Bus brawl antihero the new Bernie Goetz?

An unlikely antihero shown on video beating up a fellow bus passenger is being lionized as the new Bernie Goetz for the 21st century.

(Bernie Goetz, as you may remember, was the New York subway passenger who in 1984 shot four assailants as they tried to rob him. He was immediately hailed by many as a crime-fighting underdog -- and by others as a racist vigilante.)

The new incident, which happened on February 16 in Oakland, California on a local AC Transit bus, also has racial overtones but has become a viral internet sensation more because of a generational conflict -- the old fighting back against the young. The video's "star," as it were, is Thomas Bruso, a silver-haired 67-year-old white Vietnam vet who likes to call himself "Tom Slick" or "Vietnam Tom," and who has now been dubbed by his millions of new fans, "Epic Beard Man," "I AM A MOTHERFUCKER" and even "Zeus."

The video, captured by a young woman sitting nearby on the bus with her cellphone camera, shows Bruso at first getting involved in a verbal altercation with a younger black man. As tempers begin to rise, Bruso wisely gets up and walks away to the front of the bus in order to defuse the tension -- and then unwisely continues his trash-talking, warning the other passenger not to try anything he might regret. The young black man then gets up, follows Bruso to the front of the bus, and starts a fight with him by throwing a punch which hits Bruso in the chest.

In a flash, to everyone's astonishment, the senior citizen leaps up and unleashes a blinding flurry of savage blows on his young adversary, knocking him to the floor where he ends up a few seconds later in a defensive fetal position, blood pouring from his nose. As fellow passengers scream "Lord have mercy!", Bruso exits the bus, revealing the too-perfect slogan clearly visible on the back of his T-shirt: "I AM A MOTHERFUCKER!"

But a mere description does not do the incident justice. In situations like this, it's the details that matter. There are now dozens of versions of this video online, scoring millions of views on YouTube, but the one shown below is perhaps the best, because it starts with a slow-motion close-up of the climactic fight, and then backs up and shows the full video from beginning to end, with annotations:

The question on everyone's mind is: Who is to blame? According to various news reports, neither man was charged with any crime as a result of the incident. But in the marketplace of internet memes, it's not so much who went to jail, but who was at fault. Was Bruso simply an innocent old man defending himself from an aggressive young thug? Or was Bruso a deranged assailant, nearly killing someone over a stupid argument? And did either side say anything so egregious during the dispute that it rose to the level of racism or "fighting words"?

Well, to help my readers disentangle the many layers, I have made an exact transcript of the entire video, from beginning to end, showing precisely what each party said. You can read the transcript at the bottom of this post, but, after viewing the video several times myself, my conclusion is:

1. Thomas Bruso did say three statements which could be considered racially inflammatory: First he offered to pay the other man if he shined Bruso's shoes (it is generally considered demeaning to conjure the old racial stereotype of the black "shoe-shine boy"); second, he used the word "Chinaman" (also considered demeaning); and third, told the other man to "sit your little black ass down."

2. However, these statements were made in a racially charged atmosphere, in which bystanders were encouraging the other man to "beat his white ass," and who called Bruso "pinky," an apparent racial slur.

3. Both men made threatening statements to each other, but it was the other man, not Bruso, who initiated the violent threats.

4. Bruso tried to defuse the situation by moving away from the other man; it was his opponent who re-escalated the fight by traveling the length of the bus to attack Bruso physically.

5. A careful analysis of the video (shown below) reveals that the other man did indeed start the fight by punching Bruso in the chest while Bruso was still seated. Bruso punched back only after the other man punched him first.

Two videos help to clarify the situation. The first one, shown here, clearly demonstrates that the other man did indeed throw and land the first punch, and then even began to throw a second punch before getting hit himself:

Second, and most interestingly, someone managed to track down Bruso a few days later, and he explained the idiotic misunderstanding which led to the argument, and why the topic of shoe-shines was even raised in the first place:

According to Bruso, the whole thing started when he was talking to "Bob," a friend of his, about wearing Stacy Adams brand shoes to the funeral of Bruso's mother, who had just died. Bruso said to his friend, "My boy is going to shine them for me," which he claims was not a racial statement, just referring to any shoe-shiner. The younger black man overheard this statement, and then accused Bruso of being a racist, asking him "Why does it have to be a 'boy' who shines your shoes?" Bruso then misheard that statement as an offer to shine his shoes -- and the argument escalated from there.

The San Francisco Examiner has a similar account from Bruso explaining the origins of the dispute.

This background is important because it shows that Bruso didn't simply walk up to a stranger and ask him to shine his shoes; rather, his seemingly inappropriate remark at the beginning of the fight video is a continuation of an earlier double misunderstanding which had started some time earlier.

The interview above is also important because it shows that Bruso is, shall we say, not entirely playing with a full deck. Kooky, eccentric, nuts -- you choose.

Anyway, whoever's at fault, the video has exploded, and overnight become an internet legend. Millions of people seem to get a thrill from seeing a senior citizen apply a serious beatdown on a much younger man. (Though, strangely, the other man in the video at one point claims to be 50 years old, even though he appears to be much younger, perhaps in his 20s.)

