I met my friend Joyce for coffee recently and she was a little late.
While on her way, she saw a man lying on the sidewalk next to a motorized wheelchair. Cars drove past the man, their drivers oblivious. Joyce, a retired X-ray tech, pulled over and ran to the man, who appeared disoriented. Two more cars stopped and one man identified himself as an EMT. An ambulance was called and once the man was safely transported away, Joyce left.
I thought about this when I saw the story of 14-year-old Latrell McCockran who recently saved a disabled man from a fire on Grande Circle. Latrell also rescued the man’s dog. Latrell and his younger brother Latravion went door to door in their apartment complex warning neighbors about the fire. They’re heroes.
Intervening doesn’t happen by accident. Luckily for 62-year-old Rick Smith, the man Latrell saved, Latrell’s mother had instilled in her children that they should get involved. This is a family that doesn’t walk through life with blinders on. We need more parents like Latisha McCockran.
It’s not cruelty that makes people not get involved when they observe someone in need. It’s the bystander effect in action.
It’s counterintuitive but repeated sociological experiments have determined that as the number of observers increases, the less likely one is to help. It’s called diffusion of responsibility. With so many people around observing the same situation, individuals think someone else will intervene. Or worse, since they see no one intervening, they conclude that no help is necessary.
Another reason why people don’t get involved is self-preservation. Simply put, they’re afraid. While we applaud Latrell’s daring action, most parents wouldn’t want their children dashing into a burning building. Fortunately for us, there are those people among us who are more afraid of not getting involved than intervening.
When my friend Joyce met up with me and told me what had happened with the downed man in the wheelchair, I congratulated her for getting involved. She brushed it off, saying anyone would’ve done the same. I reminded her that it wasn’t true. She’d seen person after person drive by the man without stopping. Others stopped only after she did. That’s something that sociologists have noted in experiments on the bystander effect. To break the indifference, it usually takes one person to get involved and others will follow.
Beyond that, one of the byproducts of the McCockran brothers’ act is that the public has the chance to see that there are good people living in the troubled neighborhoods we so frequently read about. I’ve lived in a rough neighborhood and know that the majority of the people are good people. But there are some bad elements that unfortunately grab the headlines.
Fairfield would be a much better, stronger community if more of us didn’t look the other way. Having assertive, persistent law enforcement and fast, professional firefighters and EMTs make for a safer city. But the real key is the realization that we are our brother’s keeper. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at [email protected]