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We Must Combat the Aimlessness of Youth Revealed by the ‘Knockout Game’

knockoutgameThere have been a number of recent reports about deaths and serious injuries stemming from something commonly referred to as Knockout or the Knockout Game. This “game” consists of one in a group of roving teens and young adults approaching unsuspecting individuals and punching them in the face. The goal is to knock out the victim with one punch.

The assailant’s companions often videotape the attacks and post them online.  Victims have been men, women and even a 12-year-old boy. At least three attacks were fatal and knockouts have occurred in at least six states since 2011, including New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri, as well as Washington, D.C. and even London.

It also has resulted in serious prison time or retaliation for perpetrators. A 20-year-old man was sentenced to life plus 25 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and armed criminal action in the April 2011 knockout game death of a 72-year-old man in St. Louis. A 17-year-old youth in Lansing, MI, was shot and wounded by an intended target.

I suspect some of these instances are copycat cases, committed after seeing the practice on the Internet, and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a lot of thinking going on with these young guys.

What isn’t clear to me, though, is whether the assailants always understand how deadly the attacks are, or can be. They seem to just want the satisfaction of demonstrating their strength by knocking someone down and out in just one punch. No warning. No robbery, usually. Victims appear to be selected at random. Long-term and residual physical effects, brain damage, etc., likely don’t figure into the assailants’ calculations.

New York State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady), is introducing a bill that would make the violent game a gang assault with a sentence of up to 25 years, after a 78-year-old grandmother became one of the latest victims in a spate of attacks in Brooklyn. Minors involved in the attacks would automatically be charged as adults.

Some may wonder how anyone could do something so vicious for fun, but it is all too common among bored, disengaged teens who are roaming around looking for entertainment and a way to demonstrate power and command respect.

I didn’t say it made sense.

After Bernhard Goetz shot four teenagers on a subway in 1984 because he feared he was about to be robbed, I worried about my son and his friends several years later when they began riding the trains looking as “suspect” as Goetz believed his victims to be.  My son, on the other hand, was amused that people were made uncomfortable by the presence of teens in their fashionable hoodies, so much so that they moved away when the boys stepped into a subway car.

“We always get a seat on the train,” Tony crowed.

He was clueless then. Now as a married father of two daughters, he sees how reckless that behavior was and how he could easily have been a target of violence –or the police.

When we moved to Philadelphia, he and his friends would walk along South Street, a popular entertainment district, and smack car hoods to make the alarms go off. They weren’t old enough to go into the clubs and bars; they didn’t own cars to cruise the streets; in fact, they weren’t old enough to drive. But they wanted to be out of the house, hang out with their friends and they had no organized activity to keep them out of trouble.

Tony’s antics weren’t deadly, didn’t target anyone’s personal safety, but certainly created discomfort for some people, which gave him and his friends a sense of power.

Throughout it all, they never concerned themselves about the impact their behavior had on others; their focus was on the sense of pleasure and power it gave them.

So when these teens go out and deliver their knockout blows, they probably haven’t given one thought to impact, consequence or anyone, even themselves ultimately.

“To go around and harm just anybody on the premise that you want to show your bravado is not to be accepted in our community, in Crown Heights, in Brownsville or anywhere else for that matter,” Tony Herbert, an activist with the National Action Network, told WCBS-TV. “Keep your hands to yourself. That is stupid.”

If ever there was an argument for focusing on quality of life issues in this nation’s communities, education, job training and work for these young people driven more by aimlessness than common sense, the Knockout Game provides it.

I am not naïve enough to think keeping recreation centers open later or organized activities will solve the problem, but I do believe community – from parents, to coaches, to ministers, to mentors, to teachers to job training – and jobs to go to – can have a role in reducing the problem.

There will always be knuckleheads and people who believe in violence for violence’s sake. Those are deep problems that have no quick fix.  But a swift and coordinated response beyond law enforcement is also required.

That will be the real knockout punch.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”


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