'Knockout game': Growing or not, black leaders are denouncing it

After recent random attacks in Northeastern cities that played on racial fears, Al Sharpton and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter are imploring African Americans to reject the 'knockout game.'

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File
Rev. Al Sharpton, seen here Nov. 16 in New York, recently joined Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in denouncing the so-called 'knockout game.'

Whether or not the “knockout game” is surging in popularity, and whether or not it is motivated by race – there appear to be no hard data supporting either contention currently popular in the blogosphere – prominent black leaders are leaving nothing to chance and are denouncing the phenomenon.

What is clear is that the game exists, with recent reported instances in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere in the Northeast. Victims say it is played in a flash: A man approaches and suddenly throws a punch, followed by more. Nearby, his friends film the attack. When the beating is done, the group scatters, taking no items of value. Some such attacks have been fatal.

Sometimes the “knockout game” is referred to as “polar bear hunting,” a name that suggests the perpetrators are mostly black and the victims white, giving rise to the racial intensity of allegations that the attacks are spreading.

So far, however, it’s not clear whether the phenomenon is growing at all, with police officials in New Jersey last week suggesting “there is no noticeable” trend to the attacks, and some commentators warning Americans against drawing hard racialized conclusions from partial, anecdotal, and sometimes contradictory crime data.

Yet the “knockout game” is already playing on racial fears and raising concern that bad behavior by a few will be used by some whites to reinforce stereotypes against broader swaths of the black community.

On Nov. 11, Philadelphian Mark Cumberland, who is white, reported being attacked by a group of black men. “There’s no reason at all,” he told CBS News. “I mean, I didn’t get robbed, they didn’t take nothing from me. They just beat me up.”

Last week New York police charged a man with a hate crime for beating up a Jewish man, while other police officials recounted several similar attacks, including one in Hoboken, that left victims dead.

“The proxy war for a host of racial agendas has a new rallying call,” writes columnist Will Wright on TheGrio.com

The phenomenon has become disturbing enough for black leaders to begin wrestling with its meaning, and fallout.

“If someone talked about knocking out blacks, we would not be silent,” MSNBC commentator Al Sharpton noted this weekend. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter addressed the issue on Monday, warning that city prosecutors will throw the book at anyone who plays the “knockout game.”

Responding to similar allegations of racialized violence and crime in the past, Mayor Nutter has put responsibility on black parents, a theme he sounded again on Monday.

“This is not a game. You can seriously injure or possibly kill someone,” Mr. Nutter said, addressing both black teenagers and their parents. “Your child’s life will be dramatically changed, and probably yours as well as a parent. So let’s cut out the nonsense. There are many other things that people can do to enjoy themselves. This is not one of them.”

To be sure, the knockout game, also called Knockout King, is hardly new, with researchers finding the first references to games involving cold-cocking random victims in 1895.

The lack of data conclusively tying the incidents to racism should preclude people from drawing inferences, Jeffrey Butts, a researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told a New York radio station on Monday, “because that encourages you to think about this as a racial behavior” when it may be more about “the age of the perpetrators … [and] social class.”

At the same time, police acknowledge that there appears to be at least a loose, social-media-driven pattern to some of the attacks. Experts say the game in its current guise may have originated in St. Louis with a group called “The Knockout Kings.” A judge in that city said that one defendant may have been part of 300 such attacks over a period of years.

The game may be gang-related, as well. One “knockout game” suspect told a local ABC News station in Denver that members earn street cred by “beating up white dudes.” To that effect, the man said, the gang targeted inebriated white men leaving bars and nightclubs late at night.

Such specifics are causing some black commentators to put aside concerns about political correctness in order to address a phenomenon with strong racist overtones.

“We can’t blame the ‘Knockout Game’ on racism,” writes Michael Cottman on BlackAmericaWeb.com. “This has nothing to do with racial profiling. It has nothing to do with Republicans or the Tea Party. It has nothing to do with white supremacists. It has nothing to do with ‘stand your ground’ laws. This is about an evil that has taken hold of some of our young black men, our sons, our children, and we are fighting for their souls. … [Black] America needs to take ownership of this problem – and figure it out – before it’s too late.”

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