Knockout Myth Poster 01

“Knockout”: The Making of an Urban Legend

News story after news story suggests that this game is an emerging trend, one that's sweeping the nation. Neither is true

The game popularly referred to as “knockout,” in which teenage boys punch random passersby for the sheer thrill of it, has become a cultural phenomenon. Many TV outlets have run stories about it over the last couple of months, and some have feasted on the topic as if it were a delectable Thanksgiving turkey, good for multiple servings. For example, Greta Van Susteren, host of the Fox News show On the Record, talked about little else toward the end of November, even suggesting at one point that President Obama himself should intervene to help us deal with the problem.

Tweet to us: Do you know anyone who has been “knocked out?”

To appreciate the frenzy over knockout, you have to begin with the case of Ralph Eric Santiago. On Sept. 21, three black teenage boys from Jersey City, New Jersey—two of whom were 13, and the other 14—were charged with killing Santiago, a 46-year-old homeless man living in the nearby town of Hoboken. CBS New York reported the full story that day, saying that Santiago had been found with his head “lodged between two posts on a wrought-iron fence.” It was apparently the result of a single blow that, CBS said, “detectives believe was a game of knockout.”

The CBS follow-up report two weeks later presented the game as a lurid, emerging urban trend. After the anchors’ introduction of the segment, the camera cuts to a young, unidentified thin-bearded black man standing on a Jersey City sidewalk. “Knockout is a game that a lot of our teenagers play,” he says, “just where they dare one of the guys to just randomly choose anybody walking down the street,” and knock them out. The camera then cuts to footage from a Hoboken convenience store security camera, near the crime scene, which shows three blurry black teenagers—the accused—walking in the door.

The viewer is told, via voiceover, that the boys were “allegedly playing knockout.” The segment then cuts to a YouTube clip of a black teenager punching a large, unsuspecting white man in the face. The clip comes without explanation, and the circumstances under which it was made are unknown, but a second boy can be heard saying, “James! The one-hitter quitter!” before the camera cuts back to the unidentified black man on the street, who elaborates: “You try to hit with one swing.” Then there is a succession of interviews with blurry-faced, giddy black teenagers, clearly excited by the presence of a television camera, reaffirming the essence of the game.

Then another surveillance video, this time of James Addlespurger, a 50-year-old white teacher—the only person identified in the piece—who casually walks down an alley in broad daylight, approaching a group of black teenagers, one of whom, out of nowhere, steps toward Addlespurger and hits him in the side of the head, dropping him to the curb. Then more street interviews with blurry-faced black teenagers, who are asked, “What’s the point?”

“For the fun of it,” one answers. “Like for little kids to run around and hit people and knock ‘em out. Even though they shouldn’t be doing it, but people do it.”

“They think it’s funny,” a girl adds. The segment concludes with the thin-bearded man soberly stating, “It could be anybody. It could be a mother with her children.” The piece has been viewed on the Internet more than 3 million times.

Yet there is a problem: It’s not at all clear that Santiago was a victim of knockout. In his case, there was the footage of the three black teenagers entering a convenience store near the scene of the crime, and apparently, unreleased video evidence from an apartment building showing one of the boys hitting Santiago.

But there were no eyewitnesses reported in the area, despite the fact that the assault took place in broad daylight at a time, late in the day, when Third Street, where the incident happened, is heavy with foot traffic. And no one bothered to question the oddness of the condition in which Santiago was found, with his “head lodged between two posts on a wrought iron fence.” The fence is about 3-and-a half feet high, and the posts are spaced at intervals of less than 5-and-a-half inches—not an easy width through which to fit a head. Other than the qualified reports that would appear in the news—”detectives believe it was a game of knockout”—it is unclear how the game became part of the story, or whether any of the boys had confessed to playing it.

Some news outlets simply misreported the incident entirely. CNN suggested that Santiago was impaled and killed by the fence—even though the posts’ edges are flat, not pointy. Fox, meanwhile, mistook Santiago for James Addlespurger, the 50-year-old teacher from the CBS segment. Addlespurger, it later turned out, had been hit in 2012, in Pittsburgh. His attacker had been arrested, and told police his actions had nothing to do with “knockout.”

“This was just a random act of violence,” the police commander said on television last year. “He stated that he was just having a bad day.”

