On June 5th, headlines everywhere reported an incident in Hartford, Ct, where a 78-year old man was struck in a hit and run, and for about a minute and a half bystanders did nothing to help. To make things worse, this was all caught on video.
What followed was a series of gasps and condemnations of the inaction. As the AP reported, the incident sparked city’s largest newspaper to carry the headline, "SO INHUMANE," and Police Chief Daryl Roberts to exclaim: "We no longer have a moral compass," and "We have no regard for each other." Community activist, Rev. Henry Brown, also outraged, said, "It was one of the most despicable things I’ve seen by one human being to another. I don’t understand the mind-set anymore. It’s kind of mind-boggling. We’re supposed to help each other. You see somebody fall, you want to offer a helping hand."
Obviously this was an unfortunate incident—the elderly man being struck, as well as the lack of response by onlookers. However, I question whether the events that day marked a clean break with morality, as the police chief would have us believe. Also, was the level of inaction monumentally "despicable" and the mindset incomprehensible, as Rev. Brown says?
Looked at in isolation, one could say that both Police Chief Rogers and Rev. Brown are right on. However, to do so would be irresponsible and void of any real life context. Though it’s easier to be in denial, onlookers that fateful day were exactly in-line with some of society’s perpetuated social norms. Norms that most of the people in the working class neighborhood of Hartford have been victims of, themselves, by systematic crimes perpetrated by those in power.
I by no means intend to do an in-depth socio-economic analysis of Hartford, but here are a few figures to mentally chew on. According to the 2000 Census, 31% of Hartford lives in poverty, with the Black and Latino populations being hit the worst, making it the poorest city in Connecticut; according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), Hartford ranks sixth highest in the nation in children living below poverty, 43.4%; in 2003, according to the FBI, Hartford had a murder rate four times the national average; and Hartford has a homelessness rate three times higher than any city in Connecticut. On the latter point, it is appropriate to quote from the Homelessness in Hartford 2000 report, illuminating much more than the issue of homelessness:
"In reviewing the history of homelessness in Hartford, Glasser and Zywiak (2000) suggest that Hartford, along with many other US cities, followed a path of becoming a ‘postindustrial’ city, whose economic basis shifted from manufacturing to service industries and jobs that require a high degree of education. The highway system established in the 1950’s facilitated an exodus to the suburbs and the urban renewal movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought the destruction of many of Hartford’s affordable housing, including the single room occupancy hotels (SRO’s) which housed the single and poor. Over the past twenty years Hartford also saw the movement of patients from psychiatric hospitals into the community. The construction of Constitution Plaza in the mid 1960s meant that an office complex replaced a once thriving (but poor) residential area in the downtown core (Ferrucci 1999). By the 1990’s Hartford was being called a "tale of two cities" with the wealthy insurance, finance and corporate sectors standing in sharp contrast to the impoverished neighborhoods comprised of African-Americans and Latinos (Simmons 1998)."
What we see here is a city that has been left behind by an economic system that values private profit over human need; a political system that has rolled back social welfare safety nets; and a system of racism and patriarchy that has ensured that people of color and women will get the worst of the worst. All of these systems entwined and working together to the detriment of most and advantage of a few. It is here that the "moral compass" was lost, if it was ever possessed in the first place.
To take another Connectivut example, where was the question of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s moral compass when he backed, and continues to support, the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq? A war that has killed over a million Iraqis and over four thousand US soldiers. Do these illegal wars stand out as prime examples of humanity, caring, and solidarity? How many hit and runs are been committed by American tanks?
In this environment and social backdrop, it should be more "mind boggling" to see people resist these norms, than to succumb to them. And everyday, Hartford not excluded, people do. Whether it is the friendly wave to the mailperson, volunteering at the community youth center, or struggling to organize a union, people resist these anti-social norms everyday. Indeed, it is sad to see them prevail, as they did that day; however, that was only a glimpse into a populace that is struggling in a city that has been victim of the very system that was so quick to condemn them.
And the fact that people did find the events of that day deplorable is a sign that people yearn for a social system that is in line with their moral compass—one that includes consideration and empathy for one’s fellow citizen—unlike the system that the hypocritical police chief upholds. So let’s to scrap this one and be bystanders no more, becoming active social agents of change. And while we’re at, start thinking of what we want to replace it.
John J. Cronan Jr. lives in New York City, where he is restaurant worker and and organizer. He organizes with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Food and Allied Workers Union I.U. 460/640. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org