MONTGOMERY, Ala. — There were no visible traces of the violent melee that just days before had turned the nation’s eyes on this city long enshrined in civil rights lore. But what remained was the poignant image of a Black dockworker being attacked by a group of white men — and the group of Black men who rushed to his defense.
Black residents of Alabama’s capital said they were not surprised that the worker, Damien Pickett, was attacked by at least four white men — three of whom were charged Tuesday with third-degree assault.
They were also anticipating the support Pickett received from Black people who came to his aid — including one young man who plunged into the river from the boat and swam to the dock in his defense.
“You ask a Black person in Montgomery if they are surprised by what happened to that Black man who was just doing his job, and they will tell you straight up, ‘No,’” Kelli Gavin, who has lived in Montgomery for nearly three decades, told NBC News. “But they will also tell you they would have been shocked if Black people hadn’t rushed to help him.”
Even beyond the riverfront, as footage of the brawl made its way onto social media, Black people could not help but see both the painful history behind a Black worker being attacked while trying to do his job, and the rallying around the people who came to Pickett’s defense with jokes, memes and their own remixed videos.
Many Black people interviewed by NBC News said Montgomery is a “comfortable” place to live, but the potential for skirmishes, like the one that took place over the weekend, hangs over the town.
“Whether the brawl was racially motivated or not, the videos showed it was whites fighting Blacks,” Gavin said. “It’s just a long, pathetic struggle of racism here in Alabama. And there’s been an increase in overt bigotry here of late. But for us here, it’s nothing new.”
Montgomery Police Chief Darryl J. Albert confirmed witness accounts that more than 200 passengers on board the Harriott II Riverboat waited at least 30 minutes for a group of white private boaters to move their pontoon, which was docked in the wrong spot and blocking the larger boat. After the captain and Pickett attempted to persuade the rowdy group to move, Pickett untied the boat to make way for the riverboat, witnesses said, which prompted several of the private boaters to attack, Albert said.
“I’m proud my son was born in the Deep South,” said Gavin, 62, who is originally from New Jersey. “There is very much a great sense of family here in Montgomery."
But at the National Museum for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in 2018 and is dedicated to the legacy of enslaved people, "there’s a 24-hour guard there because of the threat of someone defacing it," Gavin said.
"Leaders who fight for justice here have to have 24-hour security because they are tracking white nationalists," he added. We see this every day. That’s a reality of living here."
Several Black people in the city declined to speak to NBC News, citing a fear of “retribution” by whites, which could compromise their jobs or safety.
For historian Richard Bailey, a Montgomery native who wrote the book “Neither Carpetbaggers Nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders During the Reconstruction of Alabama,” the assault on Pickett represented something deeper.
“Whether it is historical or contemporary, Black people were appalled at what happened,” Bailey told NBC News. “And I think, for the most part, that the Black population had flashbacks to Selma and that brutal bridge crossing in March 1965. They had flashbacks to police brutality, to Recy Taylor, and all the way up to George Floyd,” he said.
“It’s Black history being pushed to the present,” Bailey added.
The history woven into Montgomery’s fibers, fueled by oppression and then Black resistance of the 1950s and ‘60s, likely emboldened the Black people who came to Pickett’s aid, Gavin said. That includes the Black 16-year-old who dove into the river.
“They are the children of the ancestors who were here during the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “They were always, like, ‘Hey, you’d better not get on that bus,’” she said, referring to the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott that lasted more than a year.
“This was an isolated incident,” Gavin said of the riverfront altercation, “but the response is the same: We’ve always come together and acted.”
To further Gavin’s point, some on social media compared the Black fighters to superheroes like Aquaman or the Avengers. Others shared their cathartic feelings watching a group of Black people stand up for the cruise employee who was attacked by the white boat owners.
The video also spread to TikTok, where Black creators made videos reacting to the fight, “training” for the next brawl and even releasing songs about the incident. On Instagram Reels, one user re-enacted the fight at a community pool, garnering over 25 million views himself.
Outside of Legacy Barber Shop in downtown Montgomery, about a half-mile from the riverfront, Xavier Christian, 27, said the fracas portrayed well the attitude of Black people in town.
“If I had been there, I would have jumped into it, too,” he said. “Why? Because, for me and a lot of Black people, that was an example of white privilege. They can just park their boat wherever? No. And to gang up on a Black man like that, oh, no, I would have been one of the people getting arrested, too. We’re not having it. We’ve seen enough and know enough about water hoses spraying us and sicking dogs on us. No more,” Christian said.
“No one is condoning violence,” he continued, "but I’m proud of the way we responded because if we don’t, then what? We’ll see it again.”
In Montgomery, the support of Pickett during the melee was perceived by the Black community as a symbolic achievement for a population that is perpetually seeking victories over systemic and structural racism. The city, whose population is 61% Black, elected Steven Reed as its first Black mayor in history in 2019. Reed is up for re-election on Aug. 22.
“There’s no reason for Mayor Reed not to win again, but this is Montgomery,” said Tiara Williams, 31, a restaurant worker. “So, nothing is guaranteed for us. We have to fight for whatever we want. We have to fight to protect ourselves. I’m not saying we’re different from any other place. I just know what happened last weekend happened here ... and no one here who is Black is surprised by it.”
Bailey, the historian, said the incident stems from a combination of white privilege and disregard for Black people.
“That man had on a uniform,” he said. “He was an authority figure, and yet where was the respect? The fact is, he was Black and that’s all they saw. It’s the past manifesting itself in the present. It’s been there all the time. We just hope those attitudes remain dormant, but they don’t. They become dominant every once in a while and remind us of how little has really changed.”
Albert, the police chief, said after Tuesday’s news conference that “racial epithets and obscene gestures and that type of behavior was going on” by the white men charged. “When we talk about racism versus alcohol, we believe that alcohol may have played a part in it. … It was a very beautiful Saturday afternoon where folks are out having a great time. I think folks let emotions get the best of them and they made some very poor decisions.”
Albert announced Tuesday that “based on the elements of this crime,” it would not be considered a hate crime.
The incident, Albert said, was “not a reflection” of life in his city. “The people of Montgomery, we’re better than that,” he said. “We’re a fun city, and we don’t want this type of activity to shed a dark eye on what this city’s all about.”
But the punch has already landed.
“I don’t know if Montgomery is different from other cities, especially in the South,” Clem Robertson, 53, an entrepreneur who grew up in nearby Opelika, said. “But there’s a distinct strength here that exists that we are not going to accept being marginalized or taken advantage of. The history here is what it is. But we’re willing to fight for what’s right. Literally.”