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Flash mobs in Philadelphia: The racialized rise of ‘urban terrorism’

Philly kids and after-school violence in the city: A timeline.

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Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Hundreds of teens turned out for what’s been described as a flash mob incident last Monday. Twenty received citations for disorderly conduct for the disruption, which happened along 15th Street near City Hall. Several people were injured. Police Commissioner Richard Ross said “they were actually beaten, maced and claim to have even been tased,” adding that four of the teens were being investigated for assault. This would appear to be the fourth such flash mob since October, raising questions of why these incidents continue to happen in Philly.

Around 10 teens told Billy Penn last week that they believe kids flash mob for attention.

“I think they’re trying to show off in front of people,” said Irvin Dinkins, 16, while on South Street with a friend Thursday.

“I don’t know,” Vasean White, 15, who was also with friends, just below Ninth and South, before adding, “To get recognition. They want to be cool.”

“Birds of a feather flock together. Some people just come by association, like parties,” said Kezia Lawrence, 17, while sneaker shopping Friday.

“If they don’t have that parental guidance, they look to the streets and their friends to see their way through,” said Kenyatta Smalley, 17, who was a shopping with Lawrence. “And sometimes, it don’t always work like it should.”

 

What’s a flash mob, anyway?

We can trace these Philadelphia flash mobs to the summer of 2009, but we should probably start further back than that, to the term’s coinage. You might associate the term flash mob with a group of people who agree to show up at a mall at a predetermined time for a surprise dance routine or theatrical demonstration. That perception comes directly from the term’s original use. The first flash mob is largely thought to have happened in 2003: Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, organized a large performance art event in Midtown Manhattan’s Macy’s. After this, coordinated flash mobs of this nature became something of a craze, of course propelled through social media, where such events could be easily orchestrated and captured.

The earliest such “Philly mob” incident we found took place on South Street in May 2009, when thousands of teenagers gathered after coordinating plans through social media. “A few dozen outliers in this adolescent crowd turned violent, ransacking a convenience store, pulling drivers from their cars and, in the most serious incident of the evening, assaulting a cyclist and leaving him unconscious and bleeding in the street,” researchers Christian DuComb and Jessica Benmen wrote in a paper on the phenomenon. It was local media that called it a flash mob.

DuComb and Benmen found that in the first quarter of 2010, there were four violent mob incidents. When these mass disturbances made national headlines that March, Wasik told the New York Times that he was surprised the trend he started had gone in that direction: “It’s terrible that these Philly mobs have turned violent.” At the time, these “mobs” were also taking place in other cities, like Chicago and DC, but the frequency of incidents in Philadelphia in 2010 made the city stand out in national coverage. And the fights and attacks that took place led to injuries, many gruesome, of both students and passersby.

The cyclist who was injured in the first flash mob was reportedly attacked by roughly eight people, and abandoned by his attackers while he had a serious seizure. In 2010, a suburban uninsured waitress accumulated $7,000 in dental and medical costs after she was punched on South Street during a mob, leaving a front tooth busted and her upper lip split. In 2011,  local journalist Emily Guendelsberger, whose name was in the news recently for allegedly conning her way into the GOP retreat and leaking recordings of discussions there, was left with a  broken leg after teens attacked the group she was with near Broad and Green. Fear spread throughout the city that flash mobbing kids were a menace. As many young people who attended social media organized events peacefully, the media would later be accused of fear mongering, but Philadelphia’s politicians also had strong language for the incidents. Then-City Councilman Jim Kenney called it “urban terrorism” in 2010. In a now-infamous remarks, then-Mayor Michael Nutter condemned the craze while speaking to his church in 2011: “You’ve damaged yourself, you’ve damaged another person, you’ve damaged your peers and, quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race.”

Nutter’s comments, and the setting where he shared them, were significant. A common critique of the discourse around flash mobs (especially because of its bifurcated usage— corresponding to lighthearted dance celebrations in a whiter, more suburban context, but being used to signify violence when describing the actions of Philadelphia’s black youth) is that the term is highly racialized.

“It’s almost as if the emphasis shifted from flash to mob,” said Vanessa Massaro, an urban geographer who studied Philadelphia’s flash mobs in 2011. “It’s just such a conversation that continues criminalizing youth in Philadelphia… but not looking at the services that aren’t available to them.”

Philadelphia Police spokesman Sekou Kinebrew was careful to say that the department does not use the term flash mob to categorize these events. “We’re aware that that’s a colloquial term. [But] we use terms that are consistent with the crime being committed,” Kinebrew said. So, Philadelphia Police treats incidents based on whether alleged disorderly conduct occurred, or assault took place, and so on. A more general term used at the department is “disorderly crowd,” Kinebrew explained.

