Last winter, an incident shook the quiet college-town of Charlottesville, Virginia, and brought dormant tensions over race relations bubbling to the forefront of local media. Having just returned home for winter break, I sat at my kitchen table and opened a local newspaper to the headline “Knockout: Victims of brutal Downtown Mall assault want arrests, and answers from police.”
The article recounted the night of December 20, 2013: a man and woman were walking home through an outdoor mall when strangers suddenly emerged and began to attack them. The assault was brutal; the three alleged perpetrators shifted between pummeling the man with punches and kicks (even after he fell to the ground), and also repeatedly striking the woman’s head. The victims were terrified, confused, and outmatched. The male victim, Adams, suffered the brunt of the attack. The article depicted him as “a local musician who at 5’5 and 140 pounds was outsized and outnumbered.” Even as the victims attempted to flee, the men would not end their assault.
Shockingly, the article described how the woman victim, Doucette, “threw her purse at the men, hoping that when they saw the cash inside they’d simply take the money and leave, but they had no apparent interest in robbing her. Instead, she said, they seemed to delight in the brutality.” After several grueling minutes of assault, a bystander called to alert the police. Before the attackers escaped, Doucette captured their photographs on her cell phone. The newspaper article included several of the blurred pictures taken during the attack. Despite the hazy quality of the photos and the dim night lighting, it was evident to every reader that the attackers were all black. The victims in the story were both white.
It would be a lie to claim that my initial feeling after reading the story was anything other than fear. Fear struck me first, and struck me surprisingly hard. I sat in my home, a few miles from Charlottesville, and was shaken by the notion that complete strangers would maliciously assault innocent people simply for fun.
My town was not safe.
However, my initial panic soon gave way to the weight of disappointment. In quintessential Du Boisian double consciousness, I began to consider how race would factor into the public reception of this report. There was alarming self-doubt; a feeling that sinks the hearts of those who have ever fought for a cause, only to see progress crumble at the hands of those they try to defend. Whenever terrible crimes are committed, blacks can only hope they weren’t committed by people that look like us. If I myself, a black man, felt such anxiety at this report, I could hardly imagine the extent of fear, coupled with disgust, that the black community would receive from the outside.
My town was not safe from black people.
The story of the Charlottesville mall attack quickly gained traction as the victims released personal testimonies on social media and in interviews. Almost instantly, they gained the sympathy of the community. Their account also ignited the supportive outrage of a smaller, more radical segment of the population, who demanded better protections for whites against aggressive blacks. The racial tension was palpable; the divisiveness and indignation among our community grew so heated that several news websites had to deactivate the now vitriolic commentary sections on their articles. This race-based contempt sustained itself over the next several weeks, even as surprising new details began to emerge and alter the understanding of the incident.
For example, the reliability of the main victim, Adams, began to waver as the investigation progressed. It was eventually revealed that he was apparently drunken to an incoherent and immobile level on the night of the incident, and seemed to lack reliable testimony and memory of the incident. Apparently both the victims and the assailants had been drinking that evening, but even before the assault began, Adams was reportedly seen stumbling to the ground.
Additionally, the injuries initially claimed in interviews and on social media by the victims would, for the most part, go unsupported by medical evidence. This included circulated claims of a fractured ankle and cracked ribs that doctors later denied (though a damaged tooth was in fact sustained for Adams).
Before long, new information emerged surrounding the assailants, as well. After the initial reports hit the press, two men willingly turned themselves in to authorities. Initially portrayed as hyper-aggressive, senseless thugs, the assailants cast a more nuanced light on their identities after coming forward; at least one of the two black men was a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, and both were openly homosexual. They soon shared their own account of the event, which they called simply a “drunken altercation,” in a separate Charlottesville blog.
The most significant detail that arose in their alternative description, which was later upheld in court, was that the physical altercation was initiated by the woman, Doucette, and not the black men who had been reported to have leapt out of the darkness with fists swinging. The incident began when the men saw Adams stumbling from drunkenness and began mocking him. After a verbal dispute, including alleged racial and sexual slurs coming from both sides, the incident escalated when Doucette “charged” and pushed one of the black men, and Adams and the other man followed up with physical fighting. The eventual court ruling that came months later decidedly punished the two of the black assaulters as well as the female victim, Doucette.
