Flash mobs are usually considered harmless, defined as mass group activities. However, the activities have been taking a turn for the worse as of late. Young people filled South Street last Saturday night in what was the latest flash mob incident to turn violent in Philadelphia. It prompted area businesses to shut down early while many police officers were deployed to keep the situation under control.
“The kids were just walking down the middle of the road,” said Michelle Provencher, a Bainbridge Street resident who witnessed the flash mob. “Some of them were trying to push over light posts and some of them were picking fights with each other. I saw a group of four or five boys just run over to somebody who was walking, and they just started punching him and kicking him and he was on ground defenseless as they were beating him.”
This is at least the fourth incident of its kind to hit Philadelphia in the last year. While flash mobs have been innocent in the past, the gatherings in Philadelphia have taken a violent turn, resulting in injuries and damage to properties and businesses. The gatherings have been coordinated in large part through the use of social media, including the use Facebook, Twitter and text messaging.
“You get this multiplying effect that is really important,” said Andrew Mendelson, the chair of the Department of Journalism at Temple University. “You could’ve done it with a phone circle, but how many people really pick up a phone after that and call 50 people? But because it goes out instantly from one to many and then to many to many it just happens so much faster.”
The destructive nature of the recent flash mobs can prove to be very difficult for authorities to handle. The problem with dealing with these mobs is their unpredictability. They do not follow any guidelines and can happen anywhere and at any time of day.
“The problem with these flash mobs is that one second they’re not there where the next second they are,” said Sgt.William Giulian, a Philadelphia police officer stationed at the South Street mini-station of the 3rd District.
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Earlier this week, 29 teens were convicted in Family Court of felony rioting for being part of various flash mobs in February and March. The exact purpose of these destructive gatherings is not immediately clear.
“It must feel very empowering for them to be in a big group and walking down South Street,” said Susan Jacobson, an assistant professor at Temple University. “You can understand how a very large crowd of people might terrify some of the businesses and residents on South Street.”
Police officials have already begun to prepare for the break out of another incident.
“Because of last week’s incident, there will be additional manpower that will be put down here on South Street,” said Giulian. “I can’t get into the specifics of how they’re going to be deployed.”
Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams is taking extra measures to prove to residents that city streets are safe. Around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter walked down South Street to demonstrate that it is safe to enjoy the city’s nightlife despite the recent violence created by the flash mobs. Williams talked to local business owners and community leaders on his walk. He also talked to teens on the street about the importance of making wise decisions.
“This is a chance to open some much needed dialogue with young people,” Williams said in a statement. “They need to know there are more productive ways to spend their time than getting caught up in illegal activities.”
The police tactics and help from Williams and Nutter seemed to work as there were no flash mobs this Saturday night as many feared there might be.
The city has talked about possibly lowering the curfew for juveniles on the streets. The current curfew stands at 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Authorities are not so sure lowering the curfew would have helped in the most recent flash mob.
“Last week’s from what I understand started pretty early,” said Giulian. “It’s not my decision whether the curfew is going to be changed or not. I’m sure it would help but it’s not my decision.”
Police have also begun to monitor social media sites to stop potential violence before it starts.
“The police department and city are monitoring the electronic methods that these young kids are using like Facebook and Twitter,” said Giulian. “Perfect example is yesterday (Wednesday, March 24) there was supposed to be a flash mob at 40th and Market. A young gentleman told his mother that he got a text and they called the police and it was stopped.”
Anyone who has information about flash mobs is encouraged by city officials to call the city’s tip line, 215-686-TIPS.