The Status of Bystander Is No Longer Acceptable

Holding ourselves accountable for our inaction is the first step forward.

Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

A middle-aged lady’s cane snaps in half as she walks to the bus stop, and she plummets onto the floor with a grunt. A dozen people under the bus shelter gasp, and for one dreadful second that feels like an eternity, no one moves. Their eyes dart nervously from left to right, waiting. Two seconds in — maybe three — there’s a tremor in one person’s hand, and he puts weight on his foot, gesturing that he’s about to stand up. His eye darts around one last time to see no one moving, so he doesn’t. Four seconds — maybe five — and a man walks by the bus stop, notices the lady on the floor and shouts, “Holy sh- Hey! Are you okay?”

It took six seconds for someone to dash and help her up, and it wasn’t even a person who watched the scene happen.

Individuals are less likely to help when they’re in a crowd — we call it the “bystander effect”. Responsibility isn’t assigned to one person but to a whole group, so it becomes slippery, hard to grasp — it divides itself and confuses the crowd. Who will go first? Should I go first? What if no one follows? Should I wait until someone stands up so I can follow?

This social phenomenon can be found in the most mundane of moments. It’s easier to say no to the homeless man asking for change in the train when everyone else is doing it, too. At 3 a.m., your baby starts crying, wakes you up, but you wait for your significant other to make the first move out of the bed to say, “Do you want me to go?”

But you can’t talk about the bystander effect without telling the story of the person who popularized it — Kitty Genovese.

38 Witnesses — No One Intervened

This is how the story was reported at least. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death just outside her apartment building in New-York City by Winston Moseley, a serial killer and rapist. When the story broke, the case became an example of our tendency to turn away from those in need, which is why this phenomenon is also called “bystander apathy”. However, after further investigation and a documentary called The Witness (2015) produced by William Genovese, Kitty’s brother, it turns out that the number 38 was a lie used to sensationalize the story.

Here’s what we know to be real: Two people actually called the police. Two people turned away from the victim — one of them even saw Kitty being stabbed. Others, who did not see the scene happen, thought it was a lover’s quarrel. And one man almost saved her life — he flung his window open and yelled, “Hey, get out of there! What are you doing?” This led Winston Moseley to run away.

Kitty Genovese was still alive. Bleeding and in terrible agony, yet still alive.

But as she lay on the street, conscious that her attacker just ran away, the window shut. The man she thought saved her from death only delayed it. Winston Moseley had punctured her lungs, so she likely couldn’t scream for help anymore — the silence must have been deafening as she dragged her body into the lobby of her apartment building. Helpless, she was met with a locked door, and ten minutes later, her attacker returned and finished his vicious deed.

This case opens a window into the human psyche that the murderer saw way before Kitty’s almost-savior closed it. After he was apprehended, he was asked by the Chief of Detectives how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, and he calmly answered,

“I knew they wouldn’t do anything — people never do.”

False equivalences are, by definition, unreliable, but they make for jarring thought experiments. Ignoring a homeless person as they ask you for change? The thought leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s relatable. Turning your back away from someone whose life is in danger? Never! I would have helped! I would have done something! Those two situations are very different from one another but who is to say that, had you been one of the ’38 witnesses’, you would have reacted differently?

To this day, there is still a conversation around what happened. It has been suggested that the case shouldn’t be looked at through the bystander lens alone, but through the male/female power relations of the time. People were unlikely to intervene if they believed a man was attacking his wife or girlfriend. The personal wasn’t really politicized, domestic abuse was rarely reported and even when it was, it wasn’t considered as much of an issue then as it is now.

The Bystander Who Breaks Out of the Mold

Fast-forward to now, and the status of the bystander is much more different. We live in an era where everything is documented, and it becomes harder and harder to just turn your back and look away. And yet, the bystander still lives among us, waiting for someone else to step in, and who can blame them? They’ve read the stories. They know who the heroes are.

In 2017, a White Nationalist in a Portland train started spewing racist and anti-Muslim slurs at two Muslim women. Three men stepped in, and two of them died. The message becomes clear — if you do not sit idly by, you will suffer the consequences.

