Code Switch
3:14 am
Wed November 27, 2013

'The Knockout Game': An Old Phenomenon With Fresh Branding

Originally published on Wed November 27, 2013 3:00 pm

There are a few variations, but this is generally how "the knockout game" works: A teenager, or a bunch of teenagers, bored and looking for something to get into, spies some unsuspecting mark on the street. They size up the person, then walk up close to their target and — BLAM — punch him or her as hard as possible in an effort to knock the person out. The most brazen perpetrators even post the videos on sites like YouTube and Vine.

There are reports about "the knockout game" popping up all over the news. In St. Louis. In Hoboken, N.J. Brooklyn. Lansing, Mich.

In several instances, these attacks have been fatal. And they can be deeply and understandably traumatizing to victims.

Part of what unnerves people about this phenomenon is that it's described as a "game," a pastime of bored, delinquent young people. As Jamelle Bouie writes at The Daily Beast, "It's as if we're living in A Clockwork Orange, with our cities under siege by violent young men."

In a story in the Riverfront Times, a few young people said they'd participated in "knockout king" — one of the its various names — and said it was a pretty well-known activity in their neighborhood. (It's worth noting that this story is from two years ago. More on that in a second.)

Framing it as a game gives it a hook for the news media, but we already have a name for this type of thing: It's a random street assault, a terrible phenomenon, but not a new one. And the language that kids and the news media have latched onto makes it sound both sinister and casual. It dramatizes the behavior, perversely elevating it above the senseless street violence that happens every day and has happened for decades. (There were more than 750,000 assaults in 2011, according to the FBI.)

As Chris Ferguson, a psychologist who specializes in youth and violence, told the Riverfront Times, "For some reason everything involving teens gets called a game, no matter how little play behavior has to do with the motives."

There are plenty of good reasons to refer to this phenomenon simply as assault. For starters, the knockout game is pretty hard to distinguish, in cause and effect, from random attacks, according to the New York Times: "Police officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said 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."

And officials in both the New York Times and the Riverfront Times stories pushed back hard on framing this activity as a game. "A kid arrested for assault may tell authorities it was a game because he doesn't want to tell anyone what the fight was really about," one St. Louis city official told the Riverfront Times.

And again, in the NYT:

[Officials] cautioned that they had yet to see evidence of an organized game spreading among teenagers online, though they have been reluctant to rule out the possibility.

There is particular concern within the department that widespread coverage could create the atmosphere where such a "game" could take hold in New York.

The name of the "game" itself isn't very precise. In recent years, "knockout" has also been used to refer to a game in which a bunch of kids try to make themselves pass out.

Every few years, the "trend" of bored delinquents assaulting random strangers gets some new designation. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was "wilding." In the mid-aughts in the the U.K., it was "happy-slapping." In recent years, the news media in my hometown, Philadelphia, was filled with stories of "flash mobs." (Every report on knockout gives it a different name, too: "point 'em out, knock 'em out," "one-hitter quitter," "knockout king.")

In a few of these incarnations, as in this most recent one, there are racial dimensions to the phenomenon. The current "knockout game," "wilding" and "flash mobs" all ostensibly involve young black kids inflicting violence on arbitrary white folks because of their race. In fact, one of the knockout game's other alleged names is more gruesomely racialized: "polar bear hunting." And with this, too, we already have some terminology: An attack on someone because of his or her race is a "hate crime." (Indeed, one of the people indicted in an alleged incident of the knockout game was charged with a hate crime.)

The first reference we could find to "the knockout game" goes back to 1992, when the Boston Globe reported on a case in East Cambridge, Mass., in which several young men fatally stabbed an MIT student after playing "knockout." None of the principals in that story was black.

But treating the knockout game as a separate phenomenon from street assaults also posits it as an altogether new thing that's on the rise. It isn't.

Ferguson told us that violent crime, and violent crime by young folks in particular, is down. Way down. The rate of violent crime among young people has fallen by nearly two-thirds over the past two decades. "We are seeing a massive decline in our country — of course, being the U.S., we had the furthest to fall compared to other countries," Ferguson said. "There's been a remarkable decline of violence, rape — [even] bullying, as much as it gets attention."

Ferguson went on: "Youth today are about as well-behaved as we have on record," he says. (He said that violent crime committed by people over the age of 50 has fallen less dramatically.)

Ferguson said that giving crimes names — here "the knockout game" — also helps gives them narratives. And once we have those categories, we begin to apply that label to any instance that fits the pattern. Ferguson said that now random assaults are being retroactively tagged as examples of the knockout game.

"If the narrative didn't exist, then people wouldn't be thinking along those lines," Ferguson said.

Indeed, as several observers have pointed out, many of the videos and cases being discussed in the current furor over the knockout game are over a year old. That Riverfront Times story we linked to above is from 2011. So if this is a new trend, it's been a "new trend" for quite a while now.

The way we frame this type of incident deeply influences how we process this type of incident. So if these assaults aren't new, and we already have language for them, and the incidents happen with relative infrequency over large swaths of time and space, is there any value in calling it "the knockout game"?

UPDATE: Okay, folks. We don't want this conversation in the comments to get derailed by arguments over the Second Amendment. Just a heads-up about how we'll be moderating the comments.

And a few people have taken issue with my contention that 'treating the knockout game as a separate phenomenon from street assaults also posits it as an altogether new thing that's on the rise. It isn't.'

We do know that police officials in several big cities have expressed skepticism that this was fundamentally different from random street assaults:

But after the latest attack on Friday, the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies who offered comment to the New York Times said they were not convinced the attacks were all part of a viral game. "We're trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. ...

Police charged the suspect in Friday's attack with aggravated assault as a hate crime, so they're clearly taking it seriously. But even with that attack in the background, most of the cops who spoke [to the Times] did not support news stories declaring the game to be a growing national trend. Pittsburgh police characterized an attack there last year as a "random act of violence." And a police spokesman in Jersey City said of the game, "if there ever was an urban myth, this was it," after a victim of a random attack died there in September.

And we do know that violent attacks committed by strangers is also in steep decline. According to the Department of Justice, the rate of violent victimization committed by strangers has been plummeting since the early 1990s. If this is a thing, it's a thing that's part of an increasingly infrequent subset of crime. — G.D.

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