Affluenza Bullies Are No Anomaly
By Jim Knipfel
In the early 1990s, young professional couples and affluent creative types began emigrating en masse from Manhattan to Park Slope, Brooklyn, the traditionally middle-class brownstone neighborhood bordering Prospect Park. The comparatively cheap real estate and negligible crime rate were part of the attraction, as was its proximity to a number of subway lines that could get them back into Manhattan in fifteen minutes. More importantly, the number of private schools, parks, playgrounds, and cultural institutions in the area made it the perfect place to raise a family, which is exactly what most of these young couples set to doing. As word began to spread, more young, wealthy couples relocated to the neighborhood, and more precocious children with very bright futures were born.
Over the next twenty years, Park Slope earned itself two very different reputations. To the people who lived there, it was a safe haven, a secure island away from the mean streets where they (or their Jamaican nannies) could raise their children in peace, security, and a culturally rich atmosphere (at least after all the Hispanics were nudged out). It was a place where nervous and busy parents could send their kids off to school in the morning without concern, knowing they'd be among their own every step of the way, while remaining a neighborhood with enough designer boutiques and haute cuisine bistros to satisfy their cosmopolitan instincts.
To outsiders, however, it became NYC's capital of upscale, smug self-satisfaction, where overstressed, overprotective mothers wielded triple-wide strollers down the sidewalk like pieces of armored military equipment, where children with names like "Thelonius" and "Camille" were raised with an overweening sense of entitlement and importance, and where anyone who said anything to the contrary might well be accused of hate speech.
So there was a certain sense of glee among outsiders and unbridled horror and panic among the residents when the news broke this safe and secure fortress of affluent white privilege had somehow been punctured. Late in 2015 the first reports appeared that a small gang of boys in their early to mid-teens had been prowling the local parks and playgrounds, cornering and intimidating local kids of the same age, forcing them to turn over their iPhones. By mid-February, over half a dozen such robberies had been reported, all with the same m.o., and all the victims had been 12- or 13-year-olds from the neighborhood. No one had been hurt in the incidents (though in one case one of the assailants had banged a crowbar on the sidewalk to make his point), but this sort of violation was unheard of and unacceptable in Park Slope. Parents groups began demanding answers from the cops of the local 78th Precinct. Obviously this was the work of poor, frustrated, angry and colored street urchins with no moral guidance, who'd come over from Bed Stuy or Brownsville to prey on children who had it a little better than they did. While the parents emphasized that they could certainly understand this sort of behavior, they could perhaps sympathize more fully if said street urchins stayed in their own neighborhoods where they belonged. So why couldn't the NYPD stop this obscene crime spree against their children? The young ruffians they were after would certainly be easy enough to spot on the sidewalk.
Then on the afternoon of February 23rd, an officer from the 78th received a report that the eighth such cellphone robbery had just occurred outside of J. J. Byrne Park, near P.S. 51. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the park had been the notorious home of drug dealers, crackheads and five dollar hookers, but in the ensuing years, given its proximity to the school, it had been revamped into a clean and tidy family fun place, making the recent crimes all that more unfathomable to locals. Shortly after the responding officer found him on the sidewalk near the park, the young victim in this most recent instance was able to point out three of the five boys who had surrounded him and taken his phone.
Cops and local parents alike were shocked and dismayed to learn the 13- and 14-year-old phone-thieving bullies were not in fact underprivileged minority children from a distant housing complex, but the lily-white sons of lawyers, doctors, and investment counselors who lived right there in renovated $3 million brownstones.
At a recent community council meeting packed with jittery, disbelieving parents, 78th Precinct Commander Capt. Frank DiGiacomo confirmed, "Most of the kids are from good families. They weren't coming from bad areas around the city." He also assured the gathered parents that the boys in custody likely weren't the same group involved in another similar youth-on-youth robbery on Prospect Park West near 14th Street. The hooligans in that instance had used a fake gun, and though he didn't say so explicitly the hint was certainly there that the boys who'd been arrested weren't exactly the type who'd ever dare venture south of 9th Street.
Amid all the hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing that followed the shocking revelation, the obvious questions arose: How could such a thing have happened in Park Slope? These were good kids with good parents, kids who'd never wanted for anything. If they wanted a new cellphone, why didn't they just ask for one instead of doing what they did? There had even been some reports of youngsters smoking marijuana in that park! What was going on? Did it have something to do with all that hippity hop music their kids were listening to? It makes no sense whatsoever!
But this hardly represents any kind of unprecedented social breakdown or Milennial Reckoning, as some would have it. History has provided a rich and wide-ranging menagerie of privileged children growing up with no moral compass who, filled with a sense of invincibility and entitlement, decide to do bad things to people simply because they can. Consider the Marquis de Sade, Gilles de Rais, Leopold and Loeb, or even the more recent and highly publicized case of Ethan Couch. Bad, spoiled rich kids who've never encountered disappointment or discipline within their own families have always been with us and always will be.
There is little reason to worry about the fancy boys in Park Slope, however. Unlike those earlier cases, nothing will ever happen to them and they will in all likelihood grow up to be doctors, lawyers and investment counselors just like their parents. In fact the present evidence seems to indicate they'll likely be even more successful.
In the meantime, and under no little pressure from local residents, the 78th Precinct has promised to step up round-the clock police patrols in the parks and playgrounds, as well as on the streets of the neighborhood proper, in order to protect residents from the children they created.
Published March 9th, 2016
Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.