Flash Mob

Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob

A little over a year ago I reviewed a book on this site called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Since then, the book — edited by Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell — has grown into an expanding, interactive website filled with resources for the creative activist. Recently I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to the site and it has just been released. I am excited to share with you all my piece, looking at the cultural work of the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty. The text of the case study is below, but for the full BT experience, head over to read the piece on the Beautiful Trouble website. Enjoy!

In October of 2012, the Canadian government introduced Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which significantly eroded Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections. Indigenous communities immediately voiced concerns. In Saskatchewan, four women — three Indigenous and one non-native — launched a teach-in and website in order to raise awareness about the issue. They dubbed their effort Idle No More.

By December, the “Idle No More” movement was in full swing. Rallies were being held across Canada and internationally; the hash tag #idlenomore was trending on Twitter; and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on hunger strike seeking a meeting with the Canadian government. The movement had quickly broadened to encompass a collective demand for governments worldwide to “honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water,” as the group’s website declared.

It was in this context that a group of organizers put out a call to action on Facebook asking “Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, Metís, youth, and anyone willing to dance/sing/drum with us” to meet at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina, Saskatchewan. At 7:00pm on December 17, Aboriginal activists gathered at the mall and began beating out a steady rhythm on hand drums and singing. Others soon emerged from the holiday shopping crowd to join hands around the mall’s massive Christmas tree, circling clockwise in a traditional Indigenous round dance. By the end, an intergenerational and interracial group of over 500 people had gathered on two floors to take part in the action. Mall security and city police arrived, but the flash mob remained entirely peaceful before melting away.

While the flash mob itself lasted less than 15 minutes, videos and articles about it circulated widely on the Internet. Another round dance took place the following day in the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. These actions captured the imagination of others in the movement, and dozens of round dance flash mobs began popping up in malls and public spaces across Canada and the United States. On December 29, over 1,000 people gathered for a round dance protest at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Round dances, often used as a form of celebration and as an expression of friendship and unity, are practiced in different forms by many Indigenous nations in North America. Along with many other aspects of Indigenous culture, the round dance was suppressed in the process of colonization, but it has recently reemerged as a celebratory practice, and recorded round dance music has become increasingly popular. The round dance flash mobs, then, represented both a powerful expression of resistance and a practice of cultural regeneration.

Round dance flash mobs became a strong enough presence in the Idle No More movement for some to begin referring to it as the “round dance revolution.” Organizers had hit upon a way to combine social media and flash mobs — both highly popular forms of activism among young people — with traditional music and dance in a way that bridged generations and cultures, creating space for building a sense of community. The round dances symbolized the movement’s core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: “We are here, our culture is strong, and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.”

Why it worked

The round dance flash mobs addressed multiple movement goals at the same time. To opponents, they demonstrated the grassroots power and the continuing strength of Indigenous nations. For Indigenous participants and viewers, they promoted cultural pride and connection. For newcomers, they offered a welcoming and easy opportunity for involvement. And for the movement as a whole, they served as a powerful visual symbol. The flash mobs carried the resonance of tradition and ceremony, while also being fun, loud, entertaining, and contagious.

Key Tactic at work

Flash mob

Flash mobs are unrehearsed public actions that can be easily replicated while maintaining a sense of coordination. In this case, Idle No More organizers found synergy between the flash mob and the round dance, itself an improvisational performance that invites observers to join in. Quickly planned and carried out, these events helped drive the rapid spread of the movement in a way that more rehearsed and controlled performances would not have been able to do.

Key Principle at work

Use the power of ritual

The Idle No More round dances served as collective rituals with deep symbolic resonance. They made it easy for people from many backgrounds to “fall into the rhythm” of the action; they offered participants a direct experience of unity and solidarity; and they spoke viscerally to the strength and vitality of Indigenous cultures.

Use your cultural assets

Opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, mass media in particular. To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths — their stories, symbols, arts, rituals, shared knowledge, and ways of being together. Using these cultural assets can strengthen participants while pushing opponents outside their comfort zones. The Idle No More flash mobs drew effectively on the cultural wealth of Indigenous communities such as traditional music and dance, as well as the social media practices of younger generations.

Photo Credit: Drummers for a Round Dance flash mob held at the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, December 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu.

Flash Mob Protesting Transit Cuts

During the recent protests over proposed transit cuts in Boston, young people from the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition were a major force in pushing for alternative options — responding in particular to plans to double the cost of youth passes, which would have had detrimental effects on youth’s lives and education. While rallying outside the Transportation building, young cultural organizers from Project HIP-HOP put on a short piece of street theater stressing the harm being done to youth in this process. Check it out.

Know Yourself, Be Yourself

Last week the young people at Project HIP-HOP in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, took over the Dudley bus station:

I was lucky enough to get involved with Project HIP-HOP (which stands for Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) over the summer. Originally started in order to teach youth of color about the history of the civil other movement, this is one of the few organizations in the area that explicitly names its combination of hip hop culture, art, and activism “cultural organizing.”

This summer the youth trained in movement, theater, writing, and outdoor performance, while bringing along their already developing skills as singers, dancers, poets, emcees, and visual artists. The final show, based on the idea of a flash mob, drew an engaged crowd of both acquaintances and strangers. As the youth explain in the video, the Dudley performance centered on knowing your individual history, and the collective history of your people (in this case largely the African American experience, beginning with the genocide of colonization and enslavement, or Maafa). Along the way, it touched on themes of unity, and art as an alternative to violence.

In carrying these messages to the community, these young people are continuing a long tradition of using hip-hop arts to engage issues of identity and violence, and to seek community transformation. Though hip-hop’s most widely consumed form — rap — is often better known for its glorification of violence, this tradition of positivity has much deeper roots in hip-hop’s history.

For instance, I recently ran across this video for the Stop the Violence Movement, an attempt in the late 1980’s to address similar issues. I remember having this cassette single back in the day. Check out these heavy hitters: From Chuck D to Heavy D…

The Project HIP-HOP youth learn this hip-hop history and draw on it, while bringing in their own more modern sensibilities. At Dudley you could see this perhaps strongest in terms of their dancing. The flash mob combined old-school-style breakdancing with the more recent trend of krumping — not to mention capoeira, a related art form from Brazil that has become intertwined in many places with hip-hop. This is a physical manifestation of both knowing your history, and knowing where you are now — brought together to create a vision of where you want to go.

(On a side note, Press Pass TV, who did the coverage above, is an exciting Boston youth-led media organization, though I don’t know a ton about it.)