The character of our present moment is undeniable, and the tangled web of causes and consequences is the same from London to Cairo to Santiago: budget cuts in the name of “austerity,” rising unemployment, increasing popular resistance, and an upsurge in racist violence and policing measures like “stop-and-frisk.” The failure of an economic system in the short and long term has generated an entire class of undesirables, living proof of that failure who must be contained, controlled, and silenced.
But even those who recognize the roots of distant rebellions are far more hesitant about upheavals closer to home. Philadelphia is currently in the grips of a bout of mob hysteria at least as virulent and far more racist than the backlash underway in London, to which the media, the police, the city government and the public have all contributed, and yet few have dared to call it what it is.
In Philadelphia as in London, to use the term “mob” is to tar one’s opponents as dangerous, unruly, irrational, criminal, and apolitical. In most cases, it is also deeply racist. Like the term “gang,” “mob” has its roots in movement, in “mobility,” and it evokes a deep and abiding fear of the uncontrolled movement of the poor and dark-skinned. As we well know in this era of ostensible “globalization,” there are those who are authorized to move: tourists, executives, commodities, and financial flows. And then there are those who are not so authorized: the poor and largely racialized masses who find themselves ever more penned-in, confined by force and economics to the urban wastelands known as ‘slums’ that so many have, for good reason, compared to concentration camps.
Those daring or desperate enough to break through this 21st-century apartheid have been and will continue to be smeared as “gangs,” “the rabble,” and especially “mobs,” but with resistance comes the refashioning of the master’s weapons. In the U.S., this reappropriation has been carried forward most visibly in hip-hop where, from Mobb Deep to Crime Mob, from Ice Cube’s to Lil Wayne’s versions of “Steady Mobbin,” this elite slur has been taken up by its victims and resignified as an expression of popular solidarity, of resistance, and of the indomitable strength that comes in numbers (the one strength that tends to be the exclusive domain of the poor).
But if resistance breeds appropriation, it can eventually lead as well to reabsorption into the dominant culture, to which even slurs as potent as the ‘mob’ are not immune. Thus it was with the “flashmobs” that began to pop up eight years ago, whose choreographed spontaneity was quickly reduced to a purely ritualized aesthetic. Howie Mandel’s TV show Mobbed and AT&T’s most recent ad campaign are but the logical conclusion of an already empty form. But when this cleanly-picked carcass was taken up more recently by young Black people in Philadelphia and elsewhere, who injected the term “flashmob” with a spontaneity it had never enjoyed, all hell was bound to break loose.