When One Among Us Falls, We All Are Compelled to Act

Police in Washington, DC say a fight between homeless men that was caught on surveillance tape was over a can of beer. Two suspects are now under arrest. Video by AP
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 5, 2009

I've been over the 19 minutes of security cam video seven times now, and by my count, 166 people walked past a man who lay motionless on the sidewalk outside a busy District supermarket one afternoon last week.

Eleven of those passersby took at least one step out of their path for a closer look at the man, who was flat on his back, his head at the curb on a busy stretch of 14th Street NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. One pedestrian lingered for a few seconds. Another chatted briefly with two others as they stood over the man. One passerby even leaned down and appeared to check the man before walking back where he'd come from.

But not one of those 166 people bothered to call 911 or seek help in any other way. No one pulled out a cellphone. No one hurried inside to ask for assistance.

Eventually, a worker in the Pan Am International market called for an ambulance, which came promptly. As soon as the medical team arrived, 22 people gathered to watch as the man was placed on a stretcher. Jose Sanchez, 31, died three days later from brain injuries suffered when he fell to the pavement.

The story played on TV as a local version of the famous Kitty Genovese incident from 1964, when a New York City woman was stabbed and sexually assaulted on a sidewalk while neighbors watched from apartment windows. "Thirty-eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call Police," the headline said back then. (Later studies contend there might have been as few as 12 witnesses.) The case became a chestnut in psychology textbooks, a gruesome illustration of the "bystander effect" -- people are less likely to intervene if others are present because each witness assumes someone else has already taken action.

Genovese shouted for help. Sanchez, sucker-punched in the midst of a street argument, hit the sidewalk before he could make a sound.

If you were one of those 166 people, you saw Sanchez and decided to do nothing. Or you didn't see it, because you've trained yourself to render certain ugly aspects of life invisible.

"A man lying on the ground . . . we see that here all the time," says Hector Gomez, executive director of the Tivoli North Business Association. "This unfortunately is a community that becomes almost inured to crime and violence and inner-city vagrancy. The perception here is, well, there's a drunk man lying on the ground."

The perception might have been correct. One witness to the argument told Channel 7 that the dispute was about a single beer. Other witnesses told police that an oral insult precipitated the punch. Two men, Maxmillo Argueta and Humberto Escobar, were arrested and charged with assault; charges were escalated to manslaughter after Sanchez died, says police Inspector Rodney Parks.

Should it matter whether Sanchez was homeless? Or that the area outside the store is a daily hangout for drunks, some of whom harass shoppers? "Those same guys are here all the time, asking for quarters," says Giovanni Lopez, who works at the market. "It feels dangerous."

Should it matter that some merchants on upper 14th Street are reluctant to call police because officers responding to calls about drunks have chastised shopkeepers for wasting their time?

Everyone I spoke to along the retail strip where Sanchez died said those 166 pedestrians had reasons for not seeking help.

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