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Tuesday, April 12, 2011


On March 21, Philadelphia police had to close John F. Kennedy Plaza (or Love Park) because there were threats of flash mob activity. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, police spent some time chasing bands of young people in an attempt to curtail rowdy behavior. Disturbances on South Street also punctuated the day.

While police reported no violence or destruction of public property during these episodes, several arrests were made. Love Park was also closed for several hours in anticipation of further flash mob activity. The closure prevented visitors, tourists and office workers from enjoying the park on a beautiful spring day.

So what gives with the City of Brotherly Love?

In the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo, this sort of behavior would have been nipped in the bud. School kids, although minors, would have been hauled into jail and then turned over to their parents, or maybe the parents would have been arrested. The candy-coated, velvet glove “Ah, come on, they’re just kids” treatment would not have played out in Rizzo’s Philadelphia. But then was then and now is now as they say, and now is not so good, especially with the warmer weather coming.

Mayor Nutter’s promise to crack down on flash mob activity comes after the horses have left the stable. The kids, or the culprits in question, don’t seem to mind his threats.

When gangs of school kids have the police chasing them around Laurel and Hardy style, you know those threats are basically meaningless.

When flash mobs first surfaced over a year or so ago, many nervous liberal types made all sorts of excuses for the behavior. There were Op-Ed editorials calling for more “after school” programs. Voices calling for the arrest of the students or their parents were criticized as being “racist” and “cruel.” But where is it written that any kid, be they Asian, Italian, Irish, African American or Indian, can team up with ethic or racial peers and hold a city hostage?

The Nutter Administration seems to be handling the problem on a case-by-case basis, as the incidents occur. This “damage control” approach to the problem has not prevented the mobs from reinventing themselves. Again, the kids do not feel intimidated or frightened.

Two weeks ago, while crossing Market Street in Center City on a late Wednesday afternoon, a group of African American female students were crossing in the opposite direction. Walking beside me was a middle aged white woman, probably coming home from work. Suddenly and without warning one of the students jumped in the woman’s face and began screaming at the top of her lungs. The incident took all of five seconds, and may not have been much by “Grungy city” standards, but it displayed an attitude that’s become all too common these days: callous disregard for other people’s rights and feelings. That small action, despite the fact that nobody was touched or physically harmed, constituted a kind of assault.

It would have been the same thing had a white girl screamed in the face of an older black woman-- same offense; same ignorance.

The woman was understandably shaken, but what could she do? Scenes like this have become normal in the City of Brotherly Love, and that’s the sad part. As a city we are building a tough collective hide that processes incidents like this and then tunes them out. We’ve come to accept outrageous rudeness as “part of what it’s like to live in the city,” although if we were to compare Philadelphia to other cities we would discover that this is anything but the case, even though violence-prone flash mobs have occurred in Boston and New Jersey. That’s not true, however, in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, or even Detroit.

Frank Rizzo in the 1970s sometimes went overboard when it came to maintaining public order, but one thing was certain: Philly was a safe city then.
As I see it, the way to eliminate flash mobs or random (group) teenage hooliganism, such as the March 4, 2011 incident at the Shops of Liberty Place when at least two dozen teens kicked over food and display tables in the Food Court, is to immediately implement the following:

Eliminate the “free ride” Septa transpass system for students, prohibit teens from gathering in groups of ten or more, and hold parents responsible for injuries or damages inflicted on homes or businesses during a flash mob
Since we can’t bring Frank Rizzo back from the dead, we can at least implement some useful, workable Rizzo-like solutions

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