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A White Mob Attacked a Black Riverboat Captain. This Time, His Life Mattered.

That the dock worker was not presumed to be the aggressor against the attacking white mob is a victory for Black lives.

The Harriott II, a riverboat, remains docked on August 8, 2023, on the Alabama riverfront in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

On Saturday, August 5, a group of white boaters violently attacked Damien Pickett, a Black riverboat co-captain in his 60s who asked the boaters to move their pontoon so the riverboat could dock. Instead of respecting the authority of the captain, the white boaters began to hit him repeatedly and knocked him to the ground. Any uncertainty about the racialized nature of the incident is put to rest by the hurling of a racial epithet. Witnesses heard the assailants exclaim “fuck that n*****r” just before they attacked Pickett.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the violence is that it took place at the riverfront in Montgomery, Alabama. By the antebellum era, Montgomery had become one of the largest domestic slave trading cities in the country. Hundreds of thousands of Black enslaved people were brought from the North and Upper South to the city by white slave traders and sold to enslavers from across the region. Black adults and children disembarked steamboats upon their arrival in Montgomery at the very dock where last Saturday’s incident unfolded.

What occurred at the riverfront dock in Montgomery on August 5 was a mob attack of a Black man who was simply exercising his right to perform the duties of his position as riverboat captain. His white attackers settled into a knowledge — a comfort born from the exigencies of enslavement, born from the systemic dismissal of judicial procedures that historically empowered lynch mobs — that their actions against a Black person would not be disrupted, and they would not be prosecuted. That their violent actions were executed in broad daylight in the face of countless witnesses further reifies that the white people who assaulted Pickett believed what they were doing was justified, reasonable.

The very nature of their highly visible act, coupled with their use of the n-word, demonstrates a longstanding belief held by too many in this country about the devalued nature of Black people’s rights and humanity. It is a belief that has historically found repeated legal standing in countless court cases. Perhaps none, however, revealed with such precision how generations have construed and constructed the racial hierarchy in the United States as the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford. When then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered his pointed and overreaching majority opinion in Scott, he brazenly declared that Black people were “so far inferior” that they had “no rights that the white man was bound to respect.”

Indeed, the actions of those who attacked Pickett sit squarely on a historical continuum of the racist ideology that undergirded Taney’s dictate. Such ideologies, validated historically through the directives of law, continue to empower some white people to so firmly believe that the place of Black people is on the lowest rungs of the racial hierarchy that they will quell, frequently with violence, any suggestion echoed by Black people that they are citizens with inalienable rights equal to all others.

This white patrolling of Black people’s place has too often ended with the white assailant(s) going unpunished and Black victim(s) going to jail or dying a violent death. Not this time, not on what some Black people have taken to calling “Bloody Saturday” in a clear reappropriation of the outcome of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, just 54 miles from Montgomery, where nearly 600 courageous, peaceful Black protesters were brutally beaten by law enforcement agents and local citizens on March 7, 1965.

This time — unlike in Selma or more recently in Minneapolis, Staten Island, Louisville, or any of the cities across the country where countless unarmed Black people have been beaten or killed by police or local white citizens with impunity — Black inalienable rights prevailed, or at the very least were actually acknowledged through the actions of law enforcement agents who have arrested or issued arrest warrants for multiple members of the white mob in Montgomery, and only one of the Black people involved in the incident.

At the dock in Montgomery, African Americans came immediately to the aid of a community member in need. They were not going to witness another unarmed Black man die at the hands of racism. It is a victory that has allowed African Americans nationwide to take pride in their ability to immediately unite in the face of racialized threat and ensure an outcome that did not usher in the death of yet another innocent Black person.

Since Saturday, the overwhelming proliferation of Tik Tok videos, memes, shorts, and other social media creations capture a feeling of joy from the outcome of this incident that some have interpreted as inappropriate reveling. Instead, Black people’s heralding of the Montgomery incident should be read as indicative of a relief that Black lives mattered this time: The dock worker was not presumed to be the aggressor by law enforcement, nor was the white mob presumed to be innocent. Black people’s rights were acknowledged, respected, even privileged. This time, Pickett and those who came to his aid lived to see another day on the very ground where their ancestors were never afforded any presumption of inalienable rights nor of innocence.

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