Home Civilization and the Knockout Game
Home Civilization and the Knockout Game

Civilization and the Knockout Game

The Jewish part of Crown Heights is a narrow island a handful of blocks in length and width.

The names; Empire Boulevard, President Street, Eastern Parkway, Montgomery Street; reflect an old vanished grandeur. Like Constantinople after the sack, there are still traces of the old empire, but the faint images of men in top hats and tails walking up the brownstone steps, slightly tipsy after a party, have given way to car alarms and broken glass. There is no longer any romance to the darkness.

Walk one block out of the way and you're suddenly in a dangerous neighborhood. Kingston Avenue is its major commercial street full of bakeries, restaurants, butcher stores, a fish store and children's clothing shops. Intersecting it is President Street; full of lush dilapidated mansions from its past history when it was known as Millionaire's Row.

Along Eastern Parkway there is a corridor that stretches to Prospect Park, Brooklyn's answer to Central Park complete with lake, swans and even a major museum. Along that corridor you can see elaborate townhouses, some with stairways stretching three stories, brownstones and massive old theaters. There are apartment buildings that could be mistaken for Park Avenue hotels and more stone columns than in some Italian cities.

These were the dwelling places and playhouses of an old wealthy Brooklyn elite that considered itself the equal of Manhattan. Its homes were as expensive and tasteful as anything around Central Park.  But those homes are now in ghetto territory. Some are well-maintained; others have gone to rot. There are still graceful old apartment buildings with grand old names with the U's spelled out in V's, but they are crumbling, the asphalt outside is cracked and bored gang bangers wander around outside making defiant eye contact with anyone passing by.

The Crown Heights that I remember from the days when the family would visit friends who lived there was a strange bubble of temporary safety in the midst of a very dangerous area. It is one of those rare examples of what happens when the expected white flight doesn't occur, leaving a small white neighborhood in the middle of the hood. A mote in the eye of the surrounding area. A ghetto inside the ghetto.

It's not accurate to say that white flight didn't take place. There's a reason that millionaire's row is a distant memory. Even most of the Orthodox Jews fled when the outbreaks of violence began. But one  Chassidic group, Chabad or Lubavitch, under the guidance of its Rebbe, decided to stick it out and form a unique neighborhood that serves as the headquarters for their worldwide presence.

On my last visit, I saw a Crown Heights that was bigger than I remembered. There were homes in place where as kids we knew not to even consider setting foot. Chassidic Jews tend to have a lot of children and in two decades population growth had made it necessary to expand beyond the square box of relatively safe and integral streets that I remembered growing up.

Those streets too had not been particularly safe. The older son of our family friends had carried a knife home for the brief walk from the bus stop to his house. He was eleven years old at the time. There were always occasional muggings and assaults, forays by huddled packs of teenagers swiftly passing through the ghetto within the ghetto at night, moving through the darkness around the warm light coming from family homes, and throwing a few punches and then vanishing again.

But Giuliani, elected in part because of the Crown Heights Pogrom perpetrated under the Dinkins administration whose staffer Bill de Blasio has been selected to replace Bloomberg, helped bring  some safety back to the area. Suddenly there were Jews comfortably living on the "wrong side" of Eastern Parkway and when I walked from the massive Grand Army Plaza library (complete with heroic arch, monument garden and fountains) to the old mansions, the area did seem safer.

That was an illusion. Crime rates fell, but the underlying danger never went away. And the ghetto within the ghetto became harder to keep safe as it spilled out into the adjacent streets.

I occasionally saw stories about violence and sexual assaults. Some of those stories were genuinely disturbing. And the pace at which those stories came out increased in the last few years. And so the emergence of the Knockout Game in Crown Heights doesn't surprise me. It's the perfect place for the game to be played.

The Jewish part of Crown Heights is small enough and overpopulated enough to be full of perfect targets. An entire generation of kids is growing up never having seen the old bad Dinkins era when caution was the watchword. Few of them are likely to have ever carried a switchblade for the days when the night comes early and even a short walk from the bus stop can have a bloody end.

The Knockout Game existed in my time, but like tribesmen witnessing the sun and the rain, we didn't have a name for it. It just was. It was something that could happen to you so you had to stay alert. Looking into store windows was an easy trick and adopting the right body posture for when a pack of teenagers was about to pass you came as second nature.

You learned that the attackers liked to strike at people who weren't looking at them. There was some instinct in them that made them, even when they outnumbered their victims, want to strike from behind. There was a feral flash of joy in their eyes when they caught their prey by surprise. It wasn't as good for them if you looked them calmly in the eyes and did not flinch. It ruined their fun.

Most of the time, they didn't attack because they hated. The attack was their idea of fun. They only hated when their victims ruined their fun. In their minds, attacking was legitimate, defending against the attack wasn't. They didn't resent their victims unless they fought back.

