Rowdy black kids don’t equal a racial uprising.
Philadelphians have a habit of advocating reactionary solutions to our problems. Out-of-control bike riders kill two pedestrians? Tax and fine all bikers! Pit bulls attack a couple people? Ban the breed! Black kids run wild on South Street? Lock the “savages” up and lose the key, fine their parents (most likely, their underemployed, single mother) and surveil them as they travel throughout SEPTA.
Acts of violence are unacceptable and must be confronted, but we need to dial back the hysteria.
By now we’ve all seen the ongoing coverage of the chaos on South Street and the three other incidents that have hit downtown since December, in the Gallery, on Market Street and on Chestnut Street. These sudden and unexpected gatherings of large numbers of mostly African-American teenagers have been dubbed flash mobs. Older folks know the phenomenon as “wildin’.” Whatever the name, these events are intense, dramatic, frequently erupt into violence and it’s clear nobody knows quite what to do about them.
Worse, flash mobs aren’t the only source of violence by black youths that the city has had to confront in recent months. There’s the racial violence at South Philly High and the random “catchin’ rep” beatings in Southwest Philly. Complicating matters is the awkward challenge for the media and city officials alike to confront the racial element without resorting to overt prejudice, racism or favoritism.
The city’s entire public-safety leadership is African-American: Mayor Nutter, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, Police Chief Charles Ramsey and District Attorney Seth Williams. That no one questions that all four men were elected or appointed on merit is a sign of how far the city has come—that they are black is almost an afterthought. “I’m not going into the whole black-white whatever,” says Gillison. “I’m looking at the actions of the people.”
Nevertheless, reports peeking into the flash mob frenzy are alarming. City Paper ’s Isaiah Thompson said: “There’s something deeper and much scarier at work here ... I suspect something terrible is building.” Tom Ferrick of Metropolis went further, writing, “If this becomes the Summer of Flash Mobs in Philadelphia, we may not make it to September as a functioning city.” One gets the feeling we’re on the verge of a racial uprising.
Calm down. Take a deep breath. Philly isn’t burning.
“There are no marauding Vikings coming over the ramparts,” says Gillison. “We are not under constant siege.” He suggests that the reason these acts of violence are receiving so much coverage is because of the catchy names assigned to them, flash mobs and catchin’ rep.
“A lot of violence is random because of the nature of the beast. Is it unique because it’s sexy for the media to tag these things?” he asks rhetorically.
At a time when Mayor Nutter wants to highlight reductions in violent crime and showcase improvements in public safety, random riots and beat downs are difficult to reconcile. Overall, Philadelphia appears to be on an upward trajectory: Homicides are down and trendy restaurants are up. None of that is very reassuring, however, if law-abiding citizens are afraid to walk the streets.
Meanwhile, Gawker and the Daily News discovered that the so-called flash mobs were set off by competing party groups and dance crews gathering to show off. Watch the YouTube video of Team Nike dancing and strutting down South Street chanting “All Nike Shit!” The crowds got too big, some tempers flared and a mob was born. Is the behavior acceptable? No, but it certainly doesn’t point to an impending black revolution. More like teens gone wild.
High-profile black violence threatens to widen the city’s racial divide, but so do racially charged overreactions. Brutal, spectacular acts of random violence lead to heavy media coverage and a scramble for Band-Aid solutions.
But the urge to build a reputation on the streets at the expense of other people’s health and safety is symptomatic of a far larger problem gripping Philadelphia, a problem of poverty and race and bad schools and exclusion from mainstream avenues to success. That’s the problem no one seems to know how to address. Or maybe we’re just looking at a few kids acting dumb.
Mayor Nutter teased us this morning with his big 11:30 press conference concerning the flash mobs.
Teens congregate on South Street for another violent flash mob. What is wrong with these kids?
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