What's Really Behind Those Philadelphia 'Flash Mobs': A Breakdancing Crew

Flash mobs terrifying business owners in Philly are said to have been inspired by "Twitter messages to 'come to South Street.'" That is bullshit: Twitter didn't cause these flash mobs; neither did "social-networking". It was a dance crew.

This past Saturday night, a violent "flash mob" of teenagers summoned by social-networking websites was supposed to randomly materialize and wreack havoc on South Street in Philadelphia. There was no flash mob, besides the one made up of CNN and Fox News crews, and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and his police entourage, who locked down the area in an attempt to head off the blood-crazed teens. Did the massive police presence and network news cameras successfully prevent a repeat of last week's destructive South Street flash mob? We believe there's a much more boring reason: The dance crew Team Nike didn't happen to have a performance scheduled that night.

Philadelphia is currently a city besieged by flash mobs. If you've been following the news out of Philly, it seems like there's some sort of extended Web 2.0 Watts riots going down. "Another Flash Mob Rocks South Street: In the 'Tsunami,' Chants of 'Burn the city!'" blared the Philadelphia Inquirer after a flash mob last Saturday night, March 20th. There have been either three or four large gatherings of—mostly African-American—teens in Philadelphia in the past three months, depending on whose doing the counting. They have turned violent, with some kids smashing up stores and beating up passersby. The March 20th mob was the latest, and it featured some of the worst violence yet. The key aspect of the story, repeated in almost every news account, is that these weren't just normal groups of teens: They were "flash mobs" "organized through social networking Web sites."

Citizens are freaking out: Four days after last Saturday's, the University of Pennsylvania warned students of an impending flash mob near their campus. Police showed up in force; nothing happened. And the spectre of hundreds of rampaging black teens able to assemble with a few mouse clicks has captivated a social media-obsessed press. We covered the flash mob on South Street that actually happened on March 20th with a heavy emphasis on the social-networking angle. The Times led with the social networking angle, too: "Mobs Are Born as Word Grows by Text Message." The Philadelphia Daily News singled out Twitter to blame for the March 20th mob.

Inspired by Twitter messages to "come to South Street," police say hundreds - business owners say thousands - of young teens stampeded down South Street in waves, jumping on top of cars, knocking over pedestrians and fighting and cursing.

But, uh, about those Tweets? Here are the results of a Twitter search for "come to south street" from March 20th-March21st

What's Really Behind Those Philadelphia 'Flash Mobs': A Breakdancing Crew

Jessika521's tweet on March 20th at 2:47PM at her friend Brainbangley was the only "come to south street" tweet before the flash mob. The other results were about the Daily News article, after the flash mob took place. Unless all these teens had protected accounts, or the flash mob was entirely organized before 3PM, there's no way this was a Twitter-mobilized mob. The mob didn't even begin until around 9, so that's highly unlikely. (Hilariously, Jessika521 later posted a tweet about a New York Times journalist asking her on Formspring.me if she had been at the flash mob. Her answer: "What the fuck?" She was probably just shopping.)

In fact a close reading of the news accounts shows that, far from a roaming mob of teens who just all happened to tweet the same thing at the same time, the majority of these "flash mobs" were actually street performances organized by Team Nike, which is, as far as we can tell, a break-dancing crew made up of teens wearing big white Nike T-shirts. Here's what two teens told the court during a hearing about the March 20th "flash mob":

Two teens... also said informal, neighborhood dance groups with a presence on MySpace had been at the heart of the gatherings.

One dance group identified in court, Team Nike, posted a video on YouTube this week showing about a dozen teens on South Street dressed in what appeared to be homemade Team Nike shirts. The teens dance and shout slogans, but are peaceable throughout.

At one point, the message "We got tha whole South Street following us Team Nike" flashes on the screen. The team members are, in fact, shown at the head of a large crowd.

