Asking the wrong questions

by Eric Ginsburg

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” -unknown

Rolling slowly through downtown on a recent Saturday night, it seemed like at least two police were posted on every corner I came to. After someone was attacked downtown by an alleged flash mob, the increased presence is part of a larger response aimed at deterring crime by targeting young people, particularly teenagers.

At the end of last month, WFMY News 2 aired a story claiming that hundreds of youth were using social media sites to simultaneously mass downtown with violent intentions. The problem, however, is that there’s no proof. While the story cited two cases of personal injury and property damage, nothing other than speculation points to intentional, flash-mob-style gatherings.

The story was all very puzzling, especially after Greensboro News & Record Editor John Robinson pointed out that a quick phone call to the police negated claims of a recurring, violent flash-mob presence in the center city. What, then, is going on?

After the youth-driven uprising in Egypt this year, countless sources focused on the role social media sites like Facebook played. Twitter was seen as a driving force during the 2009 anti-regime demonstrations in Iran, and a recent article in the Guardian claimed that rioters in London early this month were using Blackberry messaging. But, as the New York Times pointed out, social media was used in London by the government and rioters to spread information.

Social media, no doubt, plays a role in mobilizing people. The problem is the lack of real understanding this discourse provides about why people are gathering at all. Even if young people were using social media as a tool for getting together, that doesn’t help us understand why.

Center City Park is often filled with teenagers on weekend nights, but this shouldn’t surprise —much less alarm — anyone. Youth in Greensboro don’t have many other places to go, especially at night.

What’s more, there are few social spaces in the city where anyone can get together without spending money. Some teenagers say they hang out at the mall, at each other’s homes or at a select few restaurants downtown.

And recently, young people are being pushed further and further to the margins. The 11 p.m. downtown curfew for anyone under the age of 18, along with stiffer anti-loitering laws, are the single largest thrust in that direction, but cuts to various social services aimed at youth also contribute to the problem.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many young people, especially teenagers, feel alienated. After all, I wasn’t the first high school kid to discover hair dye, rebel against my parents and start listening to angry, political punk music.

The problem with youth runs deeper than the identity crisis many of us went through or the alleged violence downtown. As a society, we criminalize young people. Through what’s called the “school-toprison pipeline,” we treat school kids like criminals and feed them into the legal system and even place police officers in our schools. I’ve even heard it argued that the new jail is one of the only things we’re building for our kids.

I wholeheartedly believe there have been hundreds of young people downtown at the same time, and that some residents have been blamelessly attacked. But to malign an entire generation because of the alleged behavior of a few seems like a much more significant problem.

After a number of shooting-related incidents downtown, primarily one that didn’t involve anyone under the age of 20, the city council passed a curfew aimed at teenagers. Now in the wake of the WFMY story, some people are jumping into action to continue a push to rid downtown of “undesirable elements.” But undesirable to whom?

Earlier in the summer, I was sitting downtown with a group of friends at night drinking soda (yes, nonalcoholic, regular soda) when two police officers approached us claiming we were loitering. When we didn’t respond immediately one of them threatened to arrest us for not moving fast enough.

After diffusing the situation, we moved off the steps we had been perched on to the sidewalk, discussing where to go next. The cops hovered around us, almost as if trying to goad us into a fight, and jeered that we were still loitering if we weren’t en route to our cars or a business.

The increased police presence downtown, both since the curfew began and in recent weeks, is connected to an agenda that some people hold for the heart of our city, seemingly designed for a certain class, age bracket and racial demographic.

I will always remember attending a city council meeting two years ago when a number of current council members bemoaned Greensboro’s “brain drain” where countless graduating college students leave the city in search of something different. While youth and teenagers may be the central target of attempts to change the character and behavior of downtown, it ends up affecting a much larger segment of the population, including recent grads. Rather than turning the heart of the city into an organ devoid of a pulse, there have to be ways to deal with both real and alleged problems in a much more sane manner that actually addresses causes rather than drumming up hysteria to push draconian reforms.