Standing on the sidewalk at the fringes of Rittenhouse Square late last Saturday night, away from the news cameras and his protective phalanx of bicycle cops, Mayor Nutter—dressed casually in his fresh, white iPledge T-shirt—is giving a quiet pep talk to two-dozen black youths he’s just spent 45 minutes walking around Center City with as a public show of unity and strength against so-called “flash mob” violence.
“This is very, very important what you did here tonight,” Nutter intones, as kids from the DollarBoyz, Philly’s long-running, youth-led entertainment/advocacy group, look up at him. “People need to see us in a very different light. They need to see positive young guys doing positive things. And you have to keep this up, it’s not just a one-time thing.”
Nutter glances over at 24-year-old Corey Marks, an aspiring North Philly rapper, dancer and boxer who goes by the name of “C.Y.” and runs his own budding youth group called Check Me Out Entertainment. “The things you’ve been trying to do for a while, you’re now partnered up with us,” the mayor says to Marks. “This is an ongoing thing. This is not just because of the [flash mob] situation—we have to do some things because of the situation, but we also have to learn some things as a result of the situation. We need to change the behavior and attitudes of us, and also how people look at us, and then when they see us out on the street it’ll be a very different kind of thing.”
The mayor’s tone is kindly, paternal. “Now, some of you younger guys, you need to be going home—there’s a curfew,” he says to laughs. Two days later, Nutter’s far more stern as he stands in his dark suit outside City Hall discussing the city’s get-tough measures against mob violence.
“If you assault a fellow Philadelphian, a visitor or anyone else in this city, you are going to jail,” Nutter says. “The full force of the Philadelphia justice system will come down on your shoulders.”
The city’s new tactics include: “Targeted enforcement zones” in Center City and University City, where there’s a 9 p.m. curfew for those under 18 on Fridays and Saturdays; and a 10 p.m. curfew everywhere else in the city. Curfew violators face a $100 to $300 fine for a first violation, and possible jail time for further violations.
The city’s getting tough on parents, too. Anyone who has to pick up their child for being out past curfew first gets issued a warning, and if it happens again, they face fines up to $500. The city will also contact the Department of Human Services if a parent fails to pick up their child.
But in recognizing that one of the chief factors in youth mob violence is that kids often just need somewhere to go, Nutter’s declared that 20 of the city’s largest recreational facilities will remain open until 10 p.m., offering a “safe space” for minors to hang with their friends.
That last part is the type of strategy that may provide the best chance for reducing youth violence in the long term. “It’s just a bunch of youths that don’t have nowhere to go and nothing to really do, so they tend to just throw these events on the street and kids come out,” says Marks. “Some groups got bad intentions and some groups got good intentions, but we’re just trying to change the whole thought process of the flash mobs.”
Marks says he’s been teaching kids how to dance, to sing, to rap—anything to keep them out of trouble. And he says that Check Me Out has developed a following because a lot of kids can relate to what he’s gone through. His father died of AIDS when Marks was young, and his mother was addicted to drugs. By 14, he was basically living on the streets.
“If you’re not getting love at home, you tend to go do the things that make people love you, even if that’s bad stuff,” says Marks. “I could have been on the corner, took the negative route, but being as the odds was against me and I was supposed to do that, I just changed in a whole ’nother direction.” Marks says he channeled his energy and anger into boxing and rapping. “I did what I needed to do, and that enables me to do the same for the youth.”
Though it seems like an uphill battle to stem youth violence, Marks insists that he—and other kids like him—can help turn the tide and alter perceptions that groups of young black males out on the streets are to be feared. “It’s very hurtful, but I really understand why [people] feel that way,” he says. “You see a group of kids coming down the block and they might be black and there’s a lot of them, I would be scared myself and I’m black. But when you see us, it’s different.”
“We can change this.”