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Potomac Confidential

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Marc Fisher
Post Metro Columnist
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 12:00 PM

Potomac Confidential fills the midday lull with discussion by Metro columnist Marc Fisher who looks at the latest news with a rigorous slicing and dicing of the issues that define who we are and where we live.

This Story

Column: When One Among Us Falls, We All Are Compelled to Act (Post, Feb. 5)

Fisher was online Thursday, Feb. 5, at Noon ET to look at passersby who ignored a dying man on a D.C. sidewalk, voters ignoring special elections, and drivers who won't sweep snow off their cars.

A transcript follows.

Check out Marc's blog, Raw Fisher.

In his weekly show, Fisher veers wildly from serious probing to silly prattle, and is open to topics local, national, personal and more.

Archives: Discussion Transcripts


Marc Fisher: Some stories really do help tell us who we are. When 166 people walk by a man who is flat on his back on a public sidewalk for an extended period, motionless, that's a defining moment.

In today's column, I argue that the 166 people I watched pass by Jose Sanchez as he lay dying on 14th Street NW had an obligation to do something--call 911, check to see if the man was really hurt, ask other passersby whether someone had already sought help. But the comments attached to my column here on washingtonpost.com are dominated by readers who say that no, context matters, and the context here is that this is a part of Columbia Heights where lots of drunks hang out on the sidewalk all the time, and a fair number of them end up sprawled on the pavement--no emergency there.

Interestingly, although the comments on the story's web page are almost entirely negative (let the drunk rot), the comments posted on my Raw Fisher blog are almost entirely positive (mainly asking, what have we come to?) This gets to an old but still fascinating fact about web culture: Even though readers must register on this here web site to post comments, there remains a perception that leaving a comment attached to a story is an anonymous act, while writing a comment on my blog is somehow a more personal communication. So the more anonymous-feeling forum is filled with vitriol and slams against Hispanics, alcoholics, immigrants and so on, while the discussion on my blog, which feels more like an exchange of views, is much more reasoned and thoughtful. Am I drawing the right conclusions about why the comments are so different in the two places?

We'll spend some time on the Columbia Heights passersby story this hour, but we'll also get into a few other topics, including the apparent failure of Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to use slots to fill a big chunk of the state's budget gap, and the move by Virginia's House yesterday to allow police chaplains to speak directly about Jesus in their public prayers, rather than sticking to non-denominational language.

On to your many comments and questions, but first, let's call the Yay and Nay of the Day:

Yay to the big gaming companies that showed what the market really thinks of the prospect of slot machine gambling in Maryland. By demonstrating precious little interest in the five available slots locations made legal by voters last fall, the big companies are showing with their dollars that there is no bonanza to be had, and that Maryland's politicians took the voters for a ride with their baseless promises of hundreds of millions in free money.

Nay to Virginia House Speaker William Howell for his cave-in on an issue he had been consistent on for years: Instituting a smoking ban in the state's restaurants and bars. Suddenly today, Howell has joined hands with Gov. Tim Kaine to endorse a smoking ban, and Howell's fellow Republicans say the only thing that changed was the fortunes of the Republican party, which is now desperately trying to show that it's not just the Party That Says No. What happened to Howell's previously principled view that the marketplace was working and restaurant owners were quite properly responding to customer demand by setting their own restrictions on smoking? Will voters really reward a craven switcheroo more than a principled stand?

Your turn starts right now....


Reston, Va. - Way out of line: Marc, I think your closing comments today were way, WAY out of line. I walk from the Farragut West Metro to my office every morning, about 8 blocks - and then back at night. Every day I see people laying motionless on the sidewalk. Every day. Sometimes they are face down, others not. Some cold mornings like this morning they are so wrapped up and I can barely see their faces. Are you saying that I should be checking on each and every person every morning? I am sure that in the 14 years I have done this someone along the way has died. Have I been complicit in their death?

Your article insinuates that anytime you see someone lying on the ground you should call 911. Have you ever had a walk like I do in the morning? I would have to call 15-20 times a week. Have you ever been out in Adams Morgan at 2 a.m. on a Saturday? Am I obligated to stop and check on every single person I see lying on the ground or call 911 every time?

What about giving them all food or money -- they are probably all hungry, but 'not' giving them money am I letting them die?

Maybe this is just our sad state as a society but that's the way it is.

washingtonpost.com: When One Among Us Falls, We All Are Compelled to Act (Post, Feb. 5)

Marc Fisher: Take a look at the video--it's on the web page where my column appears today. I think you'll agree that there's a big and obvious difference between those huddled unfortunates whom you and I walk by every day on the way to the office, and this man who is flat on his back, unconscious, his head nearly hanging over the curb. The homeless people who sleep in doorways downtown do indeed lie on the pavement, but they are clearly either hiding from the wind or sleeping, generally well wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags. That's a far cry from seeing a man splayed out on the sidewalk where people walk, uncovered on a cold evening.

