobs. A conference sponsored by the Dallas Police Department scheduled for next month designed educate police about how to use social media will also include a workshop about growing instances of flash mob robberies.
To learn more about the progression of flash mobs please read the following articles: