A SEPTA train on the Market-Frankford rapid transit line with the Philadelphia skyline in the background.

Two disturbing stories in the news this week:

A man sexually attacked and then raped a woman on a commuter train outside of Philadelphia on October 13. According to police, Fiston Ngoy, 35, got on the train at the same stop as the woman. He sat next to her and started harassing her, ignoring her pleas for him to leave her alone or her attempts to push him away. Finally, Ngoy attacked the woman, pulled her pants down and began raping her.

The attack was caught on surveillance cameras, which showed that, though there were many passengers on the train who witnessed the attack, no one intervened to help the woman. No one even called 911. Evidence suggests that some passengers did pull out their cell phones and recorded the attack. It seems the entire period of the assault lasted for about 40 minutes, through 27 train stops, and the actual rape lasted about six minutes. The attack was only stopped when a transit authority off-duty employee called the police. The police entered the train and pulled Ngoy off the woman. Ngoy was arrested and the woman taken to a hospital.

Why did no one intervene? Why did some of the passengers decide, instead of stopping the attack, to record it? I can understand why a person who might be elderly, or very young, or slight in build and afraid of the larger man hesitate to intervene personally or physically. Why not call the police, then? Why not alert the transit authority? Why not tell somebody? Anybody? Were there no men on the train with the courage to intervene and defend this woman? Were there accomplices threatening anyone who dared to intervene? A woman is being raped in front of you, and you do nothing? Or, worse, you take the time to record the event? For what purpose? To show your friends later so they can be offended by the fact that you saw a poor woman attacked and you lacked the courage and moral integrity to do anything about it?

There have been similar stories of people in distress whose plight was ignored by those around them. I recall the story of a disabled man drowning in a pond. He cried out for help to a group of teenagers on the bank who did nothing but record the event while cursing and mocking the man.

What’s behind this reality that people have so little sense of our shared humanity that they can sit by and watch others be attacked or even dying and feel no duty to intervene or assist? Those teen boys on the bank of the pond who watched a man drown, only to mock and curse him and refuse to help. Those passengers on the train who watched a man rape a woman just a few feet away and did nothing, not even call the police. They have lost any sense of our shared humanity, any notion of our being our brother’s keeper. What has caused this? What is at the root of it all?

Secularists mock religion and atheists claim it is at the root of all that is evil in the world. But, one thing is certain: those who can sit by and ignore the plight of others right in front of them and refuse to help — such people do not fear God. Such people do not recognize the dignity of the other person as created in the image and likeness of God. Neither do they recognize such dignity in themselves. Research has long supported the fact that those committed to their religious tradition have a more positive impact on society in general and a deeper commitment to the good of others. We fool ourselves if we think we can remove God from our social network, as we have done, and still expect people to feel connected to others.

A second disturbing story involves more organized, systemic corruption:

The juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, is the subject of a report by ProPublica into a 2016 incident where eleven children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, were arrested and some incarcerated, charged with a crime that does not exist. The community outcry over the arrests, and the lawsuits that resulted from them, revealed an illegal system of detention put in place by a power-hungry judge with the willful cooperation of the police and juvenile detention workers. A summary of the article is published by Forbes, but it’s worth the time to read the report by ProPublica.

According to the report, eleven children were arrested following a scuffle between three children, a five-years-old, a six-year-old, and an older boy. The five and six-year-olds were attempting to throw punches at the older boy, who either fended them off or wasn’t bothered by them. The eleven children were not involved in the scuffle, but witnessed it, and one child apparently recorded it on a cell phone. For some reason, a police officer decided that these eleven children needed to be arrested and charged with a crime (the five and six-year-old were too young to be charged). She elicited the assistance of two judicial commissioners who, in Tennessee, have the power to charge criminals (though no legal education or background is required for these positions). The judicial commissioners came up with a charge of “criminal responsibility for the act of another.” Problem is, no such crime exists on the books in Tennessee. No matter, it seems. Armed with warrants, the children were rounded up and arrested. Some of them were handcuffed. Four, all boys, were detained. All of the children were Black. The children were processed through an illegal “filter system” created by Judge Donna Scott Davenport, an elected judge and the only juvenile justice magistrate in Rutherford County. Judge Davenport’s “filter system” has no basis in Tennessee law. It is purely her creation. It allows employees of the detention center to decide if a child is to be released or detained on the purely subjective judgment of the detention center employees. Attorneys who filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of those children illegally arrested and detained in the 2016 incident and others estimate that some 1500 children have been illegally arrested and/or detained under Judge Davenport’s “filter system” since she created it in 2008. Despite regular inspections of the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center and its policies, state investigators neglected to flag what was an illegal system, in spite of it being written in black and white into the Center’s manual.

Stories of children being yelled at, falsely accused or detained in spite of exculpatory evidence, barked at and even pepper-sprayed by detention center employees for the most petty of “offenses” (such as looking out a window instead of sitting down in their cell), and illegally placed in solitary confinement abound in the ProPublica report. Eventually, the system caught up with what was going on in Rutherford County and fines were imposed. But, and this is critical, no one lost their job. People were reprimanded, and the officer who initiated the whole 2016 ordeal was suspended for three days, but no one was fired for creating, sustaining, and participating in a system that illegally arrested and incarcerated hundreds of children over a decade. Many Tennessee counties fail to keep records of how many children are arrested or detained, so Rutherford may only be one county out of many with a troubling record.

What happened in Rutherford County is part of a pattern of which I’ve written before where those responsible for the care and welfare of children are exploiting their positions to abuse children, or neglecting their responsibilities to protect children, allowing them to continue to suffer or allowing for the abuse and exploitation of more children. In the case of Rutherford County, it was a matter of a judge who regarded herself as being on a God-given mission to reform the children of her community and her hubris justifying her taking the law into her own hands. Others cooperated with her, and still others neglected to keep her in check. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Judge Davenport remains in her post as the only juvenile justice magistrate in Rutherford County. She has said she intends to run for re-election to another eight year term in 2022.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

One thought on “Disturbing

  1. This is truly disturbing. I have 38 years experience as a school nurse, mostly in high school and primarily in an inner city high school. There were many assaults—student on student and student on teacher. I came into contact with many of those involved because of their injuries. We had a law enforcement officer assigned full time to the school. If he had to be in court, then the police district was called. I am going to say something sexist. Every time a female officer responded, she escalated the situation. One time a female officer walked into my office, approached a group of four girls waiting to be questioned and angrily announced, “You know I could lock you all up right now!” Well the girls immediately jumped up and surrounded her. There was nothing the officer could do. She looked over in my direction. I was well known to the students for fairness, but firmness. I said, “Girls, girls, please sit down. The officer just wants to question you.” They sat down immediately. The officer looked back at me with a how’d you do that look. I am sorry to say that in my experience with female officers, this was typical. I don’t know if they have something to prove or feel physically threatened in situations where a male officer would not. So the story in Rutherford County does not surprise me. As for the judge, I believe she had something to gain financially for all these juvenile incarcerations. Always follow the money. At any rate, she & this officer did irreparable damage to these young children. They should have both been removed from their positions as no doubt they will continue to do harm. Neither this officer or judge seem to understand that they are not vigilantes. Juveniles, no matter how poor, have rights.

    Liked by 1 person

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