Flash mobs: Eyewitness accounts (and what we can learn)

Posted on September 15, 2011 by


This post is the third in a series intended to raise awareness and teach preparedness for dealing with violent flash mobs: large groups of organized individuals who meet together to perpetrate random and senseless brutality on their fellow citizens. My hope is that it will get you thinking and preparing for what could be the fight of your life.

While continuing to study the topic of violent flash mobs and what we can do to prepare and be ready for them if and when they occur, I ran across a multi-perspective account of one of the recent Philadelphia flash mobs. While the account includes several opinions that I personally disagree with, I think there are at least a couple of valuable things that we can learn from this account, specifically the moments leading up to the violence.

Here’s how the journalist (who was herself a victim) described the outbreak of the hostilities:

At around 9:30, nine friends, my boyfriend, and I left our house at 15th and Green to go to another friend’s house. Two lagged behind to get in a car and drive down, nine walked down Green Street towards Broad to get on the subway. You could hear a big ruckus around the corner, but couldn’t see any of the kids yet. We hit the corner at the same time as the first big group of maybe 40-50 kids, and a couple girls in that group screamed that we needed to run away. I kind of thought they were making fun of us at first, but a couple seconds later, a kid in a sweatshirt came running out of the crowd and cold-cocked the closest male from our group right in the face.

Here’s the account from one of the guys in the party that was assaulted:

As I got to the corner we met, like, a huge crew of teenagers head-on, and the first people in that group were like, “You better run! You should run; it’s a flash mob!” It was a mix of people who sounded like they were actually trying to get us to run and protect us and people who were doing it like it was taunting. It was kind of impossible to tell the intent.

So I don’t know if I actually said it or if it was just what I thought and was turning around to say, but I was like, “Okay, guys, we should go back, we should get out of here,” and that’s when I got punched really hard in the face.

And here’s yet another account from the same incident:

Charlie and Tommy are in front of me, and some kid goes up and punches Charlie right in the jaw. Charlie turns around immediately and walks back, and Tommy turns around to follow him, and some kids start pushing him, and then all the kids start running at us. They took up the entire sidewalk and part of the street. It gets a little fuzzy at that point, but I turned to run. I definitely remember seeing Tommy’s back and seeing kids punch him in the back of the head. Kids at that point were grabbing my shirt, and I was trying to hit their hands off my shirt, and they started punching me in the back of the head and grabbing my shirt and jumping on me. Then I was just covering my face and curling up so I didn’t get kicked too much in the head.

Where am I going with all of this? For starters, let me say that we need to be very careful about drawing conclusions or broad, sweeping generalizations from a single incident. There are no rules about these kinds of things and they are going to happen differently every single time.

That said, there are a couple of lessons to be learned from these eyewitness accounts, specifically regarding situational awareness.

First, your reaction time is only as good as your situational awareness. I’m not going to give the victims of this senseless assault any grief about their lack of situational awareness, because the truth is that they reacted the same as 99% of us would if not prepared for the reality of this kind of incident. And that’s really the point of this series of posts: to prepare you mentally for the reality that this kind of thing can happen so that you can recognize it when you see it.

The victims of this terrible attack weren’t really aware of what was going on around them. From their eyewitness accounts it’s clear that there might have been an opportunity to take action if they had realized what was happening when it was happening. Again, it’s only natural that they didn’t – but it’s up to us to learn from this and not repeat their mistakes if and when the time comes. We need to be more aware of our surroundings so that we will have more time to react and avoid the threat before it becomes an issue.

Second, the sooner you accept the fact that you are being attacked, the sooner you will be able to deal with it. You will notice in the accounts I have included above (as well as other personal accounts of critical incidents) that there is almost a denial that the attack is taking place until it is too late. This is actually part of the natural reactionary gap and we’ve discussed it at length elsewhere on the Gentleman Adventurer. The fact that you can and may be violently attacked is something you need to come to terms with before you are attacked so that you don’t lose any precious reactionary time when you should be fighting for your life.

Third, you need to have a plan. When you’re out with a group of people, you need to have two plans: one that involves flight, and one that involves fight-then-flight. From these eyewitness accounts we can see that flight for these victims involved little more than a disorganized rout – and why should it be otherwise? This isn’t the kind of thing that most people are expecting and thus it isn’t something that most groups talk about or prepare for. My challenge to you: be the exception, not the rule.

Finally, “fight-or-flight” syndrome is your friend, not your enemy. Elsewhere in the article, the journalist who was so viciously attacked explains that self-defense would have been impossible in such a situation because by the time she had worked through the initial panic of the situation it would have been too late to do anything. And for her, that is probably the case.

But there’s a reason it’s called “fight-or-flight” instead of “panic.” Back in the day, when human beings spent a good deal of time fighting for survival from raiding Vikings, rival tribes, or savage beasts, humans were accustomed to “fight-or-flight” syndrome and knew how to deal with it or break out of it. Nowadays, the most adrenaline we have ever experienced is the rush of a roller coaster or the pickup we get from our morning coffee. We aren’t used to it, so when it’s there we choke.

We need to find ways to train that get us used to that adrenaline dump and even teach us to use it to our advantage. It’s hard to replicate that kind of pressure in a training or competition environment, but I think that it can be done to a certain extent.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

If you would like the full link to this eyewitness account, please feel free to send me an email or leave a comment. I am not posting it here on the website, since we try to keep this site as family-friendly as possible and there is a good deal of objectionable material in the original article.