Ever since the “knockout game” exploded into the public consciousness last month, opinions have differed widely on what it is, when it started, or whether it even actually exists outside of a few high-profile incidents that have attracted national attention over the past two months.
But several interracial communities in Brooklyn, N.Y., are undeniably in the grips of a wave of brutal, fist-borne violence, and the trend has some observers recalling the dark days of the 1991 Crown Heights riots with a mix of fear, outrage and sadness.
Repeated attacks by black youths on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn's key Jewish enclaves, including the Crown Heights and Midwood neighborhoods, have sparked widespread concern within the insular religious community. And other racial groups have recently begun to feel that same paranoia, as just last week a young, gay black man was savagely beaten by Orthodox Jews in South Williamsburg, and there have been recent reports of black-on-black assaults as well.
The NYPD, local politicians and Brooklyn residents have yet to come to a consensus on which of the attacks were related to the so-called knockout game or even how many such incidents have taken place. They also disagree about whether the majority of the attacks -- which typically involve youths sneaking up on people and punching them in the head to impress their friends and inflict pain without committing further crimes like robbery or sexual assault -- are motivated by hate, or if most of them are just random acts by bored kids looking for excitement.
One major reason why many leaders are wary of making too much of the assaults or prematurely lumping them together under a salacious, made-for-TV moniker is that they are deeply aware of the real possibility that a temporary concern could become a persistent scourge if it is not handled responsibly. City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who has made the reduction of violence in his Brooklyn district, particularly gun-related violence, a central issue of his public life, says that the assailants need to be held accountable for their actions but that it is vital that community leaders of all backgrounds have an ongoing dialogue about the best way to stop the attacks without inspiring copycats and increasing tensions. His comments are informed by a strong awareness that racial friction endures as a latent issue in America's inner cities, and that any heightened discord could reignite dormant animosities.
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“We need to step back so we can take control of the perception of it, take stock of what the perception is versus the reality. People are getting hurt, it's foolishness, and it’s got to stop,” Williams told International Business Times. “But I don’t want to add things to it that fuel the fire … If there is an assumption out there that these are [racially motivated attacks] we have to address that perception because perception becomes reality.”
Still, there’s definitely something going on in Brooklyn, and the “knockout game” phenomenon -- whatever it is -- has struck to the core of the borough’s tenuous harmony. It threatens to reopen old wounds and challenge the hard-earned gains made in the ongoing effort to unite the more than 2.5 million people of vastly diverse backgrounds who’ve made one 81.8-square-mile segment of Long Island’s far western tip their home.
Brooklyn’s official motto translates from the Dutch to “In unity there is strength,” and that proud sense of togetherness is being challenged by an unrelenting barrage of unprovoked, impromptu assaults that has descended on communities across the nation.
Word on the street
Crown Heights is best known for the riots bearing its name that broke out in August 1991 after a car driven by an adherent of the black hat-wearing Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect of Orthodox Judaism got into an accident that left a 7-year-old Guyanese boy, Gavin Cato, dead on a Utica Avenue sidewalk where he had been fixing his bicycle. Onlookers virulently disputed the events precipitating and following his tragic death, and within hours, a group of about 20 black youths descended on 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student visiting from Australia, in the street and beat and stabbed him to death. The neighborhood descended into chaos for the next three days in a violent racial conflict that took years for residents to put behind them.
Today Crown Heights is still populated by a diverse assemblage of Hasidic Jews, African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans, often starkly segregated block by block. But a recent influx of young white professionals and posh eateries, bars and art galleries is gentrifying the neighborhood and crowding out the mom-and-pop stores and bodegas that once lined thoroughfares like Franklin and Nostrand avenues.
Until the yuppies arrived, Crown Heights was long plagued by drug dealing, drive-by shootings and gang crime, but there were relatively few incidents of random violence against or within the Jewish community there. That sense of peace in the Hasidic community in Crown Heights has been shattered over the past several months as a series of attacks against local Jews has left local Hasids afraid to walk the streets of their own neighborhood for fear of being viciously assaulted. The NYPD failed to respond to requests for an official count of these so-called knockout game attacks, and a spokesperson for the department would only offer a platitude: “I’ll let you know that we investigate all claims of assaults.” But a Brooklyn police source said that “every few days I hear about a new attack. No real way to stop it.”
As a Jewish Brooklynite who represents the heavily Orthodox districts of Borough Park and Midwood, City Councilman David G. Greenfield has his ear to the ground in those neighborhoods, and he confirmed what many of their residents, along with those of Crown Heights, have to say about the rising violence and its impacts on the community. Greenfield said that about a dozen “knockout-style” attacks against Jews have occurred in the three neighborhoods since the beginning of November, with three taking place in Midwood in the first 13 days of December alone.
