- Category: Race & Liberation
- Created on Tuesday, 30 August 2011 09:09
- Written by George Ciccariello-Maher
Radical Eyes suggested the following piece for posting on Kasama. It first appeared on Counterpunch.
Philadelphia’s Declaration of War on Black Youth
by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER
The character of our present moment is undeniable, and the tangled web of causes and consequences is the same from London to Cairo to Santiago: budget cuts in the name of “austerity,” rising unemployment, increasing popular resistance, and an upsurge in racist violence and policing measures like “stop-and-frisk.” The failure of an economic system in the short and long term has generated an entire class of undesirables, living proof of that failure who must be contained, controlled, and silenced.
But even those who recognize the roots of distant rebellions are far more hesitant about upheavals closer to home. Philadelphia is currently in the grips of a bout of mob hysteria at least as virulent and far more racist than the backlash underway in London, to which the media, the police, the city government and the public have all contributed, and yet few have dared to call it what it is.
In Philadelphia as in London, to use the term “mob” is to tar one’s opponents as dangerous, unruly, irrational, criminal, and apolitical. In most cases, it is also deeply racist. Like the term “gang,” “mob” has its roots in movement, in “mobility,” and it evokes a deep and abiding fear of the uncontrolled movement of the poor and dark-skinned. As we well know in this era of ostensible “globalization,” there are those who are authorized to move: tourists, executives, commodities, and financial flows. And then there are those who are not so authorized: the poor and largely racialized masses who find themselves ever more penned-in, confined by force and economics to the urban wastelands known as ‘slums’ that so many have, for good reason, compared to concentration camps.
Those daring or desperate enough to break through this 21st-century apartheid have been and will continue to be smeared as “gangs,” “the rabble,” and especially “mobs,” but with resistance comes the refashioning of the master’s weapons. In the U.S., this reappropriation has been carried forward most visibly in hip-hop where, from Mobb Deep to Crime Mob, from Ice Cube’s to Lil Wayne’s versions of “Steady Mobbin,” this elite slur has been taken up by its victims and resignified as an expression of popular solidarity, of resistance, and of the indomitable strength that comes in numbers (the one strength that tends to be the exclusive domain of the poor).
But if resistance breeds appropriation, it can eventually lead as well to reabsorption into the dominant culture, to which even slurs as potent as the ‘mob’ are not immune. Thus it was with the “flashmobs” that began to pop up eight years ago, whose choreographed spontaneity was quickly reduced to a purely ritualized aesthetic. Howie Mandel’s TV show Mobbed and AT&T’s most recent ad campaign are but the logical conclusion of an already empty form. But when this cleanly-picked carcass was taken up more recently by young Black people in Philadelphia and elsewhere, who injected the term “flashmob” with a spontaneity it had never enjoyed, all hell was bound to break loose.
You know things are bad when the police and the mayor stand as the voice of reason, but this was indeed the case last year in Philadelphia, when a series of “flashmobs” comprising hundreds of Black youth used text messaging to take over a Macy’s in Center City and raucously occupy the partying mecca of South Street. Referring to these gatherings only as “mobs,” and even as “ad hoc gangs,” national and local media sought to stoke the hysteria by exaggerating the violence of the crowds. For the moment, however, the police weren’t taking the bait, and instead insisted that most of the incidents reported were “unrelated to flashmobs.” But while the police sought to downplay the socioeconomic (and racial) element of the flashmobs, the New York Times rightly observed that, “Most of the teenagers who have taken part in them are black and from poor neighborhoods. Most of the areas hit have been predominantly white business districts.”
Mayor Michael Nutter took the same line as the police, suggesting that the media was exaggerating the threat of flashmobs, and insisting that, “if the facts get reported, all of us would probably breathe a little easier.” But this wasn’t principled moderation, but rather an effort to protect Philadelphia’s public image and economic interests: business investors and the overprotective parents of hipster gentrifiers wouldn’t like the sound of “mobs” taking over the city. But the same logic that led Nutter to downplay flashmobs last year would lead him to publicly take a hard line against them a year later.
In this, Nutter was firmly pushed by the media, which closed ranks around a single message: something must be done. Suddenly everything became a flashmob, even categorically distinct events like random beatings by small groups, fights within large groups, and even coordinated shoplifting that has since been deemed “flash robs.” Armed with video footage of a violent beating on South Street which would soon be set on permanent loop in the local media, the Mayor was ready to make his move.
Nutter’s Sister Souljah Moment
In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton sparked a controversy when he used a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as an opportunity to slander female hip-hop icon Sister Soulja by comparing her comments about the L.A. riots to notorious white supremacist David Duke. While this seemed like a spontaneous, off-the-cuff comment, “there was nothing spontaneous about it. The Clinton campaign had planned the confrontation” to send a message to white America, that he could be trusted, and “the strategy worked.”
So too when Michael Nutter climbed to the pulpit of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in West Philly on August 7th. Pushed by that faithful mouthpiece of anxious white Philadelphians, the media, but also by personal ambitions in an election year, Nutter immediately warned that his speech would “not be PC,” and claimed to speak for what the silent Black majority “think[s] but may not say.” He then launched into a virulent attack on Black parents, who he called “human ATMs” and “sperm donors,” before putting on his best Bill Cosby impression (both, not coincidentally, from Philadelphia) to turn his ire toward the youth themselves: