What can be more frightening to the innocent man walking down a city street, minding his own business, when a bunch of thugs comes out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, violently strikes that innocent man causing him physical injury?
Nothing, which is why there was widespread panic last year about the emergence of a new activity that further signaled the moral decay of America’s urban youth: the knockout game.
A game in which seemingly innocent people were randomly targeted to be punched in the head for no other reason than apparent boredom on the part of the hooligans.
And so it comes as no surprise that this viral act of violence that has put fear into the minds and hearts of innocent city working folk and has caused our urban areas to become veritable fields of random assaults has brought about a strict new legislative fix: by God we’ll fix ‘em.
The new bill, proposed by legislator and Police Officer Joe Verrengia of West Hartford, CT, would make a “knockout” punch a felony punishable by up to 5 years in jail1. The bill states (and I’ve reproduced the entire section because context is relevant):
(a) A person is guilty of assault in the second degree when:
(1) With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person; or
(2) with intent to cause physical injury to another person, he causes such injury to such person or to a third person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument other than by means of the discharge of a firearm; or
(3) he recklessly causes serious physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument; or
(4) for a purpose other than lawful medical or therapeutic treatment, he intentionally causes stupor, unconsciousness or other physical impairment or injury to another person by administering to such person, without his consent, a drug, substance or preparation capable of producing the same; or
(5) he is a parolee from a correctional institution and with intent to cause physical injury to an employee or member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, he causes physical injury to such employee or member; or
(6) with intent to cause the loss of consciousness of another person, he causes such injury to such person by a single punch or kick or other singular striking motion.
As you can see from the entire statute reproduced above, (6) is redundant. We must, of course, concede that “loss of consciousness” is “serious physical injury”. Putting aside caselaw that states that a fist or shoe can indeed be a dangerous instrument (thus covering subsections 2 and/or 3), subsection (6) seeks to carve out a specific subset of subsection (1), i.e. causing of serious physical injury. Subsection (1) has no restrictions on the type of injury (loss of consciousness) or the manner in which it is caused (single punch or kick).
So, simply put, (6) is useless. But that’s not all. The bill would make a conviction of subsection (6) have a mandatory prison sentence of at least 2 years.
So what’s going on here? Why this bill? Is the “knockout game” such a big problem in our cities that we need to send a strong message? Let me be clear: it is certainly quite distressing and scary to be suddenly and randomly attacked on the street by strangers for no reason whatsoever.
But the fact that some people do get attacked in such a way, doesn’t automatically equate to the existence of such a “knockout game”. In fact, evidence – not media spin – suggest quite the opposite.
First, let’s start with the one section of criminal justice system that Verrengia can’t argue with: law enforcement.
Yet police officials in several cities where such attacks have been reported said that the “game” amounted to little more than an urban myth, and that the attacks in question might be nothing more than the sort of random assaults that have always occurred.
And in New York City, police officials are struggling to determine whether they should advise the public to take precautions against the Knockout Game — or whether in fact it existed.
“We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.”
See that part where it says urban myth? That’s because there’s no trend of such a violent “game” on the rise in urban America. Can and do these attacks happen? Of course they do. Does that mean there’s a rise in hoodlums knocking you on your ass as you peaceably go to work? No.
Framing it as a game gives it a hook for the news media, but we already have a name for this type of thing: It’s a random street assault, a terrible phenomenon, but not a new one. And the language that kids and the news media have latched onto makes it sound both sinister and casual. It dramatizes the behavior, perversely elevating it above the senseless street violence that happens every day and has happened for decades. (There were more than 750,000 assaults in 2011, according to the FBI.)
You know what else is an indication that this is a media-fabricated myth? The fact that no one can agree on its name and that it’s been around forever:
The “Knockout King” or “Knockout Game” has been playing out for more than a decade on streets in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Chicago, St. Louis, and now Washington D.C. in small numbers. But videos of the incidents have gone viral on the Internet, creating the illusion these things happen more often than they do.
“There is no evidence supporting this as a huge, viral number of attacks. If the ‘Knockout Game’ really exists and isn’t just a media label that could fit many of the hundreds of thousands of random attacks on strangers,” says Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice located in San Francisco. I’ve heard of incidents of this so-called Knockout Game dating back to 1996. It’s not new.”
Indeed, as Jamelle Bouie points out in The Daily Beast:
The case for “myth” is bolstered further by the fact that the “knockout game” has been cited as far back as 1992, when it was compared to “wilding” as an example of dangerous teen behavior. What’s more, several widely circulated stories concerning the game have been debunked by websites such as Snopes, which note that they have no “verifying information.”
Of course there’s still the other dimension to this that I haven’t explicitly mentioned but that I’m sure you’ve caught on. Remember the scenario I opened with, with the man walking down the street, being assaulted? I’m gonna pull a Matthew McConanagjguahey: what race did you imagine them? Scientific studies2 show that most of you thought of them as black.
Think about who would be punished by Verrengia’s legislation? Who are going to be caught up in street arrests for assault in urban cities? Bouie again:
One last thing: Race is an obvious element in all of this. In almost every report, the assailants are described as young black men, and many of the victims have been white. It’s hard not to see the sensationalized coverage of “knockout”—and before that, “wilding”—as a reflection of our national fear of young black men. Indeed, in the more sinister corners of the Internet, you can find people who argue that these incidents are the opening shots in a “race war” by “feral black youth.”
But of course, this is a State that has condoned, in the case of a black defendant accused of assaulting suburban white women, a prosecutor beginning her closing argument with:
[The four women] got together for dinner on December 14, 1991, a nice relaxing dinner. They had plans to go out after dinner. They were minding their own business when they were confronted with what suburbanites would call the ultimate urban nightmare.’
So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that either the legislators were oblivious to the racial undertones in the “knockout game” or ignored them altogether.
The perpetuated myth of the violent black juvenile is a hard one for people to let go of, even if it’s found to be based on nothing but their own ignorance and fear.
But that’s not all. I wish that was all.
In addition to this waste of space bill on a media perpetuated myth, Verrengia also wants to make sure that if you’re a juvenile, you’re sucker punched just as much as the person you sucker punch.
See, as I’ve written extensively, in CT if you’re between the ages of 14 and 17, you get automatically transferred to adult court only if you commit the most serious crimes: A and B felonies which carry prison sentences of 20 years or more. If you are charged with a less serious crime, like a C or D felony, you remain in juvenile court unless a prosecutor makes a motion to move the case to adult court and in that event you get a hearing before a judge in juvenile court.
Verrengia wants to make the “knockout game” the only Class D felony that gets automatically transferred to adult court. So, there are many, many crimes that are more serious than this assault (all Class C felonies, for instance) that may not end up in adult court, yet some punk kid who punches a dude on the street for no reason suddenly ends up in adult court facing a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.