The frenzy over knockout is reminiscent of a different urban crime that created a sort of panic back in 1989.

New York Daily News April 22, 1989 headline

On April 22 of that year, The New York Daily News ran a headline that read: “Park Marauders call it: ‘WILDING.’” It was a reference to a rape that had taken place two days earlier in Central Park, for which several black teenage boys had been arrested. Police ultimately coerced them into making false confessions despite their innocence, and despite the fact that none of the evidence from the crime scene suggested they were guilty, nor did their respective “confessions” accord with one another.

The victim was a 29-year-old white woman—a single investment banker who’d been out for a nighttime jog, not far from her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In addition to being raped, she was also beaten nearly to death, and once the boys were arrested and made to confess, the incident captured the nation’s imagination, as it seemed to confirm all the crudest racial and socioeconomic stereotypes and prejudices of the period, particularly with respect to the dangers of big cities. And of course, the press, credulous and unquestioning, helped shape the narrative.

In her 1992 essay, “Sentimental Journeys,” Joan Didion says the “Central Park Jogger,” as the rape victim anonymously came to be known in the papers, became the unwitting embodiment of “New York’s ideal sister, daughter, Bacharach bride,” whereas the black teenagers, by contrast, represented villainy, truculence, and “wolf pack” brutality, “wolf pack” being an adjective often used in the tabloids when describing the boys.

In the Daily News story that carried the curious term “wilding” in the headline, the top of the article went on to clarify the term as “a crime spree in which nearly three dozen youths roamed Central Park,” “randomly attacking anyone they found.” This recalled Reconstruction-era tales popular in the South that equated black men with savage animals who, free of their shackles, would rape innocent white women.

Central Park Five

But the term “wilding,” in this case, had murky origins. Sarah Burns, author of The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One Of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes, explains it this way: “While some of the teenagers were in a holding cell, the police reported that they had been laughing and joking and began singing the popular song ‘Wild Thing,’ by rapper Tone-Loc. In the song, doing the ‘wild thing’ refers to sex, but police may have misinterpreted this, thinking the boys were talking about their own activities, and ‘wild thing’ became ‘wilding.’”

The knockout narrative is cut from the same cloth: It’s a pseudo trend jumpstarted by a news report about Santiago that went viral, fueled by white fear of black youth run amok.

The Santiago case became the cornerstone of the knockout narrative because the CBS segment was replayed widely. Earlier incidents in St. Louis, Columbus and Buffalo, which may or may not have fit the knockout specifications, didn’t receive such massive media attention and failed to gain traction beyond the local level.

By Thanksgiving, knockout was a full-fledged phenomenon, with news sources as vaunted as The Washington Post suggesting (with the appropriate qualifiers, of course) that certain episodes “may be part of a disturbing trend.” Breitbart.com was a more direct in its reporting, claiming, “The ‘Knockout Game’ thrives in areas where victims are unarmed,” and running the article, which was shared almost 300,000 times, with an image of a black hand gripping a gun.

But perhaps most shameless of all was Greta Van Susteren. On Nov. 24, at the end of her show, she said that all week she’d been calling for “President Obama and other African-American leaders to step up and speak out because so many African-American young people are involved” in “knockout,” which, she added, is a “term…already creeping into our everyday vernacular.”

Yet for all the hyperbole, no one accurately reported the history of the game and that it lacks any racial overtones. The term first entered the media’s lexicon in 1992, when three teenagers from Cambridge, Massachusetts—two white, one Latino—killed a Norwegian student who was attending MIT. One of the boys punched him in the face, and another stabbed him to death.

The Boston Globe reported in September of that year, “Teenagers call it ‘knockout,’ and it’s a modern-day version of survival of the fittest, where young toughs, often fortified with lots of beer, try to floor a stranger with one punch in a ‘game’ for kicks and to earn a twisted kind of respect.”

Respond Now
  • Dear Mike Spies,Okay, now I understand. I wended my way here via NY Magazine Worst of Twitter 2013. They are very comfortably-well-off-liberal-and-outraged, while condescending toward everyone who is not like them. From there, I made the mistake of visiting No More Tabs 6 Dec 2013 entry via the quite nice TinyLetter. And THAT is where I read the following mistruth,

    “Two quick followups from the Week of Dumb Hoaxes: the knockout game really truly doesn’t exist so when you see it in the news, you can know for a fact that that news outlet is cynically exploiting fear and racism for profit.” 