But then you hear stories like Tiana Smalls’. In June 2018, she singlehandedly cursed out Customs and Border Patrol agents who were illegally looking for passengers to detain on the Greyhound bus she was traveling on. She used her knowledge of the law to tell the passengers that it was a violation of their Fourth Amendment Rights and they didn’t have to prove those agents anything. “You have no right to ask me for anything! This is harassment and racial profiling! We are not within 100 miles of a border, so these agents have no legal right or jurisdiction here!” Tiana Smalls could have been a bystander — she could have sat idly by, shown her documentation and waited for it to be over. But she didn’t. In her words, she acted “a whole donkey” to defend those who didn’t know how to defend themselves.

But then, Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. pops up in the news. In November 2018, this 21-year-old Black man was fatally shot by an Alabama police officer. Race is said to have been a factor as to why he was shot so quickly and given America’s track record regarding police brutality against Black people, it’s not unlikely. The police thought he was the one who opened fire and shot at least one person in a mall near Birmingham. He wasn’t. He was one of the bystanders who chose to brandish his weapon to protect innocent people, and he happened to be killed by one of the people whose duty is to do exactly the same.

In the midst of all those stories, what is a bystander supposed to look at? Should one focus on the story where the hero dies, the one where justice prevails, or the one where a representative of the law kills a person who wanted justice to prevail? One of the NRA’s favorite taglines is ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’, but when a good guy shoots another good guy, what are you supposed to do?

The Real Nature of the Bystander

History shows that to win a fight for marginalized people, allies with privilege are needed. But having privilege means that you can choose to sit idly by, to watch from afar as things unfold. This privilege gave birth to one of the slogans Black Lives Matter marchers use — ‘White Silence is Violence’, which serves as a call to action for white bystanders who do not stand to police brutality toward Black people.

In 2016, Jane Elliott, a white, anti-racism activist stood in front of a full auditorium and asked every white person to stand if they would be happy to receive the same treatment Black citizens face in this society. No one moved. She repeated her request, but she was still met with unshakable silence.

“Nobody’s standing here,” she ended up saying. “That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”

Here’s what’s so bone-chilling about this: the bystander effect is supposed to diffuse responsibility, it confuses people into thinking that someone else will help eventually, but if Jane Elliott had spoken to an auditorium where sat only one person, that person wouldn’t have stood up. That person would know about the struggle of the marginalized, but that person would still stay put.

The truth is, to turn away from someone in need, we’ve never needed a crowd. We’re good on our own.

A Difficult Choice

It would be unfair, however, not to notice a major shift in our society. Along with the bystander effect, power relations may have been at play in the murder of Kitty Genovese, but things have changed since then. With recent movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and #TimesUp, the concept of ‘speaking truth to power’ has never been more relevant. Whether they be in regards to race, gender or sexuality, power relations are changing — they are still far from equal, but the gap between privileged and marginalized is thinning. We are seeing a rise in people stepping in and speaking up. People who used to sit idly by backstage, waiting for someone else to act, are now up on stage, giving the performance of a lifetime.

But the bystander is still lurking, watching, waiting. One thing is different, though, the bystander is sitting uncomfortably. The seat is too large now, so many people stood up already, the cozy feeling of diffused responsibility is gone, and this is where the bystander is going to have to make a choice. They either stay put, watch events unfold, make peace with the fact that they never contributed to changing anything and that they have no right to complain if something doesn’t go their way. Or they stand up, take a stance and do something — anything.

But be very, very careful. To do what they think is right, some are willing to risk more than others. If you’re not willing to put anything on the line to do what you think is right, get out of their way. There’s a reason why the story of the innocent bystander is the one that gets overlooked the most, it’s because no matter how many bystanders sit idly by in a crowd, the spotlight always follows the one on the move.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I can’t tell you what you should do — both choices come with their own caveats, and I can understand people who don’t want to risk too much. To some degree, the bystander effect is something we can all relate to, but I think there is a conversation to be had. We need to hold ourselves accountable for our inaction. We’ve never needed a crowd to turn our backs on people in need, which means we’ve always known that our inaction costs lives every day.

Remember the story of that middle-aged lady whose cane snapped in half? I was the one who almost stood up. And I know I let much worse things happen to people. You probably have, too. I’m still holding myself accountable for the things I could have done — it’s a long introspective process. I urge you to give it a try.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email:

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