Talking Philadelphia Flash Mobs with Sam Fulwood

Philadelphia  has recently enforced a curfew to crack down on flash mobs of teenagers that have been terrorizing parts of the city. A couple weekends ago, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia gave a speech calling on parents to “get your act together.”

Chip was able to ask Sam Fulwood, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former metro columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a couple questions about the situation.

Below is an edited transcript of the interview:

Chip Lebovitz: What makes these mobs, the mobs in Philadelphia, different from past city riots: for example the 1991 Crowns Height Riot in Brooklyn?

Sam Fulwood: It’s complicated because you have to dissect what was happening with each of them. The Crown Heights riots stemmed from a specific act, and flash mobs are not triggered by a specific act. Rather they’re technology based gatherings that may not have any precipitating event that would cause them to come together.  I think that’s the real big difference, and it goes to the heart of the intent and purpose behind those activities.

Chip Lebovitz: What do you think is the cause of the riots? Do you think it’s based off of the poor economic conditions that the country and the city have as a whole, poor social conditions or a combination of both?

Sam Fulwood: It’s c. It’s everything. I think a lot of Americans like to have you push a button and the lights come on the wall, and there’s a direct link between it and it’s the same every time. That’s not the case here. There is a complex set of factors that are going on in communities all across the country and sometimes we don’t even know why things happen the way they happen.

That being said, there are some things we should be paying attention and we should be noticing. At the top of the list and I want to make this very clear, I think the fact that times are tough is no reason for people to behave in anti social behavior. That does not present an excuse for bad behavior. Just because you don’t have a job doesn’t mean you should go out and throw a brick at somebody. I think most people, most reasonable people, understand and buy that argument.

I also think that times are tough, and we know that there is a correlation, not necessarily a direct line or causation link, but there is a correlation between tough times and bad behavior. I think that down through history we have seen that. If we can do something to ameliorate the tough times, I think we don’t have as much bad behavior. That’s something we might want to think about in terms of various social policies we want to promulgate. What we’re looking is high unemployment for everybody, but it is particularly acute in certain pockets: urban America, people of color, black and Latino, and especially high for young people. We’re seeing a lot of this bad behavior emanating from urban America, from communities of color with young people. It’s not an excuse. There is a correlation and I think we can understand the correlation without excusing it.

Chip Lebovitz: (Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia) in his address two weekends ago was talking directly to families. He was saying it was a parental responsibility. Do you think he is taking the right approach to combat these flash mobs?

Sam Fulwood: I think that’s part of the right approach. I think what the mayor said was appropriate and well timed, and it’s interesting to note that he said it in a church. He is going into a place where that kind of conversation is held far more often, but not necessarily from a political point of view. I think that was a very, very wise thing on his part. It (the flash mobs) doesn’t end with just personal responsibility. I think there is a societal role to play. It’s important for political leaders to talk about personal responsibility.

Chip Lebovitz: Given that the majority of the members of the mob are African Americans, he (Mayor Nutter) directed his remarks at African American families. Do you think that was also right given that there might be more diversity in these flash mobs?

Sam Fulwood: I think that it was appropriate that he made the comments that he made and directed it to the audience in that setting the way he did. That was a wise and shrewd thing to do both in terms of the politics of it and sort of making a public statement that it should be made at. His choice of words and language maybe, I might of said it a little differently, but everybody says things in their own way. I think what he did was an appropriate thing.

Chip Lebovitz: How realistic of a chance does the curfew have to stop the violence at least in the short term?

Sam Fulwood: A curfew does keep people off the streets. In terms of stopping the most immediate part of it, that should be reasonably effective. That really doesn’t go to the root cause of what needs to be done. We need to figure out a way, in the long term, to give disaffected young people something to do other than engage in anti social behavior. Work is an excellent thing for people to do. To engage them, it gives them a sense of worth and self.

That’s another point I wanted to point out. The correlation between idleness and anti social behavior – we’ve seen this over and over in a lot of different places – and it may be also a correlation to what we saw happening over in England where you had some rioting and anti social behavior going on. Often people who feel like no matter what they do, or how they live, nobody pays attention to them. In particular in America, if you are black and male, you are aware that society fears you. (Society doesn’t) understand you and it fears your physical presence in their space. On some level, these young people understand that and are using that sort of fear and public attitude toward them in a kind of jujitsu saying you don’t notice me unless I do something anti social so now I’m going to make you notice me. That’s a troubling thought because it says something about society and says something about the human desire of people to be valued, respected, or at least acknowledged. When we don’t do that, all kinds of social costs can be paid. On some level that’s what we are seeing with these flash mobs and with the behavior in other places.

