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Random Street Assaults: Are They Part Of A Larger Game?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In the last few weeks, depending on what you're been watching or reading, you may have heard about the so-called knockout game.


MARTIN: And, again, depending on your source, you might have different feelings about it. You might be afraid to walk down a city street or you might have already decided the whole story is a hoax. NPR's Gene Demby is the lead blogger on the Code Switch team here at NPR. He's with us in the studio to help sort it out. Hi, Gene.


MARTIN: So, let's start off by just defining this. What is this thing called the knockout game?

DEMBY: This is the way the knockout game is typically described. Some teenagers who are bored and looking to get into some trouble, point some hapless mark out on the street. They punch him or her as hard as possible in an attempt to knock them out. And then if they don't knock them out, they stomp that person until they're unconscious and then they run away.

MARTIN: And the goal is not to rob someone.

DEMBY: No. And there's also supposedly a social media component to it. These kids are attacking people and then uploading videos of these assaults to YouTube or Vine or some other video site like that.

MARTIN: Is this really happening?

DEMBY: There's a bunch of things we have to hold in our hands, right? The New York Times interviewed a (unintelligible) police chief who said that there's no evidence that this is a thing that's on the increase, although they would not rule it out. We also know that generally and for about two decades, violent crime, including assaults, have been going down. They've been sliding pretty dramatically. And there's not a lot of hard evidence that this is happening because we already have a name for this thing, We call them random street assaults. There's no way to distinguish between, say, a random street assault and what's supposedly an instance of the knockout game.

MARTIN: Depending on what kind of media you are absorbing, that could be affecting your perception of what this is, this phenomenon?

DEMBY: Right. The knockout game is, in a lot of tellings, a racialized game, in which young black men attack unsuspecting white people. There is a pretty sizeable part of the conservative blogosphere that has stumped for the existence of the knockout game for some time. Tom Flaherty, who works for World Net Daily, has catalogued what he sees as instances of the knockout game. And to be clear, there are kids who say they participated in games similar to this and they call it different things: the knockout game, point them out, knock them out, knockout king.

MARTIN: And that is being blown out of proportion or that's being represented differently in different media?

DEMBY: Depending on which media you consume, you get a very different story. One other thing that's important to note is that while people say this is on the rise, there are very few YouTube videos of this apparently happening, which is part of the phenomenon that we're supposedly - it's part of what's supposedly driving this trend. When you watch local news and you see coverage of the knockout game, you'll see the same security camera clips running over and over of kids attacking someone. But there isn't a lot of evidence of it happening online.

MARTIN: And this is something you've been writing about on the Code Switch blog. And I understand you noticed something happening in the comment section of the blog that is instructive. Can you explain what you saw there?

DEMBY: People have had experiences of being violently attacked randomly without apparent motivations around theft or robbery. These are really traumatic experiences. One commenter in particular talked about being actually in the area of the NPR building here and being assaulted as he walked down the street by a bunch of black teenagers. And he wanted to know what that was about. Why this happened to him. And he wanted the police to prosecute it and to look into it as part of a larger phenomenon. And that's part of the narrative question, right? It's the question about whether this is a thing that is happening...

MARTIN: Is it a phenomenon?

DEMBY: Is it a phenomenon and not just something we're treating differently because we have a name for it.

MARTIN: What does a story like this, one that connects crime and race, what does it say about how we as individuals view crime, crime statistics, depending on our experience?

DEMBY: It's really hard to separate our own traumas from larger social trends. How do you say to someone who has been assaulted on the street that this did not happen the way they perceived it to happen, right? If there's a general idea that young black men are unruly and criminal, right, then you can understand why people might extend a kind of credulousness to stories that may not have a lot of - they may be really specious, right. They may not have a lot of evidence to back them up as trends.

MARTIN: But if it fits with your preconception...

DEMBY: Right. And not just of young black men but of teenagers, right? If you turn on the local news and you see that teenagers are out of control and they're doing this thing on social media, you could understand why someone might say, oh my gosh, this is the thing that's happening and why they might look at the story skeptically.

MARTIN: What's the lesson here?

DEMBY: I guess it's more of a question: what do we gain by calling this thing the knockout game, right? What is the benefit in assigning this nomenclature to it? Why doesn't random street assault work, right? And that's the thing we should be thinking about.

MARTIN: NPR's Gene Demby. He is the lead blogger at the NPR Code Switch team. Gene, thanks so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.