Today, Eric Zorn reflects on the beating death of 62-year-old Delfino Mora, a disabled Mexican immigrant who was, prosecutors allege, randomly attacked at 5 a.m. on July 10 in a West Rogers Park alley while collecting cans. His family has said that he didn't have the economic need to be scrapping, but unable to work construction after an injury, he did so to contribute what he could. Mora's story is one half of the tragedy; the other is the circumstances, a callous and violent game that prosecutors call "Pick 'em out and knock 'em out," which is what it suggests, a game of random street violence. Since I have an interest in crime trends and how they're categorized, I decided to look into it a bit.
"Pick 'em out and knock 'em out" is, apparently, not the common phrase; it's "point 'em out, knock 'em out." The first reference I can find to it is actually from Decatur, Illinois, from a 2009 murder:
A witness stated the boys claimed to be "tipsy" and were playing a game called "point 'em out, knock 'em out" in which a person was selected and then one of the group would attack that individual and try to knock the victim out, Hitchens said.
The witness alleged Murphy made statements about the blood on his white Nike athletic shoes being from stomping on the victim's head 30 times, and White allegedly stated he had stomped the man, too, Hitchens said. The witness stated that the boys made comments about playing the "point 'em out, knock 'em out" game, he said.
At trial, the motive was found to be robbery. All nine perpetrators were between the ages of 14 and 16; the leader, then 16, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the murder and another, related beating.
It's not limited to Chicago, though it does seem to be more of a Midwestern phenomenon, having arisen in Madison in 2011. The 2011 beating of a homeless man on the Red Line, captured on video and posted to WorldStarHipHop, was attributed to point 'em out, knock 'em out. A few months before that, the Community TV Network's Hard Cover Chicago, a 25-year-old, youth-produced show airing on CANTV, did a PSA-style segment on it.
In St. Louis, it's called "knockout king," and the Riverfront Times did a lengthy story on it: "Knockout King: Kids call it a game. Academics call it a bogus trend. Cops call it murder."
Anecdotally, it would appear that St. Louis youths' predilection for sucker punching dates back at least a few decades.
"When I was growing up in the '80s, we called it 'One-Hitter Quitter,'" says Askia, a South Grand barber who grew up not far from where the Nguyens were attacked. "It was one shot," he elaborates, declining to divulge his last name for publication. "We'd be out in the club or something and pick a random person and drop him to see if we could knock him out."
Rarely, though, has the knockout routine been referred to as a "game." That might explain the visceral public reaction that followed Elex Murphy's arrest.
Elex Murphy was charged with killing a 72-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, one of several attacks attributed to the "knockout game" (the St. Louis Dispatch's term) over the past few years. John H. Tucker's Riverfront Times piece on knockout king is excellent, even if the core of it is as desparingly banal as you might expect:
Kids list various motivations for taking part: glory, boredom, peer pressure and showing off one's toughness. For most the game eventually loses its luster. "It got old on me," fourteen-year-old Jason says. "I'd been playing for a long time — I can't even count.
Brandon Demond says the game proved his manhood.
"I know now I shouldn't have hit 'em," he says. "But I did hit hard."
For the kids who talked to tucker, it's proving their manhood; for Leopold and Loeb, still the most famous teen thrill-killing in history, it was proving their intelligence. Over the passage of almost a century, it's hard not to see the two on the same spectrum.
Is it a "bogus trend"? It depends on what you mean by "trend," but there seems sufficient evidence that it hasn't been concocted out of thin air. Interestingly enough, the incidents of point 'em out, knock 'em out and knockout king in the past couple years aren't the first of their kind to be codified and widely reported; in Europe, in the middle of the last decade, it was called "happy slapping," and despite its anodyne name, was just as violent. In May 2005, the BBC asked "does happy slapping exist"?
"Happy slapping" is thought to have originated as a craze in south London six months ago, before becoming a nationwide phenomenon, police and anti-bullying organisations have claimed.
Videos of the slaps are reportedly sent to other mobile phones and posted on the internet.
News of the trend has prompted widespread fear of groups of young people clad in hooded tops.
In 2009, a 15-year-old and a 14-year-old attacked a 67-year-old pensioner, Ekram Haque, on his way out of a mosque in London. He was struck once, fell down, hit the sidewalk, and died; his killers were just released. The London police reported 200 such attacks from 2005 to 2007; there were far fewer in France, but Nicolas Sarkozy struck to make the filming of violence and posting it online illegal, causing a row with journalists and bloggers.
For Zorn, "the story of Delfino Mora has all but drained the hope out of me." It's hard not to. A few years ago, veteran reporter John Conroy was the victim of a similar attack, and wrote a compelling, depressing account for Chicago, "A Mugging on Lake Street." I'm hard pressed to think of a reporter who's covered the most difficult of topics for as long as Conroy has, with the empathy he's shown his subjects—best known for his decades-long series on police torture in Chicago, Conroy also wrote a book about torture and the men who do it, and he extends an exceptional amount of understanding towards the torturers he interviewed. If not empathy, per se, then a dignified attempt to recognize how "ordinary men," to use his phrase, became torturers.
So Conroy, now at the BGA [update: he left the BGA in March, and has been freelancing], attempted to get his attacker to answer the question why. After his attacker, and the attacker's mother, agreed to participate in Conroy's quest for understanding, Conroy was stonewalled by both of them, and finally by the attacker's uncle, who insisted that if Conroy was going to be paid to write the story, the perpetrator should be paid too.
Larry’s uncle had reason to be wary. Had he said, “I’m sorry, you might be the nicest guy in the world, but I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and I’m not going to let Larry talk to you,” I’d have hung up the phone disappointed but thinking he was a reasonable man protecting his family. But that’s not what he said, and I haven’t words to describe his notion that Larry deserves to be paid. As I see it, Larry was paid. I chose diversion instead of a criminal charge. I invested in Larry. I got duped in the process, but the investment stands, and for all I know, it may have already paid off. The way justice for juveniles works in Cook County, I don’t think there’s any likelihood that he would have gone to jail, and in the end, it’s probably better for all concerned that he’s in a south suburban McDonald’s instead.
The most Conroy could get was "Wasn’t no motive…. Really wasn’t no reason." Had his attacker followed through on his promise to explain his actions, I can't help but wonder if Conroy would have gotten much more than that. It's hard enough for teens to explain their reasons for things; finding one to explain the irrational is harder still. Leopold and Loeb were brilliant, self-aware, and self-absorbed; they were also studied as intensely as anyone who's ever killed, and there's still a void at the heart of that Chicago thrill-killing, the reason it still haunts us.