Flash mobs not just for pillow fights anymore

London burns, August 2011

In the UK this week, gangs of rioters have been roaming the streets looting, burning, and attacking, even killing, bystanders. This in one of the world’s great cities, in one of the world’s most advanced and peaceful nations. And some of us are thinking if it could happen there, why not here?

Of course it could happen here. It already has (remember the Watts riots?), many times, and it will happen again. Think of the riots that break out after sports events, after police abuse or kill a civilian, or when street gangs confront each other.

Each time it happens, there’s a spark that ignites existing fuel. Historically that fuel has been anger, frustration, boredom, poverty, unemployment, hopelessness. In recent years, however, technology has added a frightening new component — instant, widespread communication via social media. We have Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and seemingly everyone has a cell phone.

Flash mobs first gathered in 2003 for “impromptu” performance art displays, pillow fights, etc. Today’s flash mobs are not so benevolent. In many locations (eg, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia), we’ve been seeing a new and violent kind of flash mob — gangs of young men suddenly converging to harass or attack unsuspecting pedestrians or to “flash rob” a local merchant before dispersing just as quickly, long before police can respond.

The potential is ominous, the fuel ubiquitous and spreading. More ethnic diversity than ever before; racial tension; gangs; historically hard economic times; desperation, rage, hopelessness, frustration; high, unrelenting summer temperatures and short tempers; easy access to drugs and guns; increasing anger at elected officials; fear. Not just among young men but increasingly across the entire population. The whole country is seething with negativity.

In a thought-provoking essay, Walter Russell Mead rightly calls today’s America a tinderbox. I can’t disagree. Just a few months ago I believed and said it can’t happen here. Now I’m not so sure. We could be just a spark away from an inferno. Or something much worse.

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