knowing your neighbors is not enough
Maybe it’s the old newspaper reporter in me, but I am always on the lookout for stories. When broadcast news unfurls a national story into my living room, I often apply a clinical eye to the coverage. But the rescue heard ‘round the world riveted me on so many other levels. The discovery of three women held captive for nearly a decade smack dab in the middle of a Cleveland neighborhood trumped anything in my memory.
For one, it’s so rare that missing women are found alive. That the media seems so inclined to keep mentioning the socio-economic class of the neighborhood is mystifying. It’s completely irrelevant, as their strictly human reactions play out on television. Stunned by the discovery, I’ve found the residents of Seymour Avenue to be utterly natural and clear about how they feel. In dozens of interviews acquaintances and neighbors are literally wide-eyed. They are untarnished and raw as they display for the world their combination of self-reproach and astonishment. I just wish we all weren’t so astonished. True, the beast was operating in plain sight, enabling the perfect crime. But, isn’t it odd to anyone, especially the police, that a house has all of its windows covered up? It seems so obviously off-kilter, I wonder why this wasn’t considered suspicious by its own accord. Then again, in Mt. Lebanon, a hybrid of income and education levels, we have properties in similar condition scattered among the tree-lined streets. What lurks within?
One guy who may not have noticed the blocked windows gets a lifelong pass though. He is of course, Charles Ramsey, whose unabashed conveyance of the story to hordes of stiff, seemingly unimaginative reporters provides a gallows humor to a dreadful situation. Ramsey may be an FCC quandary, but his unfiltered nature was the very reason he ended the nightmare of three women. To him it was simple: he heard screaming and came to the rescue. In under a minute he aided and abetted a rescue without a thought. He hasn’t mentioned to date if it crossed his mind that he could’ve had his head blown off, as he had no idea what the ruckus was. The straight shooting Mr. Ramsey is being labeled a hero. This is especially good, because that is what he is and we need to take note.
We tend to throw around words like “hero” quite a bit in contemporary culture. When I was growing up, heroes were people who did courageous acts out of the ordinary. Not as part of a job they accepted or signed up for, but for reacting to a sudden situation that erupts out of a normal moment. This is in fact what Mr. Ramsey did and for that he meets my definition of a hero. Too often, heroism or even intervention eludes us.
In college I studied sociology. Among many of the human conditions we learned about was that of the bystander doing nothing. A famous case from 1964 was part of our curriculum. Kitty Genovese, a young woman residing in a cozy neighborhood in New York, screamed at the top of her lungs while being stabbed to death. Many people later admitted to hearing her and not one came to her rescue. Her killer even left and had the audacity to come back to continue his gruesome crime. She died on the ground outside of her apartment. In a newspaper story, the situation was described like this: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” They didn’t want to get involved, the story said. It was labeled Urban Apathy.
It’s my belief that the people of Seymour Avenue did not suffer from apathy. Their crime was attending to the nuances of their lives. As close-knit as they seem, like all of us, their own kids, jobs, marriages, divorces, deaths, celebrations and situations distracted them from one another. They’ve mentioned the oddity of covered up windows, but because we are taught to mind our own business more than others, they did what most people do: nothing.
I would wholeheartedly support a law against boarding up windows or completely disguising a yard. Or, why don’t we loosen up the laws, so that the police can knock on your door if something looks askew? If you have nothing to hide, what’s the difference? Would you rather nefarious things thrive so that you can cling to your personal space? Nobody would suffer if we allowed authorities more or easier access to our homes. This is a seething point, I know. But is it such a stretch to all agree that a neighbor with completely disguised windows and doors is a little scary?
The women nearly rotted for 10 years while life bustled on outside. In less than a minute, according to reports, Mr. Ramsey ended that captivity by his simple gut reaction to something clearly wrong. We should all study this case very closely and take away some lessons. Knowing your neighbors is not enough. If you feel in your gut that something is wrong, contact the police and insist they take action. If for whatever reason they don’t react, you react. I cannot recall an instance where a person intervened in a bad situation and suffered for it.
The story of the Cleveland women and their rescue is far from over. While sordid details of their captivity will inevitably seep out like a wound, we should stay focused on the actions and reactions of the neighbors. Let’s vow to hold Mr. Ramsey in high esteem. Maybe we ought to think less and do more. Mr. Ramsey didn’t stay on his porch ruminating while finishing his infamous Big Mac. He acted in 60 seconds with a total lack of consideration and in doing so exposed one of our worst human crimes: apathy.
I have always thought that when something doesn’t look quite right you should pay attention and act if necessary. I myself was once helped by a passing car that noticed all was not right. So this case is a reminder for all of us. But not so sure about legislating window coverings!
Great article Jen. The first word that comes to mind regarding the police is “priority.” Had these women been from more affluent families and had this taken place in a more affluent community, I think the case would have been solved long ago. Just look at how quickly the Boston Marathon killers were apprehended…we can see what the police/FBI can do when they make a case a priority. As for the bystander effect, I think our society is becoming more insular than ever. I think for the most part we have a Darwinian mentality. Oh, and I agree, Ramsey is a hero.
We need to open our windows and get to know those that live next door – for our on safety!
Privacy. The US Constitution does not discuss a right to privacy, however the Bill Of Rights does. It’s provisions state privacy for our beliefs, our homes, our possessions, and our personal information. The ninth amendment dictates “enumeration of certain rights”. Does this elusive statement intend to protect against privacy in any other way not defined in the first eight amendments? Why does the human psychic necessitate privacy? Is this inherent need unique in each individual? Is it genetic composition, or life experiences? Whatever the reason, the danger remains when privacy is violated. Corruption exists in our police force, our government, and our neighborhood. It is for this reason alone, that we as citizens must have privacy to protect ourselves from the twisted minds in leadership roles that will violate us in any way they can to benefit themselves. Sad, but true. The only way to prevent these heinous acts of violence is to preventive care. How do we prevent? This is another blog! Legalized abortion? Birth right checklist? Mental health maintenance and screening in the schools? Free regulated baby care, preschool…. These children still go home though!
Legally, we will always have more rights and privacy than any other citizens on earth-I bet my life on it. I find Americans cling to their privacy far more than guns and religion. My point is that this fierce right to privacy can backfire. Hunches cant be followed. People get afraid to interfere. Obvious strange behavior must be ignored, lest the person be judged.
Look, I know its a spider silk line from weird to criminal. But like the detective in “Psycho” says to the lovely, but clearly creepy Norman Bates, “It aint jello if it aint gellin”.
A couple final points to illustrate my vantage point: Last year, we lived next to an abandoned property on our pretty street. One afternoon, I encountered a VERY meek municipal code enforcer outside who asked me a bunch of questions regarding the place. Why wasnt he allowed as much access to the empty mess as the legion of cats and mice who took up residence there, so he could investigate and nail the owners for neglect?
Also, having worked in health and human services, and written about domestic violence and other issues, I see the flip side to all of this privacy. It makes it far, far easier for the bad guys to flourish.
So neighbors, police – you can absolutely bang on my door if you hear anyone in my family screaming or if I suddenly make my house a fortress. I have nothing to hide and I do not fear you. And if I hear or see the same coming from your house, I’ll see ya, just to be sure you’re ok.