A “flash mob” is generally defined as a group of people who suddenly gather in a public arena to stage an act of performance art, briefly interrupting everyday routine. In recent years, flash mobs have become so hugely popular that the concept has been used in everything from advertisements to staging massive picnics in city centres. In the US however, some young people have put a new twist on the movement, transforming the idea of a flash mob into a “flash rob”.
Public awareness of the darker side of flash mobs first surfaced just before the summer of 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where large groups of young men were reported to be roving the streets, heckling pedestrians, vandalising property and occasionally breaking out into fights. Although Philadelphia was not the only city to experience this new, more raucous version of flash mobs, the violence and frequency of these acts thrust the town into the limelight.
One year later, the trend seems to have trickled into areas surrounding the country’s capital, but this time with a more strategic goal in mind – theft. On Sunday, August 14, dozens of young people were caught on a security camera flooding into a 7-Eleven convenience store in Germantown, Maryland, ripping snacks and beverages from the shelves before quickly fleeing.
Less than a week later, a second incident was recorded in Northeast Washington D.C., where a group of young women strode into a convenience store, tore various items off of the shelves and scurried out of the door without paying. As news of the crimes spread, Internet users quickly jumped on social media sites to dub the practice “flash rob”.
These thefts have prompted Washington D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray to publically condemn the acts, warning those involved that “‘Flash mob’ or not, we will pursue criminal charges”.
“It’s mass robbery”
Dr. Jorge Ribas acts as the president and CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a regional business organisation based in Germantown, Maryland.
What was surprising about the robbery at the 7-Eleven was that the teenagers weren’t violent or even very aggressive, but the store owner couldn’t do anything because there was just too many of them. It’s an important issue, because intimidation plays a major role in these crimes.
This kind of thing has been happening here for the last two or three years, but it’s always been isolated incidents and smaller groups of kids – not 20 or 30 kids at a time like we’re seeing now. These kids probably wouldn’t do it if they had to do it alone, but the size of the group intimidates the store owners so they’re scared of intervening. The group provides these teenagers (with) a sense of protection.
It seems as though these incidents are fairly organised. For example, there can be 15 kids walking separately down a street, and suddenly they converge at a certain point, like a store. They all have mobile phones and they use them to communicate. It’s mass robbery.
Several of our store owners are also hesitant to call the police because they know the story will wind up in the news, and they’re afraid they’ll lose customers because people will think their business is no longer safe. I’ve spoken with one member of our chamber who was the victim of a similar robbery, and he became very angry with me when I encouraged him to contact the police. But he’s right. I wouldn’t go back to a business that had been robbed by a gang of teenagers – so I can understand why others wouldn’t either.
Another fear I hear from members of our chamber is that if they call the police, these gangs of kids will retaliate by coming back later to smash the windows or vandelise their property.
The other concern is safety. Even though the most recent robberies were without incident, it could degenerate into a violent situation very quickly. Suppose the store owner has a gun. Or suppose he grabs a young person, and one of his friends goes to help him. Suddenly you’ve got a melee on your hands.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Rachel Holman.