Flashmob Hysteria

The character of our present moment is undeniable, and the tangled web of causes and consequences is the same from London to Cairo to Santiago: budget cuts in the name of “austerity,” rising unemployment, increasing popular resistance, and an upsurge in racist violence and policing measures like “stop-and-frisk.” The failure of an economic system in the short and long term has generated an entire class of undesirables, living proof of that failure who must be contained, controlled, and silenced.

But even those who recognize the roots of distant rebellions are far more hesitant about upheavals closer to home. Philadelphia is currently in the grips of a bout of mob hysteria at least as virulent and far more racist than the backlash underway in London, to which the media, the police, the city government and the public have all contributed, and yet few have dared to call it what it is.

Steady Mobbin’

In Philadelphia as in London, to use the term “mob” is to tar one’s opponents as dangerous, unruly, irrational, criminal, and apolitical. In most cases, it is also deeply racist. Like the term “gang,” “mob” has its roots in movement, in “mobility,” and it evokes a deep and abiding fear of the uncontrolled movement of the poor and dark-skinned. As we well know in this era of ostensible “globalization,” there are those who are authorized to move: tourists, executives, commodities, and financial flows. And then there are those who are not so authorized: the poor and largely racialized masses who find themselves ever more penned-in, confined by force and economics to the urban wastelands known as ‘slums’ that so many have, for good reason, compared to concentration camps.

Those daring or desperate enough to break through this 21st-century apartheid have been and will continue to be smeared as “gangs,” “the rabble,” and especially “mobs,” but with resistance comes the refashioning of the master’s weapons. In the U.S., this reappropriation has been carried forward most visibly in hip-hop where, from Mobb Deep to Crime Mob, from Ice Cube’s to Lil Wayne’s versions of “Steady Mobbin,” this elite slur has been taken up by its victims and resignified as an expression of popular solidarity, of resistance, and of the indomitable strength that comes in numbers (the one strength that tends to be the exclusive domain of the poor).

But if resistance breeds appropriation, it can eventually lead as well to reabsorption into the dominant culture, to which even slurs as potent as the ‘mob’ are not immune. Thus it was with the “flashmobs” that began to pop up eight years ago, whose choreographed spontaneity was quickly reduced to a purely ritualized aesthetic. Howie Mandel’s TV show Mobbed and AT&T’s most recent ad campaign are but the logical conclusion of an already empty form. But when this cleanly-picked carcass was taken up more recently by young Black people in Philadelphia and elsewhere, who injected the term “flashmob” with a spontaneity it had never enjoyed, all hell was bound to break loose.

You know things are bad when the police and the mayor stand as the voice of reason, but this was indeed the case last year in Philadelphia, when a series of “flashmobs” comprising hundreds of Black youth used text messaging to take over a Macy’s in Center City and raucously occupy the partying mecca of South Street. Referring to these gatherings only as “mobs,” and even as “ad hoc gangs,” national and local media sought to stoke the hysteria by exaggerating the violence of the crowds. For the moment, however, the police weren’t taking the bait, and instead insisted that most of the incidents reported were “unrelated to flashmobs.” But while the police sought to downplay the socioeconomic (and racial) element of the flashmobs, the New York Times rightly observed that, “Most of the teenagers who have taken part in them are black and from poor neighborhoods. Most of the areas hit have been predominantly white business districts.”

Mayor Michael Nutter took the same line as the police, suggesting that the media was exaggerating the threat of flashmobs, and insisting that, “if the facts get reported, all of us would probably breathe a little easier.” But this wasn’t principled moderation, but rather an effort to protect Philadelphia’s public image and economic interests: business investors and the overprotective parents of hipster gentrifiers wouldn’t like the sound of “mobs” taking over the city. But the same logic that led Nutter to downplay flashmobs last year would lead him to publicly take a hard line against them a year later.

In this, Nutter was firmly pushed by the media, which closed ranks around a single message: something must be done. Suddenly everything became a flashmob, even categorically distinct events like random beatings by small groups, fights within large groups, and even coordinated shoplifting that has since been deemed “flash robs.” Armed with video footage of a violent beating on South Street which would soon be set on permanent loop in the local media, the Mayor was ready to make his move.

Nutter’s Sister Souljah Moment

In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton sparked a controversy when he used a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as an opportunity to slander female hip-hop icon Sister Soulja by comparing her comments about the L.A. riots to notorious white supremacist David Duke. While this seemed like a spontaneous, off-the-cuff comment, “there was nothing spontaneous about it. The Clinton campaign had planned the confrontation” to send a message to white America, that he could be trusted, and “the strategy worked.”

