Kelley: Did Black Kids Ruin Flash Mobs?

Is it just me or are flash mobs more dangerous when it's black teenagers doing the mobbing? News of violent flash mobs in Philadelphia has now hit the front page of The New York Times, complete with a photo (on the second page of the Times story) of a group of black male teenagers ostensibly en route to run amok. "These so-called flash mobs have taken a more aggressive and raucous turn here as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown," Ian Urbina wrote in the article. "For a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property." Here we go again. Just like freeway-shooting and looting, violent flash mobs will soon enter the modus operandi of scary young black men.

Don't misunderstand me. I do not condone the behavior of those kids who assaulted people and vandalized stores. Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter was right when he called the violence "bad decision-making by a small group of young people who are doing silly but dangerous stuff." I'm not looking to excuse their behavior, only to explain how ingrained racial stereotypes kick in to criminalize behavior by black youths that is tolerated in more diverse crowds. To be sure, these groups of teenagers weren't out to perform the chicken dance in front of the Rocky statue; but not every kid was beating up people or wreaking havoc. Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily Newswrote that "Most of the lemmings who flooded South Street Saturday night—summoned by Twitter—were there to just chill with friends and goof around. We're here, we have no fear, get used to it. Early photos posted on showed hundreds of kids walking easy, smiling, before the few roaches ruined it." Silence on the roach crack.

Time and time again, crimes committed by African-Americans have been presented as the first of a wave of race crimes, only for the phenomenon disappear without a trace. Remember the crack-crazed children of the eighties? How about wilding in the nineties? Surely, you recall the expected wave of crime the Great Recession would bring? But as the years roll on and crime rates continue to drop, these kinds of activities are proven to be the isolated incidents of a few, not the will of the many. So why do we have to go through this same song and dance every time black teenagers do something bad?

Because first of all, who declared a flash mob harmless fun in the first place? The first flash mob happened in June of 2003 in Manhattan and wasconducted by Bill Wasik, now a senior editor at Harpers. It was a protest against conformity or, as I like to call it, acting crazy for the satisfaction of blowing the smug normals' minds. (More than a hundred people organized online to meet at Macy's, look at a rug and then leave.) Others were even wackier: disco dancing, coughing, even pie tossing. But not all of them have been bucolic—a flash mob protesting climate-change policy at the Canadian House of Commons left several people injured. And where is the concerned hand-wringing over the future of flash mobs after tea-party protesters shouted racial epithets at congressmen? Weren't they prompted to gather in part by social media? When a 2009 Valentine's Day pillow-fight flash mob in San Francisco caused flooding of nearby businesses, wasted tens of thousands of gallons of water and cost the city nearly $20,000 to clean up, no one brought in the FBI to monitor social media and certainly no one thought to institute a curfew, as they are in Philly. Pictures accompanying the coverage of this year's fight were white people kissing and laughing in a cloud of feathers. I'm tempted to think that if that had been 1,500-2,000 black kids with pillows the National Guard would have been called.

Flash mobs have always been extremely disruptive and political in nature if not in execution. Wasik explained in an interview with Stay Free magazine that the desire to be in a flash mob was "not really expressing anything with content, you're expressing a vague feeling: 'I'm unhappy with the way things are going and I want to be out there with people showing our numbers.' " I believe, in no uncertain terms, that this was part of the attraction for the Philly teenagers who may quite simply believe that the only way they can get attention is negatively. It is these kids who are bearing a disproportionate load of our societal dysfunctions—it makes perfect sense that they'd be attracted to the idea of a flash mob.

Did I mention these were teenagers? The basic tenets of adolescent psychology teach that teens are narcissistic, moody, confused, and cursed with the inability to resist peer pressure. They also have poor impulse control and only a vague idea of the potential consequences of their actions. It is a wonder any of us get through our teen years without a stint in jail. So it really isn't shocking that flash mobs would appeal to these poor African-American teenagers in Philly—their neighborhoods are extremely violent, their schools are bad, and the Great Recession has cut what few after-school and employment programs they had by 93 percent.

What is shocking, though, is how often this cycle and its societal context go unnoticed by the mainstream media. The cycle is always "here's the last brand of urban warfare," and when that brand turns out not to exist, it's only quietly noted while the impression that urban youths often attack white people without provocation remains. Unless, of course, the widespread media coverage of this phenomenon inspires copycat mobs in other cities, thus creating the trend the Times was purportedly warning us about. Worse, there doesn't seem to be any kind of accountability if the media is wrong. Maybe that's part of the reason so many individual crimes, like the felonies committed during the flash mob in Philly, become the next weapon in the imaginary war between black kids and middle-class America. For a great look at the how often this cycle has been repeated, look at Random Violence: How Talk About New Crimes and New Victimsby Joel Best.

In a column last year about a study confirming that 70 percent of people of all races harbored an unconscious preference for white people over black people, I wrote: "We are a nation of people deeply influenced by the stereotypes endlessly perpetuated in our culture.…So it is not difficult to believe that we have automated this stereotyping to the point where it happens not in our conscious mind but in its operating system." The continued use of the "flash mobs used to be great until black kids ruined them with violence" narrative relies on those same automatic assumptions about young black people and will only further perpetuate the popular, but unfair, racial stereotype of black men as sociopathic thugs. We're here, we have no fear, get used to it.