At first, George Patterson and his wife Lynnae thought the screaming and yelling was coming from their TV. "Then I realized [the noises] were coming from the street," Patterson says.
No strangers to violence, the Pattersons moved to North Prescott, near Albina, only last month from San Francisco's Mission District, where they say, "it wasn't uncommon to have somebody shot on the next block." But when George ventured outside to see what was causing the noise on a Saturday three weeks ago, he was more surprised than frightened by what he saw.
"There were about a hundred 13- to 18-year-old kids flowing up the street, and most of them looked happy, like they'd just gotten out of a concert or something. Then a few started jumping on the cars," he says. "For the most part, it reminded me of a party, but it was strange, and a little unsettling."
Patterson, who saw five cars smashed, was among the first in Portland to witness a new summer trend among the city's disenfranchised teens—thanks to boredom and disinterested parents, mobs of kids are now using MySpace and cell phones to gather in large groups and stay one step ahead of the cops.
On Saturday, August 19, a crowd of somewhere between 120 and 150 kids, mostly African American, reportedly trashed more cars, and threw rocks at police who were trying to stop a fight between two girls. That incident happened two blocks from the Pattersons' home, at Kerby and Skidmore. One car owner who confronted the kids was brutally beaten, according to the police.
"This is different from the old days," says Portland Police Officer Mike Stradley, who has dealt with gang violence in North and Northeast Portland since the late '80s. Unlike traditional gang violence, the kids participating in the new mobs are, for the most part, "good kids," Stradley says. They're less gang-affiliated, for example, than the crowd of several hundred who gathered on August 6 after the annual low rider show at the Expo Center, and fired shots on NE MLK. But it's the teenage mobs infiltration by older, known gangsters that makes them just as dangerous in Stradley's eyes.
"We've had shots fired, and two guns taken off people in two different situations from these crowds. One of these days one of these kids is going to be high and get a gun out and start firing shots in a direction," he says. "And that puts the whole crowd at risk."
Last Friday, August 25, John Canda—the mayor's new director of gang violence prevention—appealed to community members at an expanded meeting of Portland's Youth Gangs Task Force. Canda urged people to get out on the streets and intervene to stop the mobs: He advocated an outreach approach similar to that formerly employed by his NE Portland Youth Gangs Outreach Program before the county cut its funding in July (see "Gang Initiation," News, July 20).
"Where are the people who say they work with these children?" he asked. "If you're sitting here and you don't have your arms wrapped around a young person, you're occupying somebody else's seat and breathing somebody else's air."
But such work is now left to volunteers, thanks to the cuts in funding.
One willing outreach volunteer has been Michael Johnson, a former Columbia Village gang member who is now a minister at the North Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church—he has been using MySpace to keep up with the mobs, and was even able to tip off police recently before shots were fired outside the IWW Hall, a "collectively run community center" on Ivy.
"If people show up where these mobs are congregating, it might prevent a shooting, a stabbing, a riot in itself," Johnson said. "If people are purpose driven, and come out and show some love, and that they're willing to be approached by these kids, it'll have an impact. It's our job to be a family for these kids."
Volunteer efforts appear to have worked this past weekend, with no more mobs reported. But their abatement, for now, is of small consolation to Canda, Johnson, and others working to prevent gang violence.
"It's hard to apply rational thought to irrational behavior," said Canda on Monday, "and though we'll catch some, we won't catch it all."