'Flash Mobs'

The facile assembly of large mobs of miscreants to raid retailers in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles is even more alarming than it seems.

The events are novel and even a bit entertaining, posing only a minor challenge to law enforcement if police are permitted to intercede.

More important than the incidents per se, however, is what they may reveal about the participants.

Lootings have been widely reported, mainly on the West Coast.  At Union Square in the heart of San Francisco:

“At least 40 thieves allegedly broke into a Louis Vuitton store on Friday [November 26], grabbing whatever they could before loading it into a series of cars parked curbside out front. The shoplifting caravan cut a swath through San Francisco’s high-end boutiques, creating a scene of chaos while stealing more than $1 million in merchandise.”

The New York Post described the another event, in Oakland, California:

“Hey, look — here are 80 people engaged in a large-scale smash-and-grab robbery of a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek outside San Francisco last weekend, one of a series of jaw-dropping thefts over the last several days, including an operation that cleared out a Louis Vuitton on San Francisco’s Union Square.”

Another Oakland location had  two similar lootings:

 “Prime 365 says more than 30 burglars ran through their store.

“In [a] video, you can see a long line of people rushing in, and in one instance, even pushing each other out of the way to grab hats off a shelf.”

Although the signature of these attacks is the large number of offenders, several robberies have involved, in each instance, only a handful of perpetrators (perps). Press accounts do not distinguish assaults with dozens of offenders from those with only a few, using the same terms – “flash mobs” and “smash and grab,” for both. Whether they represent the same phenomenon, however, is uncertain. Police believe that the robberies are organized and planned by higher-level criminals, a reasonable supposition for the more compact groups. Contrary-wise, it is unlikely that an executive criminal would bring together 80 assailants for a single heist. Because there may be critical differences in how the large and small perp groups originate and function, the terminology of “flash mobs” is better applied to the larger groups, which really are mobs, while “smash and grab” aptly describes the smaller groups. The focus here is on the flash mobs involving dozens of assailants.

Criminal flash mobs do not assemble spontaneously in an appointed location in response to a social media announcement. The perps arrive as a group after some preparation: cars have multiple passengers, license plates have been covered or removed, and full-face coverings for the perps far exceed the exigencies of COVID.  Once the perps leave their cars and enter the target stores, however, planning is no longer evident.  Bedlam ensues, the video records portraying controlled chaos in what might be described as an amalgam of the no-limit-shopping challenge and a Black Friday at Walmart.  The trespass is brief.  Perps collect their prizes, load them into cars, and disappear in multiple directions.

The modus operandi is derived from lootings during the riots of 2020 and 2021 when storefronts were smashed, buildings were invaded, merchandise was liquidated, and, sometimes, what remained was incinerated. The irresistible force that overwhelmed store owners was the mob, while police, having been sidelined by the civilians in charge, were just spectators.

In landmark research from the 1960s, Albert Bandura established that children who observe adult models being rewarded for engaging in aggressive behavior will later imitate the aggressive behavior.  On the other hand, if they observe an adult being punished or reprimanded for aggressive behavior, children are far less likely to imitate it.  The riots and aftermath provided the background for a real-world demonstration of precisely these principles. Young people watched -- in person or on television -- as older “models” looted stores and purloined expensive merchandise, unfettered by police pursuit.  Aggressive behavior was rewarded without adverse consequences.  A year or two later, teen and young adult proteges who had seen everything on television, if not in person, emulated the rioters’ behavior when the opportunity arose. Fewer arrests and prosecutions, easy bail, reduced sentences, and early releases from prison all contributed to a climate of “anything goes.”

The flash mobs have been remarkably homogeneous, comprising mainly high-school-age black teenagers -- the flock descending upon retail merchants could easily pass for the South Central High class of ’23.  The sheer size of these mobs is astounding. Where do they come from? What place mass-produces young sociopaths at this rate? Eighty criminals in one crime scene! This is usually called “jail.”

The flash robberies have exposed a large cohort of youth, their numbers so far uncounted, whose moral judgment can be generously described as primitive and immature.  Their behavior places the flash mobsters within Lawrence Kohlberg’s lowest level of moral development, “preconventional morality” (level 1) with an “obedience and punishment orientation” (stage 1).  Persons so classified exhibit an ethic of reward and punishment:

“…if an action leads to punishment is [sic] must be bad, and if it leads to a reward is [sic] must be good.  Authority is outside the individual and children often make moral decisions based on the physical consequences of actions.”

Do a substantial and growing proportion of urban youth exhibit the moral behavior and ethical reasoning of six-year-olds?  We are reminded of the 14- and 15-year-old girls who recently carjacked a 66-year-old Uber driver, killing him in the process.  After the vehicle crashed, one of the girls, unperturbed by the condition of the driver, complained that her cell phone was still in the Uber car. Is this the moral depth typical of flash mobsters?   

There is another possibility. Our polity may be so divided that children raised in crime-ridden neighborhoods, where cops and the law are seen as instruments of white supremacy, display the morality of an occupied people. Their violence is a war with the rest of us. Those who bravely fall in the brutal battle for survival on the streets may be heroes among their peers, even though for victims and onlookers, they are just craven terrorists.  Are the flash mobsters soldiers of a warring underclass, or are they mere sociopaths motivated by greed?  Either way, we are all in trouble.

Unlike six-year-olds who are immature by design, morally undisciplined teens and young adults roam freely, carry weapons if they wish, and hobble us with an elbow to the forehead if the muse inspires them. For such a challenge we need something far more potent and transformative than heightened law enforcement and additional prison space, though these would not be a bad place to start.  There is an urgent need to know more about these young mobsters:  who they are, how they think, how they came to be as they are, and how many of the next generation of urban youth are like them.

We need to be shocked by a generation’s bold descent into anomy. When absence of conscience becomes commonplace, when sociopaths loiter around every corner and patrol every sidewalk, and when the fruits of a liberal society fall largely to those who least appreciate the origins and purposes of our freedoms, then promises of life, liberty, and happiness for all are in jeopardy, and democracy itself is at stake.

Jim Dillon lives in Michigan where he teaches occasionally, chats with offenders, and dabbles in mental health, law, child development, crime and corrections, and a few other things. He wishes to thank participants in the flash mobs for covering their faces during robberies but he would humbly ask them to be a bit more attentive to social distancing as well.

Image: GMA/ABC News screen shot, via YouTube

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