MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — As bystanders pointed their smartphone cameras at the riverside wharf as several white boatmen beat up a black co-captain of a riverboat, little did they know the footage would provoke a national conversation about racial solidarity.
But a week after multiple videos showing the outnumbered co-captain’s now-infamous brawl and valiant defense were widely shared on social media, it’s clear the event really tapped into Black America’s psyche and sparked a wider cultural moment created.
Andrea Boyles, a sociology professor at Tulane University, said a long history of anti-black racism and attacks and current events likely magnified the attack’s impact and response.
“Especially at a time like now where we’re seeing an increase in anti-black racism through legislation and otherwise, whether we’re thinking about history, banning black history and curricula and all sorts of things in the state of Florida” and elsewhere, Boyles said. “So that’s why it’s at the forefront of people’s minds. And people are very aware, black people in particular.”
Many see the August 5 ordeal on the riverbank in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital city steeped in civil rights history, as a long overdue response to countless calls for help that went unanswered for black victims of violence and mob attacks in Past.
“We witnessed a white mob doing this to him,” said Michelle Browder, an artist and social justice entrepreneur in Montgomery, who describes the attack by boaters on the co-captain of the Black Riverboat.
“I call it a crowd because that’s what it was, it was a crowd mentality,” she added. “It then became a moment because you saw black people get together.”
After being inundated with images and stories of deadly violence against black people, including motorists at traffic checkpoints, church parishioners and grocery stores, Montgomery’s video struck a chord because it didn’t end in the worst results for black Americans.
“For Montgomery to have this moment, we had to see a victory. We had to see our community come together and we had to see justice,” Browder said.
Videos of the brawl showed the participants were largely divided along racial lines. Several white men punched or shoved the co-captain of the black riverboat after he brought a separate vessel to shore and attempted to move their pontoon boat. The white boaters’ private ship was docked at a spot designated for the city-owned riverboat Harriott II, on which more than 200 passengers were waiting to disembark.
The videos then showed mostly black people rushing to the defense of the co-captain, including a black teen crew member swimming to the dock. The videos also showed the ensuing brawl where a black man hit a white man with a folding chair.
As of Friday, Alabama police had charged four whites with assault. The man with a folding chair turned himself in on Friday and was charged with disorderly conduct.
Jim Kittrell, the captain of Harriott II, told The Daily Beast that he thought race might have been a factor in the initial attack on his co-captain, but the resulting fight wasn’t a “black and white thing”.
“This was our crew being angry about these idiots,” Kittrell also told the WACV radio station.
He later explained that several members of his crew, having witnessed the confrontation with the pontoon boat party after the riverboat docked, “felt they had to retaliate, which was a shame.”
“I wish we could have prevented it, but when you see something like that, it was hard. It was hard for me to sit there in the wheelhouse watching him get attacked,” Kittrell told the station.
Kittrell told The Associated Press over the phone that the city had asked him not to talk about the brawl.
Major Saba Coleman of the Montgomery Police Department said Tuesday that hate crime allegations were ruled out after the department consulted with the local FBI. But several observers noted that the presence, or lack thereof, of a hate motivation on the part of the pontoon boat party was not why the event caught on so strongly.
“All these individuals with smartphones and cameras have democratized media and information. In the past, it was a very narrow scope of what news was reported and from what perspectives,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.
The technology, Johnson added, “opened up an opportunity for America as a whole to understand the impact of racism, the impact of violence, and the opportunity to create a narrative more consistent with keeping African Americans safe.” and other communities.”
The riverside brawl spawned a multitude of memes, jokes, parodies, reenactments, and even T-shirts. “Lift every chair and swing,” read a shirt in a play on “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” the late 1800s hymn known as the Black National Anthem.
Another meme compared the co-captain’s tossing his hat to sending the “bat signal,” a reference to the DC Comics character Batman. An image of the scene captured on bystander video has been altered to imitate Marvel Comics’ Avengers characters assembling through magical portals on the dock to defend the black co-captain.
Many social media observers were quick to point out the importance of the city and the location where the brawl took place. Montgomery was the first capital of the Confederacy, and the riverfront is an area where enslaved people were once unloaded to be sold at auction. The area is a few blocks from where Rosa Parks was arrested for disobeying bus segregation rules.
“A lot of (the reaction to the riverside brawl) is emblematic of Montgomery’s history,” said Timothy Welbeck, the director of the Center for Anti-Racism at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“This is the birthplace of the bus boycott; this is today the cradle of intense racial segregation and various forms of resistance,” he said. “Even when there was no explicit mention of race, many people saw a white man attacking a black man as a proxy for some of the racist behavior they’ve seen before. It also brought about a sense of solidarity and a united destiny at this particular moment.
Then there is the lingering trauma of seeing black victims of past violence and mob attacks without help or intervention. This was the rare occurrence where bystanders not only captured the moment, but were able to step in and help someone they saw being a victim.
In other notable cases, such as the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, bystanders were restrained because the perpetrators were law enforcement officers. In a video of Floyd’s encounter with police, filmed by black bystander Darnella Frazier, people can be heard pleading for the black man’s life as he gasps with a white officer’s knee pressed to his neck.
Physical intervention in Minneapolis would have provoked arrests and endangered the would-be rescuers themselves.
Historically, victims of lynching were often taken away from their families because the black community was forced to watch in silence. Emmett Till’s relatives in Mississippi were haunted by their inability to stop the white men who kidnapped and killed him.
Bowder, the Montgomery artist, said the conversation should continue.
“I’m hoping for a message of hope from this,” she said.
Katrina Hazzard, a professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, said she has seen that message of hope in the comments of support that have crossed racial and ethnic lines in identifying the aggressors and the right for people to defend himself and the crew member.
“That was just refreshing for me to see and for me to hear across the board,” she said.
Aisha I. Jefferson reported from Chicago and Aaron Morrison, who reported from New York, is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. AP reporter Gary Fields contributed from Washington, DC