The George Zimmerman trial is nearing its end. The state prosecutors and Zimmerman’s defense team are offering closing arguments that have so far included references to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Zimmerman’s law enforcement aspirations. Once summation concludes, the all-women jury will decide the 28-year-old former neighborhood watchman’s fate while cultural critics, legal analysts and avid trial viewers will dissect a trial that’s riveted the nation.
There will be conversations about the value of black boys in America and the coldness of racism and legal scholars will debate the fairness of the criminal justice system, but one theme that continues to haunt me is the lack of aid given to Martin when he was battling for his life. The defense and prosecution called almost 80 witnesses to the stand. Several of those witnesses lived in the “Retreat of Twin Lakes,” the apartment-complex where Martin was shot and killed.
They heard a voice screaming for help and heard the gunshot that caused Martin’s death, but none of them left their porches to intervene. All of them called 911 to report a confrontation, but “I don’t want to get involved” was a common response to dispatchers. Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin and the hesitance to intervene is a classic case of the bystander effect.
Psychology Today defines the bystander effect as:
The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularized the concept following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in Kew Gardens, New York. Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment three times, while bystanders who reportedly observed the crime did not step in to assist or call the police. Latane and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act). In Genovese’s case, each onlooker concluded from their neighbors’ inaction that their own help was not needed.
We see the bystander effect enacted on the television news all the time. In this 2009 clip, a child is screaming for help while being abducted and no witness comes to her aid.
In group or neighborhood situations, the bystander effect is increased. People are less likely to offer assistance if there’s a group of people witnessing an incident. Everyone expects another person to volunteer, so nobody does.
It’s understandable that some avoid intervening to prevent possible harm, but a simple distraction or intervention could’ve saved Martin’s life.
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said in his closing statement that Zimmerman silenced Martin. We can’t remain silent when we see confrontations. Speaking up is a matter of life-and-death.