Riverboat Captain Says Attack WAS Racially Motivated

Racism was at the heart of a dockside melee in Alabama that went viral over the weekend, according to the captain of the vessel whose Black crewman was attacked by a clutch of allegedly intoxicated white pleasure boaters.

“This whole thing is just because these guys were being assholes,” Capt. Jim Kittrell told The Daily Beast in an interview on Tuesday. “I was nice as a peach when I was talking to them at first: ‘Please, help me out here, fellas. Move the boat up a little bit.’”

The fracas began on Saturday evening when Kittrell found a pontoon boat docked in the spot reserved for the sightseeing riverboat Harriott II. He asked the boat’s owners over his PA system to move but was ignored, according to police. So Kittrell said a friend of his brought a smaller craft out to the Harriott II so a senior deckhand could go ashore and clear the way for the larger vessel, carrying 227 passengers, to dock. Kittrell said he only needed “two or three feet” to maneuver the Harriott II in safely, but after the clearly intoxicated people on the pontoon boat continued to simply disregard him, he had no choice but to call 911.

When Kittrell’s deckhand, Damien Pickett, got to the dock, he carefully pushed the pontoon boat forward by a few feet, so Harriott II could disgorge its passengers. Bystander video showed Pickett, who is Black, trying to reason with the pontoon boaters, who were white. Suddenly, a young white man rushed Pickett and punched him in the face. Other white men and women from the pontoon boat quickly jumped in, assaulting both Pickett and the 16-year-old boy who had taken Pickett ashore, police said Tuesday. (The teen is a deckhand trainee, and the only white member of the Harriott II’s crew, Kittrell said.)

Seeing his outnumbered shipmate being pummeled, one of Pickett’s colleagues—a teenager now known affectionately online as Black Aquaman—swam in to help; several others came to his aid once Harriott II tied up. At this point, the dynamic shifted and the ones who initially brutalized Pickett soon found themselves overpowered in an all-out brawl that appeared to be divided along racial lines.

Three of Pickett’s attackers—Richard Roberts, 48, Allen Todd, 23, and Zachary Shipman, 25—now have warrants out for their arrest for third-degree assault, Montgomery Police Chief Darryl Albert said Tuesday. Reggie Gray, a 42-year-old Black man seen walloping some of Pickett’s attackers with a folding chair, was also wanted for further questioning. While Albert said investigators did not find enough evidence to substantiate hate crime charges, Kittrell believes otherwise.

“The white guys that attacked my deckhand—and he was a senior deckhand first mate—I can’t think of any other reason they attacked him other than it being racially motivated,” Kittrell said. “All he did was move their boat up three feet. It makes no sense to have six people try to beat the snot out of you just because you moved their boat up a few feet. In my opinion, the attack on Damien was racially motivated.”

The rest of the fight, however, “was not Black and white,” according to Kittrell.

“It was just shipmates trying to help a shipmate,” he said. “They could’ve been little green men, for all they cared. When they attacked Damien, my crew was gonna jump out and do the best they could to help him out. It was my crew against the people who attacked their shipmate, that’s all it was.”

Kittrell described any ship’s crew as more of a brotherhood than that of a typical work relationship. He said he has known Pickett for 10 years, setting off on voyages together that are sometimes several days long. They have grown to care deeply about each other, as have the rest of the crewmen, Kittrell said.

At the same time, Pickett is over 40, diabetic, and has hypertension, according to Kittrell.

“He’s not someone who wants to be out there throwing fists,” he went on. “He shouldn’t be. It got me really mad, sitting up there in the wheelhouse knowing there was nothing I could do. I didn’t see it coming; on the boat, I’m three floors up. The whole time, I’m yelling on the PA, ‘Stop! Somebody help!’ It was all I could do.”

The three men facing charges over the attack on Pickett were not familiar to Kittrell, he said. However, he said he recognized them as part of a group of seven or eight pontoon boat owners who travel from Selma to Montgomery each year.

Boaters “tend to be happy and friendly people, they’re normally not a problem,” Kittrell said. This particular set, conversely, has previously caused trouble, he went on, blaming them for once having stolen a golf cart the Harriott II used to transport disabled passengers between the ferry and the parking lot.

But, said Kittrell, “Stealing the golf cart was a joke, a prank. There’s never been any kind of serious trouble like this.”

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