By now, you’ve seen the video of the brawl at the Alabama Riverfront dock in Montgomery, Alabama. But just in case you were preoccupied with something else, let’s do a quick recap: On Saturday, August 5, Damien Pickett, a Black riverboat co-captain, was physically attacked by a group of white men after he asked them repeatedly to move their pontoon boat that was parked in a spot reserved for a riverboat.
This should have had an obvious result; the men should have complied and moved their boat. Yet, it escalated to the point of violence and it was a horrible scene to watch.
The primary reason the video has gone viral is because of the Black people who swiftly intervened. From the 16-year-old young man being dubbed “Black Aquaman” who swam to the dock to the man who wielded a folding chair to defend against the enemy, their courageous actions have inspired memes all over social media.
Three men and a woman from the brawl have turned themselves in to the Montgomery police department. They all have been charged with third-degree assault — a misdemeanor charge that could cost them a fine up to $6,000 and up to one year in jail.
The public response to the Alabama Riverboat Brawl was immediate. As videos of the brawl went viral, it seemed as though everyone took to social media to share their thoughts and reactions. People have also been posting reenactment videos. The incident has, once again, opened the door to conversation about racial tension in this country. Spoiler alert: It’s alive and well.
Watching the video, it’s sad to think about what would have happened if Black people hadn’t intervened. It’s also disgusting to see the level of audacious privilege these white men were on — such comfort with attacking a Black person, believing they’d get away with it.
Racism is more than just mistreating someone based on their race. It is a system of privilege and advantage based on race. There is a hierarchy in this country based on race. Race is so deeply embedded within our society, and the brawl is just a consequence of a much larger systemic problem.
Ironically, the brawl took place in Montgomery where the history includes centuries of Black-targeted brutality. Not far from where the brawl took place is a deep history of the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1808, the U.S. Congress banned the importation of enslaved people from Africa. The high price of cotton, as well as the development of the cotton gin, caused the demand for slave labor to greatly increase, paving the way for the Domestic Slave Trade to meet this demand. Over the next fifty years, slave traders transferred hundreds of thousands of enslaved people to Alabama.
The enslaved population of Alabama grew from less than 40,000 to more than 435,000. Alabama had one of the largest slave populations in America at the beginning of the Civil War. Montgomery was a major slave trading center. Enslaved people who arrived at the riverfront were paraded through the streets and sold in the city’s slave markets.
You see, Montgomery is no stranger to racism and injustice. Nearly 60 years after a white supremacist bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four little Black girls, 70 years after Rosa Parks and others lead the Montgomery bus boycott to challenge segregation, and 73 years after the last documented lynching in Montgomery, a group of white men thought they could assault a Black man, in public, with mostly Black people watching, with no repercussions.
I believe it’s important to understand why Black people everywhere are laughing and celebrating what happened. It’s really rather simple: Black people are fed up. More importantly, we’re tired.
It’s the kind of tired that can’t be remedied with an afternoon nap. We’re fed up and tired of being the victims of violence at the hands of white people.
There was absolutely no way that a ferry full of Black people, witnessing a Black man being beaten, was not going to get involved. It was almost as if Mr. Pickett throwing his hat up in the air was a signal of Black solidarity in action — a call that said, “Not Today” and Black people understanding exactly what needed to be done.
No one is condoning violence but my soul is well at the way Black people responded. If they didn’t, we may be having a different conversation regarding Mr. Pickett. We needed this win and to see our people come together, in the name of justice.
This time, there was no murder. This time, there was no need to hashtag someone’s name and send prayers to their family. We’re not laughing at the fight. We wish there wasn’t a fight at all. We’re celebrating because another Black family didn’t have to bury a loved one. We’re laughing because usually we’re grieving.
So, if a hat thrown in the air caused a group of strangers to assemble like The Avengers — armed with a remarkable swim stroke and basic folding chair — we’ll take that win. We’ll laugh and celebrate for so many who can’t: those that didn’t have anyone come to their rescue.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.