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Montgomery brawl doesn't constitute hate crime charges, police chief says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Montgomery law enforcement may be leaving race out of this incident, but some who were present saw race as a factor. And so do plenty of people who watch those videos. Gene Demby, co-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast, is in our studios this morning. Gene, welcome.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What drew people into this incident?

DEMBY: So much of the enormous jokey response to these Montgomery videos are kind of just simple catharsis. You know, there's a genre of viral video that's just watching people who pick a fight get their comeuppance after the...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...Big fight, right? That's a genre unto itself. But these videos are in conversation with all the other videos we've seen in recent years in which you find a Black person and a white person in conflict over a public space, right? There was the video of the two Black men in Philadelphia who were sitting in a Starbucks. They had the police called on them. There was a video of a white woman who called the police on a Black girl who was selling water in San Francisco. There was the Black birdwatcher in Central Park in New York City who had the police called on him.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

DEMBY: And so what's looming over all of those videos is something really dark - right? - a kind of broadly felt racial panic about Black people that can go really sideways once the police are summoned. But in the Montgomery borough (ph), the stakes are just so much lower. It's just less fraught. So, you know, the apparent instigators of the fight, the white folks who jumped the Black dockworkers, they have the numbers on their side initially, and then all sorts of people intervene and jump into the fight to help that Black dockworker. Somebody swims over, presumably from a boat, to help him out. And people are swinging chairs at the instigators. So it's this kind of absurd melee. It's not exactly the way you expect a video like this to go.

INSKEEP: You're saying this - unlike some of these other incidents, this video went viral because it's a belly laugh.

DEMBY: Absolutely. It subverted our expectations in a completely ridiculous way. If you've seen any of the very funny memes that this incident has spawned, they're kind of capturing this catharsis. Instead of being helpless, the Black guy at the center of this video had an abundance of help. And it's mayhem. But ultimately, like, no one seems to really have gotten hurt too badly.

INSKEEP: What do you make of it when you hear Montgomery police say, well, we don't see race as a factor here at this time?

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, you can imagine that a burden of proof for the police goes something like, unless someone involved in this fracas said something explicitly about racial animus, then this encounter wasn't racially motivated. But we know it's never that neat. People rarely say that's why they're targeting someone that plainly, which is why, as one example, racially motivated discrimination is so hard to prove in court. But Roy S. Johnson, who's an opinion columnist for the Alabama Media Group, disagreed with the police on that one.

ROY S JOHNSON: Even if the attack wasn't necessarily racially motivated, the optics of it made race clearly a factor in it.

DEMBY: And those optics are maybe especially salient in a place like Montgomery, Ala. Montgomery was a very, very important slave port in the south in the 1800s. It was the first capital of the Confederacy. It was one of the birthplaces of the civil rights movement, famously, and its regional politics are still deeply shaped by white flight from the city proper after the end of legal segregation.

INSKEEP: As you're talking, I'm even thinking of news from this year, 2023, where there was a Supreme Court ruling about the state of Alabama finding that the state discriminated against Black voters in congressional districts that were drawn that have to be redrawn now. So that's all in the air. But you're telling me this is a moment where people in the community came essentially to the rescue of somebody who felt like he was under attack?

DEMBY: Right. You could sort of see in the response to this that so much of this is about - is a kind of glee over someone getting their comeuppance - right? - over a very punishing history, both longer and more recent, in which Black people are the victims of sort of racist violence and discrimination.

INSKEEP: When you say there's been this social media reaction, where has it been?

DEMBY: So that's what's so fascinating about this story. This is kind of the - like, a quintessential Black Twitter story. Black people, Black users were famously over-indexed on Twitter. The Pew Research Center recently found that there's been this giant exodus of Black Twitter users in the last 12 months since Elon Musk took over. And there's been a rise of far-right hate speech on the platform. And so one of the things that's been fascinating to watch about the way this story is sort of spread is that it's a much more fragmented and scattered social media landscape for Black users. And yet this story still had all of the hallmarks of Black Twitter.

It became a meme really quickly. It became really jokey really quickly. There was a lot of, like, sort of celebration. There was a lot of - by the end of the day, there were, like, already third- and fourth-level references to another - like, different parts of the, like - the component parts of the story. All this stuff is still happening. And it's, like, really important to remember that so much of the discourse around race in this country, particularly around police violence, happened because of this over-indexing of Black people on Twitter, because they were sort of - they were doing a lot of signal boosting on Twitter. And it's fascinating to see that even though Black folks are sort of more scattered about, there's more of a diaspora across the digital landscape, there's still sort of - that sort of Black Twitter energy is still very much animating a lot of this discourse.

INSKEEP: NPR's Gene Demby of the Code Switch podcast. Thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Always a pleasure to see you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Gene Demby
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.