Guilty Bystanders

I read Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point a few summers ago and the only story I recall was that of Kitty Genovese, a woman who in 1964 was brutally raped and murdered in Queens, NY.

It was here in the Bronx in 1964 where Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered before 38 bystanders. No one called the police until the 30-minute attack was over.

As the story goes, Genovese was returning home around 3 a.m from her bartending job when she was cornered by Winston Mosley, a serial rapist and murderer. She was viciously attacked, but Mosley was scared off by an onlooker from Genovese’s apartment complex who yelled, “Let that girl alone!” from his window. Mosley took off and Genovese — severely wounded — staggered out of sight from the onlookers. Mosley returned about 10 minutes later and raped Genovese as she was dying.

In total, the assault lasted about a half-hour. It was later reported that 38 bystanders had witnessed the rape and murder of Genovese, and no one had called the police until the attack was over.

The Genovese murder is the cornerstone case for the bystander effect, the sociological phenomenon wherein the number of witnesses is inversely proportionate to the likelihood someone will respond in the case of an emergency. The most simple explanation is that since a larger group is aware there are others witnessing an incident, those within the group will assume someone else has or will take action.

The other night, my girlfriend and I slept with our bedroom window open. It’s not uncommon to hear yelling or strange sounds from those on the prowl late at night. I’ve become numb to it. When you live in a city where the motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” you become less alarmed by what would otherwise startle you in a smaller, saner town. Call me desensitized.

That night, we heard a female scream at around 4:40 a.m.  The woman must’ve screamed five or six words, but we couldn’t decipher any of them. I had to be up at 6 a.m., so I peeked outside, saw nothing, and went back to bed. I didn’t think twice of it.

My girlfriend brought it up later the next day, and admitted she was disappointed neither she nor I had even considered calling 911. If the thought had even crossed my mind that early in the morning, I probably would’ve shrugged it off. I assumed if we had heard the scream, someone else must have, too. If they thought it was a concern, they would have alerted authorities.

Problem solved. By someone else. Right?

Portland isn’t the Bronx. (Matter of fact, the Bronx circa 2010 isn’t the Bronx circa 1964.) It’s a fair guess the woman was fine if fine means “not being raped and murdered.” In that early morning moment, I decided the scream had come from someone who was either drunk, strung out, crazy or all of the above. I was OK with these assumptions because it put to rest any undue concern on my part.

Now that a week has passed, I have to say I’m disappointed by my inaction, too.

You have to shut down the more compassionate parts of your heart to find happiness in this city. There’s so many homeless people in this town, and to keep your sanity, you assume a skepticism whereby those who are homeless are so because of a) their own decisions or b) circumstances they didn’t avoid. When I talk to friends back home, I mention how Portland has made me more moderate. Being a bleeding heart liberal in this town would mean running the risk of bleeding your heart dry.

In all likelihood, the screams were not a sign of danger. We’re all familiar with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” where the boy — a shepherd — gets his kicks by crying wolf to deceive the neighboring townspeople. Fearing for their flock, they come running each time the boy cries out, only to find him laughing in hysterics at his trick. Tired of his escapades, the townspeople no longer respond to the boy when he cries. Sure enough, when a real wolf comes along and threatens the boy and his flock, the townspeople ignore his cries. The moral of the fable is not to lie and the boy is left to look like a fool.

But what did the townspeople gain by ignoring the boy? Though they had experienced several false alarms before, was there ever any actual harm from being duped? It seems an awful silly way to prove a point.

The obvious solution would be to close our window at night. That would be the easy way out. Instead, we intend to sleep with the window open, and the next time this happens, we’ll call the police. Better to be fooled by cries of wolf. Better to save Kitty before it’s too late. Better to be the one everyone else assumes will take action.

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One thought on “Guilty Bystanders

  1. I ran into this same scenario last night! I blame it on being addicted to The Wire, but now every time I hear sirens, I think that one of my fellow 15th Streeters are ‘gettin got.’ I woke up last night to a siren and immediately wondered what was happening in Loring Park. It didn’t take more than a minute for me to forget about it, fall asleep and go on living. I am as guilty as anyone else for assuming someone else is taking care of this world. And thank you for always raving about The Wire. It’s wonderful, in a gang fighting, heroin smoking sort-of-way.

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