The “truth” that more three dozen people gawked out their windows, doing nothing as Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in March 1964 has long been replaced with a more nuanced reality. Genovese fled from the attack, at first, and many people who were alerted by her first screams, neither saw nor heard anything else. People did pay attention, but there was not much for them to pay attention to. When the man who killed found her again, she assaulted her inside, away from the previous witnesses.
In any event, at least two neighbors called police, one of whom was with Genovese when the ambulance arrived for her.
The story has, of course, been handed down as a cautionary tale about the horrors of modern life, where no-one cares for strangers, where we all “don’t want to get involved”, where people turn away from others in need.
There’s a new book out, however, which suggests that the cautionary tale of Kitty Genovese’s story is not Modern Life Breeds Apathy Toward the Suffering of Other, but that Fear of the Police Among Marginalized Populations Causes Real Harm to Communities.
It seems that the one witness inside the building where Genovese was finally killed, who eventually did call the police, was a man for whom interacting with the police was always threatening. He was a gay man in New York, at a time where homosexuality was not only illegal, but when “in a major article published just three months before Genovese’s death, the Times had sounded alarms about the ‘growth of overt homosexuality’ in the city, calling the ‘increasing openness’ of the city’s gays and lesbians a major moral, psychiatric, and law-enforcement crisis.” (emphasis mine)
So, you see, it’s not about strangers not caring as a young woman is killed before their eyes. It is not about that at all.
It’s about systems which sow mistrust and therefore fail when they are needed. It’s about a moral failing of one man, who waited to call the police, and the failure of society which created his fear.
A completely different morality tale.
History is told by the winners, but when the losers and the oppressed start winning dignity and control, we start learning how skewed our history lessons were.