That was life in New York City. It's about to be life in New York City again.

The existence of World Star Hip Hop and smartphones has made the consequences more public. In the eighties, the Knockout Game wasn't taped and the average teenage thug pack didn't have access to portable video cameras or any way to share the recordings of their triumphs.

Today gang culture is online. Gangs have forums and there are sites like World Star Hip Hop that all but cater to the violent side. There's no doubt that the economy has played its part, but the presence and absence of violence isn't mere economics.When violence is culture, then it's a cultural problem. Throw together large amounts of fatherless teenagers with no real goal in life except, briefly to become NBA stars or rappers boasting about selling rock, and the Knockout game is inevitable.

Some of the Knockouters will drift back and forth out of prison, heading back to the old neighborhood to hang out with the old gang, catch a meal and a nap at their mother's house, before urging their friends to go out looking for trouble. Others will get steady jobs. Some will even marry the mothers of their children.

Catch them two decades down the road and they'll talk about how they almost wound up going down a bad path before they turned their lives around and they'll have stories of their friends who went from mugging to dealing to shooting. But often those same men, now amiable and wise, shaking their heads at their past selves, will still have left behind a trail of fatherless kids who are repeating the process all over again.

That is the cycle that has to be broken. The neighborhoods around Crown Heights are full of West Indian immigrants who come with united families and give way to a next generation that is as broken as the neighborhood. The social institutions that they build do not hold up. The churches host the elderly and single women. The community centers are where the homeless go. The teen sports leagues occasionally connect a teenage boy with an older mentor; but there are too many fatherless boys and not nearly enough responsible black men to step in and take the place of all those who aren't.

It's not just race that divides the residents of Crown Heights. It's also family.

72 percent of black babies are born to unmarried mothers. Chassidic Jews and their black neighbors both share a high birth rate; but they are divided by marriage and family.

On the "right side" of Eastern Parkway there are Chassidic Jewish families; mothers and fathers with babies in strollers, schoolgirls in uniforms and boys in black jackets and crumpled hats. On the other side of the divide are women waiting for their men, their sons and lovers, to come home. They tell their daughters not to be with a boy who won't marry them and they tell their sons to respect women.

And still the next generation repeats the same cycle.

Civilization is not instinctive. It doesn't come packaged in our DNA. It doesn't even come from schools or books. It has to come first and foremost from the defining human institution; the family.

Where there is no family, men and women revert to their feral instincts, they wear the coat of civilization loosely and cast it aside easily. They let their impulses drive their bodies and worry about the consequences later. They treat violence and sexuality with the casualness that those outside civilization do. It is the family that civilizes violence and sexuality by endowing it with civilizational meaning. Without it, all that's left are dark streets, single mothers, male wolf packs and Knockout games.


  1. Sadly, it's just another example of the rot of Western Civilization that started when, the self indulgent and important ivory tower dwelling amongst us, convinced the world that only science could be objective and that everything had to be left to subjective anarchy.

  2. Having been raised in the Bottoms of Cincinnati, where most kids had no shoes, and Over the Rhine and Northside (my family kept moving North away from the river), I had at least 100 fights by the time I was seven years old. As a teen in Northside, you could get into a fight or punched just walking down the street, but we stuck to own age and gangs. If you punched an old lady or any elderly person, you would be an outcast forever. That would be unthinkable back then. There was no sense in the fights we had, but there was a code of honor for the most part. If you can call it that. I just have this gut feeling that if the media calls punching someone from behind a "game" and they don't see the racial motives in calling it "polar bear hunting" in Cincinnati, then the media is a total collection of liberals in denial and borderline insane. I know it would be big news if the primary players in this game were white because they would be called racists and be charged with race crimes. All I can say is to put your back to the wall when approached by a group and have that gun ready.

  3. Anonymous6/12/13

    Could it be said that the family----as the defining human institution---begins with conscience? And from whence conscience? Or what is conscience to feral instinct? Or what is individual sovereignty apart from conscience?

  4. Anonymous7/12/13

    This has been a highly fascinating post. I am quite interested in the rise of crime in the 70's-90's in northern cities. Hopefully other posts like this will appear around the web. I'm talking now about personal experiences with post-liberation, integration and diversity, not stats.

  5. Thanks Daniel, for reminding me, just as I was teetering on the brink of forgetting, just how much in common the far right shares with the far left, when it comes to a completely absolute disconnect with reality.

    Seriously, you should meet up with the Naderites and babble at each other about just how horrible our cities are, and how much worse they're sure to soon become.

    Or you can just move to Central Jersey already, to a place where you won't have to be near people who frighten you, and perhaps then you can once again focus on writing things that are worth reading.

  6. Anonymous9/12/13

    There you go. A worthless almost-critique of your experiences with Brooklyn, written from a guy in Philadelphia who would know better than you because Right and Left... or Something.