People want to be acknowledged and I happen to believe people want to do the right thing. If doing the right thing, whatever that is, doesn’t get them, (what) they think they should get, then they are going to do things that will.

Chip Lebovitz: Because as you were saying the curfew is only the first step and there’s this underlying…

Sam Fulwood: The curfew comes down to stopping the problem. It is a triage type of action.

Chip Lebovitz: I was just going to ask what specific proposals can the city do or the government do? Are their any other options?

Sam Fulwood: I think we have to recognize that society can either pay people up front or they can suffer the cost over the long term. In New York for example, Mayor Bloomberg has a novel idea where he’s (getting) private employers, government, and non profit agencies all on the same page in efforts to try to target African American and Latino youth for employment: with (a) whole range of activities, programs and public services. That’s the kind of thing we really have to think about and sort of examine. I don’t have a specific plan that I can say do this and the problem will be solved. We have to recognize that we can’t continue to ignore the problem because when we ignore it, it makes things worse.

Chip Lebovitz: You had alluded to this earlier, but the riots in London last week garnered a lot of attention. Do you think there is a solid connection between the two, or are they completely separate events that happened to occur at similar times?

Sam Fulwood: I don’t think one had anything to do with the other. That wasn’t the point I was making. The point I was making was in an academic understanding of it you can see some similarities. In both cases, you had young people who felt they were being overlooked and were screaming out for some kind of recognition. I don’t think young people in England are talking to young people in Philadelphia and saying, “Hey, do (mobs) this way,” or here’s a textbook on how you this. No, I don’t think that at all. It wasn’t that they were coordinated or had very much in common other than the fact that you get anti social behavior as a cost of social dysfunction, social breakdown.

Let me point out one other thing that often doesn’t get noticed. Young people are like sponges. They notice the world around them. If you are in a community and you see other people sharing in the benefits of that community, and you’re not benefiting from it. It breeds a sense of resentment, and when you see people doing things that may strike you as anti social and getting away with it. It breeds a sense of resentment and it lowers your inhibition to do things the proper way. So what am I talking about? If we look at what’s happened in terms of income and inequality in our society, and when we look at the fact, that some small number of business executives reap enormous benefits from their labors, from their work. Other people work and don’t get anything. Young people see this and they are not stupid. They understand that there is something wrong with this picture. No one really makes it clear to them why there are people who have enormous wealth and other people have no wealth. They don’t buy the argument that they worked harder, or they’re smarter, or they went to school, because they see people who have done all these things and don’t get ahead too. This is part of what we have not come to grips with in our society, is trying to understand what messages are we sending to young people, especially people who live in inner cities, are of ethnic and minority status. That says no matter what you do, you are not going to be able to share in the bounty of that they see other people having. And it makes it very easy for them to say, if I’m not, then why do I have to play the game like they want me to play it.

This is the sort of thing that policy makers really have to come to grips with rather than just arguing all the time: we’re going to crack down on them, we’re going build more prisons, we’re going to lock people up, we’re going to have curfews, we’re going to cut off cell phones. Those kind of things really are, as I put it a minute ago, are triaging the situation without coming to grips with what kind of society are we really living in. What message does that society send to everybody in that society?

Chip Lebovitz: Is there anything I should know about the flash mob situation?

Sam Fulwood: I’m no expert on this but I do think it’s important that we look at this in a totality, rather than just trying to make it into an either or: personal responsibility or more government spending. I don’t think that is a productive way to shoehorn this situation into our public consciousness. We need to think about this in a real broad and complex way and come up with some far-reaching social understanding of how we can ameliorate some of these problems.


Want to read more work by Sam Fulwood? Click here to see a list of his most recently written articles. We’d like to thank Sam Fulwood for talking to us.


One response to “Talking Philadelphia Flash Mobs with Sam Fulwood

  1. Mr. Fulwood’s discussion of the flash mob… why it’s happening and what might be done… very thought provoking. Thanks.

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