“There’s a lot of concern there because there’s been a lot of documented ‘knockout’ attacks over in those communities, all of which were against Orthodox Jews,” he told IBTimes last week. “It’s a crime of irrational violence, and that’s why it’s engendered such fear … If you’re not a very big guy like me, you’re afraid of walking home, that at any point you could get knocked out.”
The Brooklyn police source confirmed that reading of the mood in the borough’s Jewish communities, saying, “I think it might be racially motivated because they keep going after Jews … I think the Jews are worried about it to some extent. I do hear them talking about it a lot.”
Greenfield qualified his comments by saying that “we’ve come a long way since the Crown Heights [riot] days and the Jewish and black communities have made a lot of progress.” However, he said, “My own relatives tell me they’re afraid to walk outside.”
Their fears appear to be warranted, as the attacks have targeted a wide swath of the Jewish population, from a 12-year-old Orthodox boy who was hit in the head while walking to Hebrew school in Crown Heights, to a 76-year-old Russian Jewish woman who was punched in the back of the head while walking to a Jewish community center in Southeast Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood on Nov. 25.
To get an idea of how random many of the crimes appear to be, click "play" below to watch a video obtained by CrownHeights.info depicting Shmuel Perl, a 24-year-old Orthodox Jewish man, allegedly being nonchalantly punched in the face by Amrit Marajh, 28, moments after Perl says he overheard Marajh being dared by his friends to hit him.
A state of resigned fear seems to be fairly common among Jewish Crown Heights residents, like 20-year-old student Jesse, who declined to provide his last name.
“It’s scary to keep hearing about this. My friend went to see one of the guys who got knocked out and he was really bruised up,” he told IBTimes. “We are very concerned about it, for sure.”
An evolving threat
For months, the perpetrators of the “knockout-style” attacks were mostly black youths targeting Jewish folks. But that has changed to some degree in recent weeks, as the participants’ races have become less predictable, raising fears among some observers that the phenomenon has morphed into something bigger than a one-sided street game, and perhaps even become a full-on race war, though most leaders and Brooklyn residents who spoke to IBTimes discount such concerns.
As home to 57,000 adherents of the anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic sect of Orthodox Judaism (as of a 2004 New York Times report), South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has long been a major Jewish outpost in New York. A morning stroll down the neighborhood’s bustling Lee Avenue is like a trip back in time to the 1920s-era Lower East Side of Manhattan, with bearded men in traditional black fedoras and black suits settling into bagel shops and offices while their wives walk their children to school at Yeshiva Ahavas Yisroel.
But just a few steps north across the fittingly named Division Avenue from that cement-block school identifiable only by gold-painted Hebrew characters exists an entirely different archetype of the Brooklyn experience. Towering over this unofficial northern border of the South Williamsburg Jewish community is the Williams Plaza Houses, a city housing project populated largely by poor black and Hispanic residents located a block away from the elevated Marcy Avenue J/M/Z subway station.
The two unofficially segregated sections of the neighborhood don’t often interact, according to Jay Sutherland, a black, 28-year-old resident of the northern portion of South Williamsburg.
“That’s just how it is, how it’s been for a long time,” he explained to IBTimes. “The Orthodox Jews want to protect their community and that’s them. It’s nothing new.”
That may be exactly what about a dozen ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of the south side of South Williamsburg would say they were doing at about 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 1, when they allegedly assaulted gay, black Fort Greene, Brooklyn, resident Taj Patterson. The 22-year-old college student told police he was making his way home from partying in a section of Williambsurg north of Division when he was approached by the group, who allegedly cheered and called him a “f----t” as they beat him, leaving his right eye socket broken and cornea torn and cuts and bruises on his face and legs, according to the New York Daily News.
It was apparently the first time since the “knockout game” scare surfaced that a similar attack had been carried out by members of the Jewish community against a black man, and reactions were swift and opinionated. Many suggested that the assault on Patterson was an incident of racial vengeance, while some believe it may have been motivated by anti-gay sentiment.
But Yoel Weiss, a 25-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew who works at Satmar Meat Market on Lee Avenue, told IBTimes that a friend who claims he was “on the scene” offered a different explanation for the attack, and that it had nothing to do with race, sexuality or religion. His friend alleges that Patterson was heavily intoxicated (a fact that has been reported by police) and was knocking mirrors off of parked cars (this part could not be independently verified) when he was approached by a member of the all-Jewish Shomrim neighborhood watch squad, who called the NYPD and attempted to hold Patterson until police officers arrived.
“But the guy was so drunk he started to punch, so the Shomrim called [for] backup,” Weiss alleged. “Youngsters listening to the scanner hear there’s action, so they came, everyone gathers round, they hear he’s drunk and punching people, so they start to punch him back, and there was an overreaction to the whole misunderstanding and the whole situation got out of hand.”
Whatever actually happened that cold morning, the role reversal from the typical “knockout game” script only fueled further furor over the trend, which continued less than 20 hours later when two "black or Hispanic" teens approached and knocked out 26-year-old Orthodox Jewish man Eli Leidner about half a mile from the scene of the attack on Patterson.
