- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
I live in Philadelphia in Center City, ground zero for a series of attacks dubbed “flash mobs” by the media. Since 2009, small groups of black teens and young adults have committed 11 such attacks at random times and on random days of the week.
In a fiery speech before Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Mayor Michael Nutter acknowledged that “less than one percent” of black youth were engaged in the attacks:
I want to apologize to all the good, hardworking, caring people here in this city, and especially our good, young people here in Philadelphia. But I have to tell you this morning that I am forced by the stupid, ignorant, dumb actions of a few — and we will announce tomorrow actions that we will take that unfortunately will affect many here in our city.
Indeed, the 99 percent are presumed guilty. Nutter dusted off a decades-old law and imposed a “temporary curfew” that sweeps minors from Center City and University City after 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
The “temporary curfew” was scheduled to end after Labor Day but under the Mayor’s emergency powers, it has been extended indefinitely. The demonization of black youth stands in stark contrast to how the police handle random acts of violence and property damage committed by white youth in Center City when, for instance, the Phillies won the World Series.
Study after study shows that curfews are ineffective at stemming youth violence. But they are effective in keeping black youth out of sight. The October 2011 newsletter of the South Street Headhouse District, where some of the “flash mobs” took place, includes this call to action:
The South Street Mini-Station has enforced the citywide [sic] curfew to great success. If you have noticed an improvement in the District due to this curfew please email your positive feedback and request for continuance of the curfew to Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison.
I mentioned this “great success” to Harvard Law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., when he was in town for a book signing and discussion at the African American Museum. The author of “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America,” Prof. Ogletree told me:
America always looks better when we are swept from the streets.
Last week, a stricter curfew was on the agenda of the City Council. Bill No. 110633 would permanently sweep minors from “any public place or any establishment” during curfew hours. Curfew violations would be punishable by fines of up to $500. On its face, the bill is race-neutral. If past police practices are prologue, black youth will be disproportionately stopped and questioned.
Consider: In June, Philadelphia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania reached an agreement in a federal lawsuit challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policies. The ACLU found that of the 253,333 stops in 2009, 72.2 percent were of African-Americans, who make up 44 percent of the city’s population. Only 8.4 percent of the stops led to an arrest.
Still, the City Council was poised to place under police surveillance the 99 percent of African American youth whose only “crime” is being young and black. That is until Occupy Philly and the Philadelphia Anti-Curfew Law Action Committee stepped up to the mic.
Khadijah Costley White testified the curfew law echoes the “black codes and slave codes of America’s history”:
I believe that all Philadelphian citizens should be able to move freely throughout the city. In limiting the movement of youth, we are also restricting them to the poor and less safe areas of the city. We vehemently oppose this backdoor approach to enforcing a widespread segregation and caging of Philadelphia’s youth, and believe it echoes the black codes and slave codes of America’s history.
While the Council tabled the vote, we have seen this movie before. In the 1990s, young black males were dehumanized and criminalized as “wolf packs” and “super predators.” Fast forward to today’s media-hyped images of “flash mobs” and black youth are presumed guilty.
By Faye Anderson,
I am a new media practitioner who focuses on the intersection of social media and social change. I was nominated for the 2011 Women's Media Center Social Media Award. I am the founder of Tracking Change, an online platform to foster civic engagement. I am helping to develop the Cost of Freedom App, a location-based web app to provide voters with information on how to apply for a voter ID. I am also working on STEM Everywhere, a web-based platform to promote STEM literacy among underrepresented students. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.