In a public place, a group breaks into a shared action – often a dance – seemingly out of the blue. The movements are choreographed, so the scene plays out like a real-life musical theater number or odd performance art. Sometimes, the scene ends with a marriage proposal, but often, its purpose is simply to have fun and capture peoples’ attention. Known as “flash mobs,” these gatherings can also be harnessed for important causes. How did flash mobs get started? What role do they play within social justice?
A brief history of flash mobs
The first flash mobs (as we recognize them) began in 2003. Bill Wasik, who was then the senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, organized the first gathering at a Macy’s department store. More than 130 people went to Macy’s and asked about an expensive rug. They said they were shopping for a “love rug” and made all their decisions together. At another flash mob, 200 people went to a lobby at a hotel and clapped for 15 seconds. What was Wasik’s point? He’s said that flash mobs were a social experiment about hipsters and how people always wanted to be part of something trendy. After Wasik’s initial eight flash mobs, they became popular across the country and the world. Social media and text messaging make it easy to organize often huge flash mobs, which can include everything from dances to pillow fights.
Flash mobs and social justice
Flash mobs have a lot in common with protests. Both depend on digital communication and good organizational skills. They also tend to focus on nonviolent actions. In some circumstances, activists intentionally use flash mobs as a strategy. Here are five examples of flash mobs being used to raise awareness:
Avon Walk awareness – 2011
In the fall of 2011, more than 100 professional dancers and Avon Walk supporters in pink shirts gathered to perform a 3-minute dance routine in Washington, D.C. Its purpose? Encourage people to register for the Avon Walk For Breast Cancer event in 2012. The length of the dance was intentional: every three minutes, there’s a new breast cancer diagnosis in the United States. Washington D.C. has an especially high rate of breast cancer diagnoses, as well as one of the highest death rates in the country. Among women, breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer.
Justice for Michael Brown – 2014
Following the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, Ferguson was home to many protests. At least one protest took a unique approach. On a Saturday night, the St. Louis Symphony ended their intermission and prepared to play their next requiem. Suddenly, two audience members stood up and began singing a protest song. “Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all. Which side are you on, friend? Which side are you on?” Others stood up, joining in all over the auditorium. They displayed banners with text like, “Mike Brown 1996-2021” and “Racism lives here.” Sarah Griesbach and Elizabeth Vega, organizers of the flash mob, had tried a similar display at a baseball game. When they hung their banners there, they were booed and handcuffed. At the symphony, the song lasted about 1.5 minutes. Demonstrators left without incident, chanting “Black Lives Matter.”
Belarus protests against the president – 2011
In 2011, Belarusians demanded that president Alexander Lukashenko resign. He’d been president since 1994 and ruled over an authoritarian state. For weeks, demonstrators organized flash mobs using social media and gathered in squares around the country. They would wander around so it would appear that they were just enjoying the evening, but at a designated time, they would begin clapping. In June, hundreds of people gathered in Minsk, the capital, and clapped. Eventually, people were forced onto police buses while about 40 were detained. As many as 3,000 demonstrators were involved in these flash mobs. The protests (which also consist of more traditional tactics like marching) in Belarus continue.
Violence against Arab citizens in Israel – 2021
On a Saturday morning in March, about a dozen young people at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Circle began to collapse dramatically to the ground. The flash mob organizer – Mohamd Jabarin – explained to the startled onlookers that the demonstrators wanted to draw attention to the ignored violence within Israel’s Arab community. The violence and the lack of police help sparked protests numbering in the tens of thousands in Arab towns, but the Saturday flash mob wanted to raise awareness in the Jewish Israeli towns. Israel’s Arab population is Israeli by citizenship with Palestinian backgrounds. They say the violence in their communities is the result of years of poverty and a lack of attention by authorities.
One Billion Rising – Ongoing
Eve Ensler (activist and author of The Vagina Monologues) founded One Billion Rising in 2012. The “billion” refers to the UN statistics that a billion women (about 1 in 3) will experience rape or other violence in their lifetime. Flash mobs have been part of this global campaign for years. Activists and community leaders organize in different parts of the world, including the United States, India, and England. You can find recordings of the flash mobs online on YouTube under the tag “One Billion Rising.”