Tuesday, August 01, 2006

CONT’D: Fights in public, in daylight

This middle-class community of 360,000 residents between Dallas and Fort Worth is the home of baseball's Texas Rangers and the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park and the site of the Dallas Cowboys' planned football stadium.
Sitting in his office on a hot Texas afternoon, Hawthorne shakes his head as he watches the two-hour Agg Townz 2 (slang for Arlington) video, featuring teens mostly from Arlington and the neighboring town of Mansfield punching, kicking and stomping each other.
Hawthorne points out that many fights on the tape take place in daylight on pleasant, tree-lined streets with brick homes and well-tended lawns. One fight turns into a mini-riot with dozens of teens rampaging through the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant. Another running brawl spills into a busy city street, where the fighters slam up against rolling cars.
In almost every fight, there are dozens of teens cheering on the pugilists or snapping pictures. Sometimes their schoolbooks are spread out on the lawns. In one scene, an adult holds the hands of a toddler who watches a fight as if it's another street game. In another, teens watch the tape as entertainment at a party like a music video.
During the most gruesome footage, one falling fighter strikes his head on a sidewalk and is knocked unconscious. While the defenseless teen's arms jerk spasmodically and his eyes stare upward, his opponent continues to belt him in the face. As the injured teen is dragged away, his head leaves a bloody smear on the curb.
Police here learned about fight clubs after Kevin Walker, 16, was jumped and kicked in the head outside his grandmother's house March 11, suffering a brain hemorrhage and other injuries. Arlington police arrested the producer of the Agg Townz series, Arlington resident Michael G. Jackson, 18, and five of his friends, ages 14-19.
Hawthorne says the group would pay teens a few bucks to fight, or attack other youths, then film the violence with video or cellphone cameras. Jackson edited the footage, set it to rap and sold two volumes through his own website for $15-$20 each. The footage of the Walker attack (seized by cops as evidence and never released) was part of a third volume Jackson was working on when he was arrested, Hawthorne says.
On Thursday, Jackson and three other adult defendants were indicted for aggravated assault on Walker and engaging in organized criminal activity, both felonies, says Jennifer Tourje, assistant district attorney for Tarrant County. They face possible penalties of two years' probation to 20 years in a state penitentiary if convicted of aggravated assault and five years' probation to 99 years in prison if convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity. Both charges also carry possible fines of $10,000, she adds.
Hawthorne has asked the IRS and the state comptroller's office to investigate whether Jackson paid taxes on his DVD sales. Several parents of injured teens are considering civil lawsuits against Jackson, Hawthorne adds.
In Arlington, fight-club participants can be arrested on several felony and misdemeanor charges, including aggravated assault, fighting in public, engaging in organized crime and criminal mischief. Texas law allows police to arrest active spectators as accomplices to fighting in public. As part of the crackdown that began May 10, cops have made 40 arrests, including Jackson and his friends, and issued about 200 citations involving fighting in public or watching arranged brawls, police spokeswoman Christy Gilfour says.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Jackson confirmed filming fights and selling DVDs of them. However, he denies instigating fights or paying teens to take part in them and says he has shut down his website. Jackson says he simply saw a financial opportunity to exploit fights that were happening anyway.
"I just used my business-savvy mind," says Jackson, who's seen break dancing and flashing a wad of cash in the videos. He says he never participated in the fights, and he won't say how much money he made or how many DVDs he sold.
His Dallas-based attorney, Ray Jackson (no relation), calls the organized crime charge "ludicrous" and predicts his filmmaking client will become another Spike Lee. The lawyer adds that although the Agg Townz series has become a "cult classic," his client has not made money from it. Most DVDs in circulation are bootlegs from which his client did not get a cut of the proceeds, Ray Jackson says.
"This was low-end equipment and high-end talent," the lawyer says. "That's why it sold."

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