Thursday, July 14, 2011

Flash Mobs: Real Deal, or Inflated Hype?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 14, 2011 at 1:50 PM

The face of urban chaos?
  • The face of urban chaos?

Come out on the patio, have yourself an Arnold Palmer, and let’s chat Flash Mobs. Say we’re in some far-tossed suburban hamlet, a Solon or Strongesville maybe, dinner’s cooking in the stainless steel and marble kitchen, and we’re just talking headlines, current events, while the kids wrestle Spot in the herb garden. Cleveland Heights comes up, the Coventry street fair gets mentioned, the mood darkens. Anxiety rises.

We’re guessing this was the scene at many a suburban setting over the last few weeks after the Coventry incident. According to reports, thousands of teens flooded everybody’s favorite counter culture block one Sunday in June; by the end of the evening, 16 kids were in cuffs and Cleveland had found a new code word to kick around when we’re kind of maybe on the sly no but alright yes talking about race: the Flash Mob.

The Cleveland Heights incident stabbed a nerve, especially with white East Siders; in the past three weeks alone, we’ve been told with utter certainty by different acquaintances that the Cleveland Heights Flash Mob was: 1.) A uncontrollable race riot; 2.) a organized gang fight; 3.) part of a gang initiation; 4.) a thousand-strong willful display of public destruction. None of which — surprisingly? — are exactly true.

But the Flash Mob is jamming up the airwaves these days. Police say similar social media organization was behind the large-scale Beachwood Mall fight last December as well as recent fights at the Shaker Heights fireworks. In response, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s department blasted out a warning last week and a public meeting was held last night. All the noise certifies the Flash Mob as one the summer’s Big Issues.

And as we know from past experience, a Big Issue is always open season for assumption, hysterics, and misfired info. Particularly when we’re talking about interactions between black and white.

The real question that everybody seems to be ducking when it comes to Flash Mobs is why exactly these kids are getting together. If we’re talking about a big group of kids congregating for the same reasons kids usually do, and a fight or two breaks out as a result, that’s one thing. But the uneasy suggestion peeking out from behind the Flash Mob concept — the connotation that’s growing by the day — is that kids are organizing just to break shit and get into fights, that the violence isn’t just an unfortunate result of the organizing, but the mover behind the organization itself. It’s assembly as an automatically a trouble trigger. And if that’s the case . . .

Law enforcement seems to carefully side with the former.

“It wasn’t, in our opinion, set up to be a “Flash Mob,” Cleveland Height police chief Jeffrey Robertson tells Scene regarding the Coventry incident, ringing the term in audible quote marks (he prefers the term “flash crowd). “But that’s what it turned into. It was set up on social media to get a lot of young kids up there to congregate, and it out where we had a couple thousand up there, and from there we had problems.”

Robinson says “99 percent” of the kids came for an innocent hang, but there was an element tweeting out about potential fights. It also doesn’t seem like the actual altercations were gang related.

But again, Robinson’s logical, boot-on-the-ground take on Flash Mobs is a little more controlled and clear-eyed than what’s got footing in the media coverage, where the tone is hot-wired with slight panic.

The best case in point of this is what unraveled last Friday afternoon over on Cleveland Heights Patch. Around noon on the same day as the Sheriff’s announcement, the site ran “Park Closing Follows Flash Mob Rumors.” The story detailed how South Euclid police planned to shut down Bexley Park because word leaked out that a Flash Mob was going to be held on Saturday at 2:00. You can read the Schmap.it invite for the event here. (Read it. See if you think it justifies the response it got). The official word from police: “The police department has received information that there are plans for a large gathering of youth at the park which we hope to deter.” Patch ran the story before they could get in touch with the event organizer.

A few hours later, the site ran a followup: “UPDATED: Bexley Park Water Fight Moved to Cleveland.” In the second pass, the info is arguably less alarming; it includes comments from the organizer, a 15-year-old kid named Malik Wallington. The event was organized as a water gun and balloon fight (but you already know that, you read the original event invite). To hear him tell it, the doesn’t sound quite as nefarious as a Flash Mob that justifies the closing of a public park.

He wants the water gun and balloon battle, which he never referred to as a flash mob, to be a fun, innocent event. 

The links to the original post now all lead to the followup. Wallington and his friends apparently found a new location for the water fight. Scene did a drive-by of Bexley on Saturday afternoon at 2:00; we found the place empty, except for two South Euclid patrols cars hanging in the parking lot and another posted down the street.

On Sunday, Patch ran another story, “Controversial Water Fight Planned for Bexley Park Fizzles, Police Say,” an account of how only a few teens showed up to both fortified Bexley and Cleveland’s Neff Pool, the new location. What began the weekend as a rumored Flash Mob ended up a “controversial” water fight, although it’s up for debate where exactly the controversy is here outside of Patch and the South Euclid police. But in an example of how one media source piggy backs off the assumptions of another, the Plain Dealer included the following today in a story about the Flash Mob community meeting:

South Euclid Police foiled a potential flash mob scheduled for 2 p.m. July 9 in Bexley Park by monitoring Twitter and Facebook. They learned that a water fight was being planned "but not necessarily a family friendly water fight," said South Euclid Police Sgt. Ben Parisi.

So what began the weekend as a rumored Flash Mob and ended up a controversial water fight is now four days out again a “potential flash mob” — albeit one that was luckily “foiled” by the deft actions of police.

But we guess that’s where we’re at right now. You whisper Flash Mob in a crowded room and ears perk, the sweat starts pouring, and everybody get a little excited. Maybe a little too excited.

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