By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Every now and then, Blake Cater gets an appetite for a fight. There's something about a brawl -- a punch-out, a good old-fashioned throwdown -- that gets his adrenaline pumping. So with a few of his friends, he goes into his back yard and has at it.
And invites the world to watch.
Armed with a digital video camera, Cater and his friends tape their slugfests and post them on video-sharing Web sites, including Cater's Myspace.com page. The images tell a succinct, brutal story -- punches landing squarely on jaws, fists flattening noses, neck-straining headlocks followed by jackhammer storms of more blows to the face.
Cater says no one has been badly injured -- hey, these guys are friends -- although participants can usually count on some bloody lips, plenty of sore knuckles and a few bruised egos. "I'm not in any way a violent person," says Cater, 22, who lives in Burlington, N.C., "but I enjoy getting out there and fighting when I can."
There's more where that came from. Lots more. The convergence of cheap cellphone and digital cameras, easy-to-use video-sharing Web sites and good old human anarchy has created a whole subgenre: the amateur fight video, now playing all over the Internet. On such sites as YouTube.com or Google Video, you'll increasingly find a treasure-trove -- or a cesspool -- of people beating on other people, caught on tape by passersby, friends and other photographers. Some of the violence is consensual. Most of it isn't.
Taken together, the fights might be America's unfunniest home videos, an archive of human aggression or a catalogue of stupidity and senselessness. They're also documents of dangerous and illegal behavior, since fighting in public is typically a felony. Although the combatants in fight clips are rarely identified, let alone arrested or punished, fight videos occasionally pop up on the police blotter.
In Arlington, Tex., last month, police arrested six men and boys, allegedly members of a gang called Playas After Cash, for arranging street fights and selling DVDs of the mayhem over the Internet; a 16-year-old participant in one of the recorded fights was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage. And in April, a seven-minute video of two girls fighting in Fresno -- while one of the girls' mothers watched -- led to a flurry of news reports and a police investigation of the mother for child endangerment (the girls were suspended from school).
There are grainy videos of men belting, head-butting and kicking other men, and shaky camera shots of girls and women hitting, scratching and stomping each other. The soundtrack is usually the excited voices of spectators, but many of the clips have been set to music (usually hip-hop or thrash metal). Most are devoid of context or explanation, or even provocation.
The settings are anyplace and everywhere. One arm-flailing fight takes place between surfers offshore. And a three-minute video of a Russian street brawl appears to pit two small armies of young men. As the camera rolls, the two mobs move toward each other at a slow walk, then combust into anarchy.
In interviews, representatives of video-sharing Web sites seemed only vaguely aware that fight videos are being posted on their services. A few even needed the concept explained to them.
All the major Web services employ teams of people to scour user postings and remove objectionable material. But since nudity and sexually oriented videos command the most attention, violence often slips past.
Google Video has no specific prohibition on clips featuring fighting, but Peter Chane, business products manager for the site, says his company will flag videos "in which someone is hurt or someone dies." Except that the extent of injuries in fight videos isn't always clear. Google Video, in any event, hosts plenty of mayhem, including brawls that leave participants motionless and apparently unconscious. "We try to be as open as possible," Chane says. "Our number one goal is to get as much content online as possible, as long as it doesn't offend."
"It's all subject to what the community [of YouTube users] feels is appropriate," says Julie Supan, senior director of marketing. She adds: "We've removed a lot of fights [because of user complaints]. This service has a very broad demographic of users, and we're focused on making it an enjoyable place for everyone."
A quick scan of YouTube suggests it can be a pretty rough place. Here's a video of a preadolescent girl smacking another girl repeatedly in the face. Here's the infamous and unexplained Moscow gang brawl, complete with bodies falling to the ground amid the exploding violence. Here's an ugly schoolyard fight, labeled "Mississippi Brawl."
The Mississippi video is one of about 500 fight videos collected by Phil Peplinski, 46, a martial-arts instructor in central Florida. Peplinski maintains a Web site (Comegetyousome.com) that contains a portion of his collection and acts as a kind of magnet for fight fanatics and fight tapers.
Peplinski says the point of the site isn't lurid entertainment, but rather instruction. "Most people have never been in a [physical] confrontation," he says. "They have difficulty understanding true violence. I'm hoping people will learn what to do when faced with the real thing."
What they should do, he says, is "walk away."
Decades of social-science research have confirmed that prolonged exposure to violence on TV can lead to a loss of sensitivity about violent acts, a heightened fear of strangers and sometimes aggressive or copycat behavior. But the effects of watching it online are less understood because Internet violence hasn't been studied as closely, says Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University in Northwest Washington who has written extensively about television and children.
"Kids have a different relationship [to the Internet] than to a TV set," she points out. "It's not as passive. You're not just sitting in a room being mesmerized by images. You can interact with the content [online], you can reply to it and you can create it. But we just don't know if it affects them the same way television does. It's a murky area."
Peplinski doesn't believe taping violence for others to watch begets more violence, or even more taping. "It's all self-perpetuation," he says. "Look at all the cameras that come out when a fight starts. This is the unfortunate and sad part. Humans have a propensity toward violence. Period. The only thing that has changed is the ability to record it."
Peplinski doesn't sell his fight footage, but others do. The Internet is rife with marketers of street-brawl DVD collections, with such titles as "Bare Knuckle Beatdowns," "Extreme Chick Fights" and "Felony Fights."
A site called Realfight.com, which sells a series of DVDs called "Ghetto Fights," entreats would-be customers with this statement: "Are these fights 'real'? Yes, our team has literally searched the globe for only the best footage. None of the fights are staged like you might find in wrestling or fighting championship tapes. In fact, none of these fights have every [sic] been seen anywhere else." The company did not respond to several calls left on its answering machine.
Fights and fight tapes are practically a given among some European soccer fans, says Rogier Both, a fan and frequent fighter who lives in the Dutch city of Haarlem. Indeed, DVD collections of British soccer hooligan fights are copious. "There are always people looking to fight" before big games, he says. "There is always, every day, someone to fight with."
Both, 21, is more than happy to oblige. He'll often meet other young supporters of his home team at the local train station on game days. As they walk together to the stadium, they'll brawl with rival fans they meet along the way and tape the results. His frequent duke-outs earned him a two-year ban from games throughout the Netherlands, he reports (the ban ended this season). Still, Both, who is an account manager for an online company, is quick to add: "I am not a hooligan. I may go to fight, but I go for the football, too."
Like Blake Cater, Both says he likes fighting for the "adrenaline kick," and also for the camaraderie and community with his fellow fans and fighters. The tapes of their melees are like old game films, to be shared and savored: "We look through them, like at a birthday or when we are having a beer," he says.
"It's like an addiction," he adds. "You can't leave it. When there is a good football fight, the best sex is not better. . . . People who have never been in football matches in Europe will never understand it, but it's like a second life."
Both might want to ring up Cater. Since moving to North Carolina from West Virginia this year, Cater has been trying to recruit new friends for some more backyard brawling. "I would absolutely do it again," he says. "It was always fun for all of us."
Plus, he adds, "everyone I've shown the footage to has enjoyed it as well."