Brooklyn attack arrest: Is 'knockout game' a hate crime?

Growing reports of the 'knockout game' are forcing police to take a closer look at racial motivations while also being careful to not spark copycat attacks.

Mark Lennihan/AP
There have been several incidents of teenagers assaulting random passersby in Brooklyn, shown here, and other cities around the country. Police suspect that the assaults are part of a "knockout game" that has popped up in several cities around the country.

Hate crime charges against a black Brooklyn man for assaulting a white man could raise the stakes over what to do about the so-called “knockout game,” where primarily young black men surprise white victims with a rain of punches – sometimes for a $5 bet.

Police have been receiving reports that indicate a wave of “knockout game” incidents primarily in the Northeast, and some police are now beginning to draw connections between individual reports.  “I think it’s very real,” Sgt. Tom Connellan told the New York Times. “As opposed to a motive for assault, be it anger or robbery, this is strictly for a game.”

The apparent object of the game is to pick an unsuspecting victim and knock them out with a punch. The perpetrators are often described as ethically challenged teenagers, but the potential racial element has begun to be noticed more broadly by community leaders in places like Brooklyn.

Quoted by a local TV news station, Brooklyn Rabbi Yaacov Behrmann said that he believes the assaults are part of “a disturbing game by some African-American teens.”

Some experts insist the game is a “myth” that attempts to correlate unrelated attacks into a pattern with racial overtones. Parents of teens have referred to the attacks as “pranks” that spiral out of control. Police have also been reluctant to make too big of a deal about the attacks, concerned about creating the atmosphere for copy cat crimes.

But others contend there’s a buzz among youth about the game, and troubling instances seem to be cropping up with more regularity, according to some police sources. Police, too, have begun to respond in a more organized way, with some jurisdictions beefing up patrols and increasingly exploring hate crime charges.

Earlier this month, three Hoboken teenagers were charged with murder for killing a homeless man during an apparent “knockout game” attack. Police officials in Syracuse said the city had seen two such attacks this year, both of which were fatal.  New York police this week reported seven instances of the “knockout game” in recent weeks.

Some media organizations have compiled dozens of examples of the game in recent years, and a St. Louis judge recently suggested that one man had attacked unsuspecting pedestrians 300 times.

“We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”

Given the extent to which such racialized attacks fit into broader societal stereotypes about young black men, police are treading carefully.

Moreover, fears of black mob violence against whites dovetails into broader political sentiments simmering in the US, where concerns are rising in some quarters about officials and media turning a blind eye to such attacks in order to not stir up racial trouble.

Moreover, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman, resulted in a drawn-out debate over racial stereotypes, especially those involving young black men.

 “There’s an element to who wants to see this through the lens of race,” Jeffrey Butts, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, told the New York Times.  He added that the appearance of black knockout game players triggers “racial alarms.”

Nevertheless, the new hate crime charges in the Brooklyn attack may be a turning point for police and prosecutors.

In the Brooklyn case, a 24-year-old Jewish man told police he overheard a group of black men talking about the knockout game before he was attacked. Police subsequently charged a man named Marajh Amrit with two counts of a hate crime and third degree assault. Police had first said the attackers were part of an inebriated birthday festivity.

Given that several of the victims in the New York attacks have been Jewish, the city’s Hate Crime Task Force is looking at filing more hate crime charges – if they can bring the perpetrators to justice.

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