The lady was called Kitty Genovese and she was first the Victim and then, became the case study of what came to be called the “ByStander affect.”
While being stabbed to death on a New York street, people saw what was going on and went cooly about their business, on the premise that it was none of their business when a fellow human being was being assaulted. The classic report said 38 people saw it and did nothing. Nothing.
Later of course, they proved that the person telling the story could not have possidbly had time to count to 20 let alone 38 and that the story was more urban legend than truth. That of course did not stop the acadmey teaching the “ByStander affect” as a staple class in criminology and sociology. I always thought it was consoling that the story was not true. Humans are herd animals and when one is attacked, the herd acts to protect the one because it is the only way to protect the whole.
But what did we see on the video from this week? I am not talking about the policeman and his knee on George Floyd who is pleading for his life. No, criminal cops seem everywhere when its an arrest of a black person. In other times, I am sure they are the sort of cops that help the little old ladies carry their shopping bags and rescue their kittens up a tree. But somehow when the show turns from vivid color to black and white, it becomes white on black. You may be going for a run in your neighborhood but ex cops act out the same scenario. If you are child with a toy gun in a park, and you are black, you are dead. If you attract the attention of the law, you have to devise escape from a potential execution squad.
We have almost got used to all that. But no, I am drawn to the bystanders reactions. Was this another “ByStander’ affect where people just walked on by? They did not. They raised the alarm and one of them had the prescience to film it.
What scares me more is the face of this other policeman standing guard while his colleague delivers the fatal blows and the victim is begging for his life. He can clearly hear what is going on behind his head, but what in heavens is going on inside his head? He looks bored. His guns on the hip weigh his belt down. But he seems to be tuning out. Don’t look at me looking at him. I am looking away into the sky.
The Commissioner fired all four policemen, so there were four of them. Meanwhile, if you watch the tape, the ordinary citizen bystander is not turning away at all. They are asking questions. They say, “feel his Pulse” and “Cant you see his nose is bleeding?” and “call a medic.” And all this while the police execution squad are stoic- sticking to their duty.
They stut their authority. We are the law. Law comes before life. You be suspected of passing a dud check or note, we will come after you. You sell illegal cigarettes at the Statten Island Ferry, we will come after you. You act to lead us to suppose and you can trigger our wild west pose. And we can suppose that no one will care.
We are doing what we have been taught. The choke hold and a knee on your neck usually obstructs your breathing. You pass out. At least they did not shoot him. No they make a spectacle of it. And the faces of those other policemen. The bystander affect was not the passerby’s but the perpetrators. How cold and callous and utterly devoid of any humanity can you become to be not vulnerable to this scene as it unfolded?
This is a crime against humanity in every respect. George Floyd was begging for mercy, begging for his life, begging for the police to be aware of his pain. But no, no one dared look. Even the policeman with the knee did not look down. We are just doing our job. And the report despatched called it a “medical incident” and the suspect was being transferred to medical care. No he wasn’t. He was being lethally abused and killed.
If the pain of others does not trigger some instinctive protective impulse to want to intervene, then what we have we become? Are we training our police to be Concentration camp guards. Are we hardening them to be soldiers of the street, drilled out of any compassion or conscience, ready to kill for duty anyone they suspect will kill for drugs?
When General Eisenhower liberated some of the Concentration camps in Europe, he was so outraged that local neigbors could see and smell the death factories but did nothing. They claimed not to be even aware. His answer was to order the civilians to bury the dead and rotting bodies so that they would never forget and never be able to claim that they did not know.
Perhaps before the four police are arrested for murder, they should go see the ravages of police violence on other communities, and see what monsters they have become. More than that, they would see what an impossible job it has become for any policeman or women, with an ounce of conscience and compassion to do what they supposed to do. Serve the community and keep the peace.
The new case study of the ByStander affect is that bystanders protested and wanted to intervene and the real bystanders were the four policemen who did not hear the cries of the dying that they were killing. That level of callousness is not just a crime, it is somehow murderning the soul of humanity.