Philly Responds to Flash Mob with More Youth Repression
Thousands of people flooded the streets. The police made numerous arrests for disorderly conduct, property damage, theft, and even arson. Local hospitals reported a slew of injuries.
These events occurred after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. The city took it in stride. There was no public outcry, no crackdown on Phillies fans, no call to prohibit future baseball games. Riding the wave of euphoria, the public largely accepted these crimes as collateral damage. After all, the Series was good for the sports franchise, good for city tourism, and good for city pride.
On March 20th of this year, a similar event took place. Thousands of teenagers converged on South Street in a flash mob. Several injuries and incidents of vandalism occurred. The city’s reaction, however, was very different. The local media published images and video of unruly and destructive African American youth. Officials painted a picture of an epidemic of Black teenagers terrorizing the innocent people of the city. The violence that occurred provided a pretense for perpetuating a longstanding racial stereotype of the threat of out-of-control Black youth.
Calls to action have been overwhelmingly repressive. Nearly every commentator has agreed that teenagers need more discipline and the threat of stiffer punishments. Sadly, these reactions reflect the broader culture of security that currently exists in the U.S., where the solutions are always to impose more restrictions and controls over what people can do, to make punishments harsher, and to paint entire racial groups as potential threats to “our” safety.
All of this ensures that business can continue as usual. And quite literally: one week later, Mayor Nutter made a big show out of strolling down South Street, demonstrating that it was safe to patronize the businesses there. A tattoo artist was quoted in the Inquirer as saying, “We wouldn’t have minded a flash mob at all... if they were all 18 years old and had money in their pocket.” The deeper source of anger over the flash mob, it seems, was the fact that it disrupted the revenue that suffering South Street business owners were hoping for on the first warm Saturday evening of the year. It is a joke to imagine that city officials and media outlets actually cared about those who were hurt.
Repressive measures only fuel the fundamental problem, which is that there is an increasing lack of vibrant social scenes available to youth in the city. Failing schools, slashed budgets for services and programs, a growing prison-industrial complex, and the disproportionate impact of the recession on African Americans have severely limited the means available to youth for social expression, interaction, and community.
Meanwhile, other forms of mass social gathering like sports games are funded and sanctioned by the city even as fights and vandalism routinely occur around these events. More often than not, those incidents are simply downplayed, since the events appeal to a wider population and bring in money to the city.
It’s revealing that almost no one has remarked on the fact that rallying thousands of Philly teens through social networking and mobile technologies was an amazing feat. The security apparatus encourages blindness to the generative and resourceful aspects of what youth were able to achieve. The flash mob was a testament to how young people can and will take things into their own hands to create new forms of social gathering for themselves if our educational and cultural systems fail to do so. If there’s anything to be learned, it should be that the flash mob was not only destructive, but fiercely creative as well.