I don’t like all that violence going on in Ferguson, Missouri. It is not grounded in the pain and anguish of the loved ones of Michael Brown. Rather, the violence stems from outside agitators and political opportunists seeing this as a chance to make a name for themselves. What is Jesse Jackson doing there? What about the new Black Panthers? Do the people of Ferguson really need them to prove their point?
“No Justice No Peace” rings hollow when supported by violence and disorder instead of organized civil disobedience. What inevitably happens is that people focus on the peace – trying to arrest rabble rousers, shaking their heads at looters, and so forth. They forget about the justice – should Officer Darren Wilson be charged with murder?
The days of marching down main street to prove a point are not over. As long as the media still covers them, marching and protesting will get the national exposure they want. But with the help of the digital environment, protests can be more effective…and possibly eliminate some of the rabble rousers who only make the situation worse. Protesters can organize “smartly”. Let me explain…
Types of Smart Mobs
One of the true sages of the digital environment, Howard Rheingold, wrote a book some years ago about the social revolution brought about by mobile phones. In his book Smart Mobs, he wrote about how people were using mobile phones to organize. One of the examples Rheingold used was the ousting of Filipino President Joseph Estrada. In 2001, millions of Filipinos took to the streets – urged on by text messages – eventually leading to Estrada’s resignation. Rheingold called these groups organized by mobile phone “smart mobs”. Smart mobs are impromptu collectivities. They are “smart” in the sense that those in the know about the mob are aware of the place, time, and meaning of the organizing. They are not chaotic. These smart mobs have grown in complexity since Rheingold’s writings. The Arab Spring is a prime example of how Facebook and Twitter can also be used to help organize protests.
There are two basic types of smart mobs.
One type of smart mob is the “flash mob”. Unlike the smart mobs Rheingold wrote about, these mobs tend to be nonsensical, and more for entertainment. As such, there is often a lot of pre-planning involved in a flash mob so that the show goes of without a hitch. Anyone can go to YouTube and see thousands of flash mobs. I myself find them corny. The many contrivances used to pull them off mean they are only “flash” for the observer, and not the performers. One of the very first flash mobs was organized by former Wired editor Bill Wasik. Although he used email to organize his mob, it is still instructive. The orders were weird, as is the MO of flash mobs, but people were incredibly organized (see an original set of instructions for one Wasik’s mobs here). This level of organizing means that outsiders are simply not able to jump in without being privy to the emails or texts.
There are also, unfortunately, flash robs. These are probably the greatest expression of the ability of mobile phones to organize people smartly. In a flash rob, a small group of people – usually kids – use their mobile phones to coalesce in one space to commit a crime. Six or seven youths organized for one purpose – say a mugging or stealing merchandise from a store – can easily overwhelm most deterrents. The urban youths, mainly black and Hispanic, have used the power of organizing through the digital environment for criminal ends. But we can learn from them. The speed and precision of a flash rob means that a group of people can congregate in unsuspecting places and accomplish their goals or spread their messages before an appropriate response can be generated.
Organizing “Smartly” in Ferguson
Using mobile phones to organize is not new, and people in Ferguson are certainly using their phones now to organize and document their experiences. However, they can harness the power of mobile phones to focus their protests more sharply. The benefit of this would be that only the people who have a lasting stake in that community – the people who live there, work there, and raise families there – would need to be involved. There is no need for the media to seek that nauseating money shot – Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson holding hands with people walking a street chanting (I won’t show it here…you’ve all seen it).
The community leaders in Ferguson have access to the contact information of other heads of households. This is all they would need to organize smartly.
- They could apply elements of the flash mob and use specific instructions: go here, do this, then do that, then go home. People with dubious goals usually hide behind the mass of do-gooders and try and stoke disorderly behavior. But if the protesters were organized “smartly” the odds of the ne’er-do-wells causing trouble are greatly reduced. Moreover, the uniformity of the protests will be a powerful image for the media, showing the gravity of the situation.
- They could apply elements of the flash rob and organize quick, precise, groupings in specific places. Not to commit crime of course, but maybe to bring together select community leaders and have them express their concern to a journalist – without the Black Panthers shouting “kill the cops”. They could also be used to organize quick acts of civil disobedience. Their speed would mean that protesters can be disobedient longer, as it would take law enforcement some time to respond.
It is important that the leaders in Ferguson find ways to get their message across. There are some serious issues that need to be addressed. Maybe by organizing “smartly” they won’t get sidetracked by a few knuckleheads, carpetbaggers, and political opportunists.