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The Knockout Game: New Name, Old Moral Panic

by Mike Rothschild

December 2, 2013

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Donate It’s happening all over the country, part of a terrifying trend that doesn’t actually appear to exist. People are afraid of it, yet aren’t sure exactly what it is or even if it’s being done at all. And news outlets are breathlessly recounting stories from victims of an epidemic of crimes linked by race and random chance, declaring that they're part of a larger spike in violence " a spike that not only isn’t happening, but is exactly the opposite of what’s happening.

So how can something be real and not real at the same time? Welcome to America’s newest moral panic: the knockout game.

Random acts of violence have been a part of the human condition since one Sumerian was in a bad mood and clubbed another Sumerian who was minding his own business. And even then, there were probably other concerned Sumerians ready to proclaim this attack was part of a larger trend of brutality that everyone in Sumer needed to be afraid of.

In the case of the knockout game, we have the latest name for an assault committed by youths against random strangers, picked out for no reason or because of their race. The goal of the “game” is for the unlucky victim to be knocked out with one punch to the head. The assault is filmed on a phone and uploaded to YouTube, with gangs trying to outdo each other for the viciousness of their crime.

Putting aside whether the trend actually exists, these attacks are very real. They went national after a spate of assaults in Brooklyn in November. Previously, there were possible knockout game attacks in Washington DC, Spokane, Syracuse, Lansing and Pittsburgh, starting with a 2011 murder in St. Louis. The first victim first allegedly goes back to 1992, with a Norwegian exchange student murdered in Boston. But it was the November spike that put the knockout game on the national news radar, with pundits and op-ed columnists declaring that nobody was safe from the roving gangs of juvenile delinquents randomly killing people for cheap thrills.

However, the truth about the knockout game, what it is and what it isn't, is less interesting and much more sinister " for a different reason.

Of course, moral panics have always been with us, taking a small cluster of incidents (some real, some imagined) and turning them into a larger trend that could strike anyone at any time. Even YOU. Long before the “knockout game” there was witch burning, rumors of slave revolts, Native American Ghost Dance hysteria, various anti-foreigner panics, the Red Scare and pop culture nonsense like Satanic ritual abuse and the notion that flashing your lights at an oncoming car would get you murdered in a gang initiation. Most of it had little evidence to support the panic. Some didn’t have any. But all the same, the terror was there, and claimed numerous innocent victims.

The knockout game itself has been the subject of other barely-evidenced moral panics, just under different names. In the late 80’s, the media focused on an epidemic of “wilding” by youth gangs, which in reality consisted of one crime that produced a slew of false convictions. A little later in the UK there was the “happy slapping” craze, and then the “flash mob” hysteria of gangs texting each other to arrange mass fights. Even the current knockout game has a number of different actual names. But they all have one thing in common: random assaults by groups of youths.

While random people knocking out other people is very real and has resulted in deaths and serious injury, there doesn’t appear to be any statistical corroboration that this newest version of juvenile delinquency run amuck is happening more than other versions of youth crime. Call it whatever name you want, but thugs have always attacked unlucky people and bored kids have always fought other bored kids, a fact that doesn't change based on the decade or availability of social media.

In fact, it's happening a lot less. Despite the hysterical scaremongering, street crimes committed by strangers have actually decreased by an astounding 77% from 1993 to 2010. The fact remains that you are still far more likely to be beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted or murdered by someone you know.

And for once, some people in a position to know better aren’t giving in to the panic. Police commissioners across the country are expressing skepticism about the very existence of any “knockout game” trend. Many of the major stories connected to it have turned out to be unsubstantiated or outright hoaxes. And news outlets from NPR to Slate have declared the knockout game to be an urban myth, not a trend or growing cluster of evil.

And yet, the stories keep piling up and the fear is growing. And here we get into the truly pernicious element of the knockout game moral panic: racism.

The knockout game hysteria is still being pushed forward by a number of conservative outlets, from right wing stalwarts like the New York Post and Fox News to conspiracy-minded fringe sites like World Net Daily and Breitbart. They’re seeing the knockout game as nothing less than a full-frontal assault on white America by organized and vicious gangs. Some see it as stoking the fires of a coming race war. Part of this is fueled by the new far-right hysteria about “black mob violence” and part of it is just the same hate and fear recycled for a new generation of readers.

Myths about “urban super predators” go back to the 1990’s, when they were stoked by conservative writers spreading fear of kids bringing guns to school and shooting anyone who looked at them cross-eyed. They weren’t true then, and they’re not true now. Yes, in many cases with this particular panic, the attackers have been black and the victims either white or another minority. But again, isolated cases don’t make a trend - and they certainly don't make an epidemic. It's the same petty violence and the same resultant fear of the other that we've had for centuries.

And where there are statistical trends, the numbers completely deflate the knockout game narrative. Violent crime is down. Violent crime committed by strangers against other strangers is way down. Black-on-white crime is rare, despite the undeniably racist scaremongering that says otherwise. And white-on-black crime is, sadly, up.

Moral panics and those who stoke them lie. Numbers do not. And the numbers say that the “knockout game” is nothing more than a series of tragic and unconnected assaults, linked by nothing other than a complete lack of novelty.

by Mike Rothschild

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