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Mob Rule 

Flash mobs: serious social movement or quirky entertainment (or both)?

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003

It's July 16, just 37 minutes until show time, and we are locked into a stiff cocktail at the Gold Dust Lounge. At first glance, it's just another happy hour in the heart of Union Square: Sassy waitresses are serving up discounted margaritas, ESPN is parading across TV screens, and the after-work crowd is easing on in.

But something doesn't jibe. Maybe it's the row of white men who line the bench seats across from the bar; they sit at empty tables, ogle each entering person, and resemble escapees from a Lord of the Rings convention. Maybe it's the cast of characters here today; most of the people look far too hip for the blend of tourists and old-timers who frequent the Gold Dust. Certainly, there are far more drinkers than usual for the midweek grind.

Soon the bar is packed like the N Judah at rush hour, forcing wannabe revelers to overflow onto the sidewalk. Booze pumps out faster than announced candidacies for mayor. The Gold Dust probably hasn't seen this much business since the repeal of Prohibition, and the barkeeps are forced to call in extra waitstaff to deal with the tsunami of thirsty customers. Steve, a Marriott employee and Gold Dust regular, is playing with a pack of cigarettes and watching the attendees' numbers swell. "The owner loves it, the bartenders hate it," he observes. "I'll tell you what though, your friends don't tip so well."

With 15 minutes left, a woman slices through the dense people-stink and distributes half-sheets of paper. The slips instruct us to go to Market Street by 6:27 p.m., and, tickled pink to be liberated from the stifling atmosphere, Dog Bites happily obeys. At 6:27 precisely, hordes of people from the Gold Dust, along with like-minded carousers originating from Red's Corner and Union Street Sports, materialize on the corner, flood into Market, and start twirling clockwise like whirling dervishes. Hundreds of rotating people engage in a brief interlude of dizzying randomness, and quickly flee to the safety of the sidewalk just as the blinking orange hand completes its countdown to zero. As the walk sign lights anew, so do the gyrating pranksters, and, with more and more repetitions, a battle cry of "woo" rises from the throats of the twisters.

At 6:37 the group vanishes as quickly as it assembled, leaving Powell and Market streets awash with just the standard mob of shorts-wearing tourists.

This twirling-in-the-street event marked the first gathering of the San Francisco Mob Project, part of a growing phenomenon known as "flash mobs." San Francisco Mob Project participants were enlisted online through announcements posted on Craigslist and an assortment of e-mail lists, including one sponsored by risqué culture Web site Three days before the event, an e-mail was sent instructing mob-sters to meet at different rallying bars, where the final and precise orders would be distributed.

The recent flash mob movement was born on June 17 in New York City, where an organizer known as "Bill" orchestrated the simultaneous arrival of 100 people in the Macy's carpet department in search of a "love rug." The New York City branch has held several mob gatherings since then, with exploits ranging from posing as a huge group of tourists visiting a shoe store to ducking cops at Grand Central Station. A mob in Minneapolis invaded the Mall of America on July 22, and Internet-based groups dedicated to flash mobbing have formed in Boston, Dallas, Phoenix, Rome, London, Vienna, and the social-movement hotbed of Dutchess County, N.Y.

Like most flash mobs to date, the San Francisco Mob has no particularly noble goals. As "The Governor," one of the four ringleaders of the S.F. movement, says, "We tried to come up with ideas that were fun, didn't take much time, and didn't require a lot of planning. Just something silly to make people feel like they were 5 years old; something irreverent enough to make people stop, but not anything mean-spirited or illegal. We wanted to help people get out of their daily grind."

As for future events, the Governor's campaign promises to "stick with something easy, silly, and quick. Everybody's lives are complicated enough."

"Jane," one of the Gov's cohorts, explains that final mob instructions are kept top-secret "because it's cooler. The mystery of it makes it better; it's supposed to be a secret agent-type thing."

But beyond the occasional bit of cool, quick, secretive fun with large numbers of utter strangers, is there a point? As far as purpose, Jane holds that "there's some meaning in getting strangers together." Scott Beale, Webmaster of, agrees. "Most people won't leave the cubicle to do something crazy, but would 100 people do it? Sure."

The S.F. Mob Project organizers have a kindred spirit in Rob Zazueta, a computer programmer from Hayward who runs, a Web site that enables like-minded mob-sters to organize themselves. "Smart mobs are the next social revolution," he declares. "I'm now more connected than I've ever been, and being interconnected will form the next revolution of getting people together." Citing Howard Rheingold's recent book Smart Mobs, Zazueta recalls the success of technology in coordinating demonstrations that brought down the Philippine government. And, Zazueta says, flash mobs are capable of doing more than bottlenecking crosswalks; he views them as a means to create new political, artistic, and altruistic movements, including social events like "instant concerts and the new rave."

