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Flash mobs: from hipster conformity to movement builder

Our friend Kiera Feldman had an excellent report at AlterNet yesterday about the role of flash mobs in the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She includes, among lots of other helpful basics, a primer on where flash mobs came from:

Flash mobs were the pre-YouTube brainchild of former Harper’s editor Bill Wasik. In June 2003, an email invite brought 200 people to a Manhattan Macy’s, where they converged around a giant carpet, telling clerks they lived together in a commune and were shopping for a “love rug.” Soon, flash mobs were like Starbucks: everywhere. Wasik had set out to make a grand joke of hipster conformity, calling his creation “an empty meditation on emptiness.” While the original flash mob was essentially an apolitical situation comedy, today it is enjoying a revival as a movement builder.

In part thanks to the help of the attention garnered by flash mobs, Feldman shows that the BDS movement has been gaining a lot of momentum lately and how it is coming to represent a very real threat to Israeli militancy. Israel’s Knesset has moved to criminalize the movement inside the country, and even the moderate wing of the Israel lobby in the US, namely J Street, vehemently opposes BDS.

Feldman would be at the very least suspect, though, if she didn’t take some grains of salt with her flash mobs. Like a lot of internet-meme-style ways to “take action” nowadays, she points out that the very power of flash mobs to attract attention is in their ephemerality.

If there is one rule of the digital era it is this: the Internet is a ravenous beast, ever hungry for short intervals of even mildly amusing distraction. Do something absurd in public space, and somebody will click on the video in their Facebook news feed. Kristel de Wit of Holland’s BDS Platform illustrated the timeless truth of a little bit of humor going a long way on YouTube with a story about a recent aerobics class. “My teacher is an absolutely nonpolitical person,” de Witt explained, “and she says to me, ‘I saw you in a funny video! It was something about boycotting Israeli products.’” If the goal of protest is to have one’s message heard and remembered, then: mission accomplished. But I had to wonder if laughter is the wrong register for conveying the suffering of Palestinians. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with singing or dancing about ending the occupation,” replied Banan Ead, the Palestinian-American Motorola flash mobber. A woman after Emma Goldman’s own heart.

The question is always how to turn that dance, dance into an actual revolution.

Lastly, I want to point to Feldman’s remarks on the gender dynamics of the BDS movement and its flash-mobbing segment. This is the kind of conversation we don’t get nearly enough of here at Waging Nonviolence, partly thanks to our all-white, male editorial staff.

CodePink’s Rae Abileah and Colleen Kelly, a Catholic Worker and member of St. Louis Justice in Palestine (of Motorola flash mob fame) are borderline flash mob evangelists, who praised the form’s ability to engage a diverse group of people and build community.

Both Abileah and Kelly grew up choreographing Spice Girls dances at slumber parties; in flash mobs, the teen girl consumer culture they were weaned on meets the “don’t buy that” movement of their adulthood. It is, by and large, a movement dominated by women. “I think that’s everywhere though,” not just BDS, Kelly said. “When women are leaders, men are not as present.”

Dalit Baum, a member of the established Israeli feminist organization Coalition of Women for Peace and the founder of whoprofits.org, agreed. “Women do most of the grassroots organizing,” she said. “Always.” What’s more, she added, they’re disproportionately queer.

She then goes into some discussion of the discrimination some women have felt from within the BDS movement, from men who unfortunately “know better but don’t act better.”

Bottom line: read the rest at AlterNet.