City leaders and the downtown business community in Philadelphia are wringing their hands and calling for “tough action” against a horde of some 150 high school kids from eight of the city’s decrepit and failing high schools who rampaged late Tuesday afternoon through the Center City district’s shops, from the Gallery mall at 10th and Market Streets to Macy’s near City Hall, frightening tourists and suburban shoppers, and knocking over shopping displays.
By evening, police had reportedly locked up 15 kids who were charged with violent offenses, such as beating other kids or bystanders, or destroying property (Macy’s claimed damages to its flagship store totalling $700). Some of these kids were held overnight on lesser charges such as shoplifting or disturbing the peace.
I’m not going to diminish the seriousness of the incident. Nobody should be trashing stores or stealing things, and certainly nobody should be hurting other people.
At the same time, the official response, which has been to treat minor crimes like shoplifting or engaging in showball fights on the sidewalk or in the interior mall of City Hall like major criminal activity and to seek heavy penalties against these kids reeks of the growing police-state metality that is poisoning our society, locally and nationally.
Some of the kids who were arrested by police were under 16, and yet six hours after they were locked up, many, and perhaps all of them, had been prevented by Philadelphia Police from even contacting their parents. When a police officer at the 22nd Precinct, where some of the kids were being held, was asked by a caller why parents–who were understandably frantic by 11 when they still didn’t know where their sons and daughters were–hadn’t been allowed to call home, his response at first was a sneering, “Oh, you think they should have a right to a phone call?” Later, when pressed, he said, “They’ll get to call home when we’re done processing them.”
This was already some six hours after the kids had been picked up, and he gave no indication when the “processing” would be completed.
This is not, I suspect, how such things are handled by police in the suburbs, where parents of arrested minors, especially white minors, tend to get called immediately by police. (In fact, when I was 12, I and two friends the same age, plotted a heist from the local Five and Ten Cent Store, with each of us trying to cadge the most expensive item we could. I grabbed a sable paintbrush, worth about $25. We got caught because of our boasting afterwards to all and sundry. A state trooper called my father. I confessed, and had to return the brush and apologize to the shopowner, a mortifying experience.)
Now in this case the city is seeking to have at least some of the kids who were arrested expelled from school, though the incident has absolutely nothing to do with their behavior in school. This is just punitive, law-and-order thinking that will do nothing to make these kids better behaved. In fact, it will just ensure that they are angrier and less able to make their way in society as adults. Do kids in the suburbs get expelled from school if they get convicted for shoplifting, or if they get busted for drunk driving on the weekend? No. Of course not. They get expelled for violations that happen on school time on school property. Police are also calling for the Philadelphia School District to make free student transit passes invalid after 4 pm, instead of 7 pm–a truly stupid idea that if implemented would make it hard for all low-income students in the public schools to participate in after-school activities like sports or drama clubs.
What really needs to be addressed, and what instead is being completely ignored by authorities and the public, is the question of why we’re seeing this kind of rampage in the first place.
Having talked with kids who frequent the Center City commercial area, I know that those with dark skin are regularly mistreated by store owners and store personnel in the Gallery, and in stores like Macy’s. My 16-year-old son reports that when he and friends have gone shopping or browsing in stores in the Gallery, for example, he has seen store personnel falsely charge his black friends with “planning to steal” items, when they were merely looking at things in the same way that other kids who were white, or asian like him, were doing.
In other words, African-American kids feel blatant prejudice downtown, which does much to explain the hostility that was apparent in the recent rampage. If Philadelphia politicians and business leaders want to make the Center City area more shopper-friendly in a municipality that is more than 50% non-white, they might start by getting store owners (and police) to start treating all people in the area equally, including the kids who go there.
A logical idea would be to call a mediated meeting of the kids who pulled this stunt, and any others who might be interested, with the shop-owners, so that both sides could discuss their grievances and, hopefully, also come to see each other as human beings. But that would be so humane and rational and unauthoritatian, it’s hard to imagine anyone in City Hall or the Board of Ed for that matter setting such a thing up. Sad.
Meanwhile, the kids, who have demonstrated in this and earlier rampage incidents tremendous organizing skill at using social networking systems like MySpace, Facebook and cell-phones to pull together on short notice large groups of kids like the latest one along Market Street, should give some thought to taking their impressive facility with the new technologies and using it more productively. Instead of organizing riots, they could organize protests that, far from angering and frightening the majority of Philadelphians, might earn the support of at least some of them. Instead of calling kids together for a mindless, disorganized and indiscriminate rampage against store-owners, they should organize peaceful protests against specific, targeted store operators who are demonstrably racist.
Imagine if these kids used the new media to bring a thousand teenagers to the Gallery to march on the sidewalks with signs demanding an end to racism in these stores. Imagine if they used social media to organize mass boycotts of stores known to target black students for harassment. Imagine if they used social media to organize protests against police bias and police brutality.
There is enormous potential here, if kids would only grab hold of it and put it to good use.
They might even be able to teach some lessons to us adults about how to organize protests over things like the War in Afghanistan, or the failure of our congressional representatives to support real health care reform.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org