Sheriff deputies stand outside a house in Cleveland, the day after three women who vanished a decade ago were found there. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Spoken by Charles Ramsey in an interview with ABC News last week, the words heard around the country were a case study in the impact of bystander intervention:
“I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s, I come outside, I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of her house. So I go on the porch, I go on the porch and she says ‘help me get out, I been in here a long time’. So you know, I figured this is a domestic violence dispute…”
Charles Ramsey, a resident of Cleveland, Ohio, had no idea that he was living next door to three young women who went missing more than ten years ago. He and his neighbor Angel Cortero (who, by some accounts was the first on the scene) helped Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escape the house where they were trapped. The three women, abducted as girls, were living in captivity and had managed that day to draw their neighbors’ attention while their kidnapper, Ariel Castro, was away from the home.
The story prompts many questions about how three captive women could have been living in such close proximity to so many who never realized they were there. Yet as a fuller story slowly emerges, one thing seems clear: this was an intervention by people who did not know the victims personally, who heard Amanda’s shouts and got her out.
The incident, and the intervention in particular, has been hailed a victory of feminism and a perfectly executed example of the adage “If you see something, say something.” It’s a victory when violence against women is acknowledged as a societal problem and not merely a family issue, operating under a notion privacy that places the importance of freedom from violence significantly below the protection of the patriarchal order. Until very recently, violence in the home was not widely considered a social issue. The idea of a man raping his wife didn’t even register as a problem, cultural or legally. Thanks to decades of advocacy—and a ton of hell-raising—we are building a cultural lexicon in which family and intimate partner violence are recognized as violence at all. That cultural shift, as slowly as it is happening, is no small achievement. A key element of this shift has been normalizing bystander intervention in instances when sexual harassment, sexual assault or intimate partner violence seem to be unfolding. The fruits of that work were evident in the clarity with which both Charles Ramsey and Angel Cortero expressed their decision to intervene.
Encouraging bystander intervention is an explicit challenge to the “bystander effect,” the acknowledgment that there are many obstacles in motivating bystanders to act. It takes a perfect storm of conditions that might enable a person to overcome internal and external resistance to act to help someone they do not know. A person or group of people must first notice the situation and determine that it requires intervention. They must feel some responsibility to act, decide how best to do that and have confidence in their ability to be successful. In a perfect situation, where all these criteria are met, interventions still don’t happen as often as they should.