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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Rethinking Kitty Genovese

The New Yorker reviews a new documentary that screened this week at the New York Film Festival--a reexamination of the murder of Kitty Genovese, produced by and starring Bill Genovese, one of Kitty's younger brothers. The film attempts to reinvestigate the murder and the response to it. Similarly, a 2014 New Yorker story explored how the media created the "bystander apathy" narrative and how it almost immediately took hold, to the point that it actually affected the State's decisions in prosecuting the case.

That narrative remains sticky. In my 1L Crim Law class, we read an early New York Times story about the murder (The Times and editor A.M. Rosenthal was the great engine of the apathy narrative) for a discussion of the law/morality divide and when liability should attach to inaction. At a Torah study a few weeks ago, a participant referred to this story, and its common narrative, to illustrate some principle about how the Torah commands us to treat people.

Never mind that the best understanding of the story (as discussed in both of the New Yorker pieces and in the film) is that several neighbors did try to help. This includes at least two who called the police (police records show one call and that the response to that call was that the police were aware of the attack, suggesting at least one earlier call).

A few new themes emerge from the film and from the review.

One is that Kitty and her roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko, were in a lesbian relationship; interviews with Zielonko offer a portrait of gay life in New York in the early 1960s (when homosexual conduct was unlawful).

Another idea is that some neighbors explained that they believed the fight to be a lovers' quarrel and/or a drunken argument that spilled out of a nearby bar. Thus, the neighbors' (and the police) non-response may have been borne not of apathy, but of the common legal and social assumptions of the time--that domestic violence was not unlawful and not the concern of either police or neighbors, but was a private matter for the couple to work-out between them. In that regard, intervention would have been, in a social sense, wrong.

Of course, the apathy narrative is what has kept this story alive for fifty years. Indeed, Rosenthal (who died in 2006, but was interviewed for the film) continues to defend his coverage by the fact that it became a world-wide and historical incident. If it were just a story illustrating our then-benighted approach to domestic violence and gender issues, we probably would not still be talking about it.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 8, 2015 at 02:30 PM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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