From City of Philadelphia YouTube video.
Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey denounce "Knockout Game."
Earlier this week, a reader tweeted: "Any chance @danieldenvir does a story how somehow black people don't pay for the bus if the driver if [sic] black?!? NO CHANCE!!!!"
It's true. The odds are quite low.
But other media outlets have recently jumped onto a racially loaded story of dubious factuality: the "Knockout Game," the supposed trend of assaulting a stranger with the goal of knocking him or her out with a single punch.
Yesterday, Mayor Michael Nutter lent an assist, holding a press conference to denounce the game (though not by name).
"We're here today to address an issue which has received a pretty decent amount of national media attention lately, and this is people randomly assaulting innocent citizens in public places," Nutter said last night at City Hall.
But it's totally unclear whether the Knockout Game actually exists — and there's even less evidence that it's a growing trend. Indeed, at the very same press conference, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that he didn't know whether a single such incident had taken place in Philly.
"It's occurred in other cities," Ramsey said. "We suspect it's occurred here. But to what extent, I really don't know. But I do know that it's not something that is that widespread, but we're trying to prevent it from becoming widespread by taking action at this point in time."
Police in other cities, the New York Times reports, say "that the 'game' amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred."
There are also concerns that a media frenzy could actually create copycats. But Nutter struggled to explain the issue's relevance to Philadelphia:
"We've not seen significant activity in this regard. On the other hand, I'm not going to ignore the fact that some people whether they're here or not but as sometimes — unfortunately, these things spread across the United States, and certainly with social media and the ability of people to even film some of this stuff and put it up on the various social media outlets — I thought it important to send a strong and clear message to both young people, adults and parents alike."
So much for a clear message. But The Inquirer, Daily News, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, WHYY and even the Christian Broadcasting Network covered the event.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Jeffrey Butts told the Times that it might be a case of race-based hysteria.
"There's an element to who wants to see this through the lens of race."
Indeed, it has been conservatives like National Review contributor Thomas Sowell who have fanned the flames.
"The main reason for many people's surprise is that the mainstream media have usually suppressed news about the 'knockout game' or about other and larger forms of similar orchestrated racial violence in dozens of cities in every region of the country," Sowell writes, before continuing into mind-bogglingly dangerous territory. "Responsible people of all races need to support a crackdown on these attacks, which can provoke a white backlash that can escalate into a race war."
Notably, in a recent Northeast Philadelphia attack, both the victim and alleged perpetrators were white. And while police initially said it was part of the Knockout Game, they now say that they simply don't know.
Blogger Alan Noble traces the hysteria back to Colin Flaherty, a prolific reporter, Noble says, "of what he calls 'black mob violence' for WorldNetDaily — the notoriously deceptive, far-right news and opinions site. His schtick is simple: Every time he finds a report of black 'mob' violence or black-on-white violence, he writes about it."
The book he wrote on the topic, popular in conservative circles, is called "White Girl Bleed A Lot."
Just two years ago, Philly was beset by "flash mobs." Disconcertingly, the media used the term to refer to a wide range of rather varied activities: violent street assaults, mass shoplifting excursions, or even just hundreds of kids massing (a few violently) in the middle of South Street. I wrote about it for The Atlantic Cities here.
The obsession with (potentially make-believe) black-on-white mass-violence memes can have dangerous consequences. In late-1980s New York, the media eagerly reported on something called "wilding," supposedly when a group of black and Latino youths would attack strangers. The specter of wilding swirled around the wrongful prosecution of five men for the brutal rape of the Central Park Jogger. The phenomenon turned out to probably not exist, and the term "wilding" was traced back to a single police officer's statement.
What's new today is that the assaults are sometimes recorded on smartphones. In that case, we need to look at the broader issue of how young people interact with social media rather than jumping on every new urban-violence meme — wilding! flash mobs! Knockout Game! — as they land on the evening news.
The greatest epidemic of violence in Philadelphia, of course, takes place amongst young black men in the city's poorest, most segregated neighborhoods. The conversation about what is needed to fix this issue—job creation, poverty alleviation, school improvement, desegregation, and aggressive violence prevention and mediation—is perhaps boring to your average viewer. And so it is only when violence crosses into white neighborhoods that it becomes a media sensation.
Instead of dealing with the underlying issues that fuel violence, the media prefers to create racially loaded collective dread (remember Philadelphia Magazine's "Being White in Philly"?).
The attacks, whatever they are, are clearly disturbing. But random violence against strangers is, sadly, nothing new. The media and Mayor Nutter should think twice before saying otherwise.
"Let's cut out the nonsense," Nutter said yesterday. "There are many other things that people can do to enjoy themselves. This is not one of them."
Indeed, it might not even be something people do at all.
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