    That isn’t quite what you said, although it all segues well. But I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I failed to do my own research. As a not-elderly Jewish widow in the hinterlands, I forget about media allegiances, back in the wonderul metropolis that I loved, New York City.P.S. You have a GREAT user interface for comments. It has all the UX charm of Fast Company, with much better functionality. Your OAuth login even works right, more reliably than MIT’s Technology Review. Good job!

  • To the author, @mikesiesnycWhy are you making polarizing allegations about white fears of black youth? Media coverage of black youth is minimal these days. Violent crime reports by black perpetrators on not-black victims are vanishingly small in number.What is the basis for your allegations here?

    On April 22 of that year, The New York Daily News ran a headline that read: “Park Marauders call it: ‘WILDING.’” It was a reference to a rape that had taken place two days earlier in Central Park, for which several black teenage boys had been arrested. Police ultimately coerced them into making false confessions despite their innocence…

    That was 1989. Linkage between Knockout and the Central Park rape crime is tenous or non-existent. It seems like YOU are no different from Greta van Susteren, in trying to spread misinformation and incite racial strife!

  • What an asinine article! Look, first of all, this “game” has been going on for many decades. I was a victim once as a teenager, standing at the bus stop, minding my own business, when I was attacked from behind without warning. I staggered, but didn’t go down. Turning around, I saw a young black kid run behind a row of about 4 or 5 of his friends, in case I might fight back. What could be more cowardly? You wanna be tough? Challenge me openly, with warning, & one-on-one. These pieces of garbage deserve to be shot.

  • 1. There are dozens of incidents on camera. Forget about the jokers of the major media outlets who cannot get anything right (just check out their ludicrous internet security scare stories). Check out books like “White girls bleed a lot” (http://whitegirlbleedalot.com) or take yourself to wordlstarhiphop.com and liveleak.com and simply watch video after video of black-on-white violence. 2. The the kids themselves confirming they do it. They gleefully admit to it. Its common knowledge. The game is also really old. In London, during the early days of the Notting Hill Carnival, there was a game where every time a certain artist was played by the DJ, some white dude got a kicking. Happy Slapping – a variant of this game – was common here some time ago. There the game was to slap a stranger, but it soon graduated to knockout. It took the murder of an elderly Asian man to get some attention on the issue. 3. It is possible that the media are generating an artificial brouhaha to use for slow news days, but usually they storm over white racism and (exceedingly rare) race attacks on minorities. Its quite refreshing that the topic of minority racism and violence is getting some airtime. All racism should be exposed and fought. 

  • Easiest solution to such problems (regardless of race) is to have every credible US citizen carry a gun. You will see the end of such behavior very fast when these wannabe “men” learn they will wind up dead instead.Unfortunately, it seems that such behavior runs rampant in the youth and young adult black community. It may be a myopic view due to news reporting.Taking these punks (again, regardless of race) out as they do this stuff will serve the greater good by removing these sociopaths from the gene pool, and teaching those who can be rehabilitated to get out of that way of life very fast before they too are taken out of the gene pool.Side note: I remember hearing there was DNA linking the “5″ to the Central Park rape and that was why it was only the five and all of those known to have been there.

  • Please send me a check for the money I need to pay for the black men that attacked me and took out my front tooth. 14k, I can send you the address, since you are so much more knowledgeable on who is attacking us than those of us who are actually being attacked. Deuschbag.

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • I don’t understand… The article chronicles the attacks, makes a fairly good case for the media’s reaction to the attacks,and then says, “there were no credible witnesses”.  This sounds alot like what G-Dmned trial lawyers do… the ones who think they are smarter than everyone else (typical sociopath’s belief).Also alot like political hacks furthering their party’s agendas.

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  • How dare those unprivileged black persons commit crimes that confirm our crudest prejudices!

  • Great read and totally agree! 

    1 Reply - Reply Now
    • You People Are All Uptight About Young BlacK Men Playing Knock Out,But What About All The Young White Men Going Around In ThesE Schools Shooting Up The Place Killing Eachother With Trench Coats On ,And Shooting Up Movie Theaters. Violence Is Violence Let’s Stop Looking Down On One Race. And At Least There Not ShootinG  Up  A School Full Of Innocent People.  P.s   BLACKMAN…

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