Posted on August 16, 2023

Racial Tensions Linger in Montgomery After Dock Brawl

Molly Hennessy-Fiske et al., Washington Post, August 12, 2023

When he noticed their path was blocked, Steven Clayton Thomason, an entertainer aboard the Harriott II ferry, began a singalong among the more than 200 passengers: I need you to move that boat!

A pontoon boat was blocking the way of the commercial vessel trying to dock. Thomason, known as “Wildcat” among his friends, picked up his cellphone and started recording as the ferry’s co-captain argued with a White man about the obstructed path.

What unfolded next has made the rounds on social media and tested racial tensions in the historic town on the banks of the Alabama River: The co-captain, Damien Pickett, who is Black, was attacked by several White men, falling to the ground as he endured kicks and punches. Soon, the deck was flooded with people coming to his defense — ferry crew, passengers and passersby, most Black — turning the fight over a docking space into a brawl that fell largely along racial lines.

Thomason, 57, who has been performing as a singer on the ferry for more than a decade, said he shouted so long and hard that, days later, his voice is still hoarse.

“Everybody was mad” about the attack on the co-captain, he said. “So the Blacks fight back. Now all of a sudden we’re heroes to the world. But what is Jim Crow really going to do?”

The response to the melee, which has captured headlines across the country, has become a litmus test for Montgomery, a blue city in a red state, the first capital of the Confederacy turned civil rights icon. The city, which is more than 60 percent Black, elected its first Black mayor in 2019, but still is wrestling with its past.

Montgomery has been trying to establish itself as a destination on the burgeoning civil rights tourism trail, touting its place in the history books. But that depends on tourists and local residents feeling safe downtown, officials acknowledge, which the brawl could make more difficult.

“If any place understands the progress that’s been made going back decades, it’s this city,” Mayor Steven Reed, a Democrat, said {snip}

Police have charged four people, all white, three men and a woman, with misdemeanor assault in connection with the fight. A Black man was also charged with disorderly conduct.

But the fallout is continuing. Civil rights activists have held protests outside a mini mart in nearby Selma allegedly owned by one of the men charged.

“This whole thing has woken up a sleeping giant,” said Faya Rose Touré, a Black activist and lawyer who organized the event. Black people “are the ones who keep these White businesses open. If they don’t start supporting us, we won’t keep supporting them.” There will be more protests, she predicted.


In Montgomery and the rest of the state, Reed said, racism is, “always just beneath the surface. It doesn’t take much for it to show itself.”

He called videos of the fight “disturbing” and “cringeworthy” but said the FBI didn’t find grounds for hate crime charges.

“From what we’ve seen from the history of our city — a place tied to both the pain and the progress of this nation — it seems to meet the moral definition of a crime fueled by hate, and this kind of violence cannot go unchecked,” Reed said.


The melee erupted late Saturday after the Harriott II waited more than 40 minutes for the smaller boat to move and Pickett, the co-captain, went ashore to address the problem. Passengers had enjoyed dancing and drinks aboard the 19th-century riverboat as part of Montgomery’s popular Riverfront Park but now were in limbo.

Ferry Captain Jim Kittrell, who is White, said that the White men involved in the fight had caused problems for the Harriott II before and that he believed the attack on Co-Captain Pickett was “racially motivated.


Reggie Ray, 42, a Black man who wielded a folding chair during the brawl, was charged with disorderly conduct, police said. {snip}

From his office in a downtown high-rise, Thomason, the ferry entertainer, pointed down to Commerce Street, where enslaved people were once marched up from the river for sale, and at a statue of Rosa Parks on the corner where she began her historic bus protest. Up on the hill stood the gleaming state capitol.

He says he worries that city leaders will face pressure to bring charges against Black crew members and ferry passengers involved in the fight. {snip}


Anwar Price, a 42-year-old Black resident, tried to break up the brawl. {snip}

It is understandable that many saw racist motives behind the incident, he said, but he said that he didn’t hear any racial slurs and that it appeared the White boaters truly thought they were in the right.

“I think in their mind, they were thinking, ‘Hey, we’re not doing anything wrong. We’re in a public space; y’all are just bothering us,’” he said.