An apparent wave of street rowdiness by urban black teenagers – not always accurately called “flash mobs” – has rolled across American cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee in recent months. The phenomenon could represent the leading edge of a rise in anti-white hate among black youths – or it could merely be the latest destructive symptom of wretched dysfunction eating away at the nation’s black underclass. Either way, the trend, if not stanched, could push the nation toward a new social rupture that undermines decades of tentatively easing tensions between whites and blacks.
“Flash mobs” are groups of people who, using the instant networking capabilities of text messages, Tweets, Facebook and other types of social media, rapidly rendezvous at a specific location. Originally, flash mobs were entertaining, often-humorous eruptions of dance, performance art or simple silliness, like pillow or snowball fights. But some disaffected urban youths have utilized the technique to quickly muster the numerical strength to engage in lawlessness with a sense of impunity.
In Chicago, groups of juveniles conducted coordinated shoplifting raids on stores in posh Northside shopping districts in January. Dozens of teens from the distressed West Philadelphia neighborhood boarded El trains to stage a similar raid June 23 at a Sears store across town in Upper Darby.
More often, however, it appears teens use social media to converge on a site just to mingle and hang out, only to have violence break out as their numbers swell. The worst recent case was the Aug. 4 opening night of the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, where scores, perhaps hundreds, of unsupervised black youths inside and outside the fair grounds began punching and kicking white people at random and pounding on their cars. At least 11 people, seven of them police officers, were injured, and 31 were arrested. One victim told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the marauding youths were deliberately bypassing black fairgoers. One suspect later admitted seeking out white people because they were “easy targets,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. At least 11 of the criminal cases being pursued involve race as a factor, according to the West Allis (Wis.) Police Department.
It wasn’t the summer’s first eruption of injurious violence. In Philadelphia on June 25, a group of between 20 and 40 teens chased, tackled, punched and kicked white pedestrians in North Philly, breaking one woman’s leg and sending at least two others to the hospital. The marauders resurfaced on July 26, as about three dozen teens assaulted and robbed pedestrians at random and vandalized property in the Center City district.
Hundreds of black teenagers quickly converged on two Cleveland-area summer events. At the Coventry Street Fair in Cleveland Heights on June 26, a flurry of fights and vandalism resulted in at least 15 arrests. On July 4, 500 to 1,000 youths zeroed in on a fireworks show at Shaker Heights Middle School, “some with the intent to disrupt and ruin a family event,” said Police Chief Scott Lee, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Two juveniles were arrested.
That these and other cases of urban lawlessness are perpetrated almost exclusively by black youths is inescapable – yet it’s also not clear what to make of that fact. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, during an Aug. 7 address to the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, minced no words in addressing the racial aspect of the hooligans who had disrupted the city’s tranquility on prior weekends.
“You’ve damaged yourself. You damaged another person. You damaged your peers. And quite honestly, you damaged your own race,” Nutter, who is black, said in statements directed to young people. “If you want black folks, if you want white folks, Latinos, Asians or anybody else to respect you and not be afraid when they see you walking down the street, then leave the innocent people who are walking down the street minding their own damned business, leave them alone. Cut it out.
“Some of them,” Nutter said of the offending teenagers, “should be ashamed of their behavior. Some of them have made shame on our race.” The next day, Nutter tightened summer curfew restrictions, deployed more officers and extended the hours of social centers to help prevent a repeat of the violence.
But race may only be a coincident factor in the disturbances. In the wake of Cleveland’s street unrest, the Open Doors Academy, a nonprofit developmental program for high-risk middle- and high school-aged teenagers, held a youth-led community forum. “The kids said, ‘This was not an issue of race, we believe this is an issue of age and economics,’” said Annemarie Grassi, the CEO of Open Doors. Grassi is white, but the agency’s programs serve a primarily black clientele. “They said, ‘There is not enough for us to do in this community.’ … It’s economic differences more than the color of their skin, and unfortunately, a lot of the poorer kids are African-American.”
There is some logic to Grassi’s observation. For one, the black teen mobs that have caused mayhem lately seem entirely bereft of political motivation. Also, they are leaderless – a stark contrast to black urban violence of the 1960s and ’70s, which was infused with conscious anger over perceptions of racial and social injustice, and led by firebrand orators. Today’s black teen marauders may more accurately typify what Washington University Medical School researcher Wesley Bryant calls “internalized racism” – a lack of self-respect and socially reinforced negative attitudes toward one’s own race. Bryant published a study in March demonstrating that internalized racism in teens can lead to an increased propensity toward violent behavior.
Whether the black flash mob trend is a manifestation of anti-white hate – as white nationalist commentators eagerly affirm with breathless self-righteousness – or just a familiar spilling over of boredom and frustration from a teenage class that is still wracked by high unemployment and minuscule prospects for opportunity and advancement, one thing appears certain: Thanks to digital-speed social media, its consequences may be felt virtually anywhere, at any time – and with very little warning.