Riverfront brawl brings unwelcome attention to historic civil rights city in Alabama

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The Harriott II riverboat sits docked in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. A riverfront brawl occurred on Aug. 5 when a crew member was punched for trying to move a pontoon boat that was blocking the riverboat from docking.

Kim Chandler, AP Photo

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Three white boaters in Alabama’s capital city will be charged with misdemeanor assault for a riverfront brawl with a Black boat captain that drew nationwide attention, with more charges likely to come, police said.

Videos of the incident, which circulated widely on social media, have proven crucial in investigating what happened, Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert said. One person has turned himself in and the other two have agreed to turn themselves in by the end of the day Tuesday.

“The investigation is ongoing and more charges are likely,” Albert said.

The fight was largely split along racial lines and began when a moored pontoon boat blocked the Harriott II riverboat from docking in its designated space along the city’s riverfront, Albert said. The Harriott II had 227 passengers aboard for a tour.

The viral video of white boaters assaulting a Black riverboat captain and the following melee brought unwelcome attention to the historic city — which is known across the country for the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s and voting rights marches in the 1960s. The city in recent decades has tried to move beyond its reputation as a site of racial tension and to build a tourism trade instead based on its critical role in the Civil Rights Movement.

“I don’t think you can judge any community by any one incident. This is not indicative of who we are,” Mayor Steven Reed said Tuesday. He noted that the people on the pontoon boat were not from Montgomery. “It’s important for us to address this as an isolated incident, one that was avoidable and one that was brought on by individuals who chose the wrong path of action,” Reed said.

Before the fight began, the riverboat captain tried to contact the pontoon boat owner by loudspeaker. People on the other boat responded with “obscene gestures, curse words and taunting,” the police chief said. The riverboat co-captain took another vessel to shore to attempt to move the pontoon boat and “was attacked by several members of the private boat.” Albert said several people from the riverboat came to the co-captain’s defense, “engaging in what we all have seen since on social media.”

Video captured by bystanders showed that once the Harriott II docked, several people from the riverboat rushed to confront the people on the pontoon boat and more fighting broke out. The video showed people being shoved, punched and kicked, and one man hitting someone with a chair. At least one person was knocked into the water.

“The co-captain was doing his job. He was simply trying to move the boat just enough so the cruise ship could park safely, but it quickly escalated,” Albert said.

The police chief said so far the charges are against people from the pontoon boat who assaulted the co-captain and a 16-year-old who got involved. Police are trying to locate and question the man with the chair.

The fight took place along Montgomery’s downtown riverfront in an area where slaveowners once unloaded people from steam boats to be sold at auction.

Now, the city has developed the area into a tourist and recreation place with restaurants, bars and hotels. The Harriott II take tourists on sightseeing trips with food and entertainment, along the Alabama River.

The brawl sparked dozens of internet memes and videos with some joking that the chair should be placed in a local museum.

Albert said while some made racial taunts, the police department does not believe the motivation behind the fight rises to the standard of a hate crime. Alcohol is believed to be an escalating factor, he said.

Christa Owen of Clanton was aboard the riverboat with her husband and their daughter for a dinner cruise to celebrate the daughter’s 12th birthday. She said the riverboat captain said on loudspeaker: “Black pontoon boat, move your boat,” and that passengers also yelled for the boat to move so they could dock.

“They shrugged their shoulders,” Owen said. She said the crew member, identified by police as the co-captain of the riverboat, got off to move the pontoon boat a few feet. Owen said the tension was obvious and mounting before punches were thrown. She said passengers felt helpless as they watched the co-captain get pummeled by several people on shore.

Owen, a stay-at-home mom, filmed the confrontation as it began on the dock. She said as a “mother of many” she knows the importance of being able to document how a conflict started. Once the boat was able to dock, she said her family had to figure out how to get off the boat safely with the fighting going on around them.

“It didn’t have to escalate to that,” she said.

 

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