We can save the debate about whether to give money to the homeless for another day--nearly every advocate for the homeless I've ever asked recommends not giving them money--but I think you know the difference between someone who's sleeping and someone who is injured or badly in need of help.


Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: You are such a self-righteous a_ _, Marc Fisher. I had already lost all respect for you with your intellectually dishonest (or just plain lazy) reporting of the Poplar Point project this summer, but this is really beyond the pale.

How dare you pass judgment on people who only observed a snapshot of this incident? People are lying around drunk on the sidewalk in that area all the time, and there was little indication that anything other than that was going on here.

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the kind words. Actually, I think the fact that many of the passersby witnessed only a small piece of the overall incident made it even more incumbent upon them to seek help. If someone who saw the initial fight then decided not to get involved for fear that the aggressors would then turn on a good Samaritan, that's at least a defensible position. But for someone who happened upon the man sprawled across the sidewalk well after the punch that got him there, there is no such baggage attached to the decision to help.


Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: Regarding the man who died on 14th street, and the 166 people who didn't call 911. I live right around the corner from where it happened, and something's a little fishy.

I call 911 on average once a week in the summer, to report someone passed out on the sidewalks of my neighborhood. About half the time, the operator tells me they've already logged a call, and help is on the way. This is how I know I'm not the only one making these routine calls.

I have a guess: Someone (maybe even the assailants) seemed to be attending to the victim, and so passersby could see that he was not alone, that he was already being taken care of. It's true that if I see someone passed out, but two other people are sitting with him or bending over him, I keep walking.

Point is, I know this neighborhood. There are always jerks who ignore the suffering of others, but Columbia Heights has more than its share of friendly, involved residents. If no one called the cops, there's a good reason, and I'm afraid it probably wouldn't fit your "let's all be scandalized" writing style.

Marc Fisher: You've hit on a very interesting and curious aspect of the reaction by passersby in this case. If you watch the raw surveillance camera video a few times, you will notice exactly what you're describing--the two guys who punched out Sanchez, and another who appears to be with them, do indeed linger for a portion of the period before someone finally seeks help. So I grant you that some pedestrians would have been reluctant to help if it appeared that someone was watching over the situation. But after a few minutes, those thugs leave, and from then on, the passersby are on their own, coming upon the man's body de novo. At that point, I'd argue, the responsibility shifts entirely onto those who wander by.


Washington, D.C.: Marc, I have to disagree with you on today's column. Seeing someone lying on a sidewalk in a place where there are always people lying on the sidewalk is not the same as hearing a woman screaming and struggling.

Marc Fisher: True enough--there is a difference. Ignoring an active cry for help is considerably worse than walking by someone who is not moving. But in neither case is doing nothing the right thing. Strip this case of its social trappings--ignore the fact that this is a block where lots of people are intoxicated and where drunks hang out and beg for money--and I think many of the people who argue against helping would actually call 911. So the real debate is over whether those who have done damage to themselves deserve the same level of care and help as anyone else. I say yes.


Yay of the day: You, for standing up for the right thing to do. Sobering article. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: When One Among Us Falls, We All Are Compelled to Act (Post, Feb. 5)

Marc Fisher: Thanks--as you can see, we're in the minority on this one, or at least in a quieter group.


Taking action with someone flat out on the street: I've been doing research at EPA, down by the Mall. One morning I walked past someone lying motionless on a grate. I stopped, wondering if he was homeless and taking advantage of the heat coming out of the grate. I hesitated to try and wake him up to check, but on the other hand was he ... well ... asleep or not? It was cold out, after all -- and we all hear about homeless people freezing to death.

It's not always easy to figure out the right thing to do. What I did in the end was tell the security guard at EPA. He said he thought he knew the man. I asked him to check that the man was okay. Later I asked the security guard about the man sleeping on the grate and he told me the man was okay.

Did I do enough? What else might I have done? I still wonder ... .

Marc Fisher: Sounds to me like you acted responsibly--you not only sought help, you also checked with someone who was in a position to know more than you, someone who indeed was familiar with the circumstances of the motionless man. Had someone done that on 14th Street, the ambulance might have been on the scene as much as 20 minutes sooner.


SE, D.C.: I do not begrudge or judge the many people that walked past the fallen victim. I've volunteered in soup kitchens and deliver goods to homeless shelters. However, living here all my life and seeing the number of homeless, mentally ill, addicts and drunkards on the street de-sensitizes you to the sight. I don't want to make excuses but it is a reality of life in D.C.

Marc Fisher: Again, I think there's a meaningful difference between the sadly common sight of people sleeping on the street and someone who is obviously injured or otherwise totally out of it. People who are sleeping on the street generally try to stay warm, out of the wind and out of the way of most pedestrians. There's a real difference in this case, in which the man is flat out on a busy sidewalk in front of a very popular store.


Falls Church, Va.: Marc,

On your story today, do you think that some of the passers are used to seeing drunkards passing out and sleeping on sidewalks and didn't think he was in danger? Maybe a bleeding head would have had someone more worried. Thank you for all your work.

Marc Fisher: You're probably right--seeing blood would likely have prompted action on the part at least of some of the pedestrians who bothered to take a closer look, as several did. But should someone have to be bleeding profusely to get help?


Arlington, Va.: Great column today, Marc -- thanks for speaking as the community's conscience on this one.

I'm equally haunted by another story, though: the D.C. firefighter who shot his (ex?-)girlfriend and her parents, then shot himself.

Kudos to the Applebee's employees who called the cops on him earlier! But is it my imagination, or are we seeing a national epidemic of these kinds of revenge murder-suicides: jilted men who multiple-murder (or try to) not only their ex but their ex's family? What do you make of it?

washingtonpost.com: D.C. Firefighter Shoots Woman, Her Parents, Then Kills Himself (Post, Feb. 5)

Marc Fisher: I don't see any epidemic--this is the kind of bizarre behavior that makes for fascinating stories, but there's no larger trend afoot. Sadly, such incidents are as old as the hills--the only difference today is that such impulses are far easier to act on because of the ready availability of firearms.


Take a look at the video -- it's on the Web page where my column appears today.: Believe it or not, the place I read your column was on paper at my breakfast table. No video. I was confused in the same way as the earlier commenter.

washingtonpost.com: Video: Beating of Homeless Man

Marc Fisher: And I thank you for that, truly and deeply. A link to the video is right here for your convenience.


Context: It does matter.

Anonymous forums are filled with vitriol and hate, but beyond all the nastiness I believe it's true, Context does matter. Then again, so does common sense.

I didn't see the fallen man, but I've seen plenty of people passed our or sleeping on the street. I like to think I can tell the difference, but perhaps I'm deluding myself.

Marc Fisher: Agreed--but that doesn't entirely solve our puzzle. I think we can probably agree that had Jose Sanchez had the fortune to have been punched in the head at Connecticut and K, he'd have had a far greater chance of receiving prompt help than he did up at 14th and Parkwood Place NW. We all make calculations as we decide how to respond to any event, and many of you argue, with honesty and merit, that you cannot call 911 every time you see someone lying on the sidewalk.

But we also all have some measure of street sense, and we can usually tell the difference between someone in distress and someone who is just asleep. Take a look at the video and tell me if it isn't clear that this man is not just taking a snooze.


Washington, D.C.: The video attached to your article says that the victim is okay. You say he's dead. Who is right?

Marc Fisher: He died Friday at Washington Hospital Center.


Washington, D.C.: Marc,

I really, really hope you will devote some space tomorrow to talk about this police chaplain prayer bill that passed in the Virginia house. The ACLU is threatening to sue in response.

Can this really be the same state that went blue in November? I am most astonished by the clearly disturbing anti-Muslim comments by one Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr. Google it to read his exact quotes.

This one bill kind of passed under the radar -- please provide coverage.

Marc Fisher: The Spruill comments were indeed remarkable--the delegate from Chesapeake stood on the House floor yesterday and boasted about how he walks out whenever a Muslim cleric recites the opening prayer for the House of Delegates.

That whole debate was riveting, and I have a post about it coming up on Raw Fisher this afternoon, right after we finish up here on the big show.


Nationals: Tom Boswell made a big show about not renewing his season tickets because the team hasn't made drastic improvements in five years. Adam Dunne is NOT going to draw any casual fan into the park, neither would Texeira for that matter. It's sad that a columnist makes these grand pronouncements when he can get a press pass for these games. I'd like to hear him say that he wasn't going to patronize one of your advertisers because of bad service he received. That would be more of a public service than trying to spend other people's money on .230 hitters with 100 strikeout per season hitters. Remember all of those Sunshine Marys in Tropicana Field during the WS last year, look for Boswell in his pink Nationals hat when things start to gel.

Marc Fisher: Actually, having a big league slugger like Dunne on the team might just draw some folks to the park. But in general, you're right that bringing in one marquee player does not turn things around and would not significantly jack up attendance. So the Nats' basic plan still has merit: Build up the quality of the team because a real contender will indeed change the spirit and numbers of fans; witness the transformation of the Caps.


Annapolis, Md.: The Restaurant Refugee blog asked a really good question yesterday. If the Lerners won't pay the rent they owe to the city why is Mayor Fenty accepting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from them? Isn't that essentially DC taxpayer money they're giving him?

washingtonpost.com: The Restaurant Refugee

Marc Fisher: The Lerners and the city finally came to a deal on the rent payments, so they're square now, but as you can see, the resentment over the team owners' refusal to pay their rent on time last season lingers. The Nats have a real challenge ahead of them, partly because they allowed the quality of play to decline so dramatically last year, but also because fans just have not yet seen proof that these owners are willing and ready to invest sufficiently to produce a franchise worthy of this area's population and affluence.


Alexandria, VA.: OK seriously -- are we going to be able to get through a week without a water main breaking? Is our infrastructure really in that bad a shape? I get more e-mails about busted water mains from the D.C. and Arlington alerts than I do from my parents!

washingtonpost.com: Water Main Break Blocks MacArthur Boulevard (Get There, Feb. 5)

Marc Fisher: Old infrastructure does not do well in winters with big temperature swings, which is what we've had around here this year. And make no mistake: The infrastructure beneath our homes, offices and streets is very, very old--sometimes dating to the 1840s.

An honest stimulus package would focus on those kinds of long-term investments.


Nay on your Nay of the Day!: It's about time Virginia finally caught up with much of the rest of the country in recognizing that the harm to employees who work in places where customer smoking is allowed -- especially nowadays where quitting (or refusing) a job is an economic luxury that most workers can ill-afford -- is unconscionable morally and health-wise. I know you'll just snark on my comment, but from a public health perspective smoking needs to become increasingly marginalized, if only for the savings in added health-care costs and reduced job-productivity that further reductions in smoking can produce.

Marc Fisher: You're mixing issues. I don't see a problem with a ban on smoking in workplaces because, as you say, most people can't just pick up and leave their job just because they don't like smoke. But eating at a restaurant is a purely voluntary matter, and especially in a place like Virginia, where there are literally thousands of eateries and bars that have decided on their own to go smoke-free, everybody has options. As long as smoking remains legal, there's no reason not to let the market work this out--many, and probably most, restaurant owners see that most patrons prefer places that aren't smoky, so that's what those businesses are delivering, and they don't need politicians in Richmond to tell them that.


K Street: Marc,

Regarding the Daschle Debacle, do you think that Obama is terribly naive in trying not to hire lobbyists to work in his administration? I am a policy wonk for a nonprofit. I rarely actually lobby. My job is to prepare documents and positions for the lobbyists to convey. But we are small and occasionally I pitch in by going to an agency or the Hill. So I am a registered lobbyist. I'm also an expert on an issue on the liberal side of the debate. Many folks like me in this town. The fact that we can't work for Obama means that the people who do lack our knowledge, skills and experience.

Marc Fisher: It does seem to be a specious distinction given the quality of characters Obama has attempted to bring into his Cabinet. It's hard to argue that there's something inherently demonic about lobbyists when you're trying to stuff your senior staff full of people who saw nothing wrong with parlaying their public service into millions of dollars, or who believed that paying taxes was something for the chumps of the middle class to do.


Oh, NO: Terrorist raccoons have infiltrated the White House Grounds!

Marc Fisher: And I bet you lunch that the White House, unlike me, will be able to find a trapper who will actually kill the critters rather than driving them a few blocks away to let them out so they can come right back and thereby elicit another call to the trappers.


Lyon Village, Va.: I was really disappointed that Herrity fell JUST short in his run this week. Since when has someone said "I will stop spending on affordable housing." We all hate it, but for "moral" reasons we're supposed to support it. So then we get churches letting people like Jose Sanchez into apartments on their property. Right near single family homes! It's about time someone said, "ENOUGH!".

Marc Fisher: We all hate affordable housing?

Wow. That's a new one. We hate it because it's...affordable? We hate it because it brings in people who aren't "like us?" We hate it because it means more neighbors "like Jose Sanchez?"

Tell me, would you have walked right past Sanchez?


washingtonpost.com: Raccoons Invade White House Grounds (Post, Feb. 5)


Washington, D.C.: Oh please, give me a break. Even if he was just drunk and passed out I STILL would have called the cops. They should come out, and drag him off the sidewalk. That is not the look of a homeless person sleeping.

I am a single woman, I get nervous at times here in the city. But there is NO chance that I would have done nothing. At a minimum, I would have kept walking and then called 911 from a more discreet corner.

In fact, one time I did do that riding home in cab late one night. I saw a person, lying on a sidewalk, and it looked funny to me. I called 911, and I know the cops went and took a look because they called back.

Marc Fisher: Good point--I've done that. I happened upon a knife fight out in front of a nightclub on Seventh Street late one night a few months ago, and it would have been downright foolish to stand there and call 911, so I waited a couple of minutes until I got to my car and made the call from there. The cops came in about a minute and broke up the fight.


Simply Stunned: Wow-- when did it become so hard to take five seconds and do the right thing? With so many cell phone users today, shouldn't it be easier than ever to just Call. For. Help.

I don't know what is more stunning -- zero out of 166 calls for help or the fact that the super negative responses don't see anything wrong with this situation.

The only possible words for those in utter disagreement with your column are: How would YOU like passerby to react if you are injured?

Marc Fisher: Well, I guess those folks will argue that a) they wouldn't be in that neighborhood, b) they wouldn't look like a drunk, and c) they'd have to admit that if they were in that situation, they'd appreciate the help. But let's hear from some folks who think the pedestrians were right to ignore the man.....


Washington, D. C.: I observed a well-dressed man emerge from the IMF, see a man lying on the sidewalk, walk over to him to see if he were all right, only to have the man rear up, lunge at him and shout profanities. In the past I have called for an ambulance -- twice the people turned out to be dead -- but, since I saw the attack on the IMF man and being a little bit queasy about dead bodies, I am leery about doing anything.

Marc Fisher: Yikes. Bad moment. Sure, anyone would be leery after that sort of experience. But the fact of that moment doesn't change the basic elements of the incident we're talking about--even if there is some small risk involved in helping out, it's still the right thing to do. Of course, you should take precautions to protect yourself, perhaps walk a ways away before making the call, or even seek safety in numbers by asking a fellow pedestrian to make the call.


Arlington, Va.: Is this essentially a fair test? This sounds like Weingarten's test earlier with the violinist. Here, all you are doing is watching the camera tape. You're not walking along, focused on a variety of different things. And, as has been mentioned, when you see someone lying down on a grate, the immediate assumption is drunk or homeless.

Marc Fisher: No, it's not a perfect test. But it's a big step up from the theoretical because we have the video to watch, and that gives us a long time to linger over what the right reaction would have been. You're right that in the moment, the thinking is much more fleeting and could go down the wrong pathway.


MoCo: A comment about comments.

I would like to see the Post, WTOP.com, etc. remove the option of leaving comments on website stories.

Too often the comments are filled with vitriol, anger, negativity, balderdash, and worse. I just don't see how the comments are productive.

Marc Fisher: The comments are in general much tamer and more rational since the site began requiring commenters to register before leaving comments on Post stories, but you're right, on topics like this one, they do sometimes veer off into the vitriolic and even outrageous. I don't mind that, but some of my colleagues and, more important, some readers, do take offense. My defense of it is that it's generally a self-correcting mechanism; readers are terrific at calling offending commenters on their excesses.

And there is indeed value in seeing this unvarnished expression of opinion and even rage. It can be eye-opening for some readers, and here's one right now.....


Re. Vitriolic comments: Come on, how many of the "vitriolic" comments do you think are for real? Lyon Village and the "we all hate affordable housing" spiel? How could that possibly be serious?

After the big controversy there with the First Baptist church, I'm guessing someone is having quite a bit of fun mocking the drama some residents expressed about how such housing will "block the light from my flowerbeds".

Marc Fisher: I considered the idea that it was a spoof, but I don't think so. Whether or not this particular post comes from someone who genuinely holds those beliefs, I can tell you with certainty from my mail, email, and calls that there are many, many such folks, and many with far worse things to say.


Not to nitpick: ... "But let's hear from some folks who think the pedestrians were right to ignore the man."

There's a difference between "ignored" and "observed and came to a different conclusion than you."

This is the sort of writing that spurs debate, but which I find somewhat disingenuous. One side is saying that upon seeing the fallen man, there was nothing proper to be done but to help or call the police. The other side believes there were other appropriate conclusions.

Marc Fisher: Ok, so if you feel there were other appropriate conclusions--and I grant you that concluding this was a drunk who had simply passed out might be a rational conclusion for someone who lives in or knows that neighborhood well--how would you respond to the reader's question about what you would want passersby to do if you were the one who had been sucker-punched on the sidewalk?


Herndon, Va.: Judging by your article, you seem to believe you would have acted, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'd like to think I would have helped as well. But the truth is, no one really knows how they would react until they are in the situation.

Do you think that Chesley B. Sullenberger said, "If my engines ever go out, I'm going to land in a river"?

As I said, I think a lot of people would say they would like to help, but they don't truly know that they would until the situation presents itself. Do you agree?

Marc Fisher: Great point. You really don't know until you're in the moment.

I think I may have told this story once before, but it's germane, so here's the short version:

In Manhattan many years ago, I was walking on New Year's Eve with three friends when we were approached from behind on a deserted block. A young man walked up to us and said, very softly, "This is a stickup. I have a gun." Once we got over the fact that someone had actually used those words, we completely and utterly shocked ourselves by doing exactly the opposite of what we would have predicted we'd do.

We did not give the man our wallets. We did not turn around to face him.

Without a word to each other, we ran into the street and away from the man.

He ran after us, followed us around one corner, and then, as we turned the second corner, he gave up. We heard him say, "All I wanted was some money."

It was an incredibly stupid response on our part. We could have been killed. Three of us were New York City native who had been drilled from birth about how the right thing to do when mugged was to give the guy the money.

Yet something about the mugger's tentative voice empowered us to run.

A decision in the moment, completely at odds with what we thought we would have done.


London, U.K.: Why were you counting people, when you could have been helping? Hypocrite! At least you got a story out of it.

Marc Fisher: My count took place a week after the event, from the video.


IMF guy: Same thing happened to my husband... he stopped to check on someone slumped against a wall, and the person lunged AT OUR TODDLER. Husband has quick reflexes, thank God.

I do the walk-and-call. I never hang around or try to interact. But I always call.

Marc Fisher: Good plan.


Falls Church, Va.: On my way to work I walk by the Corner Bakery at 19th and L Streets, NW. VERY often, I see one or two cruisers parked outside on 19th Street, this as drivers run red lights or pedestrians jaywalk across K Street.

Now tell me, do you SERIOUSLY think I'm going to interrupt a police officer's coffee and muffins because somebody is passed out bleeding on the street? When they're already ignoring the shenanigans during rush hour? Are you KIDDING me?

Marc Fisher: Wait--you're equating the cops' failure to enforce absurd traffic laws that no one follows (jaywalking???!) with their response if someone is potentially dying on the street?


Calling 911 and dislike for cops: I'll admit it -- I hate cops. I grew up in L.A., and there they are the enemy, not true help. I was there during the L.A. riots, and believe me, they hate the public as much as the public hates them. Therefore, and I have done this before, if I call 911 in this kind of an incident, I do it while leaving the scene. I usually give the operator my phone number in case they have more questions. So please consider that someone also could have called 911 or sought help for this poor fellow out of camera range.

Marc Fisher: Quite a few people I spoke to outside the supermarket on 14th Street made the argument that it's no surprise that no one called 911 because people in that area have reason to fear the police (either because the residents are here illegally or because they've had bad experiences with the police.)

Sorry, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility you have to others. Calling 911 in such a circumstance, by the way, doesn't even necessarily result in the police coming to the scene. What you get is what you got in this case, an ambulance.


Not nitpicking...: "how would you respond to the reader's question about what you would want passersby to do if you were the one who had been sucker-punched on the sidewalk? "

If they knew I'd been sucker-punched? Call for help. But having not seen that occur, I'm not faulting them.

As I said in another comment, the people really obligated to call the cops were the ones who saw the punch. Those are the ones I find society obligates, having witnessed the initial violence.

I want to help my fellow man, and I'd like others to want the same. But context matters, and there's nothing morally negligent in reaching a different, albeit incorrect, conclusion.

In my opinion you're faulting people for being incorrect, not for their intentions, which is why you're getting so much response.

Marc Fisher: I'm not sure I follow: Why should those who witnessed the initial attack have a greater obligation to help than those who just saw the injured man in the aftermath of the punch?

Seems to me that a passerby would be more likely to conclude that this is a private matter if they saw the initial argument, whereas someone coming onto the scene without that knowledge would simply think: Injured person, call for help.


Restaurants are workplaces too!: Waitstaff, chefs, cooks, etc... work in restaurants. Do they not have the same rights as office workers?

Marc Fisher: I have about a dozen comments in the queue along this line. And of course restaurants are indeed also workplaces, but they serve vastly more customers, and they are regulated differently for the sake of those diners, not for the workers. So, no, I'd conclude that those workers don't necessarily have the same rights as office workers because each field of labor carries with it different expectations about working conditions. The folks who work in steam tunnels can expect to deal with far harsher conditions than those who work in climate-controlled offices. Similarly, restaurants are notoriously difficult places to work in, from the cramped kitchens to the abuse from diners to the presence of smoke around the bar.


Nay to your Nay to Nay on your Nay of the Day!: : You missed the point completely. The poster was talking about people who WORK in restaurants, not people who EAT in restaurants. You replied in part: "I don't see a problem with a ban on smoking in workplaces because, as you say, most people can't just pick up and leave their job just because they don't like smoke." So why doesn't that apply to people who WORK in restaurants? Also, many mom-and-pop restaurants have kids and grandkids of the owners on site a lot of times. Think about the kiddies, even if you don't care about restaurant WORKERS (versus EATERS.)

Marc Fisher: Again, the current system leaves that decision to the owner of the business, and most seem to be deciding that their diners, and perhaps their workers as well, want or deserve a smoke-free setting. That creates lots of places where workers who don't want to be around that smoke can go work.


Virginia Restaurants: THANK YOU MARC! I 100 percent agree with your position. Let society decide whether they want to frequent a bar/restaurant that permits smoking. Don't waste precious legislative time over something that could be worked out through market mechanisms. I'm all for keeping government (including regulation) small. With all the other issues facing Virginia, why are we quibbling over cigarettes?

Marc Fisher: Because it's an election year and this is a very popular position, as even the House Republicans are finally realizing. So they just throw their long-held principles out the window.


Sigh...: You're playing with me, right?

"Why should those who witnessed the initial attack have a greater obligation to help than those who just saw the injured man in the aftermath of the punch?"

My point was that those who see the man on the ground can observe and quite reasonably reach separate conclusions about what happened. "He needs help" is one, and the right one. Also, "he needs to sleep it off" is a conclusion that, while incorrect, could be reached in the context and environment.

The punch is unambiguous.

Marc Fisher: No, not playing with you--just trying to dig down to the roots of each position on this.

So your conclusion is that what really matters is whether the victim is worthy of our help?

Maybe that's where the divide is between the two main streams of thought on this issue--one side says anyone down on the street deserves assistance and the other side says it depends on how they got there and who they are.


Washington, D.C.: I wonder how some of these people who support just walking by reacted when the former NYT editor (Rosenbloom? something like that) was mugged in his upper NW neighborhood and the EMTs treated him like your average drunk. I'm sure some of them were probably outraged at his treatment.

Marc Fisher: I've had a bunch of comments comparing the two cases, and they're not quite exactly on point--after all, in the Chevy Chase DC case, there were no passersby who ignored Rosenbaum. But both cases do turn on the question of what conclusions people came to about who this victim was. Rosenbaum, it's now clear, would have gotten far more prompt and appropriate care if the EMTs hadn't believed that he was "just" a drunk who'd fallen down on the sidewalk. And perhaps Sanchez would have drawn attention from those pedestrians had he been dressed in a suit.


Washington, D.C.: I live two blocks north of that grocery store where the man is seen on the sidewalk. As a female, I never walk on that strip, but always on the other side of the street. Between the exxon station and the old "solo's" (after so many stabbings and killings they changed the name), at 5pm that strip is full of people drinking, getting in heated discussions, and staring up and down while commenting on every passerby. On that strip alone, I see many, many people passed out on the sidewalk.

I challenge you to walk that strip at 5pm for a week and then after that, decide if you would call the police for anyone laying on the sidewalk. You are intensely judgmental in this article, yes, we as a society have responsibilities to care for each other. This strip doesn't bring that out in me. I have to stay clear for my own sense of safety.

Marc Fisher: I don't remotely fault you for steering clear of that block. I did indeed go out there at 5 p.m. to see what the crowd was like at that hour. It's not a dangerous-feeling place by my measure, but there are definitely drunks hanging around and I would certainly advise my daughter or wife to walk on the other side of the street, as you do.

But I go back to what we talked about at the top of the hour: I think you, like me or anyone else, can usually tell the difference between a drunk who's sleeping it off and someone who is badly injured. And I think if you watch the video you will conclude that this does not look like your standard drunk on the sidewalk.


Washington, D.C.: Marc, this is only tangentially relevant to this discussion, but it's something that continues to bother me.

I've only called 911 once. I was awakened around 2 a.m. by what appeared to be a domestic dispute on the street below my apartment building. A woman was in a car and a man was trying to get her to let him in. They were yelling. Eventually she let him get in, but only part-way. She then started driving, slowly, allowing him to drag behind her. He fell, she drove off.

I called 911 and described the situation.

I then watched from my window for another hour while she drove back, he crawled back to the car, they yelled some more, and they ultimately drove off together.

I never saw a police car or ambulance. It's possible they came eventually, after I'd gone back to sleep, but like I said, it was at least an hour that I was watching, after my 911 call.

I guess if that's the kind of response we can get from 911, it doesn't surprise me that much that people don't bother to call.

Marc Fisher: Yikes. That's scary--the lack of police response, I mean.


In defense of Falls Church: It's not equating jaywalking, it's the fact WE see people everyday not do their basic jobs, so why are we going to go out of our way. Sad, but true.

You get requests to write on Fenty/Barry/Cantania corruption everyday. Are you an advocate or reporter.

Marc Fisher: Agreed--most people aren't spectacularly energetic about doing their jobs to the fullest. And some folks, whether they be cops, clerks, newspaper reporters or anything else, just don't do what they're supposed to do.

But I wouldn't conclude from the fact that cops are failing to enforce minor violations that they will therefore not respond when someone's life is in danger.

On your last question, as a columnist, I'm a strange hybrid--I report stories exactly as I did as a news reporter, but because I do take positions and present arguments and my own perspective in the column and on the blog, I am also in a sense an advocate. It's an admittedly weird spot to be in at an institution that seeks to imbue its staff with a dispassionate sensibility, but it's also a grand opportunity to call things as they are.


he crawled back to the car, : Someone in the building across the street may have called and told them not to come, he was okay after all. Usually when I call, they say, "Oh we already got a call about that."

Marc Fisher: Could be....


Anonymous: "So your conclusion is that what really matters is whether the victim is worthy of our help?"

If I said this, then I misspoke. But I think what I said was nowhere near this.

There's "worthy of our help," which is a nice way of making a debate ugly. And then there's "needing our help."

For the purposes of this debate, I'll admit that if I see someone on the sidewalk who I believe is drunk/passed out/asleep, I do not believe they 'need' my help. Nor should the cops be bothered with public drunkenness.

If I reached the conclusion they don't need my help, then I don't call. Everyone, if they need it, is "worthy" of help. But I'm not faulting passerby for reaching the wrong conclusion.

If they knew he needed help and kept moving, then they're morally bankrupt. But that's not something you can tell from security footage.

You're making my head hurt, and I think you're doing it on purpose.

Marc Fisher: It's part of my job to make your head hurt. And I'm grateful that you're sticking around and pushing back.

I'll let you have the last word on this, but I will add one fact: Every police chief I've ever thrown this question at has the same advice--Call. Even if you think it's a waste of their time. Call.


Philly, Pa.: I think it's interesting how you are arguing that all people deserve consideration and help, regardless of their situation and how they got there, while simultaneously arguing that restaurant workers don't deserve protection from second-hand smoke because they chose to work in a place where that is the nature of the workplace. Huh.

Marc Fisher: Nice ThreadWeaver. And a perfectly reasonable point. Except that rules regarding restaurants are almost always written with diners in mind, not workers. That may strike you as unfair, but it seems right to me--these are places of public accommodation and the state has an obligation to put the safety and health of the patrons first.


Have smokers pay up: If I were the owner, I would simply add a surcharge to every smoker's bill -- a health externality surcharge -- which would be given directly to the wait staff in their tips. Let the staff decide how much dealing with the smoke is worth. $5? $10?

Marc Fisher: Now there's a real believer in the power of the market.


Alexandria, Va.: I think you and the "don't call" people are talking past each other.

--Also, "he needs to sleep it off" is a conclusion that, while incorrect, could be reached in the context and environment. --


--I think you, like me or anyone else, can usually tell the difference between a drunk who's sleeping it off and someone who is badly injured. --

People are disagreeing that it is that easy to tell if the guy really needed help, not about the obligation to provide help for someone truly in need. I haven't seen (and can't watch on my computer at work) the video, so I don't know which of you is correct in this case. But it is obvious to me that the basic disagreement is whether or not it was clear he needed help, not if he deserved help.

Marc Fisher: We've got to wrap this up, and you've done a sweet job of summarizing where we stand.

So, as Warner Wolf used to say, Let's go to the videotape. Take a look and see what you think. We can continue the debate on the comment board on Raw Fisher if you'd like.


Quite different: I've seen many homeless people passed out on the street. This was quite different. Most of them are huddled, sometimes in a fetal position, often around a bottle or bag and usually out of the way or somewhere for heat (grate, doorway, next to a tree, in the shelter of a step, etc.).

This man was lying flat on his back, spread eagle with his head over the curb. People stopped to pull him back on the curb. Then away from the minivan so it could drive away, but he was still spread eagle on the curb. This in no way resembles the vast majority of drunks on the street.

These factors alone should have induced someone to call for help. I'd like to think that people who see drunks far more often than I could have picked out the same details that I picked out to distinguish this case from the many others we all see daily.

Marc Fisher: That's one perception of the video--and obviously I share that view.


Columbia Heights, Md.: I am a physician and also a Columbia Heights resident. I have had men passed out on the sidewalk in front of my home and the sidewalk behind. There isn't a good way to tell between passed out drunk and a blunt head trauma without a medical assessment. I always call 911. Furthermore, even if this person was intoxicated, he would be at high risk for hypothermia, aspiration pneumonia, etc. We get these gentlemen in our ER all the time, and they usually have significant medical problems requiring attention beyond their substance abuse. I would encourage everyone to take the two minutes and call 911.

Marc Fisher: Thanks--good advice.


Washington, D.C.: I live in Mount Pleasant which has a similar problem with drunks passing out on the street. I have called, and the cops/EMTs sure don't like responding to these calls. But, I'm certain I don't call 100 percent of the time, and I really don't appreciate folks who don't live in this type of environment acting superior when they don't experience this reality.

We passed a singles ban, and yes, it did help. It helped the neighborhood, and it helped the drunks themselves who don't have as easy access to booze.

More importantly, it would be nice to improve access to drug treatment, and it would be a great idea if the shelter didn't dump their residents onto community streets during the day. They need programs during the day.

Marc Fisher: Some Columbia Heights residents I spoke to argued that the single sales ban in Mount Pleasant has pushed drunks to their streets. Doing that policy neighborhood by neighborhood doesn't strike me as the brightest bit of public policy to come down the pike.


washingtonpost.com: Video: Beating of Homeless Man

Marc Fisher: Here's the video again....


washingtonpost.com: Video: Beating of Homeless Man


Marc Fisher: We're way over the time limit and we're having some technical problems on the site, so I'll have to wrap up today's edition. Apologies to the many who couldn't get in today. We'll continue the debate over on Raw Fisher...Thanks for coming along....


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