While the “knockout game” has played out on the streets of Brooklyn, a separate war of words has taken place between community and religious leaders, politicians, pundits, the police and other observers. Beginning in mid-November, the conversation reached a fever pitch as attacks simultaneously spread across Brooklyn and the nation.
Reports of potential “knockout game”-related assaults that resulted in deaths in communities from Syracuse to St. Louis dating as far back as 2010 were re-reported by breathless commentators on network news programs as right-wing bloggers called the attacks the front line of a new “race war” and even Rev. Al Sharpton declared the trend and those who perpetrate it “racist,” “deplorable, reprehensible and inexcusable.”
The conversation over the “knockout game” within Brooklyn reached deep lows of its own, as some representatives of the impacted constituencies found themselves with their feet in their mouths over insensitive comments made at the height of the panic.
City Councilwoman-elect Laurie Cumbo placed partial blame for the attacks on the black community’s supposed “feelings of resentment” of “Jewish landlords,” “the accomplishments of the Jewish community” and “Jewish success” in a letter she later publicly apologized for writing.
Meanwhile, State Assemblyman Dov Hikind -- who unapologetically wore blackface to a Purim party in February and told Fox News this month “that literally almost every single victim in New York has been Jewish and almost every single perpetrator has been black” -- appeared unwilling to accept Patterson’s allegations, calling them “bizarre” and “so out of character” for Orthodox Jews, yet he conceded that “something clearly happened” to him, the Daily News reported.
But now it seems that a sense of cool-headedness has set in for most of the people entrusted to respond responsibly to crises in their communities.
Many leaders and Brooklynites still refuse outright to even acknowledge the existence of a “knockout game,” hoping that -- as with a schoolyard bully -- refusing to give it legitimacy could reduce its impact. And politicians and religious leaders have hosted a number of rallies in recent weeks aimed at finding a way to bring an end to the practice, while New York state legislators have proposed legislation to increase penalties for people who are convicted of committing “knockout game”-style assaults.
Despite these productive steps, New York City saw another attack Sunday night, when Imran Ramin, a 24-year-old waiter, was allegedly punched in the face in Lower Manhattan by New Jersey resident Jason Wren, a stranger to Ramin. Wren was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and second-degree harassment in connection with the crime, according to the Daily News.
Though many folks remain fearful in light of the recent string of attacks, the sense of dread appears to be subsiding for some in the Orthodox Jewish community, including Shay Walter, a 25-year-old Satmar Hasidic Jew who works at Oneg Heimishe Bakery in South Williamsburg.
“I don’t believe in the ‘knockouts’, really. There’s something going on lately, but I don’t know what it is,” Walter said, adding, “The media blows it up so people feel like they can do it more. But we have Shomrim [patrolmen] out at all hours of night, so whoever does it, they’ll catch. It’s only a matter of time.”
Brooklyn’s changing face
Brooklyn has seen a stunning revitalization in recent years, as areas like Bushwick, Park Slope and Greenpoint have emerged as some of the trendiest and most expensive ZIP codes in the country.
The Nets moved from New Jersey into an impressive new stadium on Flatbush Avenue, bringing professional sports back to Kings County; and the borough’s name has become synonymous for many with hipster culture and the expensive tastes, elitist attitude and narcissism that define it.
The hit HBO series “Girls” has documented the gentrification that has in a single generation turned Brooklyn from a place most tourists were afraid to visit into perhaps the hottest attraction in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York, cementing the transformation in the public imagination.
But Brooklyn is a massive place, home to nearly a million more people than Manhattan representing about 150 nationalities dispersed across dozens of neighborhoods, each with its own socioeconomic, cultural and racial demographics.
And while artists, trust-funders and stock traders frequent the tony stretches of North Williamsburg’s Bedford and Metropolitan avenues, many of the issues that have long proven intractable for the less-fortunate segments of the Brooklyn population persist as they have for decades.
Gun violence and gang wars still terrorize the residents of many neighborhoods from Brownsville to Coney Island, where poverty and racial tensions continue to simmer under the radar despite the rejuvenation of many blocks within walking distance of their homes.
Still, Brooklyn as a whole has evolved in its communal mentality since the terror of the Crown Heights riots era, when communities seemed on the edge of burning as Orthodox Jews and blacks took to the streets to act upon their racially charged outrage.
Williams does not expect that level of disorder to recur this time around, as there is a much stronger bond between the borough’s diverse communities than there was during the administration of Mayor David Dinkins.
“I am happy that, had this been a couple decades ago, we might have had bad reactions in both communities,” the councilman said. “So I think it’s a testament to a lot of the work in both communities that has been done, that rather than acting crazy and inciting more violence, people are coming together to denounce it and say it’s unacceptable.”