Kitty Genovese And The Central Park Five
The recent death of Harlan Ellison brought Kitty Genovese to mind again, and the multiple lessons to be learned from both her case and another one.
Some background for those not familiar with the case:
Kitty Genovese was a young New Yorker killed by an assailant early on the morning of March 13, 1964.
Initial reports indicated a story far more horrifying than a simple murder:
Supposedly up to 38 people had heard her screams for help and did nothing, not even call the police, allowing her assailant to stab her repeatedly until she died.
This cowardice and callousness made the story an international headline. News anchors and pundits commented at length on this, and the story struck a nerve with Harlan Ellison in particular.
Ellison railed against a populace so timid, so sheep-like they would let one of their own be slaughtered without doing anything to help. He based one of his best short stories (“The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs”) on the murder and harkened back to it again and again in other stories, essays, talks, and media appearances.
Ellison directed his outrage not at the silent witnesses in particular or in the murderer himself, but rather at the mindset that allowed the justification of doing nothing as another human was being murdered.
This was the popular version of the incident, that modern Americans, no longer feeling a communal link, “didn’t want to get involved” and allowed an innocent person to be murdered.
It was, to be sure, an easy story to believe. Only 20 years earlier the world had to smash an evil reich that came to power when “good Germans” did nothing to oppose the tiny handful of radical racists among them.
It wasn’t that far fetched a leap to assume modern city dwellers, cowed by gangs and rampant crime, hid in their fortified apartments rather than risk anything -- even a phone call! -- to save an innocent victim.
And while the Genovese murder certainly fired Harlan’s imagination, he was far from the only one. Even more macho approaches to modern crime such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish used and condemned civilian timidity as a touchstone.
Ellison’s story and his impassioned speaking out on the topic urged people not to be like the Genovese witnesses but rather to have the courage to at least speak out when they saw harm and injustice inflicted on innocent people.
It would be an exaggeration to say Ellison directly influenced the Black Lives Matter movement, but his story and speaking certainly helped keep the story alive and that, however indirectly, urged people to speak out against wrong when they see it.
There’s only one problem with the popular view of the Genovese murder: It didn’t happen that way.
People who heard Genovese being attack called the police. True, many assumed it was a domestic dispute escalating beyond control, but nonetheless they called the police. Some opened their windows and yelled at the attacker, trying to drive him off by telling him the police were on their way.
One brave woman raced down from her apartment to Genovese, comforting the dying woman in her final moments.
Nobody knows where the “38 witnesses” came from in the original story. It was known within days of the murder that the initial report was grossly mistaken, that Genovese’s neighbors had not ignored her but tried to help by doing the right thing (i.e., calling the police).
But in the aftermath, nobody wanted to hear the facts.
The damning fiction rang truer than facts.
Almost exactly 25 years later, a similar crime shocked New Yorkers and the nation again.
A young woman jogging in Central Park was brutally assaulted. While she fortunately survived and eventually recovered physically from her wounds, she could not recall the actual attack itself.
It was the capper to an extremely violent night, even by New York standards of the 1980s. Up to 30 youths staged a series of assaults, robberies, and other crimes in and around Central Park that evening.
What is not clear is how coordinated these attacks were or the actual identities of those who participated.
Even the number of the attackers is open to question, based of victims’ and witnesses’ descriptions, not on verified identification.
New York -- both the populace and the authorities -- reacted with wholly justifiable outrage. Focusing on the jogger attack as emblematic of the entire evening, the authorities identified and arrested five teens -- four African-Americans, one Hispanic-American -- as the perpetrators of that particular attack and quickly secured confessions.
But just as speedily as the confessions were secured, they were recanted once The Central Park Five (as they came to be known) obtained legal representation. The trials dragged on for several years, and during that time one Donald Trump led a virtual lynch mob against the five, urging the death penalty be restored even for cases where the victim wasn’t killed.
The five were convicted and despite their claims of innocence, spent several years in jail.
Donald Trump repeatedly cited them in particular and by name as the sort of “animals” society shouldn’t tolerate.
There’s only one problem with Trump’s view of the Central Park jogger case: The five young men accused didn’t do it.
The unfortunate female victim was attacked by a perpetrator who left his DNA behind, DNA that matched none of the Central Park Five. The actual rapist, now serving a life sentence because of other rapes and a murder, voluntarily confessed to the crime and provided information only the perpetrator could know.
While the Central Park Five may have been engaged in some of the various crimes reported that evening, there is absolutely no evidence linking them to the jogger attack.
They were coerced into confessing without lawyers present, and if you have no problem with that, then someday may some cop who needs a patsy give you the third degree until you confess.
Trump to this day refuses to apologize for his personal attacks on the Central Park Five despite their proven innocence and legal vindication.
What’s the difference between Ellison and Trump?
Harlan, as best I know, never acknowledged he had been wrong in his understanding of the facts of the Genovese case.
Nonetheless, thought he was wrong, he was wrong for the right reasons, and in the right manner.
Ellison never led a lynch mob against the falsely accused witnesses as individuals.
He never identified them by name, he never doxed them, he never singled them out as agents of evil.
Rather, he attacked the perceived mindset that would allow such callous indifference to flourish.
And you know what? Nothing wrong with that.
He never said, “Make John Doe and Mary Roe pay for ignoring Kitty Genovese.”
Rather he said, “Don’t be the kind of person who could ignore Kitty Genovese.”
As noted above, there are in reality other far more horrific examples of indifference to suffering -- and on a far greater order of magnitude -- than the Kitty Genovese case.
That the facts of the actual murder don’t jibe with the story is immaterial in this case.
Genovese’s murder now serves as a parable of sorts, a vitally needed moral and ethical teaching.
“Don’t be the sort of person who ignores harm and injustice to others” is a valid lesson, regardless of the facts surrounding it.
Not to sound dismissive or like I’m trivializing a tragedy, but the popular conception of the Kitty Genovese’s murder is like a text book math problem in which John buys 12 cantaloupes and gives four of them away.
Neither John nor his cantaloupes exist in reality but the principle taught in the math problem is valid and valuable and can be applied to an infinite number of other situations.
Contrariwise, Trump stands for no principle except a distaste for minorities.
He stands for no higher principle, such as: “Hold those guilty of such a crime accountable,” a valid principle regardless of who actually committed crimes or even if such a crime had actually been committed.
Rather, he stands for punishing those whom he deems guilty no matter what the truth is.
Ellison, though wrong in the particulars, can still be right in his stance.
Trump, forever and ever, will always be wrong.
© Buzz Dixon