Flash Mobs Revisited: Public Threat or Democratic Freedom

By Anderson, Jonathan | Public Management, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Flash Mobs Revisited: Public Threat or Democratic Freedom


Anderson, Jonathan, Public Management


PM magazine's December cover article, "Flash Mobs: The Newest Threat to Local Governments," introduced a recent phenomenon. Flash mobs are "groups of people who congregate in public spaces to carry out incongruous acts and leave after a brief period of time."

Although the author noted that "most flash mobs are harmless" and that 81 percent of law enforcement agencies reported "flash mobs were not a problem in their communities," the thrust of the article, coupled with the ominous title, "Threat to Local Governments," created a sense that flash mobs are bad and implied a need for local governments to take action to monitor, control, or prevent such gatherings.

The highlighted "Takeaways" are that flash mobs are either criminal activities or "gatherings of complete strangers ... who perform a pointless act." The reader is left with a sense that flash mobs are a potentially criminal activity.

Not the Real Story

In reality, flashmobs are a method of gathering people. Another reality is that some criminals have used social media for communications. These two realities are not the same.

In fact, flash mobs are assemblies of people protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. People gather for political protest, campaigning, music, or social activities, and sometimes they gather to commit criminal activities. This is nothing new.

The real takeaway is that local governments' response to public gatherings of any kind is a serious. Citizens gather for many reasons, and government responses to public activities must be nuanced and selective. Recent activities of the so-called Occupy movements are only the latest incarnation of political demonstrations that are a mainstay of American culture and part of our democratic system. Citizens demand both order and freedom, and democratic governments have always walked a tightrope of delivering the former without repressing the latter. Public assemblies of any kind confront local governments with manifestations of a vigorous democracy. A focus on order and efficiency alone negates the principles of freedom upon which this country was founded.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The First Amendment to our Constitution protects individual rights of speech, press, and assembly as long as citizens are not engaged in breaking the law. Countless court cases have defined boundaries of acceptable law enforcement actions in traffic stops and house searches, essentially requiring a reasonable suspicion of criminal activities, not just a gathering of residents.

As local governments seek to walk the tightrope of order versus freedom, they must consider: Has a crime been committed? Is public safety so explicitly threatened that individual freedom must be controlled?

A study of police management of demonstrations by the Police Executive Research Forum begins with a comment that "Perhaps there is no greater challenge for police officers in a democracy than that of managing mass demonstrations. It is here, after all where the competing goals of maintaining order and protecting the freedoms of speech and assembly meet."

Weigh the Options

Government responses to resident assemblies generally fall into two categories; monitoring and interacting with planners of such assemblies, and managing such assemblies once they happen. …

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