In 2006, I moved to West Milford, N.J., a large, rural township in the northwestern region of the state. The town had two grocery stores, a few liquor stores, a McDonald’s, and a pharmacy, very few small businesses or department stores. I called the town home. I wasn’t as aware of the growing economic problem at the time, but if I had been, I could have predicted that areas like West Milford would be the ones hit hardest.
Teenagers hung out in store parking lots, roaming the area in varying degrees of boredom and apathy. Many of them couldn’t find jobs, including myself. As a result, some of them took to contributing to the growing drug problem in the town, as a means to make money.
Now and then I would visit my friend, Leysa Derrington, who lived in East Rutherford, N.J. That town, while vastly different than West Milford (it was much more suburban), faced a similar problem in that much of its youth were not only bored and apathetic – and had taken to peddling narcotics – but were much more volatile.
Derrington’s next-door neighbor had started an unofficial community youth group of sorts in 2005, but the neighbor moved a year later. Resultantly, the group, once an outlet for kids with nothing else to do, ceased to exist.
What was obvious to me, and not only in West Milford and East Rutherford, but also many towns I had visited, was that positive outlets were either non-existent, or slowly dying off.
Shopping malls, our last hope, were all we had left.
And even though New York City was not far away, and job opportunities were said to be there, we often couldn’t afford the bus trip alone. As the saying goes, you need money to make money.
Back in West Milford, the town police force seemed not to care about the drug issue beyond making arrests left and right and throwing the book at these teens. Essentially, these kids were thrown into prison, where society wouldn’t have to deal with them.
If I thought then that the ruling class had a habit of brushing our problems under the carpet, I hadn’t seen anything yet.
I now live in Chicago, where this year, a new form of angry youth was emerging – and, rather than simply harming themselves with drug abuse, they had found a way to – in their eyes – push back against a system that was keeping them down. These teens, some still in middle school, mostly arrived in downtown Chicago from the south side – specifically, from poor neighborhoods, where employment opportunities are scarce and gang violence is plentiful.
Using social networking and texting, large groups of teens began organizing into flash mobs. They busted into a McDonalds in massive numbers, where they created such chaos that the restaurant had to close for three hours. Elsewhere downtown, teens in the dozens ambushed a man who was parking his scooter, beating and robbing him.
Once again, a potentially deeper, underlying problem affecting these youth was not examined. Instead, these flash mobbers, mostly African-American, were simply tossed into prison.
I talked to my friend Derrington, who remembers her teenage years just as clearly as I, and asked how she felt about Chicago’s way of dealing with flash mobs, in comparison to how our towns dealt with “unruly teens.”
“It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now,” said Derrington, referring to similar arrests made in East Rutherford years ago.
Derrington continued, “So you’re gonna arrest them, put them in juvy, whatever. That’s how you deal with a problem you don’t understand, right? What’s interesting is that a lot of teenagers are always a threat to a corrupt government, whether they’re involved in criminal activity or positive things. So why not make it something positive,” asked my old friend.
“Flash mob used to mean a public gathering for some funny or entertaining thing,” Derrington pointed out. “Why can’t it go back to being that? And that way, you could threaten [the ruling class] with something positive. Like, send out a [good] message or something – an anti-drug campaign, or a ‘give us jobs’ campaign. Teens getting together used to be a good thing – when did we start forgetting about that?”
And now, of course, with the riots going on in Britain, never has there been a clearer example to me that a new generation of youth with limitless potential is being wasted. Rather than talents recognized, and positive tools like social networking utilized, these unemployed, disconnected youth feel they have nothing left to lose, and boldly respond in the only way they know how – by lashing out at everyone and everything.
In a report by LA Progressive, Camila Batmanghelidjh, director of Kids Company, an organization that helps abused children in the U.K., referred to the rioters as the “ignored underclass.”
“I walk into these kids homes,” said Batmanghelidjh, “and they’re sleeping on the floor, they don’t even have bedding…And what I really object to, is that the people in civil society who have power and set the agenda continuously describe these kids as ‘animals’ and ‘feral,’ but nowhere do these kids get the chance to come back at civil society, and explain from their perspective what’s happening to them day in and day out.”
Clearly, simply making arrests won’t suffice – you can’t throw thousands of young people in prison, and you can’t pretend that they don’t exist. In West Milford, it’s easy for police to put adolescents in jail and pretend the town is perfect. In Britain, the problem isn’t so invisible anymore.
Photo: A group of young rioters attacks an already-damaged store on Walworth Rd. in Elephant and Castle, London. Hozinja/Wikipedia.