After a group of teenagers assaulted two people, stole a taxi and ransacked a convenience story near South Street, community leaders and police were trying to determine what actions to take to prevent another such occurrence.
Over 100 people showed up at Palumbo Recreation Center at 10th and Fitzwater streets. Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel spoke with community leaders and other elected officials. Business owners in the area were angry and wanted the police to enforce various laws on the South Street area.
“These kids came down here with the intention to be as disruptive as they possibly could be,” Al Grafstrom, a South Street business owner, told the deputy commissioner. Grafsrom said it’s not his job to be a social worker, “My job is to make my business successful.”
Police estimated the crowd at nearly 10,000 young people used cell-phone text-messaging and sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to assemble the mob.
Community members were concerned that the age of the youths–believed to be between 11 and 20–made the incident a complicated issue. Residents and business owners asked themselves what was going on in the community that these kids were on the streets at midnight in the first place. “This isn’t the first time this has happened,” said Yvonne Hicks, whose husband is the president of the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition. “The last time this happened it was college students. These are children. They are not as educated. This is the age when they fall into peer pressure,” Hicks said.
Many residents urged police to better enforce laws on the South Street area, especially people urinating on buildings and children out after curfew. The existing law states that those under 18 must be off the streets by 10:30 p.m. for most of the week except Friday and Saturday when the curfew is midnight.
The residents insisted that consistent enforcement year-round will significantly decrease the chances of mobs in the future. “It’s a quality of life issue for all of us,” Ed Coyle told police. “We [have to] pick up trash outside our houses everyday.”
Police said they used the schools to educate the youth about the dangers of participating in the type of behavior displayed here last weekend. “We don’t just see [this] as a South Philly phenomenon. It has far reaches across the city,” the deputy commissioner said. This group was thought to have met several times before in different parts of the city, but the events near South Street were the most violent. Many people agreed that only a handful of the teenagers were to blame for the violence and noise. The deputy commissioner said, “These are the ones we need to send the message to.”
Several people suggested that the city create a curfew to an earlier time for minors. Others wanted to open a local recreation center with evening hours where teens can hang out, acknowledging that this age group has a limited pool of public social venues in the evening.
Police have heard requests about extending coverage of the area. The police confirmed that the neighborhoods of Washington Square West, Hawthorne and Bella Vista will be patrolled by more police officers. “We were caught off guard last week with the size of the crowd. We are now able to get in front of the crowd,” said the deputy commissioner.
Some community leaders argued that the solution was simple: If someone broke the law, he or she should be arrested. But Laura Blau, a local business owner, disagreed. “They are children. This is a quality of life issue for them, too. This is a symptom of their quality of life.” Blau said she believed that authorities should detain those teenagers who break the law and discipline them, but she argued that their actions on should not go on their permanent criminal record.
“We are not going to be able to solve all these social issues here today,” Deputy Commissioner Bethel said, telling the room that these issues will not be solved by police alone. “It’s going to be fluid,” he said, admitting that they were caught off guard by the mob.
Albert Hicks, president of the Hawthorn Empowerment Coalition, said he was trying to get a roving town watch up and running in Hawthorne, similar to the one that Bella Vista has organized. Whatever the next steps will be, it was clear that there was fear here of another teenage mob, and community members wanted to be prepared next time.