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Unquiet Riot: FlashMobs Give Philly a Big Headache

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on March 30, 2010 9:50 AM

The "flashmob." It used to be cute, or at the very least, humorous. In the past, a flashmob was a spontaneous gathering of the young to have a massive pillow fight or maybe a disco dance-off on a random street corner; a type of performance art, if you will. But the city of Philadelphia is reportedly no longer amused by the flashmob phenomenon, now that it has tended to turned violent. In the last year, five flashmob gatherings in the city have more closely resembled massive brawls.

The AP reports that Philly Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says he doesn't doubt other cities are coping with the same issue, but Philadelphia has seen more than its share of frequent and violent versions of, as the Boomers would say, "happenings." The flashmobs start with a call going out on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites. Large groups gather, and recently, things have gotten out of hand.

The most recent occurrence was the night of March 20. According to the AP, a flashmob of about 2,000 gathered in Philly's South Street neighborhood, roughing up bystanders and stomping on cars, resulting in arrests and not a few assault charges. City of Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross told the AP that most of the kids don't have any interest in breaking the law, but even if only a few do, the results are harmful to the city and the kids.

Due to the violence, the authorities are cracking down on the flashmobs using the various tools at their disposal. Undercover officers are on subways looking for spikes in ridership. Charges are now being brought against parents for the crimes committed by their kids. The charges against the mobbies themselves have been pushed up from misdemeanors to charges like felony rioting. Finally, and a bit worryingly, federal authorities have taken to keeping up with their facebooking and tweeting in an attempt to catch the mob movement and intercept it. 

Judge Kevin Dougherty asked some of the young offenders, brought before him on flashmob charges stemming from a February 16 incident in a department store, that same old question: "why?" The judge got the pretty much the same answer teenagers have given their parents since time immemorial: essentially, "I dunno." 

The AP questioned Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor at Temple University, about what causes the behavior. Farley believes it appeals to the risk taking side of a teenager. ''This kind of thing I could see catching on across the country the more it's publicized,'' he said. ''It's easy to do; it's thrilling, it's fun, and they can turn on the TV the next day and say, 'I was there.''' 

The forms may change, but, the substance remains the same.

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