The video above shows a 16-year old woman in London being knocked out by an unknown assailant, ostensibly as part of a new game among teenagers called “knockout.” The way knockout works is you arbitrarily choose a person and try to knock him or her out with one punch. Or the way knockout works is you gather together a bunch of news stories about street violence involving young black men, and you present it as a disturbing trend along the lines of wilding or flash mob robberies. It’s hard to tell.
First of all, it goes without saying that playing knockout is reprehensible. Kombat! Kids: despite how I may have instructed you in the past, do not go out and perpetrate random acts of violence against strangers. Human beings are not objects for your subjective amusement. Even though it seems hilarious to arbitrarily cold cock somebody—and it becomes undeniably more so when you watch it on video—that joke is only funny in the second and third person. When it happens to you, it is a life-altering trauma.
Fortunately, I guess, I’m not sure the knockout game is happening at all. You will note that the title of the embedded video above is “Blacks bring White knockout game to London.” The Wikipedia page for the knockout game also specifies that it is a “violent activity played by black teenagers,” and lists as its only examples a 1992 stabbing and a fatal beating in St. Louis in 2011. Both cases involved young black men who attacked immigrants. In neither case did anyone try to knock out the victim with a single punch.
I first encountered news of the knockout game in this article from Cleveland’s Kiss FM affiliate, posted by one Java Joel. Between the picture and the name, Java Joel is perhaps the funniest Kiss FM DJ imaginable. You will notice that his news source here is Ebaum’s World, an aggregator of funny internet videos regularly accused of putting its bug on other people’s work. The Baltimore Sun it ain’t.
Still, the video looks pretty convincing. It contains a bunch of black high school students with blurry faces talking about how knockout is totally a real thing that you do for fun. Another thing you might do for fun is put on an interviewer when he asks if people like you are wilding in the streets just knocking people out, but that is conjecture. The problem with the knockout game is that we cannot know whether it is a real, tangible indicator of the disintegration of empathy in American culture or merely a racist news fantasy.
An awful part of me wants to believe knockout is real, because that part of me likes to read news stories and become outraged. It’s the same part that makes me click on any news item with Michele Bachmann in the headline. A certain demographic has always loved stories about how everyone is stupid and venal and society is going to hell. Because this is America, we tell those stories about black people.
Remember the urban super-predator? These “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” were ostensibly responsible for waves of senseless violence in the mid-1990s, at a moment when violent crime had in fact reached a historic low. The super-predator is now regarded as a media myth, but at the time it was the stuff of Newsweek cover stories. It expressed the fear and declinism of a nation, and we bought it.
Consider the similarities between the urban super-predator and the knockout game. Both feature black youth who ignore societal standards re: violence. Both center on a handful of crimes and a lot of anecdotal evidence, much of it provided by children. And both emphasize that the black youth in question do not prey on each other—which would make more sense—but rather on unsuspecting white people.
Unless you identify more strongly with another group that dislikes black people, in which case the game is actually called “knock out the Jew.” That’s what Rabbi Yaacov Behrman says is happening in Crown Heights, where the black and Jewish communities have been at odds since the late eighties. There is no doubt in my mind that virtually everyone in Crown Heights is racist as shit. But when I hear that the new fad among black teenagers—the most vilified group in America—is committing random acts of violence against strangers for no personal gain, a bell goes off in my head.
Who can say, though? I always assumed that society would collapse in to barbarism sooner or later, and maybe this is it. Perhaps I will pass my old age with a foam block around my head so that I can go to the grocery store without being knocked out and then jumped over with hoverboards. I guess the difference between me and the news, though, is that when I picture that scenario not everyone is black.