    ...Speaking of a disconnect from reality.

    This was well written and thoughtful. Thanks.

  7. Anonymous9/12/13

    As a UK chap I totally relate to the story and the lesson.

    It's real simple - as Lenin says, destroy the family destroy the country... and that is the political left's objective.

    Whether it's no fault divorce, abortion, "all lifestyles are equally valid" government benefits etc. etc. it has all been an attempt to attack the nuclear family less.

    The disaster you observe in the black community has it's origins in welfare, just as our issues with the white underclass in the UK have the same origins.

  8. One side of my family went from Italy to Bed Sty to Yonkers to Poughkeepsie, and almost every step of the way there was an undercurrent, or more, of violence. By the time I was born, there was also the demand, which has only grown stronger with time, that we turn the other cheek to that violence, pretend it is not there, endure it abjectly and apologetically, for are we not guilty of being white and of trying to avoid confrontation?

    Institutionalizing collective guilt is not the solution to collective guilt, yet what the leaders gathered in South Africa are memorializing at Mandela's funeral is the institutionalization of collective guilt. In America, Mandela became the symbol (fetish is a better word) of eternal re-enactments of forgiveness that requires eternally guilty parties, the whites. This is the reconciliation racket, which is really a condemnation racket. With collective justice replacing colorblind justice, beating a white victim means that you are not guilty, while fleeing a black offender means that you are guilty.

    Forty years ago we were on a path to colorblind justice. But that threatened to actually free us from guilt, and too many people profited from guilt, so we turned over the justice system to identity-based politics and devolved to today. Every aspect of our federal criminal justice system, and much else in society is increasingly geared towards freezing us at that moment of collective guilt and collective condemnation. We can't move away from the neighborhood anymore because there's no place to go where this isn't re-enacted through the education system, the courts, the media -- we cannot try to avoid confrontation because the entire intellectual apparatus of government and academia are intent on universalizing and perpetuating it.

    In 1971, John Updike published Rabbit Redux, one of the four most important and under-rated books of the post-war years, the other three being the other Rabbit books. If you want to know precisely where we went off the path to colorblindness, Updike saw it then and warned us. If you want to see what happens as law becomes entirely impotent in the face of institutionalizing collective guilt, read People Who Have Stolen From Me, an extraordinary book by David Cohen about Harry Sher and Jack Cohen, furniture dealers in post-apartheid South Africa.

  9. Anonymous11/12/13

    Good God Tina, that was a powerful comment. You must have suffered terribly. I'll check out those books you mentioned, thanks for posting.

  10. "There you go. A worthless almost-critique of your experiences with Brooklyn, written from a guy in Philadelphia"

    Who grew up in Newark, New Jersey and also knows Brooklyn pretty well...

    "who would know better than you because Right and Left... or Something."

    ...my comment on Mr. Greenfield's piece here has nothing to do with 'right' or 'left.' In fact, if you possessed even a modicum of reading comprehension you would note that I led my comment above off with something somewhat sort of less than an admirable assessment of the left, itself.

    My problem with this piece is Mr. Greenfield's apoplectic reaction (which is beginning to become a pattern, and which he has done more than once now - can we come back to his dire predictions in ten years, btw, and see if his apocalyptic visions come true? Will he, and you, apologize when they don't?) to the very reasonable choice made by New York City voters to choose to elect Bill de Blasio over Joe Lhota.

    (Or do you have an argument to make in favor of Joe Lhota? In fact, did anybody have an argument to make in favor of Joe Lhota, including even Joe Lhota himself?)

    That's democracy, suck it up and fight for a better future.

    Here in Philadelphia, we're about to lose Michael Nutter, one of the better mayors we've had in recent times, to term limits, and wind up with Darrell Clarke, a regressive machine hack of the lowest sort, who will take us back to the unfortunate John Street days.

    After the inevitable happens, I'm not going to give up and fantasize about destruction of my city, though. Rather, I'm going to keep up the good fight and do all I can to make sure my neighborhood and my city keeps moving on up, despite any and all potential negative impacts and malaise brought upon us by City Hall.

    "This was well written and thoughtful."

    As always, it was certainly well-written, but it was far less than thoughtful.

  11. This article could hardly be accused of being apoplectic. And there was already an escalation in violence.

    Do you seriously believe that once De Blasio really gets to work trashing the Giuliani crime policies, crime won't worsen?

    The argument for Lhota was that he was a competent manager. The argument for De Blasio is that he was a parasitic radical with some kids willing to mug for the camera while promising to ban carriage horses and tax the rich.

    De Blasio was selected by the media which then proceeded to mostly ignore Lhota's existence, when it wasn't slamming him. The same way it acted during the governor's selection.

    But that would be the Nutter who threatened a magazine over an article he didn't like?


