By Tom Ferrick Jr.
My wife and I were part of the flash mob on South Street on Saturday night.
Maybe I should clarify that.
We were not participants. We were involuntary witnesses, caught in our car in a traffic tie-up at 15th and South Streets at 11 p.m. as about 400 teenagers rambled by in aimless pursuit of what I cannot say. Nor probably could they.
They were the vestigial remains of a crowd that numbered 2,000 or more that descended on South Street about 9 p.m., draw to the site by Facebook and Twitter postings. The modern social media in action.
I didn't get out of the car to question them on the whys and wherefores of their actions, but the sizeable group we saw had three common characteristics: they were African-American. Most were aged 15 to 18. Most were dressed up. Not tux-and-tails dressed up, but urban dressed up - girls in fashion jeans, boy in best tee shirts. Girls nicely coiffed. Boys in baseball caps askew at just the right angle.
They weren't rampaging. Most of them weren't running. They were, more or less, just walking along - being shooed by police away from South Street. The police were in their gentle "Keep Moving" mode of crowd dispersal, but when the crowd is 2,000-plus that's a lot of dispersing.
The police I saw on Broad Street and vicinity seemed calm, if overwhelmed by the volume of the crowd. But what can you do as a cop? If you try to arrest one of the kids for being boisterous or clambering atop a car what happens? Are you suddenly surrounded by 400 kids asking what the %$#@ you are doing? And then what?
The 1964 riot that decimated North Philadelphia began when a black cop tried to arrest a black woman who was giving him lip and refusing to get out of a car he had stopped. That drew a crowd of angry folks who thought police were mistreating the woman. One thing led to another and 10 days later, Columbia Avenue was a wasteland.
So, not to highlight the obvious, but what happened on Saturday night was not a good thing.
Here it is the night before the first day of spring and 2,000-plus teens and young adults suddenly appear on South Street, as if emerging from the mists? We still have the rest of March, April, May, June, July and August. Is this to be a weekly occurrence?
Flash and mob, I think, are two words we should try to keep apart.
But how? We can't ask the police do the job alone. There are not enough uniformed officers on duty on any given night. The police can flood a zone so their mere presence keeps the lid on. They did it a couple of years ago on South Street after Mardi Gras got out of hand.
But, what happens if you don't know where the zone is? It could be South Street one night, maybe 15th and Chestnut the next. Maybe the Gallery on Market Street on a Tuesday afternoon? All were recent sites of flash mobs. It just needs to be accessible by public transit and most of Philadelphia is accessible by public transit.
As pointless as it seems, being part of a flash mob has to be a thrill to a teen. You take over a street. You scare the old folks. You draw the police and the media and the choppers overhead. Just by showing up. There's a lot of psyche empowerment going on.
Alas, there is the knucklehead factor. Take a crowd of 3,000 teens and assume that just three percent are knuckleheads looking to make trouble - vandalism, harassment of civilians, fights, weapons, you name it. That's 90 kids with the potential to create mayhem that could be infectious.
So, we can't order up Commissioner Ramsey to get rid of these darn flash mobs.
We need parents to do it.
These kids aren't homeless waifs. They have parents who should put a stop to such nonsense. I know that is easier said that done.
In this age of mobile phones, your child could be telling you he is at the rec center playing basketball, when he's actually standing in the midst of 2,000 kids at the corner of 4th and South Streets.
The mayor and the police commissioner should urge parents to lock down their kids if they participate in a flash mob. After all, these aren't 22 year olds. These are juniors in high school. The kids won't stop this. The parents have to stop it. There is no other way. We should also realize what is at stake here.
If this becomes the Summer of Flash Mobs in Philadelphia we may not make it to September as a functioning city.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.