The fact that Philadelphia is now in the throes of our second experience with violent teen mobs in two years should surprise no one. What we are seeing is the City of Brotherly Love's version of the events taking place in many cities in England: dispossessed, frustrated, bored kids looking for something to do and a way to express their anger. In a city where our pools barely had funds to open and where rec-center camps and summer schools often lack the funds to keep the lights on and air conditioning running, what is amazing is that the mobs didn't happen sooner and weren't bigger and more destructive.
In Philadelphia, as in Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth, we have been here before. The young people who are cast as the folk devils du jour come from the most disadvantaged of backgrounds. Steep budget cuts have pared down education and social services to bare-bones levels. Endemic violence plagues their neighborhoods -- in Philadelphia we average a murder a day and over 1,000 non-fatal shootings annually for the past decade. And most tellingly of all, the gap between haves and have-nots has increased inexorably, condemning many to a marginal, socially isolated and powerless existence.
When a minority of what we call "socially excluded" youth lash out violently, their crimes are met with outrage, revulsion and an almost exclusively punitive response. It is, after all, much easier to reach for the stick than it is to try to explain what is going on. But there is more to young people than flash mobs and riots, which is sadly buried in the race to be toughest on crime.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's response to the "teen mobs" has included extending hours of operation for rec centers, keeping more police on duty, enforcing curfews for minors and, most tellingly, accusing young people involved in the attacks of "damaging your own race." Yet in all the official responses, we have yet to see young people speaking publicly about what is taking place, why so many of them are out on the streets and what from their perspective can be done about it.
Not long after the December 2009 teen flash mobs and Mayor Nutter's subsequent declaration of a zero-tolerance policy, we founded the Philadelphia Youth Solutions Project.
The PYSP is a collaboration between young people and adults that was inspired by Harvard University's Dr. Felton Earls. Earls argues that with the guidance and recognition of adults, adolescents can participate as engaged citizens in their communities. Dr. Earls believes young people are uniquely positioned to enrich and improve their world, particularly on the issues of youth violence.
The goal of the PYSP is to offer a safe space for young people to explain their views and emotions about the danger and violence that consumes so much of their daily lives, to ask questions of themselves and the people charged with running the city they live in, and to have a serious conversation with teachers, parents, city officials, community leaders, state legislators, reporters, politicians and anyone else who wants to know what is going on in their community. The ultimate goal is to move forward on solutions to the epidemic of violence informed by the youth perspective. The founding principle of the PYSP is that young people are the experts offering their advice. Our "delivery system" for cultural change is the Internet. Facebook, YouTube and other forms of social media are just as powerful tools for doing good as harm.
If anyone asked the young people we work with in the PYSP, they would say that they want to be safe in their neighborhoods and their schools. They feel angry when the see how people care more about violence when the victims are not kids like them, or from neighborhoods like theirs. If they could speak to the mayor and the media, they would remind us that some of the kids committing acts of violence against law-abiding citizens regularly commit acts of violence against their classmates and neighbors, yet there are no reporters or camera crews around when it happens. They would say that the supposed "celebrations" in the wake of the Phillies' World Series victory in 2008 resulted in looting and rioting. But those acts of violence and vandalism were committed by fans who got a little out of control; no one said that they were damaging their own race. They want to know why the Phillies fans were not punished as harshly as the flash-mob teens.
One of the most interesting things to have come out of the riots in England is the flash mobs who have assembled in the aftermath of the mayhem. Summoned by Facebook and Twitter and armed with brooms instead of bricks, these young people came out to help ravaged store owners clean up and reclaim their property. Maybe young people ought to be part of the conversation if we are not going to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and just maybe someone should ask them.