The moving force behind the demonstrations is a group called SWIS, an acronym for Simmons, Wynn, Iverson and Stephens. To a large degree, the group is responsible for turning the case into a national cause célèbre. Tom Brokaw, USA Today, The Washington Post—they've all gone down, as have the SCLC and the NAACP, which set up a local office to monitor the case. Spike Lee has written Iverson. Some SWIS supporters—and there are more than 3.000 throughout the country—describe the case as a "judicial lynching" of "uppity" blacks by the white establishment. "Let's be honest," says Joyce Hopson, the Hampton teacher who heads SWIS, "if this weren't Allen Iverson, these kids don't go to jail. That's it."
Or is it? Not all of this case is that simple, and many of its elements are open to interpretation. Ultimately, this is a story about racial politics, 1993-style, in which the racism is subtle and veiled, and the linger pointing on both sides has often been misguided. Basically, SWIS is protesting three things: the fact that only blacks were arrested, the local media's coverage of the story and, especially, Overton's handling of the case.
First, the arrests. After word that the police were coming spread through the bowling alley, most of the black combatants fled, yelling, "Police! Police!" as many young black men are conditioned to do. The whites, many bruised and bloodied, remained and gave statements to the police. They told how, after Forrest and Iverson got into it, perhaps 20 of Iverson's friends came charging in, picking up chairs along the way and shouting, "Fight!" A black witness would later testify that Simmons had said, "They're messin' with my homeboy!" A blurry amateur videotape of the incident showed some black youths pummeling whites. "They were going crazy," recalls Kristi Alligood, a white witness who knew none of the combatants. "It was definitely a racial thing. During a break in the fighting Barbara [Steele] went up to one of the black guys and said, 'Why do you have to make this racial?' He just pressed two fingers against her face and pushed her away." That black person, both women insist, was Iverson.
Prosecutors, led by white Commonwealth attorney Christopher Hutton, a longtime NAACP member, say that no blacks pressed charges and that, anyway, all evidence suggested that the whites who threw chairs, including Forrest, did so in self-defense. They also say that those arrested were fingered by witnesses such as Brandon Smith, a black Bethel student who testified that he saw Iverson throw the chair that injured Steele.
Iverson says that after the initial business with Forrest, he and Stephens promptly left the bowling alley. "People try to start things with me because of who I am, and I know that means I have to stay away," he says while sitting in the Newport News City Farm, a minimum-security work camp where he has spent the last month. "It's definitely racial." But despite his statements that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, a number of witnesses said Iverson was in the middle of the brawl, which fits his style. As a player Iverson is known as a woofer, a yapper. "He's one of the most competitive kids I've ever seen," says Boo Williams, who runs a summer basketball league in which Iverson played and who compares Iverson with Kenny Anderson of the New Jersey Nets. "He's not one to back down, but that doesn't mean he's violent either. Just cocky. Last year he played behind a guard named Michael Evans. One day he says to me, 'I can take Mike.' I say, 'I'm sure you can take Evans, Allen.' He says, 'No, I mean Mike.' " Yes, that Mike.
Perhaps only Iverson and Forrest know for sure what started the brawl. Forrest testified in court that Iverson got in his face and someone else clocked him for no good reason. (Forrest declined to be interviewed by SI, saying, "I've got nothing to gain by it.") After Forrest's testimony, the pro-Iverson whisper campaign began in earnest: Steele was friendly with the judge's family; there was another videotape somewhere showing Iverson running for his life; an unindicted Bethel student was about to confess that he, not Iverson, had struck Steele. There was little evidence to support any of this, but that hardly stopped the talk.
"A lot of this criticism is coming from people who never bothered to attend the trials," says Hampton prosecutor Colleen Killilea, who gained a measure of local fame by urging the judge to "just do it" to Iverson after he imprudently jetted to a Nike-sponsored tournament when his trial broke for the weekend. "This was a violent mob. We tried them as a mob because, while we couldn't link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred."
Which brings us back to that one word. The subject of racism has been dissected by the local media, particularly the Newport News Daily Press, which has been dubbed the Daily White by some SWIS supporters. Editorials have referred to Iverson's "troubled" past, which, to many blacks, is the sort of word white people tend to apply to young black men who, like Iverson, have grown up in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with no fathers and no money. (Iverson once skipped a speaking engagement because he didn't own a decent dress shirt.) Iverson has had problems: chronic classroom absenteeism, poor grades, BMOC-itis. But aside from a traffic violation, he had never before been in trouble with the law.
A lion's share of criticism from blacks has been aimed at Daily Press columnist Jim Spencer, who is white. Spencer recently tackled the epithet issue head-on by arguing that use of the word nigger hardly justified forming a mob to mercilessly attack whites, some of whom were innocent bystanders. To many people Spencer's column seemed hopelessly naive. "It's easy to say now that you shouldn't fight," says Williams. "But these are kids. Get in their face, pick a fight, provoke them and they'll fight." Everything spilled out last month at the Queens Street Baptist Church, where local ministers and 500 Iverson supporters focused their anger on Spencer, who was covering the rally. "We don't need some rich white guy telling us how to raise our kids!" one of them thundered. "Racist!" others screamed.
"It made me sad." recalls Spencer. "The body of my work shows that I treat everyone as individuals and that I'm not a racist." Overall, the paper's coverage of the case has indeed been fair and exhaustive; it has commissioned polls on race relations and has run an occasional column answering readers' questions about the Iverson case and attempting to quell rumor mongering.