The AllHipHop blog features several other related videos, including one of Bruso getting tased by the police at an Oakland A's game, another which shows him stomping around in an adrenaline-fueled rage after the bus brawl, and several hilarious parodies, which are cropping up by the dozens every day.

Does Thomas Bruso deserve to be lionized? Or is he just a crazy old coot? And what, if anything, does this video say about generational and racial conflicts in America? (In my opinion, the only real hero in the video is "Black female passenger #1" [see transcript below], who is just about the only person who tried to intervene and stop the violence.)

I get the feeing that, basically, people just like to see an authentic fight, unedited, and all the analysis is just justification for our bloodlust. Perhaps, in the long run, this video's only lasting impact will be to introduce the word "ambulamps" to the English language.

To help you decide, here's the exact transcript. You may want to open the video in a new window and arrange them side-by-side so you can watch and read along at the same time:







Exact transcript of the full Thomas Bruso bus-brawl video



Younger Black Man: ...AC Transit?

Thomas Bruso: Let's get back to [business]: How much you charge me for a spit-shine?

YBM: What?

TB: How much you charge me to do my Stacy Adams? I'm going to a funeral on Friday. I gotta--

YBM: What?

TB: You said you'd--

YBM: You hear what I said just now?

TB: Yes.

YBM: Why a brother gotta spit-shine your shoes?

TB: You offered!

YBM: I didn't offer you shit.

TB: What'd you just say when you walked by me?

YBM: I said 'Why a fuckin' brother gotta spit-shine your shoes?'

TB: No, he don't hafta!

YBM: Why a white man can't spit-shine your shoes?

TB: It could be a Chinaman, it don't matter!

YBM: Look dude --

TB: I ain't prejudiced, what, you think I'm prejudiced?

YBM: Take your ass back up there, get the fuck out of my face right now.

TB: Why you being so hostile, man?

YBM: 'Cause, I'm pissed off.

TB: [Getting up to walk back to the front of the bus] Well you'd better be pissed off--

YBM: Take your ass back up there right now.

TB: You ain't scaring this white boy. I'm 67 years old. You ain't scaring me.

YBM: [Getting up to challenge Bruso] I'm fifty!

TB: You ain't scaring me. You ain't scaring me.

YBM: Now I'll put my foot up your ass.

TB: Oh no you won't! No you won't!

YBM: Yeah, yes I will. I'll fuck it up. I'll put my foot up your ass.

TB: You'll get my foot up yours.

Black female passenger #1: Hey hey hey hey, now chill. Now chill.

TB: This old man will whip your ass!

[TB sits down several yards away at the front of the bus.]

TB: Better sit your little black ass down.

YBM: Motherfucker -- I'll put my foot up your ass. [Re-takes his seat.]

TB: You won't do nothin' to me. This [dude'll] tear your ass up.

YBM: Say it again! Say it again!

Black female passenger #2: Say it again. Say it again. Say it again, pinky!

[YBM gets up and follows TB to the front of the bus.]

BFP2: Beat his white ass! Whoop his ass!

[YBM makes threatening gestures in front of TB's face.]

BFP1: Leave that man alone, brother.

TB: I ain't getting off.

Young black woman filming the incident: It ain't worth it blood, it ain't worth it.

YBM: [Returning to his seat] I'll put my left foot up your ass.

TB: I seen some guys like you and I slapped the shit out of them!

YBM: What? What?!?!? What?!?

[YBM charges back down the aisle and punches TB in the chest.]

YBWFTI: Stop it.

[TB stands up and rains blows on YBM.]

YBWFTI: Stop it! Uh-uh!

Passengers: Ooooh! Ooooh!

[YBM crumples to the floor.]

BFP2: Oh -- what the fuck?

Passengers: [Screaming and yelling.]

YBWFTI: Stop it! Oh! Ohhhh! Lord have mercy!!

TB: I told you not to fuck with me!!!!!

YBWFTI: Jesus Christ!! Oh my God!!

TB: I told him not to fuck with me and he hit me! He fuckin' hit me!

[TB Gets off bus, showing the back of his t-shirt, which says, "I AM A MOTHERFUCKER."]

TB: He fuckin' hit me first! He hit me in the face! That's self-defense!

YBM: [Gets up off bus floor and again begins to head toward TB, who by now is on the sidewalk.]

TB: Don't fuck with me boy! Don't fuck with me!

YBM: Next time -- I fuck you up.

Passengers: [General consternation.]

BFP2: That man on some kind of dope.

YBWFTI: Hey we can press charges, blood, I got it on videotape.

BFP2: [Referring to the blood pouring from YBM's nose.] Oh, he leakin'. He's leakin'.

YBM: That motherfucker hit me.

BFP1: Are you alright? He break your teeth?

YBM: No. Bring ambulamps!

BFP2: Oh, he leakin'.

YBWFTI: [To her friend, BFP1] Shut the fuck up.

YBM: Bring ambulamps.

[YBM tries to find a napkin in his pocket.]

YBM: I'm gonna come back and kill that nigga.

[YBM catches breath.]

YBM: I'm gonna kill that nigga.

[YBM continues to bleed from his nose.]

YBM: I'm gonna kill him next time I see him.

YBWFTI: I got it!

BFP2: Turn it off!

YBWFTI: I got it!