The Bystander Effect

Last year, I received several automated phone calls from my school district that necessitated some very intense discussions in my home. Several girls my daughter's age reported that they had been approached while walking home from school by a

Last year, I received several automated phone calls from my school district that necessitated some very intense discussions in my home. Several girls my daughter's age reported that they had been approached while walking home from school by a man who tried various methods to get them into his car. This happened several times over the course of about six weeks; one of these events actually took place just outside my neighborhood. Wisely, the girls reported these incidents to their parents, the police and the schools and fairly quickly, a detailed description of the man and his car was put together and passed on to other parents. And the man was arrested after one quick student remembered the last few digits of his license plate and they matched it up with the description of the car and suspect. The school district deserve praise for their prompt work to avert a tragedy.

They also had the local law enforcement come into the individual schools to discuss "stranger danger" and what kids should do if they felt threatened. The school district reinforced those guidelines by sending them home as well so that parents could go through them with their child. So I sat my kids down and we discussed what they should do if they ever felt threatened. We came up with family codes, names of trusted people if something happened that would prevent me or their father coming to them, walking route strategies, "safe locations" (like the local library) they could go to, etc.

But there was one thing first and foremost that both the police and we as parents told our kids to do: if they felt that they were being threatened by a stranger, run in the other direction and scream out to get the attention of other adults. The reasoning is that the screaming could a) scare off the suspect; b) bring witnesses out to the scene; c) avert a tragedy.

So when I heard the screams for help of Trayvon Martin on the 911 calls of George Zimmerman's neighbors, it hit me like a gut punch that not one of those people answered those screams for help. Sure, they called 911, but there was a boy out there, being threatened by a man ten years older and 100 pounds heavier--a stranger. And he did what we tell our children to do. And no one came.

We've looked at overzealous tendencies of George Zimmerman; the ridiculousness of the "Stand Your Ground" law; the shameful history of racial inequality in Sanford, Florida, and the failures of the investigation by the Sanford Police. But this was a community. A community of people who knew George Zimmerman's obsessive tendency to call 911, so much so that they called a special meeting of the HOA to discuss it. Did they know that Zimmerman made his neighborhood watch patrols armed? That could open the entire HOA up to civil liability. But more than liability, where was their civil responsibility to be a good neighbor, to come to the aid of a kid begging for help?

Nearly fifty years ago, there was an infamous case of what was later termed "the bystander effect" by researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané: the Kitty Genovese murder. Now the truth of Genovese's assault and murder have been obscured by far more dramatic misinformation by media sources. So it wasn't a case of blatant witness apathy that like the Sergio Aguiar case, but it does still point to a larger, meta question: what is our responsibility to others when we hear their cries for help?

I had a fairly heated discussion of this with other liberals within the context of Trayvon Martin's murder. One in particular insisted that the fact that I was concerned with the neighbors' hesitation was way, way out of line. He said that no cop would encourage someone to go out and risk being shot. There's some truth to that. But as a parent, there's no way that I could ignore a kid's calls for help. And I'm counting on the fact that others share that ethic if ever my own child is in that situation. I don't think they necessarily needed to jump into the fray, but I really believe that Zimmerman would not have been as quick to pull the trigger if he knew there were witnesses.

It's a fine line, I admit. But speaking as a parent, responding to those cries of help could be the difference between life and death of my child. It may have been the difference for Trayvon Martin too.

But now, we'll never know.

About Nicole Belle

Nicole Belle's picture
Mom, Wife, Media Critic/Political Analyst, Blogger, Austen Fanatic, Unapologetic Liberal NicoleBelle@crooksandliars.com

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