Flash Mob Howls: Further Demonizing Black Youth Without Understanding the Issues.

You know it’s a slow news day when the lead headline is “Possible flash mob thwarted by police.” And you know the story isn’t going to contain very much news. After all, how can you thwart a possibility?

As Philadelphians – or perhaps more aptly, the Philadelphia media – have been discussing the recent flash mob phenomenon occurring amongst the city’s youth, overhyped concern about overplayed events characterize much of the coverage.

Indeed, there is no “there” here. The lead story of the Inquirer is, essentially, coverage of a press conference, where Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and Mayor Michael Nutter discussed some things they might consider doing if the phenomenon ever gets out of hand.

Will it? Reporters Troy Graham and Allison Steele write, “Whether the flash mobs are intended to cause mayhem or result from too many unsupervised teens in one place also isn’t clear.” So why do we care?

Indeed, a number of crimes have been committed. But this article adds nothing new to the discussion, except for this genuinely exceptional quote from Mayor Michael Nutter: “I ran for mayor. I didn’t run for mother.” Yet blaming parents for the behavior of their children also isn’t new.

One thing is clear: in a poor city with many single parents, we have to acknowledge that services for children – especially providing places they can go to be children – are lacking. The city has a recreation department; Mayor Nutter may not have run for mother, but due to in loco parentis, he got a piece of the job.

How different are these so-called mobs than the ones that formed after the Phillies won the World Series, or after Barack Obama won the presidential election? In the former case, destruction was surely as rampant as anything perpetrated by these teenagers.

So, a Howl to the Inquirer for a follow-up that doesn’t follow much up, for placing that follow up on the front page, for giving it a terrible headline (which, online, was changed to “City takes hard stance on flash mobs” – perhaps a good copyeditor got to it after deadline), and for further inflaming concern over an issue that’s not nearly as big as the questions it elides: What’s so scary about a large group of black teenagers having fun? Is the reason that the city doesn’t want such a group to be the face of Philadelphia? Too bad, because they comprise a goodly portion of it. Why does Philadelphia fear its youth? And by extension, itself? Why don’t we talk about that?

– Nick Gilewicz

In last Tuesday’s issue of the Daily News, a quarter-page editorial was published on the topic of the most recent teenage “flash mob,” which took place on March 21st. The Daily News editorial board wrote that the event—in which hundreds of teenagers crowded South Street, and a few started fights and caused property damage—amounted to “bad news.” But they called for understanding, and warned against ‘demonizing’ young people.

The understanding they promote, however, is shallow. They warn against overreaction, reminding readers that teenage brains are underdeveloped and that it’s normal for teenagers to make stupid decisions. They’re not bad, argues the Daily News. They’re just dumb.

They also remind readers that people naturally go crazy when they’re in big crowds, citing a book published 170 years ago. They close the editorial by comparing the South Street incident to a recent Tea Party protest in Washington, D.C., pointing out that protesters there shouted racist and homophobic slurs at lawmakers. The implication here is that we can’t make too much of the flash mob trend because crowds naturally breed chaos, and teenagers are already poor decision-makers.

But there’s something missing: most glaringly, a justification for the comparison to the Tea Party protests. I don’t argue that the Tea Partyers went sort of insane in D.C., but they had at the very least an expressible purpose for being there. Their goal, however baffling and futile, was to stop the passage of the health care reform bill.

The kids who gathered on South Street didn’t provide a goal. The Daily News wrote that, for teens, “stupid judgment calls, like joining 100 friends in a public place for no reason is the norm, not the exception.” (Sure, it’s asking for trouble, but I bet if I had 100 friends and they were all in one place, I’d join them as fast as I could.) The Daily News acknowledges the questions raised by these incidents—namely, why is this happening?—without taking time to engage with them. The tone of the editorial seems to write these incidents off as an adolescent phase.

Perhaps it is, but calling teenagers stupid doesn’t seem substantially better than ‘demonizing’ them. Comparing “flash mobs” with no obvious purpose to angry mobs with an ax (or axes) to grind is insufficient. And it’s worthy of a HOWL. The newspaper should make a more concerted effort to understand the causes and consequences of this trend before telling people how to feel about it.

– Jared Brey

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