Here's video of Team Nike at the March 20th "flash mob":

And during a hearing for teens arrested in a February 16th "flash mob" that rampaged through The Gallery, a local mall, one teen said:

One 15-year-old Gratz student took the blame for sparking the large gathering at the Gallery. He said he is involved in a dance group called Team Nike and that mall security guards let the teens dance there. On Feb. 16 he said he put a "friend blaster" message on MySpace that the dance group was headed to the Gallery to make a video.

"Anybody who thinks this is a flash mob, it's my fault," the teen said. "This time, it was too many people . . . They ain't flash mobs. They're dance groups."

Another 15-year-old Gratz student also said that informal, neighborhood dance groups are at the heart of the gatherings. He said the groups throw parties and sometimes identify themselves with homemade shirts and hoodies.

(emphasis mine.)

Here's video of the Krush Groove Crew dancing at the Gallery—apparently a popular spot for Philly breakdancers. (Krush Groove Crew is unrelated to the flash mobs, according to someone familiar with the situation):

Just like that, two out of three (four?) flash mobs are explained. Sorry, CNN, they weren't mobs of angry black teens empowered by Twitter and looking for something to smash: They were breakdancing concerts. Yes, the kids were perhaps "summoned" by social-networking messages from Team Nike members, just like people are "summoned" to any show or concert. And we're guessing these kids summoned their friends, who summoned their own and things reached that snowballing point where they get out of hand. Like, imagine a Justin Bieber concert with no security.

This explanation is a whole lot less scary than the irrational, all-destroying hive mind that many people seem to think is driving these "teenage flash mobs" as they sweep the city via "social-networking". This is probably why media accounts have largely overlooked it. The New York Daily News ominously wrote of the February 16th flash mob: "Police suspect the 100 teens gathered at The Gallery on Market St. after organizing the incident on Facebook or Twitter." No mention was made of the possible Team Nike connection, as if the entire point of the gathering was to cause an "incident." A puzzled psychologist instead could only offer: "social phenomena have to start somewhere." The Philadelphia Inquirer asks: "What's behind 'flash mobs?'" They suggest everything from "boredom" to "urban inequality" to "the dynamics of large groups." Yes, those are certainly all at play! But more immediately, we believe we have found your "incident," your terrifying, unknowable "social phenomena." This is what's behind the Philly flash mobs: Presenting: Team Nike.

Maybe instead of tooling around Philadelphia trying to guess where the next flash mob is going to happen, Philly authorities can instead try to find Team Nike and their breakdancing buddies a safe place to hold their next street show. If not, we can predict where and when the next street show will get out of hand—er, dangerous flash mob will be summoned. According to one Team Nike member's MySpace page, they're planning on "shutting down" 40st on April 10th. See you at the flash mob!

What's Really Behind Those Philadelphia 'Flash Mobs': A Breakdancing Crew

Look at this face and tremble, for it is the face of a flash mob:

What's Really Behind Those Philadelphia 'Flash Mobs': A Breakdancing Crew


Also, check out their show next month. Should be poppin'!

What's Really Behind Those Philadelphia 'Flash Mobs': A Breakdancing Crew

Update: Team Nike is apparently not a breakdancing crew. They are a party crew. A reader emails in this clarification:

In your article, you state that what's really behind the Philadelphia flash mobs a "breakdancing crew". Team Nike is a party crew. Now you must be asking, "What's the difference?". Well, a "breakdancing crew" is a crew that break dances, or b-boys. A party crew, on the other hand, party dances, a dance that is no way affiliated with b-boying. Party dancing is done specifically at parties and is done outside in flash mobs to advertise parties. By confusing the two different type of dances, you have inadvertently put the blame of the flash mobs onto a group of innocent dancers, the b-boys. Also, in your video displaying "Krush Groove Crew", Dreamers Crew, a respectable group of individuals, are also displayed. This also causes unnecessary confusion between respectable crews and crews that just "do it for fun".