‘Feels a little unsafe’: Uncertainty and few easy solutions after Emeryville mall chaos

Experts weigh impact of pandemic, parenting on teens in social media age

Several dozens of teenagers fighting, with many more cheering them on, and scores of shoppers fleeing at one of the East Bay’s largest malls, hanging from railings and pushing down the stairs to escape.

Authorities said one person was stabbed but would recover. Although a gunshot was reported, no one was injured.

Nonetheless, days after the Sunday afternoon brawl on Emeryville’s Bay Street, shoppers, restaurantgoers, and criminal justice experts struggled to explain the sudden outburst of violence, one of several seen across the country around the same time. Some speculated that social media may have played a role by connecting disparate groups and encouraging copycat behavior, while others wondered if young people in the Bay Area and across the country are still dealing with the social strains that arose during the isolating coronavirus pandemic.

Witnesses likened the melee to a massive schoolyard brawl, with crowds rushing into the scene to catch a glimpse of the action. At least one witness saw someone who claimed to have been pepper-sprayed.

According to an employee of Shake Shack who declined to give her name out of concern for her safety, some of the young people who took part in Sunday’s brawl had caused minor disruptions at the mall in the weeks leading up to the melee, including hitting employees with plastic cups and threatening them. She reflected on the brawl with sadness and questioned the mall’s security.

“All I could think of is, ‘What if 400 people came together for something good?'” the employee wondered.

“It feels a little unsafe, just because there were a lot of them,” said Fatima Lara, an H&M sales associate who left work an hour before the brawl began. You never know what might happen if we try to stop one of them. We don’t know what they could do, so we won’t get involved.”

According to Paul Buddenhagen, Emeryville’s city manager, one teenager was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and released to their parent. Capt. Oliver Collins, the Emeryville police spokesman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Sunday, similar scenes played out in cities across the country as part of National Cinema Day, a promotion at many theaters that allowed moviegoers to purchase tickets to any film for just $4. The AMC corporation’s Bay Street 16 theatre complex took part in the promotion.

Fights erupted in the Los Angeles County city of Torrance, where more than 1,000 young people gathered at the Del Amo Fashion Center, which also houses an AMC movie theater. According to the Los Angeles Times, other incidents have been reported at movie theaters in Boston, Cicero, Illinois, Albany, New York, and Georgia.

However, a more definitive link between the brawl and the movie promotion remained elusive. AMC Theatres officials could not be reached for comment this week.

In a statement, the company that owns the Bay Street Emeryville property said it was “committed to the safety and well-being of our shoppers, employees, retailers, and residents,” adding that “we will continue to work… on actionable steps to ensure a safe environment and gathering place.” It did not say whether it planned to make any changes as a result of the brawl.

The Stanford Criminal Justice Center’s faculty co-director, Robert Weisberg, cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the weekend’s events.

While the “TikTok effect” — people seeing something on social media and wanting to replicate it — may be a factor in such cases, it remains to be seen how much of an impact social media has, he said.

“Mob activity like this is as old as the human race,” said Weisberg. Too many unknowns remain, he says, including what triggered the fighting and whether larger-scale societal factors were involved. “I’d be very, very wary of drawing conclusions here,” he added.

According to Greg Woods, a criminal justice lecturer at San Jose State University, social media and its ability to quickly connect technology-savvy teenagers and draw attention to a trending location may be a connective thread in some of the incidents.

Woods also wondered if the coronavirus pandemic had any unidentified impact on the social lives of teenagers. Pandemic lockdowns also coincided with critical developmental years as many teenagers approached adulthood.

“Perhaps we skewed their ability to be sociable because we demanded so much from a particular population that is by definition most sociable,” Woods speculated. “And they’re expressing themselves through these pockets of agitation.”

Public places in the region that draw large crowds of teenagers have had widely disparate reactions to previous instances of mayhem and violence.

In April, California’s Great America in Santa Clara announced that any guest under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult chaperone after 4 p.m. According to a social media post, the change was made in response to “increasing incidents of unruly and inappropriate behavior across our industry and at other major entertainment venues.”

Following a chaotic brawl of its own in May, the Contra Costa County Fair implemented a similar policy, requiring minors to be accompanied by adult chaperones at the popular Antioch event.

Lisa Hill, an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University-East Bay, argued that the fights should not be used to justify a crackdown on teenagers gathering in public, particularly by law enforcement. Rather, she said, the incidents highlight a clear need for parents to become more involved in their children’s lives and begin replacing social media as a “teacher” of social behavior.

“We’ll have to redirect kids away from social media and refocus them on pro-social activities,” Hill said. “This isn’t a police matter.” It’s a family matter. It’s a societal problem. It’s a community problem.”

Dylan Bouscher, a photojournalist with the Bay Area News Group, contributed to this report.

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