Flash-Mob Movements

An artist's remix of an "Unbroken" movie poster shows how far the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" message from Ferguson spread. Image by PosterBoy via flickr.com.
An artist’s remix of an “Unbroken” movie poster shows how far the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” message from Ferguson spread. Image by PosterBoy via flickr.com.


The police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown resulted in protests on and beyond the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. The Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter catalyzed the spread of an anti-police brutality campaign in which protesters worldwide stopped traffic, staged “die-ins,” and hosted anti-police brutality rallies.

Collective action research often emphasizes organization as a key feature of social movements and protests, regarding spontaneity as having very little part in successful, sustained social movements. However, through analysis of ethnographic and historical data, David Snow and Dana Moss illustrate in American Sociological Review how certain conditions that ultimately shape the course and character of protest events and movements can lead to spontaneous uprisings. The conditions they identify include a lack of a clear or pre-existing hierarchy; ambiguous precipitating events that do not fit neatly into popular narratives or explanations; behavioral and emotional priming and framing, or efforts to elicit strong feelings and active expressions of those feelings; and ecological or spatial contexts and constraints, meaning that people in close physical proximity to the events can hardly avoid becoming involved.

In contrast to movements with highly visible leadership and carefully constructed goals, tactics, and messages, rapid-response uprisings value and rely on spontaneity and impromptu contributions. Spontaneity can either trigger or sustain a protest because people rely on their own unique experiences to dictate which responses and actions may be relevant and possible. For instance, one person can begin an unplanned chant that ultimately becomes a well-known chorus in cities across the country. These findings set the groundwork for further research on spontaneity—not only as it pertains to protests and collective action, but also in everyday life.