"Mom, are you working? Can you do something with me, like, now?"
"What's up son?"
"I got kicked out of the mall again. I really want you to help me do something about it."
So began our sojourn into the perception and actions of private corporate security guards. An exploration of the mindsets that look on most teenagers as potentially dangerous unless they fit a very narrow range of physical description and demeanor.
The backstory: My son's friend Richard was wearing a baseball cap with a word written across the back. By the guard's admission, the cap was not gang related. But (again, by his admission) he decided to continue to follow and sweat the boys anyway. After being subjected to the unusually long scrutiny, Richard (16-years-old, 185 pounds of hormone in a 5'10" frame, easily frustrated) blurts out "why the hell do you keep following us? We're not doing anything!"
I surmise the security guard had achieved what he set out to achieve. With what my son described as grim satisfaction the guard began to berate Richard, calling him belittling names and swearing at him. My son must have looked disgusted, because the guard then began to lecture him about the importance of respecting his elders. To which my son replied, in an even tone, "How can you expect us to respect you when you aren't respectable?" (important questionable objectivity disclaimer here – all of these details were confirmed by one of the security guards who witnessed the exchange).
At this point my son was also ejected. Last week he was ejected for loitering, which meant that he didn't have a shopping bag in his hand after being observed in the mall for more than half an hour (he was collecting job applications). Last month he and two friends were ejected immediately upon entry for wearing baggy sweatshirts.
I do understand that there are troublemakers in the world, that our city has a gang problem, and that people carry concealed weapons and go off in malls with alarming frequency. I suspect mall security guards are somewhat on edge these days. But the picture that was painted, as we sat in the mall general manager's office and talked through the situation, was one in which men in their 30s and 40s were exercising unnecessary personal power over teenage boys. What purpose does this serve?
The mall manager explained that the mall policy was one of "zero tolerance for gangs," and he went on to talk – at some length – about their extreme concern for preventing any more mall shootings and for protecting the citizens who enter their mall. Who is suspected of gang activity or considered worthy of scrutiny? The answer, at first, was vague. But eventually, as we asked for specific examples, that the profile of a gang member is any brown-skinned teenage male who wears baggy clothes, baseball caps, and walks with a slouch. If white-skinned teenage males dress like the brown-skinned teenage males, they are also suspects. My son is a brown-skinned teenage male who dresses in jeans and t-shirts but does not wear baseball caps. His friend Richard is a white-skinned teenage male who wears very baggy jeans and baseball caps. Neither are involved in gangs (yes, I'm quite sure).
The mall shooter in the most recent event in the Chicago suburbs was an African-American man dressed like any other man in the midst of a bad winter storm– dark jeans, winter coat, black knit cap. The mall shooter in Omaha was a waifish, nerdy looking young white man that couldn't possibly be mistaken for a gang-banger. The mall shooter in Utah was a young white male wearing tan jeans, an overcoat, and a mullet haircut. The shooter in the December incident in a Delaware mall was wearing ordinary jeans and a windbreaker, no cap. I don't see a pattern here.
Maybe the real concern is shoplifting? Probably not, because according to the National Shoplifting Prevention Coalition, shoplifters are equally divided between males and females, and only 25% are juveniles. Most notably, the coalition reports that a common profile for a shoplifter does not exist, so it can't be targeted.
I must admit to a lot of curiosity on this issue. Does this profile fit for preventing mall fights involving teenagers? Research indicates that mall fights occur in all demographics with all types of teens. Juveniles (Americans under the age of 18) account for 25% of the population, and they account for 17% of all arrests, and 15%-25% of all violent crime (which the statistics indicate is generally not happening in malls). Juvenile males account for a disproportionate amount of violent crime, but misdemeanors demonstrate a much higher participation rate by females. Of great interest is that juvenile violent crime dropped 30% between 1994 and 1998, and has continued to improve (though I couldn't find good recent statistics).
Is it possible that media-induced irrational fear of teenagers has turned our treatment of the future into a guilty-until-proven-innocent experience? A Public Agenda Online (http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stats.html) survey indicates a disheartening lack of faith in our kids, with 71% of the general public reporting a negative attitude toward teenagers, including expressing the idea that they do not believe kids today will make the world a better place. Actual statistics of juvenile crime over a 20-year-timeframe indicate that juvenile crime has been misleadingly analyzed and reported (http://www.cjcj.org/pubs/myth/myth.html).
I don't think my son and I changed the world during our one-hour meeting with the mall manager. But we both learned a lot, and I hope the mall manager did too. My son was able to practice the art of constructive conflict and exercise the ability to listen to someone with an opposing viewpoint before presenting his own ideas. The mall manager, once he stopped defending the mall's position and really began to listen, started taking notes and promised to have a meeting with security to discuss improvements to their process. My son is no longer banned from the mall.
But the larger issue concerns me greatly. I have been acutely aware as my peers, all of us teenagers roughly a quarter of a century ago, begin to judge teenagers for their clothing, their speech habits, and their music. I don't have the best memory, but I sure do remember my dad bemoaning my wardrobe, my parents telling me to turn down my music and what-was-I-listening-to-anyway, and being constantly corrected and chided for using teen slang. As an adult I have had very entertaining conversations with my parents about how their own parents were convinced that they (my parents) represented the end of society as they knew it. And while we didn't turn out so bad, I also have a sinking feeling every time I see an adult behave poorly in public, act disrespectfully to other adults in front of their children, and show up regularly on the evening news as perpetrators of a broad range of crimes. If we are going to ask "what is the world coming to," shouldn't we be asking it of ourselves?
I believe we should be vigilant against the presence of gangs in public life. It freaks me out that I live in a state where anyone can carry a concealed weapon. I, too, want to feel safe when I enter a mall. But the real answer doesn't lie in antagonizing teenage boys in the process of figuring out who they are, how they want to look, and what they want to do with their lives. None of the statistics I researched demonstrated that there is any benefit in the type of profiling that is occurring in this mall (and I assume, other malls). If we could just turn our attention to poverty, public schools, adult training, fair housing, mental health, drug abuse, and nutrition, we could reduce crime statistics overnight. So who might we look to as a perpetrator of these ambitious acts of public salvation? The profile probably looks just . . . . like . . . us.