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(en) US, Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement BAAM #36 - P. 6 - 7 Flash or Not to Flash (Mob) by Jeff Reinhardt

Date Sat, 28 Aug 2010 08:01:05 +0300

In the undercurrents of an already miserably atomized and closed-off society, small bursts of freedom and expression have become a phenomenon, even in the mainstream. “Flash Mobs” as they are called, are a developing form of self-expression that since 2003 have been surprising passers-by with a strange concoction of humor, messaging, technology, and good old fashioned violence—all while using public space in a way radically different than we are used to. ---- The term “flash mob” was invented by Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. ---- He helped organize the first “flash mobs” in Manhattan in the spring of 2003. Manhattan has since been one of the epicenters of the burgeoning pastime. Most notably Union Square hosts a yearly pillow fight that started in 2008, where thousands descend, pillows in hand, to whack each other over the head in a cloud of goose down and laughter.

What defines a “flash mob,” according to
Wasik, is the sudden convergence in public
space for a short, pointless or unusual act, fol-
lowed by a quick dispersal. The act is usually
organized using modern technology such as
text messaging, Facebook, or Twitter.
Wasik himself defined “flash mobs” asa-
political and pointless acts, but whenever we
use public space for unannounced, usually un-
funded, live actions involving tens, hundreds,
or thousands of people, there is undeniably
a political aspect. Wasik describes his proj-
ect as a “social experiment,” and something
making fun of hipsters, conformity, and “the
next big thing.” However what he actually
spawned has led to some very astute political
While such things as giant pillow fights and
dancing in department stores aren’t generally
associated with the anti-capitalist movement,
in Boston last month, we witnessed two polit-
ically driven self-styled flash mobs that used
performance—song and dance specifically—
to protest unfair labor practices. The Hyatt
Hotel chain as well as Shaw’s Supermarkets
have both been involved in heinous labor dis-
putes with their unions, attempting to deny
their employees decent pay and benefits in
the name of profit. The radical cheerleading
group Boston Sass Attack and The Radi-
cal Marching Band took over Hyatt Hotels’
downtown location to do their dance version
of “Boycott Hyatt“ (to the tune of Beyonce’s
“Single Ladies.”). Hardly a week later, The
Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society,
a marching band based in Somerville, did a
similar action inside the Shaw’s Supermarket in Porter Square.
Both labor campaigns have used a variety of tactics throughout their struggles. The ac- tion at Hyatt, was coordinated with several others across the country, to pressure Hyatt to raise wages and stop outsourcing labor (not to mention firing hundreds of workers). In fact, in San Francisco, a similar flash mob had already targeted Hyatt. As for the Shaw’s workers, on July 8th, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791, managed to
retain their benefits in a new four-year con- tract with Shaw’s. The use of the tactic has been somewhat accepted by the radical left, and has played a role in several large political movements.

Recently in Alexandria, Egypt, protestors
used a flash mob to protest police brutality. Khali Said was a prominent Cairo business- man, who was beaten to death by the police on June 6th outside a café. After pictures of the fatal beating made it to the internet sev- eral protests were organized. Unfortunately, all of the protestors were met with more bru- tal force by Egyptian police, so a new strat- egy was adopted. By using a Facebook group called “We are Khalid Said” protestors cre- ated a flash mob that mimicked a funeral pro- cession, bringing thousands of silent protesters into the streets of Alexandria. The speed at which the action was organized, as well as the silence of the protestors made it difficult for the police to attack .

A much different form of expression that has been labeled a “flash mob” occurred in Philly this past year, reaching its height in March. Using texting and twitter, random flash mobs were organized by members of Philadelphia’s large community of black teenagers. The calls were to meet in the white, wealthy shopping district, usually on a Saturday night, to… well (whether planned or not) riot.