Throughout this saga, local media was complicit in manipulating race as an underlying agent of the story. It was not difficult to catch a whiff of the sour racial anxieties permeating coverage of the story. It was evident in the way the incident initially became news, as well as in the voracious nature through which it spread in my community. More than anything else, this pervasive sense of race-based fear was all too familiar in America’s multiracial communities.
Before any new details had entered the public domain, the most impactful evidence of the incident had already been introduced by the media. I could not accept lightly the amount of emphasis that reporters devoted to the blurry cell phone photos, photos which appeared to show black men in an all-too-believable attack formation. The photographs presented a sort of damning obscurity. The poses were just right, and the detail was only sufficient enough to depict the assailants as young, aggressive, and dark skinned. What was notably missing in the pictures was any perceivable trace of humanity. All that remained was a sense of terror and intimidation. In a way, the photos were the perfect exhibition, taking command of the viewers’ psychological response, garnering support for the victims and incriminating the alleged assailants, even before the full story was told.
Furthermore, there were no recorded or released images of the white victims that night, nor the injuries they sustained. Apparently, none were deemed necessary. The depiction of the assailants singlehandedly confirmed suburban America’s deepest convictions on blacks and their violence, allowing for further evidence in the case to become superfluous, supplementary at best.
The intention is not to claim that the victims were actively racist. They needn’t be. They were likely no more particularly prejudiced than the newspapers and blogs that originally ran their heavily abridged account in the first place. But at some level, perhaps subconsciously, the victims and the publishers alike were comforted by the fact that their account would be believable, largely due to the physical appearance of the assailants. The bastardization of the account took place in part because Doucette and/or Adams knew that they could, given the circumstances, successfully bend the truth. The publishers, too, felt no need to verify details nor question the validity of the account. In short, all parties involved in disseminating the information somehow anticipated that it would be a believable, sensational, and soul-stirring story if the black men had simply emerged out of the dark and attacked white people in some sort of “knockout game.”
By the time that the official court ruling had been announced, local media attempted to reintroduce objectivity and regain a sense of journalistic integrity. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. An irredeemable piece of humanity had already been eroded from the equation, and from the perception of Charlottesville’s black men. The impressions and judgments based on the incident’s initial coverage, that of irrational and hyper-violent blacks, would carry real-world repercussions in terms of my town’s race relations. This sort of media failure, all too familiar in our society, genuinely jeopardizes the livelihoods of black people in America.
Certainly, I think that it was wrong for the men to commit the assault, irrespective of anyone’s skin color. It was also wrong for Doucette to initiate the confrontation with them. But the greatest wrong committed in this story is found in how the details emerged and the way the media portrayed it all. With the sheer amount of indignation, fear, and outrage at the initial reports, a less cohesive community could have easily erupted into chaos. It is important to note the dark historical context of true race-based violence in America. Virginia alone recorded at least one lynching every year from 1882 to 1968, (statistics that only reflect officially documented lynchings). It is not difficult to imagine how in a time when minorities enjoyed far less opportunity to voice a perspective or level an account, terrible and unnecessary outcomes like lynchings could swiftly occur.
The individuals directly involved, the media outlets, and the surrounding community each carried certain responsibilities in the handling of the Charlottesville mall assault incident, but neither met their expectations. When quoted at the end of his eventual trial, Adams (the only involved person to walk away without legal punishment) expressed, “I hope this community can heal after this unfortunate event.” Judging from the manner in which the incident unfolded – in our own town, in our own minds – I cannot help but to remain pessimistic.
Note: The Charlottesville incident was not an anomaly, nor even an extreme case, in terms of falsely alleging black perpetrators in crimes. Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., details half a dozen more high profile cases in the introduction to his book Shades of Freedom. His examples include fabricated crimes ranging from murder to kidnapping to larceny and even domestic abuse, all revealed to be conspiracies to misdirect blame at African Americans.