On January 8, 2016

Quiet riot

Did you hear about the 2,000-person brawl that took place at Kentucky’s second-largest indoor shopping mall last week? A teenage riot of epic proportions, it shut down the Mall St. Matthews in suburban Louisville two hours early on Boxing Day, as local police, responding to alleged gunshots and general unruliness, strove to break up fights between unsupervised juveniles and to evacuate terrified shoppers to safety.

The incident made national news, prompting sad-faced rhetorical inquiries as to what our nation is coming to and what’s wrong with our youth today. The most interesting thing about this travesty of consumer etiquette is that it almost certainly never happened—at least not in any form remotely resembling the media’s description.

I may sound a little like a conspiracy theorist here, but hear me out. Two thousand people is a lot of people, and when 2,000 people riot in earnest, there are bound to be some consequences. But what actually happened at the Mall St. Matthews? Whatever it was, the police made zero arrests, and no one was seriously injured. None of the mall’s stores reported looting or even theft. No damage occurred: the mall opened as scheduled the following morning without any need for repairs. Strangest of all, not a single video of violence inside the mall has surfaced since the “riot,” even though the instigators supposedly were teenagers, who (as we all know) record every moment of their lives on their phones and instantly upload anything even slightly interesting to social media. Presumably there were some security cameras in the mall as well, but the only security footage released to the public shows nothing more than some people running—and this, indeed, is the common theme of what little relevant mall footage exists: panicked shoppers sprinting toward the exits and then away from the mall, quite reasonably, in response to reports of gunfire disseminated by mall security and the St. Matthews police. These reports turned out to be false.

I don’t doubt that there were some rowdy kids at the mall on Dec. 26, but why did the entire news media think it was a riot, let alone a 2,000-person riot? The St. Matthews Police Department spokesperson Dennis McDonald—whose grandiose account of the incident went unquestioned by reporters, thus becoming the evening’s sole narrative—later admitted that the number he’d put forth “was obviously a guess” and that the event was perhaps not quite a riot “in the classical sense.”

It took a complete failure of reportage for this to become a national story. Journalists took the initial hyperbole of a grandstanding police officer—who used the occasion to lecture parents about using “the mall as a babysitter,” decrying moneyless teens who occupy the mall for illegitimate purposes—and ran with it, making no effort to locate eyewitness accounts or any other evidence for the claims made by Officer McDonald. This failure strikes me as deliberate: it was the kind of stuff that made for a good story—why question it?

The idea of the “mall riot” is especially popular within the racist underbelly of the rightwing Internet. The commenters on these websites are pretty nervous about black people generally, but they also seem to have a bizarrely specific fear of black people inside shopping malls. When incidents like the one in Kentucky occur, they begin to posit theories that claim not only that the disturbers of the peace were uniformly black but that the situation represents a coordinated black uprising that must be quelled with violence.

It’s hard to say to what extent the overblown (though thankfully nonviolent) response to the Mall St. Matthews “riot”—both on-site and then in the media—was a product of similar racist thinking, but it’s equally hard to believe that it didn’t play a part. The footage suggests that most of the teenagers in the mall at the time were in fact African-American, and I wonder whether anyone would have thought it was quite such a big deal if some white kids had been roughhousing or making too much noise.

Fictional mall riots are nothing new; they probably are more common than actual mall riots. When I was a kid, there were two popular music videos on MTV—in 1999 and then in 2002—depicting events much like the ones that took place within the imaginations of the fearmongers in Kentucky.

In Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” the Canadian pop-punk princess cavorts through the mall with her skateboarding buddies, assaulting a mascot, trashing shop displays, and harassing customers. In the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give,” amid a tableau of indoor fountains and escalators, a flash mob springs into action with scooters and silly string, taking over the entire shopping center, trapping the “legitimate” shoppers and security guards in nets and cages. It’s clear in both videos that the vandals represent the undesirable element of the mall landscape, i.e., the “mallrats” who show up not to shop but to hang out. What claim do young people without spending power really have upon a privately owned shopping center?

These videos, as well as the mall riots that we invent for ourselves, articulate the inherent tension of a commercial area that resembles a public space and yet is not one. While traditional urban downtowns contain a mixture of private and public spaces—shops and restaurants, but also sidewalks, parks, and libraries—the indoor shopping malls that sought to replace them primarily ignored the multifunctional nature of their predecessors. In virtually any town, one of the primary purposes of the central commercial area is to bring the town’s residents into contact with one another: shoppers and idlers, barflies and protesters, people out for a walk. Shopping malls, similarly, structure themselves as gathering places and benefit from the same pleasures of people-watching and accidental encounters, except it’s all part of a single-minded arrangement to sell you stuff, and if you aren’t buying, you serve no purpose there.

The “mallrats” are only the victims of calculated artifice.

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