A Brief History of Flash Mobs and Chicago Beach Violence

Chicago’s beaches have historically been at the intersection of violence, race, class, and hot weather. Though the technology has changed: social media used to be a bugle. (Seriously.)

North Avenue Beach Chicago


This is starting to look like the summer of the “flash mob.” It started with the closure of North Avenue Beach due to several cases of heat exhaustion. But rumors, which could initially be found at the Second City Cop blog—update: here’s the right link, that one’s from 2010—and newspaper comment threads, spread that the closure was due to groups of young people and/or flash mobs, i.e. groups assembled by text message or social networks to cause havoc (or, in more innocent cases, levity).

The CPD denies that was behind the beach closure, but flash mobs continue to dominate the news: last weekend, it was five youths arrested for robberies in Streeterville and on the Mag Mile, and last night another robbery downtown, though it’s unclear whether there was any flash to the mob or whether it was just standard-issue street violence.

It’s not terribly surprising that this incipient panic would begin on the beach. Chicago has a long history of newsworthy beach violence, which actually used to be much worse. In the early 20th century, beach riots were a fairly regular occurrence; from a scan of the Tribune archives, it seems residents could count on one every summer or two during the ‘teens and 1920s, perhaps because they were even more heavily used before the advent of air conditioning. Beyond the infamous 1919 race riots, which started on a beach at 29th Street and lasted for eight days, Chicago’s free and clear lakefront was often the scene of territorial battles and random violence.


(Manhattan Beach was “a popular spot for middle-class boys and girls to meet in the early decades of the twentieth century.” It would later become Rainbow Beach, and would be the site of another riot.)


(Allegedly Connell was not wearing a suit that distinguished him as swimming “under the jurisdiction of the Wilson beach company.")


(On the same day, there was a crush at the Clarendon beach when 300 people tried to force their way to the water; one man was slightly injured, “and about twenty men and women fainted in the locker rooms.” Temperatures were hot that summer; one night in July an estimated eight to ten thousand people slept in Grant Park, according to the Tribune.)


(“Those in the crowd accused the police of undue violence, of striking girls in bathing costumes, and of roughly handling little children.")


(The beginning of one of the most notorious race riots in American history; it lasted eight days, and 38 people were killed.)


(The “simple little remark” was an exchange: upon hearing two lifeguards say “something about Jews, which Mrs. Stein resented,” she responded to the [white] lifeguards, “I hear a life guard once married a white girl.” According to R.L. Bessmer, one of said lifeguards, he had said nothing about Jews, and “believed he had been called a Negro and he resented it. He is not a Negro, but his skin has been tanned such a dark color that he has become sensitive about his complexion.")


(The above is an editorial, which requests: “Under the circumstances it would seem that the Negroes could make a definite contribution to good race relationships by remaining away from the beaches where their presence is resented.")


(“Police claimed they foiled a plot by gangs of youths from various neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides to attack the integration waders at the sound of a bugle.” Social media, circa 1961.)


(The scarlet head-shaving: “Judge Obermiller said yesterday he ordered the boys’ heads shaved to identify them as ‘teen-agers who drink.’” Because in 1962, the way to identify miscreants was… a buzz cut.)


(“Local residents, however, said the increased presence of groups of high-school-age youths in the area concerns them.")

Also worth noting: the ostensible cause of the July 1966 riots, or at least the catalyst, was the closing of fire hydrants that residents were opening to cool off. In the wake of the riots, the city installed pools near where the violence occurred:

Chicago 1966 riot

I’m also reminded of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, his magisterial biography of urban planner Robert Moses, some of which is devoted to the racial conflicts that arose over access to New York’s beaches and pools:

Whites routinely beat up blacks and Puerto Ricans in East Harlem when they tried to swim at Jefferson Pool; on occasion whites swam at Colonial Pool, although others felt unwelcome. Moses knew about these situations, referred to in his Harvard speech. Clearly he recognized racial and ethnic categories were in flux in the 1930s: the line was hardening between black and white, as the city became more racially diverse, complicated place. [“Race, Space, and Play: Robert Moses and the WPA Swimming Pools in New York City,” Marta Gutman, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, December 2008]

Photograph: juggernautco (CC by 2.0)



3 years ago
Posted by ScottSmith

The difference between a flash mob coordinated by text and social media and a regular ol' mob coordinated by text/social media is the flash mob is a group of strangers who might otherwise not associate with each other before or after the meeting who come together for a benign action.

