Brian Goldman | Flashback to a flashmob

The Gold Standard | I learned the true nature of the Bystander Effect this Saturday

· January 30, 2012, 1:09 am   ·  Updated February 2, 2012, 11:36 pm

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Director Martin Scorsese could not have scripted this.

This past Saturday night started out fairly mundane. I stood by 38th and Spruce streets and hailed a cab that would take me downtown to meet a friend for dinner.

As we approached the intersection of 15th and Chestnut streets we stopped at a red light. To my immediate right, a group of 15 or so teenagers were waiting at a bus stop.

I was in the backseat, looking out of my window which was rolled down and then — bam! A strong punch came barreling through the window and hit me squarely in the jaw.

The driver and I got out of the cab to confront the teenagers. As the driver walked by the trunk of the car, he was sucker punched from the back. I turned my head in disbelief, wanting to go to the driver’s assistance when I felt a second, harder punch strike me across the face.

The driver popped open his trunk and pulled out a crowbar. We were in the heart of Philadelphia, a major metropolis, yet the intersection of 15th and Chestnut streets resembled the closest thing I could imagine to a war zone.

I watched as the driver chased some of the perpetrators away with his crowbar, until he was hit and knocked down again. I looked around the block: brainwashed to believe that the police would show up to protect us, that someone had called 911.

There was not an officer in sight and all the traffic behind us had stopped. People got out of their cars to watch. The Wendy’s right across from us was filled with spectators eager to catch the bloody battle.

When I realized we were not going to receive help from the passersby, I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I heeded the old Forrest Gump adage and ran — towards 16th Street. When I looked back, I saw that the driver had gotten back into his cab and sped away.

These mobs, call them whatever you may — flash mobs, violent teen mobs or just unruly mobs — are a serious problem. They are an indictment of the entire City of Philadelphia. While I always try to judge something based on its best qualities rather than its worst, the irony of this incident stemmed from the fact that it occurred in Philadelphia’s hallmark Rittenhouse area. For 10 minutes — which felt like 10 hours — the cabdriver and I were left to fend for ourselves as we were attacked by a group of teenagers with nothing but violence in mind.

But you know what? This is not what confounds me most. The police cannot be everywhere all the time and I did not call 911 to alert them to the situation.

What continually irks me is that all those people who stood behind us, in traffic, across from us, in Wendy’s, both up and down the block — simply watched the proceedings like it was a scene from Gladiator.

I looked them all in the eyes after the first punch, when we confronted the group and after the second punch, when the cabdriver was hit from behind. They saw us — the victims — and did nothing. I especially remember looking into Wendy’s and seeing dozens of eyes peering at me through the glass windows, as if to say “you’re on your own, young man. We’re just here to watch.”

I have never felt such discomfort, having people around witness violence and not come to your defense, or in this case, simply dial 911. And there were dozens and dozens, of these clones — eyes attuned but morality scathed.

When the Penn State Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I remember reading David Brooks’ column in The New York Times, in which he argued that our view of morality is skewed.

“So many people do nothing while witnessing ongoing crimes, psychologists have a name for it: the Bystander Effect. The more people are around to witness the crime, the less likely they are to intervene,” he wrote.

Luckily, my encounter on Saturday left me with minimal injury, but I learned one thing — that the Bystander Effect is very much alive.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I still cling to the old adage that the triumph of evil is when good men do nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have to learn these lessons the hard way.

Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is briangol@sas.upenn.edu. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.

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