When flash mobs stop being fun
Flash mob crime an emerging social problem
Seen everywhere from train stations to highly trafficked public squares, “flash mobs” have become a global phenomenon. Large numbers of people — who often have never met — come together at an agreed-upon time and place to perform anything from orchestrated group dances to conceptual performance art, and sometimes even group pillow fights.
While most flash mobs are positive and entertaining experiences, some events have turned violent. Dubbed “flash mob crimes” by the media, recent events in New York City and Chicago resulted in violent mobs burglarizing businesses, committing murders and attacking innocent bystanders in broad daylight with baseball bats — shocking law enforcement and citizens alike.
“If you are committing a crime, then you are not doing a flash mob,” says Ruth Carter, who has a doctorate in law from Arizona State University and is a co-founder of Improv AZ, a Phoenix-area performance troupe that organizes flash mobs. “The goal of flash mobs is never, ever to commit a crime. Our goal is always to entertain and make people wonder what they just saw.”
While innocent flash mobs can get out of hand — a 2009 flash mob pillow fight led to $30,000 in public and private damage in San Francisco — damage or violence is never the intent, says Carter, who has written several articles on flash mobs. And even if an event is planned peacefully, she says, organizers still need to ensure that the event is legally compliant.
“One of the flash mobs I coordinate is the annual Phoenix No Pants Light Rail Ride, which is part of an international event,” Carter says. “Thousands of people in dozens of cities ride public transit without wearing pants. But to do that legally, you need to know the public decency laws in your area and what is and is not permitted in terms of what you’re wearing. The same applies for dancing in public — you might be able to dance next to a public monument, but maybe not on that monument. You have to do your research ahead of time. There should always be a way to do a flash mob legally.”
Law enforcement officials are studying the emerging flash mob crime phenomenon and searching for creative ways to address it in their communities, according to Thomas Milner, MA, a criminal justice instructor at University of Phoenix as well as a law enforcement professional with nearly 30 years of experience conducting public crowd control and riot response.
While Milner acknowledges that the violent mob actions coordinated by social media (such as those occurring in several Maryland suburbs in metro Washington, DC, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago in the summer of 2011) are an emerging phenomenon, the rules of traditional law enforcement still apply. “Law enforcement needs to have a dialogue with the public when it comes to public assembly,” he says. “The public has constitutional rights to free expression and free thinking, and we always want to support that and not trample on peoples’ constitutional rights. But the minute any kind of organized group activity crosses over into criminal behavior, there’s going to be an arrest.”
And when it comes to events organized through social media, the public should keep in mind the very technology that made their event possible can also have legal implications. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, play-by-play videos of mob action recorded by vigilant citizens could be distributed online via sites like YouTube™ and Facebook®, which can help law enforcement solve crimes — giving everyday people the ability to help make the streets safe again. Maybe then, “flash mobs” will again be synonymous with a fun group dance in a public transit station instead of violence.
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