‘Where they belong, and where they don’t’

There isn’t a large body of research that explains, based on student responses, why flash mobs occur.

“There are a lot of assumptions that haven’t been empiricized,” said Massaro.

One issue is the Philadelphia use for “flash mob” remains imprecise. This is a term that isn’t hinged on specific motives, that covers gatherings under a long range of sizes, from dozens to thousands, and isn’t limited by activities, encompassing peaceful and violent actions under the same terminology.

Kinebrew wouldn’t say whether Philadelphia Police suspects a link to gang activity with last Monday’s incident, but did reply, “When those connections are apparent we do have resources in place specifically to deal with those.”

More generally of flash mobs, he said, “Many times, it is disputes and rivalries that were inflamed through personal interaction or social media.”

Last Monday’s incident fits the profile of the type of mass disturbance that gets the most coverage and backlash under the flash mob umbrella. It was in Center City, near Dilworth Park. There were injuries. The participants were largely black male teens.

“In the past this has always been in the neighborhood,” anthropologist Philippe Bourgois explained to CityLab in 2011. “It’s kids getting violent on the main street of their neighborhood, the five to 10 blocks their universe usually stays in. What we’re seeing with flash mobs is technology changing this.”

Bourgois also told the news site, “There’s a tipping point at some point, where kids just get too bored, and fashions develop around the conjunction of violence and new technology that’s available to young people, new levels of poverty, and lower levels of services going to youth.” As then-CityLab contributor Dan Denvir noted though, there is “no historical correlation between absolute violence and economic hardship,” but rather a potential link to wealth disparities.

Police after a flash mob at Philadelphia Mills.

Police after a flash mob at Philadelphia Mills this past December.

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Aside from the use of social media and text messaging, another key dynamic is space. Flash mobbers are oft-described as students who study, but do not live downtown, and locations where gatherings take place are indicative of popular spots where the students congregate and routes to transit stops. Ninth District Police Captain Ray Convery explained to Billy Penn last year that many students hail from downtown charters, but invite friends who attend schools in other neighborhoods to meet up with them. Convery spoke to Billy Penn after an estimated 600 students had gathered near City Hall last March, spurring fights and hysteria as students and non-students rushed away from scrums.

The Gallery, of course, was a popular meeting place for working class black teens. Its closure for renovations has inspired meditations on the loss of black spaces. But, as Convery detailed, Gallery renovations have pushed teens to gather farther west, like by the Clothespin at 15th and Market streets and the Wendy’s one block south of there. Convery said the district could handle crowds of 200 easily, but acknowledged, “I don’t think I have a formula, for 600.”

Kinebrew wouldn’t disclose much of the department’s strategy for quashing flash mobs, citing the need to protect their tactics. He did say that the fencing at 15th and Market, that some locals assumed was an anti-flash mob fence, was not constructed by Philly PD. More officers have been patrolling the city’s core in response to last Monday’s incident, and Ross isn’t too happy about that.

“We do have other things to do,” he said, according to Philly.com. “We have a whole host of other responsibilities, and devoting resources to something that really doesn’t have to be is ridiculous.”

Massaro said that heavy policing in Center City, especially when it appears uneven in regards to other neighborhoods, creates a powerful distinction. Massaro pointed to the 2011 curfew that Nutter instituted to quash flash mobs; the curfew was put on Center City and University.

“It sends a clear message about where they belong, and where they don’t belong,” said Massaro. “Those messages are not particularly subtle, and they’re internalized.”

Massaro was critical of news coverage on a similar note.

“These are young people who confront real incidents of violence every day and there’s not really a conversation about that,” she said. “What concerned us as geographers is that when [incidents] happen in schools or these neighborhoods where the kids are from, it doesn’t get this kind of coverage.”

Teens had varying views on the additional cops patrolling Center City after last Monday’s incident.

“I think it’s kind of better, because now people can go into Wendy’s and eat and enjoy,” said Raeven Wilson, 18, while in Forever 21 Friday. “Now kids can walk, and go home and be down there. But sometimes cops be drawlin’ though,” she added.

Stephon Everett-Bey, 16, who was browsing in H&M, had mixed feelings. “I think they’re good, but I also think they’re bad because why is all the police down here?”  He mentioned North Philly and West Philly, and wondered if added patrols would makes responses slower to those neighborhoods. “What’s happening in other places?” he asked.

Donnera Massey, 17, was also shopping in Forever 21. She thinks the police presence isn’t having too much of an impact. “It’s not going to stop nothing. [Those kids are] still going to fight. They’re going to find a way around it,” Massey said. “Under the sub. They want to fight you— they catch you under there. Like, it don’t really make a difference.”

“It’s extra,” said Massey. She pointed Liberty Place’s no teens policy as a particularly unfair: “Not everyone is coming down here to fight.”