Sean Savage has been following the evolution of flash mobs closely on his Web site,, and shares Zazueta's earnest views on the movement's far-reaching implications. "I see flash mobs as the earliest forms of something very different," Savage explains. "New forms of emergent group behavior are just starting to come into being with the help of communication technology, and that will transform into something drastically different when networked, location-aware wireless communication devices become cheap and widespread. Lion cubs play a lot, to learn the dynamics and the constraints and the repercussions of their powers, building the skills they'll need to use these powers when they mature.

"I think that's what groups of people are semiconsciously doing now with these playful flash mobs."

We see.

Whether one views them as part of a serious social movement or a form of quirky entertainment (or both), flash mobs are perfectly appropriate for this town. Historically, San Francisco has been rife with pranking and performance art organizations. Loosely organized groups of merrymakers -- including the Amateur Press Association, the Church of the SubGenius, Survival Research Laboratories, Billboard Liberation Front, the edgier Suicide Club, Santarchy, and the still-kickin' Cacophony Society -- have been tugging San Francisco's pigtails since the turn of the 20th century. Don Herron, an alumnus of the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society, observes that "in days of massive tedium, people still want to have fun." Herron says the Suicide Club's mob-esque Interhotelic Battles, where "opposing teams converged on downtown hotels and tagged each other with different colors of glitter," were usually quickly put down by hotel security.

"But the flash mobs," he says, "have honed it all down to the essence."

John Law, a fellow veteran of the Suicide Club and the Cacophony Society, notes that "this need of people to be together, not consuming stuff, goes back to the turn of the century, and flash mobs are just the next step."

If you've always wanted to be part of a raging mob that doesn't involve tear gas, rubber bullets, or stealing VCRs but have some lingering doubts about the Mob Project, consider Law's assessment of like-minded groups to which he's belonged over several decades: "The main purpose of the people in our organizations was to get laid." -- M.J.F. Stewart

Bombs Away

Without really trying, San Francisco's finest have managed to accomplish a political feat previously thought impossible: uniting the U.S. Navy and the neighbors of the Navy's Hunters Point Shipyard.

Things were already tense around the former military base -- home to a massive toxic-waste cleanup operation that has uncovered an ever-increasing number of potential radiation "hot spots" -- when the San Francisco police set off a political bomb. Check that; SFPD officers set off a real, live, actual bomb, and the explosion had political repercussions.

On June 29, police were called to a San Francisco residence, where two unexploded World War II-era munitions had been discovered. The SFPD bomb squad took the relics out to the department's satellite office at Hunters Point Shipyard, examined them, and then decided to detonate the bombs in "open space" on the shipyard.

According to Police Department spokesman Dewayne Tulley, using the shipyard for ordnance disposal is standard procedure.

"They do detonate devices at the shipyard," Tulley says. "Sometimes devices are detonated at the location where they're found, depending on public safety, or they are brought to the shipyard and detonated there. There is no central spot where this is done. It's a huge facility. There's a lot of open space there, but there is no central spot where it is done. It depends on the nature of the device."

Therein lies the problem. Most of the open space near the Police Department's facility is highly contaminated, including the area where the munitions were detonated in June. The location also is near a 46-acre landfill, one of the most environmentally contaminated sites in the Bay Area. Its contents remain a mystery, but it is estimated to contain virtually every chemical used in an industrial setting during the last century, not to mention the possibility that radioactive waste from a former defense laboratory may have been dumped there. The landfill and surrounding area have an ongoing problem of methane gas leaks and, from time to time, fires. Not surprising to shipyard followers, the police detonation ignited a small fire, which Navy firefighters who were on hand extinguished immediately.

It's fair to say that neither the Navy nor the residential neighborhood adjoining the shipyard was pleased to learn of the SFPD's bomb-disposal operations. Relations deteriorated further last Thursday when a police representative failed to show up at a public meeting called by the Navy and representatives of the Hunters Point community to discuss the matter.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, Hunters Point Shipyard is still military property. And the Police Department's lease for space on the shipyard, handled through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, specifically prohibits activities that might disturb the soil.

"They [SFPD] did all of this without informing the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency or the United States Navy," says Keith Forman, the Navy's liaison to Hunters Point. "We want to make sure something like this never occurs again." -- Lisa Davis

About The Author

M.J.F. Stewart/Lisa Davis


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