Are ‘Flash Robs’ Giving Flash Mobs a Bad Rap?

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Flash mobs, the social network and text-message organized groups comprised mainly of youths, are nothing new.

Originally, they came together for very quick performance art in public places. But whereas the clusters used to get together mainly for nonsensical fun like pillow fights and Glee performances, some have taken on criminal intent — and some cases violence — in cases dubbed “flash robs.”

Recent media reports have meshed the two together because of the way both are organized, leading the public to believe they are one in the same. But real flash mobbers are distancing themselves from the negativity that has given the activity a bad name.

(MORE: Flash Mobs Turned Criminal: The Rise of Flash Robberies)

“These are not flash mobs, we don’t know who is calling these incidents flash mobs, they are crimes,” said Staci Lawrence, a co-founder of Flash Mob America, a group that organizes flash mob events worldwide. “The only similarity is that they are organizing themselves through social media and texting.”

Which is exactly how police in Germantown, Md., say a group of teens contrived a mass theft early Tuesday. They allegedly began walking into a 7-Eleven convenience store, first as individuals, then as a group numbering about 28, and began stealing items from the shelves. The entire felony took about 60 seconds, authorities say. Montgomery County Police obtained the store security video and posted it on YouTube in hopes of finding suspects. WMAR-TV reports police have identified several of them, but no arrests have been made.

The incident follows reports of several flash mobs that have amounted to what used to be called “wilding,” in which groups of teens would travel in groups seeking crimes to commit. In Philadelphia this month, Mayor Michael Nutter imposed a 9 p.m. curfew for anyone younger than 18 in its Center City and University City areas, after groups of flash mobs reportedly randomly attacked two people. Three teens have surrendered in that incident.

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Police have also had to respond to a similar incident at the Wisconsin State Fair and dozens have been arrested in attacks in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

Conroe Brooks, who partnered with Lawrence in founding Flash Mob America, says his company wants to distance itself from any notion of criminality associated with Flash Mobbing.

“When we do a Flash Mob, it appears and grows slowly, with a big positive entertainment value, and then it disappears,” he said. “We don’t show up and commit a crime. They are organizing a riot.”

Brooks and Lawrence explained that their group has created a large following of many demographics, have done benefits for charity and insist their events are controlled happenings that people must register for. The two said they may look into actually trademarking the term “Flash Mob” in order to create a clear definition of the activity as opposed to groups committing crimes.

“The true purpose is to bring people together and make people happy,” said Lawrence. “Our purpose is to create joy through surprise.”

MORE: How to Thwart a Robbery While Looking Awesome in Four Easy Steps

Madison Gray is Homepage Producer at TIME.com. Find him on Twitter at @madisonjgray. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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