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The riverfront brawl in Alabama reignites national debate over race

The Harriott II riverboat sits at the Riverfront dock in Montgomery, Ala. Three white men have been charged with assault for attacking the ship's co-captain last Saturday, which turned into a brawl along racial lines, as seen in dozens of videos online.
Kim Chandler
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AP
The Harriott II riverboat sits at the Riverfront dock in Montgomery, Ala. Three white men have been charged with assault for attacking the ship's co-captain last Saturday, which turned into a brawl along racial lines, as seen in dozens of videos online.

Warning: This story contains profanity and a racial slur.

Police in Montgomery, Ala., say that they have not found evidence that last weekend's riverfront brawl — in which a large number of people squared off against each along racial lines — rises to the level of a hate crime.

However, a week later, people who have seen videos of the fight, including experts, pundits and social media users, remain divided: Some are saying race had nothing to do with the incident, while others say the footage clearly shows how groups divided by race.

What's certain is that the incident has reignited conversations about race across the U.S.

What Montgomery officials are saying

Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that the brawl doesn't meet the criteria for hate crime charges under federal law. He said that he also understands why people are raising the issue of race.

"That's why this department went above and beyond and looked under every stone for answers," Albert said, adding that the charges that were brought accurately reflect the evidence available at the time. Investigations are ongoing.

Steven L. Reed, Montgomery's first Black mayor, has promised to hold the people responsible for fight accountable. He says he has two different perspectives on the incident, one as a public servant and one as Black man.

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed (seen here on Aug. 8 speaking to the press with Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert in the background) says the people responsible for the fight will be held accountable.
Julie Bennett / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed (seen here on Aug. 8 speaking to the press with Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert in the background) says the people responsible for the fight will be held accountable.

"At this point in the investigation, the FBI has not classified these attacks as a hate crime. As a former judge and as an elected official, I understand that and will trust this process and the integrity of our justice system," Reed said in a statement to NPR on Thursday.

"However, my perspective as a Black man in Montgomery differs from my perspective as mayor. From what we've seen from the history of our city — a place tied to both the pain and the progress of this nation – it seems to meet the moral definition, and this kind of violence cannot go unchecked."

He also says that as more information becomes available, his office will work with the U.S. Justice Department to "thoroughly vet whether new evidence reclassifies the incident as a hate crime per FBI protocol."

How the brawl unfolded

Dozens of videos of the incident last Saturday began surfacing earlier this week, including one from Alabama political reporter Josh Moon, who shared a video of the fight on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. It shows that the incident at Montgomery's Riverfront Park appears to have started after a group of people docked their pontoon boat in a space reserved for the city's riverboat, the Harriott II.

A screenshot from one of the videos of the brawl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday. The video shows a fight that broke out between an apparent dock worker and several men who appeared to be parking their pontoon boat in a space reserved for the city's riverboat.
@Josh_Moon / Screenshot by NPR
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Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot from one of the videos of the brawl in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday. The video shows a fight that broke out between a boat co-captain and several men who appeared to be parking their pontoon boat in a space reserved for the city's riverboat.

After 45 or so minutes of announcements over a loudspeaker asking for the pontoon boat to be moved, the Black co-captain of the Harriott II, named as Dameion Pickett in court documents, and a white 16-year-old deckhand, who NPR isn't naming because he's a minor, went ashore to move the craft so the riverboat could dock, said Albert, the police chief.

Pickett, 43, was confronted by several men from the pontoon boat, and heated conversation escalated to a fight. Video appears to show Richard Roberts, 48, striking Pickett first. Allen Todd and Zachery Shipman joined the fight, punching and kicking Pickett.

Another Harriott II crew member, Crystal Warren, witnessed the incident from aboard the riverboat. Her son is the 16-year-old deckhand, who was allegedly assaulted by people associated with the pontoon boat. She said in a sworn statement to police that she heard one of the men yell, "F*** that n*****" as Pickett was trying to move the vessel.

Warren also said that one of the men fighting Harriot II crew members was heard saying he was "getting his gun." She said a riverboat employee tackled the man as he appeared to try and get the weapon.

As of Friday, Roberts has been charged with two counts of 3rd degree assault, while Todd, 23, and Shipman, 25, each face one count of 3rd degree assault. They are scheduled to be arraigned on these misdemeanor charges on Sept. 1. (A fourth person, Mary Todd, 21, has also been charged with one count of 3rd degree assault.)

NPR attempted to reach the defendants for comment, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

Why conversations about race are hard for officials

It's not surprising that authorities have been reluctant to discuss race, says Christina Ferraz, a public relations consultant who specializes in reaching communities of color.

Public officials can be risk-averse on the topic because of its general divisiveness in today's "culture wars," says Ferraz.

"As this conflict may be identified as racially motivated, but not yet been charged as a hate crime, it can be considered slander and defamation of character for a public official to make a statement on the conflict without anyone being charged," Ferraz tells NPR. "Public officials can be sued and this can negatively impact their brand reputation with donors and constituents."

NPR reached out to the Montgomery Police Department for further comment, but did not receive a response.

One historian says the question of race is clear

Formal hate crime charges haven't been made, but observers like Derryn Moten, a professor of American history at Alabama State University, are blunt when describing Saturday's attack: "I completely reject the idea that race had no part or played no part in that incident."

To those who disagree, he says, "That's not what my eyes saw, that's not how my brain understood what I was looking at."

Moten, who also serves as chair of the university's Department of History and Political Science, says the fight took place in the area where enslaved people were brought in by boat on the Alabama River — and mere blocks from warehouses where they were held before being sold at auction.

Media outlets and pundits have been discussing these ties between Montgomery's racial history and the brawl. But Moten says what happened in Montgomery isn't exclusive to the South; it's a national problem.

"The incident that happened in Montgomery is not unique to Montgomery," he says. "I don't want, or would not want, anybody to think, 'Oh, these are the types of things that just happen in the South.' No. Sadly, they can happen anywhere in the United States."

He says that race is a factor in many of the issues that currently divide the country, including critical race theory, what some politicians and conservative activists refer to as "cancel culture" and "wokeness," police use of deadly force, and how American history is taught.

"The time period that we're experiencing socially and politically in our country is really interesting in that there seems to be an effort among some, for lack of a better word, to sanitize American history, particularly American history as it relates to enslavement, as it relates to immigration, as it relates to the forced migration of Native people," Moten says. "And all of this done in an effort to paint the United States as exceptional. And I think any honest person who reads American history would find it impossible to accept that notion."

Despite the painful racial fault lines of the U.S. today, Moten says he remains optimistic that things will get better with time, and that "good ultimately will triumph."

"I'm a student of history, so I have a lot of evidence to back that up," he says, citing the reunification of Germany, the end of apartheid in South Africa and, closer to home, the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.

"I think one of the difficult things for a lot of people to accept is that we have to work constantly at making sure that equal protection means equal protection for all. That equal rights means equal rights for all. And that we can't rest on our laurels."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 11, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
An earlier photo caption incorrectly referred to a dock worker instead of a boat co-captain.
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.