CHICAGO -- It has been a rough string of days for fans of flash mobs. The largely innocuous, secretly organized events in which fun-loving people gather en masse to dance or say the same thing at once or engage in pillow fights have been unwittingly lumped in with a series of violent crimes in Chicago involving large groups of young attackers.
A Google search of "Chicago flash mob" now brings up an array of stories about these crimes, in which people have been robbed and beaten.
"A flash mob's purpose is to create joy through surprise," said Staci Lawrence, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based company Flash Mob America, which organizes flash mob events across the country.
Yet somehow the term has been co-opted. In February, Loyola University Chicago warned its Water Tower campus students about "flash mob offenders" coming off the CTA Red Line at Chicago Avenue.
Then a flurry of attacks by roving gangs of teens over the weekend propelled the term into the local news media. Blogs, radio and TV stations, and newspapers -- including the Tribune at times -- have associated "flash mob" with the violent acts, though there's no indication police ever officially used that term.
Chicago Police Department spokesman Daniel O'Brien said Wednesday that the official description officers will use is "multiple offender incidents." He also said there is no indication these crimes were coordinated using social media, which is a hallmark of actual flash mobs.
Jen Smith, 26, of Chicago took part in an actual flash mob just last week at the Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest. When she began reading media reports about criminal "flash mobs" she swiftly got on Twitter and suggested -- nicely -- that people knock it off.
"A few people on Twitter were misusing it right off the bat, and I tried to bring it up in a non-confrontational way," Smith said. "Flash mobs are positive things. A lot of people at the Lit Fest didn't know it was going to happen and were really surprised. The whole thing was to promote literacy."
According to various news reports, the first flash mob was held in New York City in 2003. The concept swiftly went global. A Time magazine article that same year describes similar events in England, calling them "inexplicable mobs."
Lawrence, the flash mob organizer, said the idea is similar to acts of performance art from the 1960s and 1970s.
"It's something that has really been happening for decades," she said.
And she hopes it can proceed, free of unwarranted criminal connotations.
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