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.”

MGK leads a movement (Youtube)

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Welcome to blogging here — this is a great, very interesting first post! Consider the reverse of the flash mob; there is an organization in Sweden & Finland (Planka) that informs members of the presence of transit police. (The organization advocates for free public transit and advocates not paying fares; they have an insurance fund for their members for fines).

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “it is fair to say that flash mobs do not inspire the same googly-eyed romance they once did.”

    I think it’s fair to say that a “flash mob” organized to do some kind of performance art, and an “flash mob” organized to commit theft, assault, and arson, are so fundamentally different we should find different names for them. And no sneer quotes are needed around “self defense” when such activities are involved.

  3. Mondonico says:

    “In this Tea Party era, such musings should not be taken lightly.”

    What the heck is that supposed to mean? Are we to infer that the “Tea Party era” is an era of violence? If so, you should point out that the only violence at Tea Party events has been perpetrated by SEIU thugs.

    The author might ask, but what about all the violent rhetoric? I would respond, such rhetoric is generally found on the left, and not on the fringe, but at its core. A very small sample:

    “Punch back twice as hard.”– President Obama

    “When they bring a knife, you bring a gun.”–President Obama

    Republicans who oppose Democrat policies are “enemies.”–President Obama.

    Union workers are ready to “go to war” with the tea party next year and “take out” Republicans. Teamsters President James Hoffa

    The implication that “Tea Party” adherents are prone to violence — or violent rhetoric — is a baseless smear, one which undermines the credibility of the author and reveals his agenda.

  4. AYY says:

    This was a long post with a weak punch line. I don’t understand the point of the post.

    What are “material dynamics” (is it another term for the Obama economy) and what do they have to do with how we view the threats of flash mobs? Why bring up Machine Gun Kelly–his comment was incoherent, and I doubt that many people reading this blog would seriously think that he had any insight into the flash mob phenomenon.

    The Florida recount of 2000 was 11 years ago. What it might have to do with flash mobs doesn’t immediately come to mind.

    Who are the “hatemongers” mentioned in the post? Why the sneers at the Tea Party and Fox News? What’s the problem with more guns in the hands of law abiding people? The post is very unclear about all these.

  5. Olivier Sylvain says:

    Thanks, MM. Your examples are really good. I hadn’t heard of them.

    BB. Fair point. For what it’s worth, observers have distinguished between what Howard Rheingold called “smart mobs” and what we are seeing in the mainstream coverage of the misanthropic version.

    AYY. I’d thank you for your editorial advice if I thought you meant it as such. All I can say is that I, too, thought the post was running long. That’s why I used links. I figured that careful blog readers would use them. In any event, I think you’ll find all of the answers to your questions in them, and then some. As for “material dynamics,” I was referring to the sort of inequities addressed in the NY Times report to which I link through those very words.

  6. Brett Bellmore says:

    “The Florida recount of 2000 was 11 years ago. What it might have to do with flash mobs doesn’t immediately come to mind.”

    A reference to the “Brooks Brothers Riot”, I suspect. Closest thing to a flash mob I can recall during that controversy.

  7. AYY says:

    Thanks, but the reference and the reason for the reference should have been made explicit in the post, not left to speculation.

    Prof. Sylvain,
    Thanks for responding. I did click on the links. The authors of the NYT op ed didn’t try to defend the flash mobs.

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