Montgomery brawl speaks to state of civility in America

Respect Society

Montgomery brawl speaks to state of civility in America

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A brawl in Montgomery, Alabama, this month had clear racial elements. Yet it also said something important about why incivility is rising in the U.S. – and what can be done about it.

The racial elements are inescapable. One eyewitness account cited in a court document says racial epithets were used toward one of the Black crewmembers before the start of the fight. At a time when bystander videos have often captured scenes of police violence against people of color, the videos hold disturbing echoes.

Yet the videos also say something important about the state of incivility in America. The riverboat captain told The Daily Beast that the brawl, once it started, was not a “Black and white” thing. He added to WACV radio: “This was our crew upset about these idiots.”

Cultural commentators point to rising concern about fights and violence from schoolhouses to Waffle Houses. An Instagram video of an American Airlines pilot chiding passengers for being “selfish and rude” has 4.6 million views, reports People magazine.

On one hand, the videos point to something that, in a way, went right. The white boaters were clearly in the wrong, and people came to the aid of the Black deckhands, both during the fight and since.

“There’s something cathartic about the video,” says Dr. Moten, a historian at Alabama State University in Montgomery. “We can’t remain silent. We can’t live in harmony if we allow people to vent their abuse on someone in language or otherwise because they’re angry or frustrated.”

Curiously, amid this catharsis, there have also been online memes and humor. One man who jumped into the water to get to the brawl has been dubbed “Scuba Gooding, Jr.” The jokes aren’t just because no one was seriously injured. They point to a nation seeking ways to dispel what, for many, has become a pervasive pall of bad behavior.

“These kinds of videos mean a lot to people at a time when they are feeling these kinds of tensions around the country on a bigger level,” says Joel Penney, a social media expert at Montclair State University and author of “Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape.” “They are little morality plays that become a way to talk about this larger set of issues that’s more complicated and abstract.”

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These concerns have intensified in recent years. In 2018, shortly after a deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, 80% of Americans worried that negativity and incivility would lead to violence, or even acts of terror, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Among 846 public schools, 56% saw a rise in classroom disruptions from student misconduct during the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some 48% also saw an increase in acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff. At Waffle House, workers have insisted that the corporation adds security, given the prevalence of late-night fights.

The acrimony can play out on the biggest stages and in small towns. Social media titans Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, of X and Meta, respectively, bantered about meeting in a cage match.

Meanwhile, the Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts, recently posted rules about patrons acting civilly after a series of problems. “Creating these rules is a response to the current state of the world around us,” the museum’s director wrote recently. “A world where civility, empathy, respect for others, how we treat each other – a.k.a. the golden rule – have deteriorated.”

What happened in Montgomery

The confrontation in Montgomery began when the Harriott II riverboat, carrying more than 200 passengers waiting to disembark, needed a smaller boat to move. The captain spent 45 minutes hailing the boaters, asking them to move their craft. After being told off, a senior crew member from the riverboat hitched a ride to the dock and loosened the smaller boat’s mooring lines to slide it down the dock from its reserved spot.

At that point, he was attacked by a white man, who was soon joined by several others. One of the deckhands jumped in the water to swim to his colleague’s defense. When the ferry docked, a second, larger brawl ensued, with one man wielding a deck chair.

Mayor Steven Reed, elected in 2019 as the city’s first Black mayor, said no fighting is acceptable. But he said the boaters’ sense of entitlement and willingness to gang up on a man trying to do his job went beyond the pale.

“[My] perspective as a Black man in Montgomery differs from my perspective as mayor,” he said at a press conference. “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.”

Much of the online commentary has been around the fact that many Black bystanders rushed in to defend the riverboat crew. At a time of heightened tensions, race can be a powerful driver of events like the Montgomery fight.

“The racial animus is so whipped up that it doesn’t take much to provoke people,” says Dr. Moten, who wrote the introduction to “Crusader Without Violence,” a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Sadly, there is something like what happened in Montgomery happening almost on a daily basis at a bar, at a baseball field, in a football arena – there’s just too many of these incidents.”

The light-hearted online banter seems to be at least in part an attempt to defuse that. “To take a step back, one of the things that strikes me about the reaction to the videos, especially given that it was such a racially loaded incident, is that people find it funny,” says David Schmid, author of “Natural Born Celebrities.” “It becomes a kind of comic relief in part for all the other things that are happening” in the country.

Is there a solution?

Holding people accountable is part of the solution. The Black riverboat senior crew member was clearly “doing his job,” says Mr. Schmid, a professor at the University at Buffalo in New York. It’s “a no-brainer for law enforcement. It’s a perfect opportunity for them to be seen doing the right thing.”

In the riverboat case, 13 people were detained and four people were charged with third-degree assault, while another person was charged with disorderly conduct. These are all misdemeanor offenses.

More broadly, there are some signs of improvement. Incidents of unruly behavior by airline passengers peaked in 2021 at 5,973. As of Aug. 6, the number for this year is 1,177, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Encouraging civility means building a communal case for it, says Joan McGregor, a philosophy professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. That can include giving people skills and habits to be considerate and helping people behave in ways that make others feel included.

“We’re seeing this web of social norms which go from clear incivility or even to harm, but also just to good manners,” says Dr. McGregor. “When we think about how we live in a complex society with lots of people who may be different from us, we have to share these norms and values and ideals.

“But it does require us to put our selfishness and our narcissism – our sense of entitlement – to the side,” she adds. “We all are in a lot of ways very vulnerable creatures and require people to extend us kindness, not just because it’s something we deserve, but that’s the way civilized societies work.”


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