'Catch and wreck' victims recount random attacks
Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010
Crime is a part of life in big cities, but several incidents in recent days in Philadelphia have been particularly disturbing, because they involve groups of teenagers, and even pre-teens, inflicting random violence on strangers, apparently just for fun. WHYY looks at the issues raised by Flash mob incidents and sudden, violent attacks by packs of young people.
When another flash mob suddenly materialized on South Street Saturday night, police responded quickly and little damage was done. But help wasn't so quick in coming to victims attacked by smaller groups of kids, some as young as eleven, around Finnegan's Playground in Southwest Philadelphia.
There were serious injuries in two attacks in Southwest Philadelphia, and police said the youths were playing a game they called "Catch and Wreck," in which an innocent victim is chosen at random and pummeled.
Two recent assaults on the Market Frankford El involved young teenagers ambushing middle-aged men, laughing and photographing the action. What all the incidents have in common is that they seem to involve young people engaging in violence as recreation.
The other curiosity about the attacks on El platforms is that the victims in the incidents are brothers.
Bill Costa is 47 years old and small in stature: about 5'5. He was attacked on the El platform at Bridge Street in Northeast Philadelphia – by about six kids roughly ages 10 to 15 – while he was on his way to a computer class in Center City.
"And as I passed by them, the one kid tripped me, and the other kid pushed me," Costa said. " And I almost fell onto the tracks. I hit my head on the cement, and I broke my finger when I hit the ground.
Bill's attack came on March 3rd, the same day a flash mob swarmed the gallery in Center City, causing widespread damage to retailers and knocking over passers by. He believes the kids who attacked him were on their way to that melee.
"They were saying they were going down town to 'rock it out.' And I don't know what that means, but I don't think it means play music. I don't think that's what they meant."
Bill's brother, Joe, is taller: about 6'1. But he's 57, and his wobbly gait hints at his past drug and alcohol abuse. He lives in Parkside in West Philadelphia – he says he moved there because it's close to the drug rehab center he now goes to. He says most of the time, he eats at a homeless shelter.
Joe was attacked at the 60th Street station on March 4 – the day after Bill's attack.
"And I got to the turnstile, and that's the last thing I remember. Somebody hit me with something…a board, something…and I went down on my knees, and next think I know, there's just eight kids, six guys, two girls just wailing on me."
Actually, Joe doesn't remember that part. He says he didn't actually see any of his assailants. After the attack, someone nearby told him there were six boys and two girls. The man wouldn't identify himself because he lived in the neighborhood, knew the kids, and feared retaliation.
In both Joe's case and Bill's, the kids took pictures with their cell phones.
Mayor Nutter says whether random or organized, the city is trying to get a handle on attacks by young people.
"Deputy Mayor Gillison, Police Commissioner Ramsey, and a number of other folks inside and outside the government will be in constant communication about how we deal with these kinds of events and activities. We've seen some of this activity in the after-school hours. We've addressed that, and will continue to do so."
The mayor holds teens responsible for their actions, but…
"The issue, though, I think has to stay with a particular focus on parents always knowing where their children are, especially teenagers, late at night on a Saturday night, whether it's South Street or any other street assembling en masse. Unfortunately, some bad choices or bad decisions can be made, which sometimes could lead to future trouble for that young person."
Experts agree the roots of violence are often in the home. Dr. Joel Fein is the director of the Philadelphia Collaborative Violence Prevention Center, a partnership between several Philadelphia universities and research centers dedicated to studying and preventing youth violence. They focus on West and Southwest Philadelphia.
"What we're seeing is there is a significant inner rage a lot of these children are expressing, and that can have many different causes, one in particular would be violence they have experienced in their life even from the time of infancy."
Fein says peer pressure is another major factor, because it's very difficult for kids to get out of a situation where they are egged on to participate in a violent act.
"I think it takes a lot of practicing, and a lot of skills to be able to do that, because what they are concerned about is likely that they would be the target if they weren't the perpetrator."
While Nutter and police officials try to figure out what to do about the problem, Joe Costa wonders what it will take for him to feel safe taking the train
"It's not right, they gotta get a bat, to ride the El? or you gotta carry a gun? That's ridiculous."