More reporting on this is still needed, I think, but it seems these are people who previously knew each other and intend on associating again who are coordinating their actions via text. There's nothing new about that other than the tool itself.

3 years ago
Posted by Mike Phillips

Yes, please stop misusing the term "flash mob," which had a specific, and nonviolent, meaning before the past couple of weeks in Chicago.

3 years ago
Posted by Ms.Abstract

Too many hours on the beach can lead to a lot of bacteria floating around. Public beaches on Lake Michigan that serve over populated cities like Chicago and others would do well to limit the hours citizens are allowed on the beach and in the water. LAKE MICHIGAN SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A PUBLIC,PRIVATE OR MUNICIPAL TOILET !!!!

3 years ago
Posted by emerald772

Playing around with the clearmap crime data site would seem to indicate an increase in crime around North Ave that day. But then, that could also just be attributed to it being a holiday Monday. http://gis.chicagopolice.org/

3 years ago
Posted by jmasseysr

Another disturbing aspect to this is how much it all resembles the days of Air Jordan, Starter jacket attacks from years hence...This time it's electronic gadgetry that symbolizes "Fashionable Status"...Because of the specific upscale areas & community patrons being targeted, it is beginning to look a lot like the smoldering of grassroots "Class Warfare" waged by a new generation of hopelessly disenfranchised inner-city youths with no lingering fear of reprisals from "The Establishment" It is the "Criminal Mentality" of a growing Black Market supply & demand for both the I-Pads/Pods & Smart Phones as well as the fallacious "Jail-house" Bravado that erroneously rewards random gang/mob violence with group acceptance, notoriety & peer-group rank-street credibility. You are witnessing a social upheaval which is commonly known for those like me who are veteran's of the 60's & 70's race riots as "The Long, Hot Summer"

3 years ago
Posted by JZahn

These are gangs of kids using social media to coordinate attacks on other people. And yes many of the articles report that these are black kids. The attacks are escalating and it's likely that we'll see some people dying in one of these attacks. That's what happened in California. They coordinate the attacks so that a larger group swarms in, steals the electronic gadgets and money and then disperses. I think if the police don't crack down on this hard Chicago can kiss tourism, convention business and local business goodbye. They need to get some of the punks they caught and tap into the communication channel being used to run these attacks. Having the police show up 5 minutes after these attacks doesn't help at all. They need to be at the point of attack and cath the lunks in the act. The other thing I can see happening is regular people starting to carry more pepper spray, tazers and other weapons. Very sad indeed.

3 years ago
Posted by newsy1

I lived in Denver for a while and there is a popular tourist area downtown called LODO (lower downtown) where all the action was. Shopping, restaurants, bars etc. a free cool little shuttle bus service, a green strip median with tables, benches etc. Tons of tourists etc. It really looked nice. Then the thugs decided to try and take it over about 6-7 years ago. Robberies and attacks in broad daylight, guys working in smallish groups of 3-4. Smash and grab etc. It was scaring the heck out of tourists and store owners were freaking out. Tourism was down and the news was filled with this stuff. I was a potential victim myself while walking down there with my sister but we started running towards a big crowd of people and the thugs took off. Anyway, all the store owners got together with the cops and they have a much bigger presence down there now than they used to. The cops are on foot, on bikes and even on Segways. It has helped quite a bit. Boulder had a similar problem on Pearl street but it took some big time stores to say they were pulling up stakes for them to finally do something about it. My point I guess is the cops need to really be visible in a high traffic high tourist area and the thugs seem to move on.

3 years ago
Posted by falconford

why are you reviewing this activity regarding chicago beaches and activities, at the time these articles were written no one and i write no one was concerned regarding any related incidents concerning minority communities in these locations, and what in the world does the word thug mean to you, i think you need a history lesson as to what actually went down in the city of chicago during this time

Submit your comment