The Knockout Game: Situational Awareness and Good Sense are NOT Racism
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about my last “Knockout Game” post (https://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/11/21/a-loudmouth-female-police-cadet-trayvon-martin-and-the-knockout-game/). My friend made a statement that I think many people are saying in private: she’s worried about becoming a potential KO Game victim, but is also afraid that she’ll seem racist if she encounters a group of “thug” looking black teenagers and tries to avoid them.
Her worry meshed with a comment I received on my KO Game post. A reader named Joe was concerned with this statement I made: “And if we’re someday confronted by an unarmed scumbag who looks like he could beat us to death, or if we spot the signs that we’re about to become a playtoy for the ‘Knockout Game’, we’re going to draw, aim, and engage as necessary.” He thought it might be a suggestion to shoot anyone who “looked like” the kind of person who would play the KO game.
I gave both Joe and my friend the same answer. When we’re talking about spotting potential KO game players, we aren’t just looking at appearance. Appearance can matter, but more importantly we’re looking at behavior, at pre-assault indicators.
Many different actions can be pre-assault indicators. Generally speaking, these indicators seem harmless when viewed outside of the overall situation. The trick is to recognize them in context.
For example, if someone puts on a hood, that means nothing by itself. Simply looking around at their surroundings means nothing either. And if they cross a street, so what? But let’s say you’re walking down a sidewalk toward your car, late on a clear night after businesses have closed, and see a young man walking toward you on the other side of the street. The man looks around (possibly checking for witnesses or people who would interfere), puts on a hood (possibly trying to make himself harder to identify), and crosses the street toward you (the businesses are all closed; he’s not going toward them, he’s possibly directly targeting you).
Now you have a choice. Should you take evasive action, maybe change direction or head toward the nearest well-lit area? Should you maybe pull a small flashlight and shine it at him if he gets close? Should you put your hand on your concealed pistol, ready to draw and fire if he makes a threatening move?
Or, if the man is a minority, should you ignore his actions and blindly keep walking, because you’d rather risk death than seem racist?
Several years ago a cop friend and I were in New York City visiting a friend. We were in a subway station waiting for a train when I saw a young black man with a young Hispanic man walk toward us. Both men were wearing baggy clothes and hoods, but it was cold; they didn’t look all that different from anyone else. And there were blacks and Hispanics all over NYC. That didn’t catch my attention either. What raised my alert level was where the two young men came from. They walked out from the train tunnel, where people aren’t supposed to go, stepped over the tracks and climbed onto the platform.
I immediately bumped my cop buddy and motioned toward the two men. His guard went up also. We kept our eyes on the two men and readied ourselves. The men noticed us watching them, and kept going.
Was it racist for us to be wary of the young black and Hispanic men? Nope. My cop buddy was black; we were the same racial makeup as the men we were watching. It was their actions that caught our eye, not their race.
In the KO game assault videos I’ve seen it wasn’t the physical appearance of the young black males that indicated danger. It was their behavior. Yes, someone’s appearance certainly can indicate danger, and this is the point where people usually scream “That’s racist!” But a threatening appearance isn’t limited to any one race.
How would you react if you were on a bus and a young white man with a shaved head, “trouble gangster” and “wicked ways” tattooed around his eyes, “Aryan Brotherhood” and a swastika tattooed on his neck, sat next to you? Regardless of his actions, would his appearance suggest he’s a possible threat? I’d say yes. I’d say the same thing about a black man wearing a red ball cap, red pants and a red “Thug4Life” t-shirt with a “Money Over Bitches” tattoo on one arm and “Half-Dead Fry Head” on the other. And about a young Hispanic male with blue shirt and shoes, gang tattoos on both arms, and tattoos depicting a drive-by shooting and a robbery on his chest.
