Within hours of a fight breaking out on an Alabama riverfront this month, images and video clips from the brawl began to ricochet online. Then came the memes. After that, it wasn’t long until the merchandise started to appear.
On Aug. 5, a group of white boaters attacked Dameion Pickett, a Black riverboat captain, after he instructed them to dock their pontoon elsewhere as the space was reserved for a larger vessel. A group of mostly Black bystanders rushed to his defense. In the aftermath of the brawl, a white folding chair — an unlikely weapon that one man was seen wielding over his head during the encounter — has emerged as a joking-but-not-really symbol of resistance against perceived racial aggression.
On TikTok, #boatfight and #montgomerybrawl videos have racked up tens of millions of views. Listings have flourished by the dozens on retailers like Redbubble, Etsy and eBay. Earrings, necklaces, mugs, T-shirts and window decals have all been fashioned in the image of the folding chair in recent weeks.
By Aug. 10, four people wanted in connection with the brawl had turned themselves in to the Montgomery Police Department. Reggie Ray, the man accused of using the chair in the altercation, has also been charged with disorderly conduct.
Since then, there has been a growing market for all things folding chairs. At least two online auctions advertising what was allegedly the white chair actually used in the brawl, one of which was listed for $35,000, abruptly ended “because there was an error in the listing,” according to eBay.
For Tamika Hicks of Louisburg, N.C., however, the chair represented much more than a cash grab. Ms. Hicks, 38, a full-time health care worker who runs an Etsy handicraft shop on the side, said that she had fallen into this unusual cottage industry by accident, having originally made a pair of folding chair earrings for a friend after seeing the brawl online. After a robust response to her Facebook post showing off the earrings, she saw an opportunity to generate more income. She said she had received close to 1,000 orders this month.
“People just don’t understand the power of social media,” Ms. Hicks said. “Something that went viral has brought in other forms of income for me as a single mom. I’m also able to be a part of this conversation and to continue it.”
Jasmine Green, a visual artist in Pittsburgh, moved quickly to capitalize on the moment. On her website, she is selling chair earrings of her own design that have the words “Try Me” carved into the center of the seat. She said she planned to send some of the profits after expenses to a fund set up for those who came to Mr. Pickett’s defense, including Mr. Ray.
“Part of the celebration of this chair has been this idea of collective care,” said Ms. Green, who is also the director of education at the nonprofit 1Hood Media Academy, which provides art, education and social justice programing to communities of color. “But I also want to remind people to make sure that we’re also following up on those that were involved in the fight, if they need resources.”
Uju Anya, an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s department of modern languages, was given a pair of Ms. Green’s “Try Me” earrings by her girlfriend and wore them to a Pittsburgh Steelers game, where she said they were complimented by strangers. To her, the earrings are more than just a comedic fashion trend.
“It’s empowering and a collective sigh of relief,” Professor Anya said.
Professor Anya suggested that the humor behind the white folding chair had a potency for one particular audience. “Anybody can generally understand a meme or TikTok,” she said, “but the imagery of this chair is specific to us and has language very specific to Black people and Black culture.”
Kaylen Sanders, a bank teller and a musician in Dallas, said he found himself deeply moved by the videos he saw online. “The fact that this didn’t turn into something where guns came out, or anybody actually died or anything, it felt very relieving,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. He added that it was encouraging to watch other Black people come “to defend one Black man that very much could have been another cause.”
“For me,” he said, “it represented Black unity.”
Instead of simply showing his support by buying a T-shirt or a cap, he decided to immortalized it on his skin: A new tattoo on his left arm reads “Montgomery, Alabama” along with the date “Aug. 5, 2023.” A detailed line drawing of the folding chair is centered in the middle.
After a conversation with his fiancée, Camry Moss, the two landed on the idea for the tattoo. Two days after the brawl, he and Ms. Moss, who is a tattoo artist, sat down to commit the day to ink at his mother’s house.
“I don’t regret it, and it’s not a joke,” Mr. Sanders said. “I don’t think over the years I’ll be like, ‘Oh, why did I do this?’”
According to Ravi Dhar, a behavioral scientist at the Yale School of Management who specializes in consumer behavior and branding, any emotionally charged moment that fuses race and anxiety is bound to cause people to “feel connected.”
“The unique thing here, too, was the location,” Professor Dhar said. The brawl, which erupted in Montgomery’s popular Riverfront Park, occurred at the same dock where enslaved Africans once arrived by steamboat to be sold in the center of town. (Although the fight appeared to break out along racial lines, the Montgomery police have said they do not plan to pursue hate crime charges.)
“It signals that not much has changed,” he added, “but this chair seems to have offered a different perspective.”
Professor Dhar compared the unlikely imagery of the folding chair to other moments in history that can be evoked with a single image or item: Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem as a statement on police brutality, for instance, or the red hats of a Trump rally. In its visceral connection to the actual events themselves, the chair also conjures up memories of the umbrellas used by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong to shield themselves from tear gas and pepper spray during the movement’s 2014 street protests.
“This white chair is not something that’s inherently violent,” said Ms. Green, the artist, “which I think has allowed people to have this feeling of humor around it. But it’s this unassuming object that plays such a vital role.”