These flash mobs turned violent very quick-
ly and expressed the anger in Philadelphia’s
community of poor black youth . Thousands of
young people began breaking storefront
windows, looting the stores, fighting employ-
ees there, raiding the mall, and smashing cars.
Calls of “burn the city!” mingled with these
spontaneous acts of violence. Police attempt-
ed to stop the mob several times, but were
simply unable to at certain points.
Of course, the flash mob community, in-
cluding Bill Wasik, denied that these actions
were representative of the phenomenon.
However, it has taken serious authoritarian
measures to stop these mobs. Mayor Michael
A. Nutter, has since imposed a curfew to at-
tempt to stop the flash mobs, and police have
stepped up enforcement. Nutter has also pressed
the FBI to increase spying on social
media sites online.
What is happening is the undeniable politi-
cization of flash mobs, combining elements
of guerilla street theater, direct action, vigils,
protests, and rioting—all creating space for
revolutionary momentum. Social media sites,
which are corporate entities and allies, have
become breeding grounds for spontaneous
dissent, and because of the widespread nature
of these sites, it has become increasingly hard
for the authorities to control their use.
So despite Wasik’s claims that flash mobs
are inherently apolitical, we have seen evi-
dence that they really have political features.
In fact, there is a rich radical history of simi-
lar forms of dissent far predating the current
The origins of this type of revolutionary
expression go all the way back to the post
WWI era in Europe. Following what many
perceived as the “war to end all wars” art-
ists began revolting against the establish-
ment, which had more or less led Europe to
its demise. A particular target was the world
of high art—the art dealers, schools, and in-
stitutions—which were viewed as part of evil
modern society. The Dadaists and later the
Surrealists created art that sought to destroy
the standard models of artistic interpretation.
However, almost secondary to the art that
was created in these movements was the rev-
olutionary nature of those who took part in
it. Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist
Manifesto spoke of art and revolution being
the same thing. Breton once stated, “long live
the social revolution, and it alone!” Second-
ary to the subject and the form of a work of
art, was its ethical intention and effect it had
on the viewer and larger society. The Surreal-
ist generally aligned themselves with Com-
munists and Anarchists. Most Surrealists also
took part in political activities around either
political tendency (although of course there
were many subdivisions).
Similarly in theater, Antonin Artaud, a
French playwright, created plays that affected
the audience in more extreme ways using his
ideas of the “Theatre of cruelty.” Artaud saw
the mainstream capitalist theater as alienat-
ing the audience and as a perversion of the
original intent of theater, which was to create
a mystical and rousing experience for the au-
dience. His plays broke down the boundaries
between spectator and actor, giving the audi-
ence a shockingly real experience.
In the following years Europe saw an un-
paralleled rise in fascism, which successfully
forced most of these folks underground, into
prison, or into conformity with fascism.
Following WWII these thinkers and ideas
began to reemerge, albeit slowly in the un-
derground culture of Europe. This awaken-
ing gave rise to the Situationist International,
a group of avante-garde artists and activists
who like the Surrealists, intended to create a
revolutionary movement first, and an avante-
garde art movement second. Guy Debord,
author of Society of the Spectacle, one of the
Situationists’ most influential works, sought
to break down the false separation between
art and politics, unifying them to strengthen a
movement against capitalism. The Situation-
ists were explicitly anti-capitalist, with strong
Marxist tendencies, although they were en-
tirely anti-Stalinist.
According to Debord, our everyday experi-
ences revolve around various spectacles. The
most degrading and yet ubiquitous spectacles
are those created by “advanced capitalist
society”—most exemplified by advertising
and mass media—that disengage people from
creating their own spectacles and achieving
their own individuals desires. By transform-
ing themselves from passive spectators into
active participants, Debord argues that the
working class can revolt.
Despite the abstract theoretical framework
and intellectualism of the Situationist Inter-
national, its influence prepared the ground for
the general strikes in France in 1968, the first
general strike movement to shut down the
economy of a world superpower.
Many of these ideas made their way over
to the US, which was also undergoing a cul-
tural revolution of sorts in the mid-1960’s.
One of the first groups to use “spectacles”
as means of political discourse was the San
Francisco Mime Troupe. Founded by R.G.
Davis in 1959, the group quickly became in-
volved with radical politics and was on of the
first groups to participate in guerrilla street

The basic concept of guerrilla street theater
is to create a story or spectacle in a very pub-
lic space—one that would normally not be
politicized—and explore various socio-polit-
ical issues through humor, satire, tragedy, and
other forms of traditional theater. Of course,
the Mime Troupe was not alone. The Sixties
also saw the rise of The Living Theater, El
Teatro Campesino, and the Bread and Pup-
pet Theater, three troupes that proliferated the
use of political theater in public space.
All these theater troupes still exist today
and continue to present political shows How-
ever, they have been largely pushed out of the
public eye since the sixties. Flash mobs have
forced their way into the public sphere, creat-
ing a form of guerrilla street theater popular-
ized with the use of new technology.
The heavy reliance on smart phones, text
messaging, Facebook, chat rooms, etc, are all
integral partsof a typical flash mob. They also
distinguish the flash mob from other forms of
guerilla street theater. The “hipness” of such
new technologies attracts even people who
might not otherwise come to a protest . Also,
it helps mitigate the unorganized quality of
many of these actions. While street theater
groups are often made up of tight-knit col-
lectives, who often seek and train volunteers,
the flash mob tactic in certain forms requires
little or no organization.
The use of new technology is an auxiliary
tactic in creating a real anti-capitalist move-
ment and a vulnerability, but it has allowed
flash mobs to assemble at lightening speed,
before the authorities can stop them from
However, it seems when these flash mobs
do get political, there is a need for some sort
of organization. Locals with a direct inten-
tion, and from existing collectives no doubt,
organized the actions in Boston. It is here that
we come to the fine line between guerrilla
street theater and flash mobs. It is as much a
question of terminology as it is of the tactic
Perhaps what is most important then, is
that such things happen at all, nowadays. I for
one, can appreciate almost any use of public
space for things other than advertising, and
furthering the divide between the rich and the
poor, the haves and the have-nots.
Yet, as I write this, the corporations and
capitalist institutions are re-appropriating this
tactic for themselves. Just Youtube search
flash mobs and you’ll see what I mean. T-Mo-
bile, H+M, General Motors, Trident… the list
goes on and on—all are adopting flash mobs
for the sake of advertising. In a nauseating
display, huge flash mob-style performances
(featuring highly paid professionals) are be-
ing filmed by multi-national corporations and
turned into t.v. commercials. The marketers
have successfully commodified a phenom-
enon intended to expose and mock the co-
modification of our culture.
Any tactic may lend itself to corporate con-
trol eventually, and the flash mob is certainly
no different. Yet, like all culturally defined
terms, there is room for radicals to battle the
re-appropriation, and to define flash mobs
themselves as revolutionary, specifically anti-
capitalist projects. Despite Wasik’s definition,
it is safe to say that the flash mob phenom-
enon is in a state of flux, sitting at the cross-
roads of several cultural trends and contradic-
tions—and lacking any unified organization
or movement.
There is undoubtedly something here to
be exploited, as with all fads. So far the cor-
porations have done a great job of this and
probably have made a bunch of money off of
it. Activists are beginning to catch on even
though there is a long history of revolution-
aries doing quite similar things, and the hip-
sters… well I guess it doesn’t really matter to
them what happens. Yet, to their credit, the
success of flash mobs in general can be attrib-
uted to the hipster, to the idea of being “hip,”
and trying to be a part of “the next big thing.”
How’s that for irony?
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