Hot Summer Flashes, Black Urban Mobs
Like Professor Zick, I am grateful for the invitation to share my view of the world with Concurring Opinions. I’d like to pick up where his post on strange expressive acts left off and, along the way, perhaps answer his question.
Flash mobs have been eliciting wide-eyed excitement for the better part of the past decade now. They were playful and glaringly pointless in their earliest manifestations. Mobbers back then were content with the playful performance art of the thing. Early proponents, at the same time, breathlessly lauded the flash mob “movement.”
Today, the flash mob has matured into something much more complex than these early proponents prophesied. For one, they involve unsupported and disaffected young people of color in cities on the one hand and, on the other, anxious and unprepared law enforcement officials. A fateful mix.
In North London in early August, mobile online social networking and messaging probably helped outrage over the police shooting of a young black man morph into misanthropic madness. Race-inflected flash mob mischief hit the U.S. this summer, too. Most major metropolitan newspapers and cable news channels this summer have run stories about young black people across the country using their idle time and fleet thumbs to organize shoplifting, beatings, and general indiscipline. This is not the first time the U.S. has seen the flash mob or something like it. (Remember the 2000 recount in Florida?) But the demographic and commercial politics of these events in particular ought to raise eyebrows.
The one thing they have raised is the temperatures of public officials and hatemongers across the country. In response to alleged epidemic level flash mob-enabled violence this summer, for example, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has imposed a curfew on minors until school resumes after Labor Day. (To the city’s credit, it has also extended hours at libraries and recreational centers. The questions, however, are at least twofold. First, why were these hours abbreviated to begin with? Second, are these measures enough?)
While unsavory, the curfew on minors is not unprecedented or without compelling justification. A recent episode in San Francisco is more controversial. Citing concerns about safety, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials shutdown cellphone service at four train stations last month to quell protests over the shooting of a homeless man by transit officers. Such “time, place, and manner” restrictions have predictably led to further protests, and raised the ire of free speech advocates.
For citizen council types, these sorts of events have been conflated. They see the unholy alliance of urban youth and new technology as a threat to the U.S.’s cultural integrity. Never mind the deep material structural inequalities at work. What we apparently need are more guns in the hands of “law-abiding” citizens in cities with no history of flash mobs. In this Tea Party era, such musings should not be taken lightly. Consider that Fox News, in all of its subtle attention to such matters, is on the case.
To be fair, conventional wisdom in the U.S. also assumes that mobile online social networking enlarged the possibility for violence in London and freedom in North Africa this year. (As of yet, recent social science research and anecdotal accounts that social upheavals are actually more likely to occur when governments make social networks unavailable has gone mostly under-appreciated.) Still, after this summer, it is fair to say that flash mobs do not inspire the same googly-eyed romance they once did. They are now invoked to justify governmental regulation of speech and assembly, as well as “self-defense” against black urban youth.
But that is not all. Profit-inspired “cool-hunters” are eagerly tapping into this racialized framing, fully aware of its commercial potential. Fresh off his new signing with Sean Comb’s Bad Boy, white rapper Machine Gun Kelly used his Twitter account in mid-August to convene screaming fans at a suburban Cleveland mall. The under-140-character instigation caused the kind of frenzy reserved for the Friday after Thanksgiving. Kelly was arrested within minutes of showing up. This, of course, didn’t bother the hundreds of fans that came; they got all the retail enticement they needed. And Kelly was clear on the meaning of the day’s events after being released that evening: “All yall industry cats, yall wanna see a REAL movement? Holler at my fans. Today was a statement.”
After this summer, I think we can say that the flash mob is far more complicated than Kelly or others have let on. To be sure, the communicative capacities afforded by mobile online social networking are expansive. At the same time, however, we’d benefit from some perspective. It’s probably much safer to see the flash mob as symptomatic of social and economic pressures that preceded and underlie it, and that will continue well after the next thing hypnotizes popular consciousness. Until then, it probably makes more sense, in this summer of economic discontent, to tend to the material dynamics at work in the lives of the young people in Philadelphia and elsewhere before seizing on the “promise” or “threat” of something as inert and manipulable as The Flash Mob.