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Can the acts of a few damage an entire race?

The city of Philadelphia is under siege by flash mobs. This summer, a series of attacks, without any apparent provocation, have resulted in serious injuries to unlucky passersby.
 Peak Johnson

by Peak Johnson
Special to the Tri-State Defender

The city of Philadelphia is under siege by flash mobs.

The attacks began last year when marauding youth appeared on South Street, a Mecca of shops and eateries, then ruthlessly ransacked stores and attacked pedestrians for no apparent reason.

This summer, a series of new attacks, without any apparent provocation, have resulted in serious injuries to unlucky passersby.

Can the acts of a few damage an entire race? And furthermore, why are some youth so angry? Can it be that these attacks are simply the result of race as some are starting to suggest?

That’s what I set out to determine.

While areas of Philadelphia are changing for the better, this North Philadelphia corner signals that is not the case everywhere nor for all. (Photo courtesy of Peak Johnson)

Cameras on this phone pole help police patroll this north Philadelphia neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Peak Johnson)

The University of Pennsylvania is the dominant institution in University City, one of the areas Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has targeted for earlier curfews in the wake of flash mob violence. (Photo by Linda S. Wallace)

Here’s the backdrop:

One recent flash-mob rampage left one man hospitalized with a broken jaw. In June, a magazine editor was knocked down by a roaming group of teens and pre-teens in a brutal attack that resulted in a broken leg. The victim later said her injuries might have been more severe if some of the girls in the mob had not stepped forward to protect her.

Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, has responded with earlier curfew times in upscale Center City and University City, both vibrant areas that are home to upwardly mobile professionals, students and pricy shops.

Nutter is African American. Last year, a predominantly African-American crowd booed him at the opening of the city’s Fourth of July festival. Two weeks ago (Aug. 7), Nutter delivered somewhat of a long tirade from the pulpit of the West Philadelphia church he attends. Most the city’s youth were good law-abiding citizens, said Nutter, who then took direct aim at the African-American community.

Young African-American men should stop acting like “sperm donors” and “human ATMs,” Nutter said. Then came the remark that sparked a debate nationwide: “If you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied and your pants half-down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you?” Nutter told the congregation, “They don’t hire you ’cause you look like you’re crazy. You have damaged your own race.”

North Philly: Change is coming

North Philadelphia, which is my home, has had its fair share of violence, death and remarkable rags to riches stories. It’s a small community, where, slowly, abandoned homes are being rebuilt, small businesses are attempting to thrive and unemployed youth sometimes find solace in hanging on street corners. It is one of the many impoverished pockets in the city undergoing gentrification.

Philadelphia is changing for some, but not for all. Teens from low-income households tell me that finding something to do is a challenge. There are no fashionable cafes that allow them to gather freely, talk and listen to music. There are few African-American owned businesses and area establishments that actively recruit and employ black youth.

“There is a thrill behind (flash mobs) it,” says 19-year-old Mecca Ellerby. “A thrill of getting attention, a thrill of having fun, a thrill of something to do.”

Summer jobs are not an option for many here. They don’t exist. In July of this year, the unemployment rate for African-American teens age 16-19 was 39.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Teens have loads of free time and yet fewer and fewer places to find free or cheap entertainment. In fact, the city’s 70 swimming pools might not have opened this summer had not First Niagara Financial Group led the effort to raise money from corporate citizens to support them.

Thrill-seekers with nowhere to go

“Honestly, I feel that they are happening because the kids have nothing to do,” says 22-year-old Tyree Dumas, chief executive officer of DollarBoyz, an entertainment youth group started in 2005 to keep youth out of trouble.

“When the flash mobs started I was part of the group that had put it together. We started sending out texts messages, tweeting about it over Twitter, just sending the word out.”

Dumas began to see how big the social gatherings had become, and recognized the potential dangers, so he changed strategy. He sent word out to members of his group to meet instead at places such as Franklin Mills mall for a movie night. As many as 300 teens recently showed up there, and participated.

Dumas said he agrees with Mayor Nutter’s new curfew, up to a point. A few weeks ago Mayor Nutter signed an executive order to temporarily set the curfew hours at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for all minors under the age of 18 in Center City and University City, home to affluent students who attend the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.

Throughout the remainder of the city, the curfew will remain at 10 p.m. for minors under the age of 13 and midnight for minors under the age of 18. Hours at 20 recreational centers have been extended to 10 p.m. in hopes that this will give youth something to do besides wandering the streets.

“What’s the point of being there if there’s nothing that you’re interested in for you to do? Then again, there’s no reason a kid under the age of 13 should be out wandering the streets,” Dumas added.

Special treatment for the well to do?

On Friday, Aug. 14, the first night of temporary curfew, over 50 young people – some who lived outside of Philadelphia – were arrested by police and taken to police stations until their parents were notified, and then released into their custody. On Saturday, only 12 teens were caught and arrested, bringing the total to 62. If caught, a teen can face a citation of $100 to $300. After an initial curfew violation, parents of a curfew-violating teen can fined up to $500, and could be jailed for up to 90 days, if their child is found guilty of criminal acts.

The establishment of special curfew hours for highly affluent, predominantly white areas of the city prompted debates between supporters and critics.  

“That’s crazy, ridiculous,” says 19-year-old Isaiah Smith, on his way home from work. “They’re taking away their childhood. How are they supposed to go out and enjoy a movie or something, if they have to be home by nine?”

Like Dumas, Smith said youth need to be engaged and given meaningful activities. He had not heard about Nutter’s plan to keep recreational centers and pools open longer than usual. “That’s actually not a bad idea,” he said. “You know, if it’s a hot day out and you want to play basketball. You can easily go down to one of them and stay a few hours.”

Some critics, however, suggest the early curfew should be expanded citywide. They argue that greater police presence is needed in all neighborhoods, not just those in the so-called “power districts.” Some wonder, myself included, what will happen to the other parts of Philadelphia that have been seeking aggressive patrols for years?

On Saturday, Aug. 13, a shooting took place in the 800 block of Judson, a somewhat quiet neighborhood in the heart of North Philadelphia.  Luckily, it took police only moments to arrive on the scene and arrest a suspect.

“I don’t know if this curfew is the right thing to do, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jamira Burley, a member of the Student Peace Alliance. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots are the voice of the unheard. We can’t wait until something happens and then react to it.”

Burley wants the city to take time to figure out the root causes.

Now that the curfew is in effect, not many believe that there will be any kind of retaliation from teens. And while the mayor is offering to provide activities for them to participate in, not all African-American teens are athletes. Many don’t want to swim or play basketball. Meanwhile, some youth who have been visiting the recreation centers and pools now worry the flash mobs – turned away from affluent areas – will invade their turfs.

“You have those kids who are down there for the soul purpose of causing trouble,” Dumas said. “Just following behind that one person, due to the lack of programming.”

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