At this point, I’m sure some readers nodded in agreement about the white power guy, but felt uncomfortable at my description of the black and Hispanic gang members because talking about minority criminals is “racist”. All I can say is, describing reality isn’t racism. I stopped that tattooed white parolee one night in a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood. He was one of the most polite, cooperative people I’ve ever stopped, but I still viewed him as a threat. I arrested a black gang member who was high on “fry” (a joint dipped in formaldehyde or PCP) and had a tattoo of a half skull-half face with a joint in its mouth that announced he was a “Half Dead Fry Head”. He didn’t fight or run from us, but yes, his appearance suggested he was a threat. And I stopped a Hispanic male with a robbery scene and drive-by shooting tattooed on his chest. He was also polite and cooperative, but was a dedicated, hardcore gang member. Yes, he was a threat.
If you see someone who is advertising their criminal tendencies and your alert level goes up, that doesn’t make you racist. It means you’ve got some sense, you don’t ignore obvious signs of danger and you’re being situationally aware. If you spot an obvious threat like those I’ve described, then identify pre-assault indicators, you may have just saved your life.
Once again, I’d like to point out that I ain’t no expert on nuthin’. But in almost 20 years as a cop, I’ve learned a little about pre-assault indicators. Some of this knowledge was gained the hard way, and I’d like to share it with you. Keep in mind that I’m discussing situational awareness in general, not only discussing the KO Game.
Now I’d like you to watch this short video, which most of us have seen several times already.
Note that the victim in this assault does not appear to be paying any particular attention to his surroundings. He’s simply walking down what appears to be an alley, face forward, minding his own business. He doesn’t seem to give a second thought to the fact that the young black males approaching him are spread out almost all the way across the alley, leaving him only a small gap to pass through. And he takes no action at all when one of the young males moves sideways toward him. My guess is that the victim never recognized any signs of impending danger. In this case the young males don’t, by appearance alone, seem to be threatening. But some of their behavior before the attack certainly suggests a threat.
Let’s look at the first indicator I mentioned. The young males are spread out, taking up most of the alley. While that might just mean those kids are selfish jerks, it could also be an intentional effort to channelize the victim into what we soldiers call a “choke point”: an area where a victim’s freedom of movement and action are restricted. When soldiers plant land mines, dig ditches and emplace concrete obstacles, it’s not to simply stop enemy vehicles. It’s to force them into a specific area, like a narrow mountain pass, where they can be easily ambushed. Those attackers did the same thing to their KO game victim.
Now take another look at the video, right around the 00:21 mark. Even in the blurry, distant video you can see the attacker make an obvious, deliberate move to his left just prior to throwing the punch. While it might seem that the victim had almost no time to react before being punched, he actually had more than enough. If he had noticed the signs, he could have stopped and waited for the group to pass. He could have kept his eyes on the young men, giving the non-verbal clue that he was watching them as closely as they were watching him. Even if he had walked into the choke point they created, he still could have ducked or sidestepped once he saw the punch about to be thrown. Any of those countermeasures could have kept him from laying facedown and unconscious on the pavement.
But here are my questions: did the victim walk blindly into an ambush even though he felt uncomfortable when he saw the group of young black males approaching him? Did he intentionally disregard signs of danger, because he didn’t want to appear racist?
One night I arrested a murder suspect. He had stabbed someone to death at a bar, and I found him the next night as he was hurriedly loading possessions into a truck prior to his planned escape from town. I snuck up and surprised him in his front yard; when I ordered him to put his hands up and lay on his stomach he ignored me, protested his innocence and started walking toward me.
I repeated the order. He ignored it and kept coming. He wasn’t cursing, he wasn’t saying “I’m going to kill you”, his demeanor suggested he was friendly. But his actions told a different story. He kept ignoring my commands. He kept walking toward me, despite the fact that he could easily hear me from where he was. He kept talking over me, trying to appear casual. He was about to attack.
Because my flashlight was in his face, he couldn’t see my pistol pointed at him. Despite his apparent friendliness, I knew he was “innocently” closing distance. I expected him to go for a knife, and was ready to shoot him. The sudden appearance of another officer made the suspect stop.
But here’s the twist. The suspect was an illegal alien. He was speaking Spanish as he protested his innocence. Was I being “insensitive”, not considering that he may have been confused rather than uncooperative? Was I stereotyping by assuming he had a knife? Should I have given him the benefit of the doubt and not kept my pistol on him?
