LAST weekend, thousands of people poured into Center City to enjoy the first warm weather after a harsh winter. Many were young people. A few hundred - maybe 1,000 - got out of control on South Street.
The teenagers gathered using social-networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. By spreading the word online, the kids were able to gather a big crowd.
For a brief time, these teens fought in the streets, a few bystanders were beaten up, and several shops were vandalized.
It was bad. But from media accounts, you would think kids were walking around South Street with baseball bats, beating strangers within an inch of their lives. Some coverage almost made it sound like numerous businesses were looted, while thousands of young criminals ran wild in the streets.
IT'S TRUE THAT there have been multiple instances of flash mobs in recent months, but that doesn't excuse the hype.
In reality, the mob in Center City over the weekend was briefly scary, but didn't do any lasting damage.
That's why there were only three arrests and no major damage to any businesses. According to witnesses I spoke to, most kids were just walking in a big crowd in the middle of the street.
Despite these facts, our politicians have jumped to respond as though flash mobs were a real menace. On Wednesday, the mayor, police commissioner and D.A. announced plans for a rapid-response team to deal with the problem. Mayor Nutter also emphasized the current curfew and threatened make it stricter if another incident took place.
To their credit, city officials didn't announce any truly punitive measures that would indiscriminately target teenagers.
But there's clearly a growing push to get tough on young people. Last week, Family Court Judge Kevin Dougherty found 10 teens guilty of felony rioting for participating in a February incident at the Gallery mall. These kids broke the law, but three-year prison terms seem awfully harsh for an afternoon of immature behavior.
As a young person myself (I'm 25), I hope this behavior doesn't grow. My biggest fear is that elected officials will overreact, and we'll wind up with special laws for flash mobs, giving young people extra time behind bars for using technology. Then, down the road, we'll all wonder where the funds for after-school programs went while we build yet another prison.
The outrage also seems a little hollow, since the same officials are often nowhere to be found on other violence issues. For example, the mayor offered little support to Asian students targeted at South Philly High. Politicians are ready jump all over flash mobs, but talk little about the systemic violence in our schools and neighborhoods.
Of course, we shouldn't underestimate the flash-mob phenomenon. Big groups of people, especially teenagers, can be dangerous. Add the ability of social-networking sites to quickly build large crowds, and you've got a real problem.
So what should we do? Some smart law-enforcement thinking can probably figure out how to monitor these sites. We could also offer a small reward to young people who report any flash-mob plans by their classmates.
Ultimately, we need to have a reasonable response, as opposed to draconian measures that punish young people. If we're serious about addressing violence among young people, we've got to tackle the big issues instead of focusing on the spectacles.
Ben Waxman reports for "It's Our Money," a partnership between the Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, that covers the city budget. See www.ourmoneyphilly.com.