So too when Michael Nutter climbed to the pulpit of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in West Philly on August 7th. Pushed by that faithful mouthpiece of anxious white Philadelphians, the media, but also by personal ambitions in an election year, Nutter immediately warned that his speech would “not be PC,” and claimed to speak for what the silent Black majority “think[s] but may not say.” He then launched into a virulent attack on Black parents, who he called “human ATMs” and “sperm donors,” before putting on his best Bill Cosby impression (both, not coincidentally, from Philadelphia) to turn his ire toward the youth themselves:

Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt… Comb your hair. And get some grooming skills… Running round here with your hair all over the place. Learn some manners. Keep your butt in school… And why don’t you work on extending your English vocabulary… beyond the few curse words that you know, some other grunts and grumbles and other things that none of us can understand what you’re saying. And if you go to look for a job, don’t go blame it on the white folks, or anybody else. If you walk in somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back and your shoes untied and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arm, on your face, on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you. They don’t hire you because you look like you’re crazy. That’s why they’re not hiring you.

This deplorable tirade shares far more with David Duke than anything Sister Souljah has ever said. In classic “culture of poverty” fashion, unemployment, economic inequality, educational disparities, and even overtly racist policies and practices dissolve miraculously into personal behavior and individual choices. If Black youth can’t get a job, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Never mind the fact that unemployment statistics (which some estimate around 75% for young Black men in North Philly) are rooted in the economic destruction of Black and poor communities and exacerbated by discrimination against both people of color and former felons. Just pull your pants up, speak the King’s English, and before you know it investors will be lining up and employers will be banging down your door to hire you!

Nutter’s message was not aimed at those Black churchgoers gathered before him. Like Clinton speaking to the Rainbow Coalition, Nutter’s real audience was white Philadelphians, and his message was to assure them that he’s not “too” Black or “too” radical. This is, after all, an election year, and Nutter won’t be losing what is left of a Black middle class. And like Clinton’s 1992 performance, this too succeeded, judging by the giddiness of the press at Nutter’s “mob crackdown.” But it was not only white liberals and the press who would celebrate Nutter’s attack on the Black youth. Conservative pundit and National Review editor Rich Lowry was positively glowing, urging his followers to “Read This Speech.” Even the hyper-conservative and openly racist Michael Savage could scarcely contain his glee, even arguing “That’s the kind of man we need to run the country.” Nutter has certainly won the white supremacist vote.

Nutter’s response was almost as shocking as his rhetoric: he proposed to roll back the weekend curfew for those under 18 to 9pm, but only in the wealthier and whiter areas of Center City and University City. Such measures are not new for Nutter, who was touting harsh anti-crime measures eve before his 2007 mayoral campaign, and once elected he pinned his reputation on the arguably unconstitutional “stop-and-frisk” policy (much like that which lay behind the recent unrest in London). By 2009, police stops of pedestrians had increased an incredible 148% to 253,333. While clearly ineffective (only 8% of stops led to arrests), the policy led to an intensification of already racist policing (72% of victims of the stops were Black), and after a $115,000 payout for constitutional violations under stop-and-frisk, the mayor recently announced changes to the program.

The only novelty in the Mayor’s anti-flashmob plan is his claim to support after-school activities and rec centers, support that was notably lacking when Nutter slashed jobs, closed libraries and swimming pools, and cut back hours at the very same rec centers he is now touting as a possible solution to the problem of unruly youth.

A Policy of Segregation

Philadelphia activist Che Gossett has noted that the word “curfew” finds its roots in the French for smothering a fire, fire being something which, like the mob itself, threatens to move in unpredictable and dangerous ways. But the fire to be smothered in the history of United States was above all racial, and here curfews have historically served as a racist weapon for the containment of Black bodies. This too is the function of today’s curfew in Philadelphia, which led to the detention of 75 young and mostly Black people on the first weekend it took effect. Why is the curfew restricted to the wealthier city center area? Apologists for the policy would say that it is because this is where flashmobs have occurred, and this revealing truth already says a lot about how flashmobs are an attempt to reclaim territories forbidden by segregation.

Many young people rightly scoff at the talk of “violent flashmobs,” and with good reason. This isn’t to say that it’s acceptable to randomly attack bystanders, but simply that these minor incidents are few and far between, and more importantly that they pale in comparison to the violence these youth experience in their own neighborhoods every day: the economic violence of unemployment and hunger and the resulting horizontal social violence that inevitably occurs when the oppressed are squeezed together. Rapper Meek Mill recently described Philly as “the new Iraq,” and the comparison is not as exaggerated as some might think.

Frantz Fanon sketched the contours of these various violences in the context of colonial Algeria. For Fanon, the colonial world is divided between white and Black, rich and poor, with the police standing in-between. Sounds a lot like Philly. Under such conditions, the colonized lashes out at those closest, but this “very real collective self-destruction” that we today call Black-on-Black violence does not worry those in power, quite the opposite: it operates as an escape valve for pressure, channeling violent anger away from its true causes. What is unacceptable for those in power is when the poor and oppressed cross the bounds of segregation.

And when they do, they will be deemed “violent” regardless of their intentions or methods. For unauthorized and racialized subjects, in the words of Fanonian philosopher and Temple University professor Lewis Gordon, “to appear is to be violent.” Thus the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was perceived as violent by whites at the time because it disrupted segregation, and thus the flashmob phenomenon is made out to be far more violent than it in fact is. The problem isn’t that flashmobs are violent, it’s that Black youth have broken the bounds of informal segregation, daring to gather in large numbers to reclaim a city center that has long been off-limits.

As one young Philadelphian put it, “we come from a place where we feel like we don’t exist to the outside world,” and flashmobs are but one of many attempts by young Black people penned in by segregation to demonstrate that they do indeed exist. But it is almost inevitable that such demonstrations will be accused of violence regardless of their behavior. I witnessed one such flashmob, and what struck me more than the danger it posed was the profound racism it provoked from bystanders, bringing to the surface both in body language and dismissive comments uttered with an air of nervousness. “I’m glad my children don’t have to grow up around this,” one onlooker hissed venomously.

Flashmobs are a reclaiming of public space and a form of resistance to segregation, and the Mayor’s curfew attempts to respond with further segregation. Nutter even admitted as much in his sermon when he argued that, “if you want to act like an idiot, move out of this city. We don’t want you here anymore.” And that wasn’t all he admitted, adding proudly that “We got the biggest, baddest gang in town.” This view echoes the allegation of many community activists that it is the police themselves who, converging spontaneously via electronic communication to wreak havoc and commit violence, represent “the real flashmob” (see for example a recent video designed to reveal Nutter’s hypocrisy by splicing together his attack on the flashmobs and footage of last year’s police beating of Askia Sabur).

When asked why the flashmobs occur, Desmond Anthony, a 20-year-old North Philadelphian, speaks in terms that directly echo many of those who took to the streets of London:

Why? To alert people, to tell people this: there’s nothing to do out here, the streets is struggling, schools getting shut down, jobs not hiring, a lot of people are losing their lives over bullshit, cops killing people, people are bored, that’s a part of why we flashmob… In Philly, we got this mentality, that we’re not gonna let someone tell us what to do… We gonna keep on fighting. I think the flashmobs should be ongoing in a more meaningful direction, where younger folks can really be heard…


Fighting the Flash?

Last weekend, a number of local organizations, justifiably outraged by this racist backlash and demonization of the youth, marched in public opposition to Nutter’s curfew. Representatives from Philadelphia Coalition of the Heart and the Uhuru Organization put forth a 12-point platform calling for among other things a repeal of the “segregationist, Jim Crow” curfew and stop-and-frisk, an end to the demonization of flashmobs, and insisting that Mayor Nutter and others around him “represent white power in Black face.” A large and boisterous group marched in defiance of the curfew down South Street, chanting such slogans as “Fight for teen jobs, not the flashmob!” and “Who run South Street? Not the police!”

Most were against the curfew, but opinions on the flashmobs themselves seemed divided, as suggested by the slogan of the march: “Fighting the Flash.” For some, this meant fighting the media strategy of demonization of Philadelphia’s Black youth, whereas for others it meant actually standing in opposition to the flashmobs themselves (rather than to the occasional violence they cause). Independent mayoral candidate Diop Olugbala took the opportunity to rightly insist that flashmobs represent “a form of resistance” that need only be channeled down more positive avenues. On another occasion, Olugbala emphasized the importance of London: “The reality is that if the uprising that we saw in London occurs here in Philadelphia, it will be a direct response and result of Nutter’s repressive policies, and the ashes of the city of Philadelphia will be on Michael Nutter’s head.”

For Desmond Anthony, the events in London were “beautiful,” and he adds that, “I think we should’ve had had that here a long time ago.” He echoes Olugbala, giving his comparison the added weight of prophecy:

It can get to the point where it’s gonna get like London… Very soon, by 2012 it’s gonna be hell in Philadelphia, in America, and beyond, and I’m not talking about no 2012 apocalypse talk. This country is gonna be divided again, there’s gonna be a modern civil war. We’re tired of the bullshit, we need to make a real change.

George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University. He is completing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and beginning a history of rabbles, mobs, and gangs. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.