"If you have all black kids attacking only white people, how can you think it's not racially motivated?" asks Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
He says that, as a black man, "I'm appalled." But as a cop, Ross says, he needs evidence that thugs chose victims based on racial hate to call it more.
Two readers weighing in on the long, ugly history of flash mobs in the city may have met before.
Antonne M. Jones, a writer and publisher from Moorestown, roamed Center City in the late 1980s from the periphery of a "wolf pack" called O.C.P., for "Organized Crime Posse."
Jane Piecuch was a "wolf pack" victim in the summer of 1988.
"It started out innocently," Jones, 39, tells me at a Starbucks on Chestnut Street near the group's old stomping grounds. The posse walked to South Street seeking action.
"They had a term, 'clocking wigs,' that meant hitting someone in the head," he recalls with shame and disgust. "They preyed on women, whites, and Asians."
Jones says he never joined the violence, thinking the gang cowardly for its cruelty.
"They were selective," driven less by hating whites than wanting to feel superior to weaker, vulnerable strangers, he explains. "If they saw anyone who could defend themselves or pose a threat, they wouldn't do anything."
That may explain how idealistic 20-something Jane Piecuch found herself surrounded one night that summer by an all-black mob near 13th and South Streets.
"I don't want to show I'm afraid, I don't want to be some cowering white woman," she recalls thinking. So she kept walking.
"It seemed cool" until a kid grabbed her necklace and punched her in the jaw. "Everything in me switched and I just ran."
The fine line of a hate crime
Jones says the O.C.P. fell apart after so-called leaders - including a guy ironically nicknamed "White Mike" - received prison sentences. Jones had arrests for drug dealing but went on to write The Family: A Philadelphia Mob Story, a black-on-black crime saga credited with spawning the 'street lit' genre.
These days, writing safely from the suburbs, he's finishing a screenplay based on his book about the Lex Street massacre. "I don't believe because of your upbringing you have to turn out a certain way."
Piecuch planted her roots in Northwest Philadelphia.
"I'm a little more cautious, but not afraid," contends the mother of a Masterman student. She wonders "what makes an 11-year-old out for no good from the get-go? Is this the beginning of the end for him?"
Despite the obvious, her predators couldn't have been charged with a hate crime. Neither could any of the seven people charged in two recent flash mob attacks, or those caught in similar assaults last spring and last year.
"With ethnic intimidation," Ross explains, "you need someone saying something racial while committing this violent act, or a confession or conspiracy."
Racial hatred must be the criminal motivation to slap the harsh ethnic-intimidation label atop assault and rioting charges, adds Tasha Jamerson of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. "You have to prove intent."
Digging through the archives, I spy one "wolf pack" case that initially cleared that high hurdle.
In the fall of 1989, five white men terrorized Society Hill, shouting vicious slurs at black and Hispanic combatants.
The assailants stood accused of ethnic intimidation but the charge didn't stick.
A note: Last Sunday's column referred to lawyer William Sasso's January testimony to the grand jury investigating clergy sex abuse. Sasso appeared before the group to explain that former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was too ill with cancer and dementia to testify.
The 2011 grand jury report released soon after stated that Sasso "testified that he has not seen the Cardinal at a public event for nearly three years." I found this curious, since a newspaper report showed Sasso and Bevilaqua at the same La Salle University gala in March 2009. Via e-mail, Sasso acknowledged the inconsistency saying, "With your reminder, I did recall seeing him" at the La Salle event.
Last week, Sasso's attorney, Richard Sprague, provided The Inquirer with a transcript of his testimony. A reading of the transcript suggests the grand jury report mischaracterized his remarks.
After being asked the last time he'd seen Bevilacqua at a public event, Sasso told jurors, "two or three years ago he appeared at an event where one of his close personal friends was being honored by La Salle University."
The District Attorney's Office declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, email@example.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.