It turned out I had arrested the suspect once before, and he had been verbally aggressive and threatening. When I saw him in court later he cursed me out. His friendliness was just an act. Had I given him the benefit of the doubt, and if I hadn’t had backup, I have no doubt he would have stabbed me.
One night I had to run a mental patient off from a truck stop. He had been there for hours bothering customers. I didn’t realize he was a mental patient until I saw the sunglasses he was wearing (at night) still had the “Made in China” sticker on a lens. That, and when I told him he had to leave his first question was, “But then where will I get refreshments?”
I asked for his name and date of birth, then called in a warrant check. The man hadn’t been threatening before that. But as soon as he heard give his name over the radio, he went silent, dropped to one knee, hung his head and covered his face.
I backed away, drew pepper spray and made sure I had space to go sideways if he came at me. When he suddenly sprang back to his feet, angrily demanding to know why I was harassing him, I was prepared for an attack. But he didn’t come at me, maybe because he saw my stance and intermediate weapon in my hand. He left peacefully.
He was black. His race had nothing to do with it. I saw black customers in that truck stop all night, every night; nobody called the police on them and I didn’t run them off. But his behavior made the employees call the police, and his unmistakable pre-assault indicator made me take defensive measures.
On another night I stopped two black men in an area known for narcotics trafficking. The passenger looked like a crackhead. The driver was well-dressed, polite and articulate, but was nervous as hell. I asked the driver to step out and walk to the hood of my car.
The driver and I had a pleasant conversation. Until I asked for consent to search his pockets. Then he stiffened up, went silent for a few moments. When he turned around and put his hands on the hood, his back was rigid and head held way high. I could feel his heart racing as I checked his front pockets. But I also noticed something else, which was even more threatening. His passenger, still sitting in the car, was turned almost all the way around, watching us intently. He was waiting for something to happen.
I broke off the search. The driver was probably about to fight, and the passenger would likely have joined in. I was by myself, with backup at least a couple of minutes away. I chose discretion over valor.
Later that night, I found the driver again. His passenger wasn’t with him. I went ahead and searched the driver that time. And he resisted, because he had about ten rocks of crack in his pocket.
Was I racist for asking to search the driver, or for suspecting he was about to fight? No. I recognized behavioral clues. But one night on another call, I totally missed the signs.
A friend and I arrived on a disturbance call in the projects. The call wasn’t serious, and we detained a “suspect” who wasn’t acting the least bit threatening toward us. He was about 19, tall and thin, wearing saggy, loose-fitting running pants with a drawstring. We asked him to sit on the curb. He complied, and my friend stayed by him while I went to the patrol car’s computer to check him for warrants. As I got in the car, I absentmindedly noticed that the young man had pulled his pants up and was tying the drawstring.
The young man was wanted for violating probation on a felony charge. I walked back to the young man and tried to grab him. From his sitting position, he bolted. We lost him.
That kid knew he had a warrant. When I went to my car he knew I would see the warrant hit. He casually tied his drawstring so his sagging pants wouldn’t interfere when he ran. I missed that obvious clue, and was lucky it was a “pre-run” rather than “pre-assault” indicator.
So what did I learn from the above examples? I learned that watching for clues is much more important than looking at race. Yes, race can matter; I doubt anyone would argue that black victims of Klan assaults in 1950’s Alabama shouldn’t have paid attention to certain white males around them. But race isn’t the most important indicator, and isn’t what I would tell anyone to watch for.
Look for behavior. Look for nonverbal clues. Ask yourself why someone is taking the actions they’re taking. Don’t be afraid to take steps to protect yourself, whether they’re small steps like changing direction or big steps like drawing a weapon. Remember that for all the media attention paid to the Knockout Game, the chances of you becoming a victim are infinitesimally small. Remember that KO Game players can be multiracial. And remember that being aware of your surroundings, looking for pre-assault indicators and exercising good judgment does not make you racist.
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Tags: knockout game, racism, veteran writers