  12. Well, this article on 'The Inevitable Downfall of New York' is certainly less doomer than your last one, I will give you that.

    I don't think de Blasio is going to 'trash' anything, so perhaps our differences begin there. We'll surely see.

    You're the New Yorker, let us know how it goes. Preferably, without the hyperbole.

    For example, I don't recall de Blasio, or any of his surrogates, making the argument for his mayoralty quite as you portray it.

    Re: Nutter, I never claimed that he was perfect. I just said precisely what I said. He, along with Ed Rendell, were the two best mayors of my lifetime (again, relatively speaking), and during their tenures, our city has made great gains. We've even managed to record our first population increase since 1950, according to the 2010 census, despite the disastrous, and historically corrupt, John Street regime in between.

    As for the whole "knockout game" stuff, which is in fact in the title of your piece, please. Media gullibility and hysteria are only to be disbelieved when they push leftist memes, I guess?

    I would suggest that this has only become a focus of media lately, precisely because our cities are better places, and there are no more crack wars and machine guns on our commercial strips, etc etc.

    Groups of punks have always engaged in random acts of violence. It's just that nowadays, there's not much else to focus on when it comes to demonizing our cities. Police can deal with this as they do with any other form of assault and gang violence.

    By way of juxtaposition, I'd note that our children and seniors, and everyone else for that matter, are far more at risk of being one of thousands of victims of motor vehicle violence and mayhem, on any given day across America, than they are of being punched by random teenagers walking down the street.

  13. De Blasio campaigned on a promise to trash things like stop and frisk and mosque surveillance. Politicians lie all the time, but I imagine Sandinista Bill will keep these.

    Has nothing to do with media gullibility. The media is being forced to cover something that people have noticed. This is bottom up, not top down.

    And if this is a reaction to otherwise peaceful cities, it would have come up years ago.

    Ah finally, the "More people die of X than Y" so we can safely ignore it argument.

  14. It's good to finally see some facts, but I'm pretty sure de Blasio isn't a Sandinista, Daniel.

    Stop and Frisk is something I don't have a problem with, actually.

    (Nor does our Mayor Nutter, in fact.)

    If it's stopped in NYC, I'm sure the police have other means to deal with crime within the limits of the law. Coming as I do from a family with more than a few urban police officers, they are trained professionals who do their job very well, after all.

    You only "safely ignore" the argument you don't like because you can't defeat it, and have no counterpoint to it. You and I have both walked thousands of miles down urban sidewalks, and I'd bet that just like me, you have never been punched by teenagers, let alone multiple times, or in fact hundreds of times a day, from which car collisions people actually are victimized every day.

    Punches from teenagers? Not so much.

  15. De Blasio was a member of a pro-Sandinista group. He continues to express support for them.

    So yes he is.

    Stop and Frisk helps control gang violence. Take it out of the equation. Combine that with close oversight and gang violence explodes, especially once they feel a lot more confident about carrying guns.

    It's a non-argument. There's always something worse than something else. There's always more people dying of something else. It's the opposite of that approach which turned around public safety and crime stats in places like New York. The broken windows theory worked. Neglect didn't.

  16. Who's arguing for neglect? Certainly not me.

    Even if de Blasio is a complete balloon-head (which I don't believe he is), I still think it's kind of interesting that I'm taking the more classically conservative position here, in that I believe cities are made up of a community of diverse individuals who nonetheless have common interests, and won't let one person, even a purported leader, drag them all down and backward, even if that is his intention (which I don't believe it is).

    What's a non-argument? And if mine is, then what does that make yours, since your worry is so much less worse, by orders of tens of thousands of magnitudes, than the thing I brought up?

  17. Cities are not run by the same people that they are made up of. And any notion that New York City can work without serious policing was already disproven decades ago.

    I don't see any point in rehashing an argument that even liberals avoid openly advocating in elections.

    De Blasio is affiliated with the radical left. And he will push their agenda at the local level just as Obama has at the national level.

    The consequences will be bad.

  18. No city can work without serious policing, and I don't know of anybody who seriously argues otherwise.

    I've seen the radical left, particularly at the point where they merge with the radical right; not in New York yet, but I often run into demonstrations put on by the Black Israelites, and the Nation of Islam types, here where I live in North Philadelphia.

    Believe me, your new mayor is not aligned with them. And be thankful for that.

    Let's see how it goes, then. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, Daniel.

  19. Liberals do argue otherwise. They believe social justice is the only solution.

    I'm not sure what NOI has to do with anything. They're hardly right-wing. And while De Blasio may not be aligned with them, he is aligned with the radical left.

  20. I'm a real-life, actual liberal, and I do not argue any such thing.

    Re: NOI, I didn't say they're necessarily any more right wing than they are left wing. Rather, they're fanatical extremists at that point where the far left and the far right both merge on the end of the spectrum to make very ugly babies.


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