[Photos by AL IN PHILADELPHIA]
BY JEFF DEENEY So late last week the flash mob story broke national, and the middle class is freaking out about poor black teens using new technologies to organize riots that threaten white business districts, even though now it seems there was never a flash mob to begin with. You’ve heard all kinds of commentary from a thousand white journalists who have never spoken to black teenagers in the neighborhoods except maybe when taking statements in court for a story, and seen bloggers who are equally distanced from urban poverty jumping in front of cameras to play expert I guess because they have an Internet connection. You’re probably sick of reading about the flash mobs by now, and I understand that this commentary is late in coming. But the difference between what you’re about to read and what you’ve been reading is that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to how new technologies have taken hold in the neighborhoods I’ve spent a lot of time working in over the last few years.
In the spring of 2007 I stood in the living room of a run down row house on D Street, one of the roughest streets in North Philly’s Badlands, and watched one of my young clients obsessively updating his Myspace page. His family was so poor they didn’t even have much furniture and they were always behind on rent but the boy had hustled up enough money to get a computer that he connected to a $10 per month Internet connection, a special deal for poor families offered by Verizon.
“He’s always on that damn computer,” his mother croaked from where she sat on their ragged couch watching daytime talk shows. “It broke down last week and he stole a shopping cart from the super market and pushed it all the way across town to get it fixed, he needs it that bad. He’s missing school, up all night on the Internet, but there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”
Honestly, she wasn’t trying very hard to do much about it. Drug addicted and mentally ill, she had provided little guidance for the boy, or her two other kids. I guess she was doing the best she could; I’m sure many would disagree with that, though.
Later that same year I sat having lunch with another young client at the McDonalds on 2nd and Lehigh in the same Badlands neighborhood. A quiet, sullen kid, he sat mostly not speaking, staring at a Jay-Z video playing on his iPod.
“Who put that on there for you,” I asked. I knew he was stone-cold illiterate, a high school drop out who had already done juvenile time on a gun charge. There was no way he knew how to operate a computer well enough to load the video himself.
“For five dollars a week my cousin makes me a mix,” he said.
That’s a great hustle, I thought. His young cousin probably made good money keeping his less computer-savvy friends up on hot new rap videos. He was probably one of the few kids in the neighborhood who knew how to use the technology.
I’ve done social work in Philadelphia public schools; I worked in Bartram High, in the same violent Southwest Philly neighborhood where the papers reported about 11 year old kids playing a violent game called “Catch and Wreck” that involves brutally beating people who appear to be homeless. Bartram High, a crumbling and decrepit facility, had a “computer lab” with six aged Dell laptops for almost 2000 kids to use. Actually, only about half of those kids showed up on any given day, but still.
Over time I heard about other similar black market enterprises run by early adopters in the ghetto; a young kid who knows how to use torrents and Photoshop churns out pro-quality DVD bootlegs and becomes sought out by the whole neighborhood because his boots aren’t that shaky cam shit shot in the theater that everyone’s used to.
By summer of 2008 social networking sites like Myspace and Blackplanet became not just places to chat with the neighborhood girls but places to gather to celebrate neighborhood affiliations. Students in the public schools bragged back and forth, beefing with the kids across town about which school is tops. Corner kids started discussion forums dedicated to singing the praises of their corner drug crews whose teenage members proudly posted pictures of themselves on their pages pointing handguns at the camera, flashing fat stacks of rubber banded bills and piles of bagged up drugs.
One particularly wild crew, the Erie Avenue Mob out of North Philly’s Simon Gratz High School, had their own custom made logo – the city skyline with two Uzis crossed under it like an “X” – and a group inviting other kids in their school to “Join the Mob.” The School District denied that corner drug crews were using social networking sites to recruit in the schools, stating they were blocked on the school’s networks.
But it was clear that nonetheless more kids were getting online outside of school and the power of the web was bringing together more kids with dysfunctional backgrounds in poor, urban neighborhoods than ever before. Sometimes the results were positive and constructive, sometimes they weren’t.
By 2009 the new must have status symbol was no longer an iPod packed with hot video mixes. The new must have item, like Air Jordans or a leather jacket once upon a time, is the smartphone. Now in the neighborhoods it’s all about the IPhone, the Blackberry, the Droid. That’s how the kids in class know you’re gettin’ money: you got a flashy new phone loaded with a Twitter app and monthly data plan. Everyone you know knows where you’re at and what you’re up to anywhere you’re at. It’s an odd status symbol in a lot of ways; to whites in the corporate world the Blackberry is often seen as a sort of albatross that tethers you eternally to the office and many resent this new superconnectivity that can keep them working around the clock.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that when white people from healthy, nurturing families who have enjoyed the benefit of all the functional social institutions that come with privilege organize for a flash mob it’s an impromptu pillow fight and when newly networked black teens raised in dysfunctional families, deprivation and failing social institutions plan a flash mob it results in a crowd of angry boys beating on car hoods and chanting “burn the city.” I think this stark difference highlights a lot about our intensely unequal society.
But was there even a flash mob? When the story first broke I spent hours scouring Twitter and Facebook looking for evidence of a trail I could track back to those calling for a flash mob, and couldn’t find it. I was able to find exactly on Twitter feed whose user mentioned getting texts about going to South Street, which, on the first warm Saturday night of the year, most kids would have done anyway. Now Gawker has reported that the flash mob was nothing more than performances by couple dance troupes that got out of control. The fact that the police department was calling it a flash mob organized on social networking sites should have been taken with a grain of salt because anyone who’s worked with the department knows that your average Philly cop is CAPS LOCK GUY who still has an AOL account, isn’t exactly up on new trends online, and might not be the most reliable source for this kind of information.
Days after the South Street flash mob, alerts went out from UPenn warning of another flash mob to form on 40th Street. The flash mob turned out to be a couple hundred white journalists with notepads and video cameras hoping for a mob of black teens to show up and act all ignorant.
But, not surprisingly, the Philly papers ran with the “flash mob” story for more than a week despite lack of evidence that there was a trend at work because it got them link arounds and page views despite the fact that the whole thing smelled like bullshit from the beginning. The newspaper’s job is to critically analyze information from law enforcement sources, not parrot it because it’s sexy and results in page view spikes, but, hey, I understand they’re in a tough spot right now when it comes to money.
So there you have it, a brief history of how we got to where we are today with respect to poor kids and how they use the Internet, and how it may or may not have lead to the Great Flash Mob Scare of 2010. Let’s hope for the sake of white people in suburbs everywhere that poor kids don’t continue to use new technologies to organize gatherings outside their own neighborhoods. And let’s also hope that if they do, at least they act real crazy so that newspaper reporters can continue to have more material for their stories about the disturbing new “flash mob” trend that is sweeping the city.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on The Daily Beast, PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as a social worker in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.