As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.
Do you remember Kitty?
Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help. Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid. Yet, no one did.
The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country. Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.
While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology. I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”. How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would? How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?
We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes. We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault. Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment. Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.
The collective brain often rules.
The study of this has led to some good things. It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”. How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911”! Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so. New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order. “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!” What did this do? It charged the specific person with a specific action. The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective. Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.
How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?
We know his name.
Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics. All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day. And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo. The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.
Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold. But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric. Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?” Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’. Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.
What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question. It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.
Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him. Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?
The overlay of race and poverty.
Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course. Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining. We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?
“I can’t breathe!”
There were lots of people around Eric. Lots of people cried out. But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear. They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter. They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!
The assistant principal of the J.F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick, Subhash Chander, wrote a commentary in the Providence Journal, which ran on September 13th entitled, “Parents must do more than just buy school supplies”. At first read, I thought – absolutely – excellent points. Well said. But then I noticed the one-sided view that this principal chose to use in addressing parents. And I could actually see a finger waving back and forth, admonishing me, the parent. I started to remember my experiences in my encounters with teachers over the years, when I would ask questions, or suggest something. That awful, tenuous, careful push-pull feel of it all.
Like a presidential rebuttal I feel compelled to respond and ask this of Ms. Chander, “what is a teacher’s responsibility”? And not to plagiarize in any way, I’ll use some of her own phrases. As an administrator are you focusing first and foremost on reinforcing with your teachers, what it takes “to be ready for the school year”?
When sentences begin with, “To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest….” you’ve already lost the ‘we’re a team’ point.
My children are in their mid 20s now. They were educating in public schools in the Cranston school system. They went on to public university education, then beyond to advanced degrees. They have good jobs, here in RI.
No, I was never a helicopter parent. But, I was always ‘there’ – for events, concerts, parent teacher meetings, etc. I even had a strange few years on the PTO. I looked at homework assignments, provided a good dinner and study time at home, pulled back on extra curricular activities when I could see that was interfering. I did the dreaded dioramas and helped in the equally dreaded poster board presentations. I struggled to understand the new rubrics. I agreed to let my kindergartener not worry about mispronouncing words, as the new reading methods didn’t are about that (don’t ask about a 20-something’s pronunciation faux pas, to this day). I gave up on the old math of memorizing “times tables” to the new math (have you gone to a farmer’s market and watched the young people struggle to make change from a $10 when you have spent $5.71 – watch it – it’s the “new math”). That “better way” of doing math far exceeded my ability to understand and keep up at some point around middle school.
They excelled academically and are thriving as individuals. Given a poor teacher year or a year fraught with unresolved school issues, they managed to get through pretty much on their own resolve.
My visits to the schools were few. But they were almost never well received; my requests never greeted with openness and a ‘spirit of cooperation’. Teachers were unavailable, unaccommodating, wouldn’t look you in the eye, didn’t return phone calls, for the most part. Of course, there were a few outstanding gems, to be remembered for a lifetime.
This principal writes, “To Parents: the least you can do is take an interest in your child’s education” – let me write this: “To Teachers: please take an interest in your student’s life”. Talk to them. Ask them on a daily basis what they do outside of school. Ask them what’s important to them. Don’t ever assume they have all the support they need for academic excellence. Ask them if they need extra help. In talking to your student, please let them know that you will stay in touch with mom and dad. And do it. And when you talk to the parents, do so in a friendly and inviting way – do not stop maintaining those connections, even if you find parents are very busy and may not have the time to talk to you when you can talk to them. After all, these days, it is easy to stay in touch with parents using electronic media.
Always remember that you are accountable. And that teaching effectively is your primary responsibility – and you will be reviewed on your performance. I have no doubt that you are busy and overworked and under resourced.
Think of ways to welcome parents to your classroom – establish a hotline if that works well for you. Teach your students to respect education and of course the people who teach them every day. Provide an environment in the classroom that fosters respect for all people. Show your students that you respect their parents, too. Never disparage your student’s parents, or home situation in front of your student.
As teachers it is imperative that you share your student’s educational journey not only as “the teacher”, but also as “a person”. Let your students feel that you are their best support in education. Encourage them to discuss anything with you, that they don’t need to hide the fact that they may need something they are not getting in the classroom or at home; let them know you are right there for them. Create an environment of open discussion around topics related to education. Create that environment with your students’ parents, too.
Yes, “children who are ready to learn are easiest to each.” Remember, parents who are welcomed and know what they can do to help can be your best advocates. Know that some parents will fail their children, and be ready to help support these young people as best you can; it is not their fault. Nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a promising future for your student through education. After all, this is why you chose to do this for a living.
Here is the link to the original op ed, and it is printed in its entirety, below…