Last week I was sitting through the jury selection process for a domestic violence related-crime. Day one: I was questioned alone about where I worked (spoiler alert—the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence). Do I know prosecutors? Do we work together? Yes, and yet I am not dismissed. Day two: I realize I am intentionally being kept on by both the prosecution and defense. They ask me questions and see how others react. My role is either educator or provocateur. At first I’m annoyed, but then I realize I’m in a focus group I could never assemble. I get to listen to a group of random adults talking about domestic violence.
I watched how easily the entire group was swayed by the person leading the conversation. The defense attorney told a story about his young children fighting. It is patronizing to suggest that kids’ fights are comparable to one adult using coercion against another to control them. Yet nods of understanding and a feeling of concurrence with the defense swept the room. Throughout the day the defense attorney kept referring back to this story. Each time enforcing the idea of domestic violence as a simple fight rather than the complex reality of how fear and power dynamics affect a person’s options, autonomy, and safety.
When it was the prosecutor’s turn, he asked why someone who experienced abuse might stay in a relationship. The responses felt like a psycho-analysis of the alleged victim’s behavior. She is co-dependent, in a love/hate relationship, grew up in an abusive home. I spoke up, suggesting that she may have tried to leave and was not able to get help, or her partner threatened to hurt her or her family unless she returned home, or she did not have enough cash immediately available for an apartment. The room is with me now, heads nodding.
In the end, no surprise, I am not picked to be on the jury. I think everyone there would agree that violence against your intimate partner is unacceptable—but everyone had a different understanding of what that actually looked like and who should be held accountable. It was too easy to judge the victim’s behavior and too hard to understand all the ways an abuser’s tactics can impact their partner.
Two of Ariel Castro’s neighbors are being held up as heroes for helping Amanda Berry escape his house after being imprisoned for over a decade. Not to take anything away from these guys, but seriously. When a woman is screaming for help and trying to break down a locked door, it doesn’t take a hero to recognize that the situation calls for action.
What’s heroic is taking action when the situation is not so clear. We’ve now heard that over those years other neighbors saw disturbing signs and called police. So why didn’t those attempts lead to their rescue?
I know from my work studying domestic violence murders that a call to the police is often not the solution. Many of the police calls prior to these murders played out just like what Ariel Castro’s neighbors described. Cops show up to a scene, knock on doors, ask questions. They don’t find evidence of a crime. Maybe they suspect something more is going on, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they write a report, and maybe they don’t. Maybe they follow up later, and maybe they don’t.
There is plenty of room to criticize the police response. But we cannot let that be the whole story. It is naive to think law enforcement can protect us from every evil, and it is dangerous to suggest they should try. Do you really want armed agents of the government empowered to break down your front door because the neighbor saw something suspicious?
The answer is much more complicated, and requires more from all of us than a 911 call. When you see a woman pounding on a window looking like she needs help—go ahead and call. But don’t stop there. Better yet, don’t start there.
Domestic violence murders have something else in common with the horror that unfolded on Seymour Avenue: deep roots. Ariel Castro had a long history of brutality against women and was apparently a victim of sexual abuse himself. His violence had scarred generations even before the kidnappings. Charles Ramsey got it right, talking about his decision to run toward the screaming and the locked door: “It’s just that you got to put that—being a coward, and ‘I don’t want to get in nobody’s business’—you got to put that away for a minute.” Getting to the roots of this kind of violence means putting those attitudes away for good.