To follow up the other day’s report about a “riot” at Mayfair Mall, it’s looking more and more likely that this was a facebook-organized flash mob. Nothing further (predictably) has come forward about the motives, however, it’s a fairly good illustration of the way flash mobs are being characterized as a postmodern terrorist threat.

What actually happened? Still no more real information. The kids pulled down manequins and threw clothing about. There was an armed robbery nearby at the time with no demonstrated connection. But other than that, nearly everything that happened seems to have been a reaction – security guards, gates, putting the mall on lockdown. Surely people were scared out of their wits – but whether this was a result of a gun-toting terrorist takeover of the mall, or simply a rowdy game of tag having fun at the expense of racist suburbanites is extremely unclear. Every single word of this, right up to the point where started showing up in the top ten google searches on the subject yesterday, has assumed the guilt of those involved. Only a handfull of words from their side have been heard, one kid saying he was just there to have fun, and many pages have been written about it.

The racial dynamics of this situation are pretty horrific. I remember a night long ago where a large chunk of a Burlington punk show I was at left to play tag in a nearby mall during “Midnight Madness”. They had a grand old time and returned an hour or so later with tales of being chased up the down escalators by security guards, making out in broom closets and other such youthful shenanigans. Strangely, this did not soon appear on international newswires as an insurgent threat, nor did the mayor have to come out and reassure everyone that the mall was still “safe”. Oh, and did I mention the kids involved in this were almost all white? Strangely, no major media voices of the white community felt compelled to offer explanations or apologies on behalf of our race…

The use of this kind of fearmongering, against youth, people of colour, working class folks or simply citizens in general is nothing new. It’s classic authoritarian dogma. The assumption that any sizeable group of people is a gang or riot waiting to happen means that anybody participating in any “unsanctioned” gathering is guilty until proven innocent. This assumption, and the typical hard-handed responses which us usually appear in response, only tends to bring out the worst in crowds.

Flash mobs represent something known as freedom of assembly. And the terror around them relates mainly to the fact that new digital communications options now allow anybody and everyone to organize themselves as quickly and efficiently as an old-time army. It removes the long, complicated and easily infiltrated organizing which used to come before any large action, and makes it far harder for authorities to stop them. But is that a bad thing? Especially given how much more control authorities now have over us because of these same technologies – Facebook and cell phones?

Gatherings can be used for good or ill, and the actions of people involved need to be judged as just that – the actions of people involved. We cannot charge people for rioting simply because what they’re doing looks like or could lead to a riot. The internet allows us to connect to each other in ways we never could before, and that translates to the ability to utilize public space in new and interesting ways. And while people in power may not wish to let us do so, it’s pretty clear they can’t stop us either.