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Flash mobs morph from fun to violence

Published January 04. 2017 02:46PM

In addition to hordes of shoppers looking for post-Christmas bargains and exchanging gifts that didn't quite measure up, malls in nine states, including Pennsylvania, had to deal with destructive and fighting teens, some of whom responded to social media calls to show up and "make something happen."

We are fortunate that none of the incidents occurred at malls in the Carbon, Schuylkill or Lehigh Valley areas.

Five people, including four teenage girls, were arrested after two incidents at the Monroeville Mall near Pittsburgh. This is the same mall where a major disturbance broke out during the Christmas season two years ago, prompting mall owners to put a teen escort policy into effect on Friday and Saturday nights. The policy was not in effect when the fights occurred on Monday, but it was quickly reinstituted Monday night when large groups of teens were spotted roaming through the mall.

Under this policy, any teen under the age of 18 is not allowed in the mall after 6 p.m. without a parent or legal guardian. Security personnel are instructed to approach those who appear to be under 18 to ask for an official ID. If they can't produce one, they are asked to leave the mall or have a parent join them.

In the 2014 incident, more than 1,000 teenagers showed up as part of a flash mob after being urged on by social media. Several arrests were made, and the mall was shuttered for nearly 24 hours

In addition to the Monroeville incident, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, there was chaos when a fight broke out Monday, and someone threw a table or chair. The loud noise sounded like a gunshot to many nearby shoppers. On top of that, someone yelled "gun," which led to panic and a mad scramble toward the exits. Several were injured.

Seven were arrested in Manchester, Connecticut, after several hundred teenagers converged on the Buckland Hills Mall. One officer suffered minor injuries while trying to break up a fight.

Police in Beachwood, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, locked down the Beachwood Place Mall after flash-mobbing teenagers went wild through the facility Monday evening. Minor injuries and one arrest were reported.

In Aurora, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, 75 police were called in and evacuated and closed the Fox Valley Mall. They said they arrested seven people after unruly behavior in common areas and fights in the food court. At one point, police said, about 1,000 people had gathered in the common area to watch the action.

Flash mobs, egged on by social media posts, have been a problem for the past three or four years. Philadelphia had a string of incidents starting in 2013. In one, more than 100 police officers were called to stop roaming bands of teenagers from robbing passers-by and smashing and grabbing merchandise from storefronts. One of the victims was a 55-year-old off-duty police officer, who was punched and kicked. His wife also was assaulted and punched in the face after throwing water on several of the rioters in an attempt to get them to stop their attacks.

Flash mobs were not always destructive. In fact, early flash mobs convened for zany activities. In one, people gathered at New York City's Central Park to make bird noises. A flash mob in San Francisco performed a zombie walk.

Webster's Dictionary defines a flash mob as "a group of people who organize on the Internet, then quickly assemble in a public place, do something bizarre and disperse."

The first known flash mob of 130 assembled in Macy's rug department in New York City on June 3, 2003. The concept is attributed to Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine, who called these impromptu gatherings a social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity among large groups in taking over public areas temporarily to show that it could be done.

Then, these mobs became more creative and organized choreographed dances on city buses or in public venues. At first, the public found them amusing; in fact, some even joined in. Some of these performances were quite intricate and involved weeks of rehearsal. A flash mob of about 70 students at Ohio State University practiced for two and a half months to put on performances of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " at various public locations in Columbus.

Flash mobs have been used as political tools of protest, too. Remember in 2010 when an Egyptian flash mob was organized through Facebook to protest the killing of a young man by police in Alexandria? This protest led to other social-media calls to action that eventually led to the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt that led to the resignation of then-president Hosni Mubarak and revolts in other Mideast countries.

It is tragic that an innocuous concept, once intended for innovative harmless fun, has morphed into a practice that puts the public at risk and is now too often motivated by lawlessness and violence.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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