Why are there violent "flash mobs" in Philadelphia?

In different settings, different teenagers yesterday offered a variety of views on the furor over flash mobs, including the very term.

They scolded their peers. The boys said they were looking for girls. Some did it to establish a reputation, they said, and some didn't like the label being applied to them. They said the swarming was pointless. They said it probably would continue.

Authorities can't "put some tape on it and it's finished. . . . It's not really that simple," said Martisha Hardy, 17, of Germantown.

Hardy was among five teens given a live, hour-long forum on Power 99 (WUSL-FM 98.9) to offer their takes on flash mobs. The teens are part of a group called YO-ACAP, or the Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program, which provides prevention services for young people.

Earlier in the day, from a video screen in an Overbrook High School classroom, school safety coordinator Curry Bailey asked students for their opinions.

"Pointless," one boy called out.

"They're giving us a bad name," a girl said.

"I feel offended at being referred to as a flash mob," another said. The term has become convenient shorthand for the large, destructive gatherings of teenagers that have swarmed the city four times since December.

On Monday and Tuesday, 29 teens were convicted in Family Court of felony rioting for being part of troublemaking gatherings in February and this month.

The Overbrook students were taking part in a school district Webinar on the safe use of social media, which was being shown via Web cam to 10 Philadelphia high schools.

Students at all city high schools were to view a video clip at the end of the Webinar and participate in teacher-led discussions on social media and flash mobs.

While text-messaging and social-media sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, have played a role in spreading word of large gatherings, the Overbrook students were quick to counter what they said was a myth: They said teenagers do not use Twitter.

Bysil Doe, a freshman, and other students described as overblown the notion that massive, violent student gatherings were being organized online.

"The only text messages is from your friends," Doe said. "Why should I be labeled as something I'm not doing?"

Several Overbrook students were equally critical of the juveniles who have started fights, assaulted bystanders, and destroyed property.

"That why it's up to you to choose the people you hang out with," said Ashana Davenport, a freshman. "If you do bad and you're around bad, most of the time you become bad."

Several students noted that the so-called flash mobs had taken place at long-standing hangouts for teenagers, such as South Street and near the Gallery at Market East.

Doe said he had gone to South Street on Saturday night, when the latest violence broke out. Hundreds of teens assembled there on the first warm weekend night of the year.

"We went down there for the girls," he said. "South Street is where you go."

At Overbrook and during the radio program, students also were asked what could be done to prevent the violence. Several mentioned more after-school activities and recreation programs, but one boy at Overbrook pointed out that those services were available now.

"I think if teenagers knew more about how it affects their future and knew about the consequences . . . that would prevent it," said Shaun Loadholt, a senior at Overbrook.

On the radio, Marques Carson, 17, said many groups of young people from different neighborhoods, when they find themselves in the same place, were bound to clash.

"Half of these neighborhoods are going to battle," said Carson, of West Philadelphia.

In these fights, or in causing other types of chaos, the youths are looking to "catch a rep," said John Laderer, 16, of Southwest Philadelphia.

"They doing this to get buzz, to ring bells," he explained.

"Image is becoming a big matter on the street," Carson added.

The radio program's hosts, Uncle O and Mikey Dredd, kept emphasizing to any would-be flash-mob participants that they can face serious jail time, or worse.

"You never know who's carrying a hammer," said Dredd, referring to a gun.

But most of the participants don't think they'll get arrested, the teens said. Like many young people, they don't think about consequences.

The radio hosts expressed astonishment that teens would videotape themselves committing crimes.

But Laderer said posting videos online served as "proof" that a person was not to be messed with, which then added to his or her rep.

Though the city's youths are facing stricter curfew enforcement and police scrutiny, the problem won't go away soon, Carson said.

"I don't think it's going to slow down."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-5146