Kitty Genovese – A Personal Journey by Shamsher Chohan

I first became aware of Kitty Genovese in the early 80’s when studying psychology. I remember it being shocking that no one had helped her and it had been reported that neighbours in the tower block opposite to where the first attack took place found ways of explaining why they didn’t need to do anything. They thought it was a couple arguing, they were afraid of getting hurt themselves, they were tired and didn’t have the energy, they didn’t want to get involved in someone else’s business… 

Memories of Kitty faded over the years but started to re-emerge in 2016 when, following the result of the EU Referendum after which reported hate crimes went up by 30% nationally with increases in specific areas of 100%, 75% and 65% depending on the demographics. It was also notable that many of these incidents happened in the public domain, in particular on public transport. Most of the time, others in the same environment that witnessed these, did nothing to help.

Reflecting on why people were not helping brought Kitty back into my conscious awareness and I started researching her story and the bystander effect. I knew there was something we could use to help bystanders become active participants in helping, supporting and intervening – the biggest challenge was how to do this in a way that left people feeling safe.

I mulled this over for a full year…talking to friends and colleagues.

It was when we were contacted by the Open Society Foundation in Europe who asked to contribute to addressing the hostility that was unleashed in the light of the EU Referendum result, that what ended up as Stand by Me, started taking shape. 

In the early days I had Kitty’s story and the definition of a bystander. By looking at our own experiences talking to others affected by hate and prejudice, we then came up with our original messaging of See, Report, Support – safe ways of intervening that didn’t require any contact or interaction with the perpetrator but that could still make a difference. 

And then it grew and grew and grew and the rest is history.

In 2018 whilst piloting Stand by Me with the support of the Google Innovation Fund, I was invited to speak at two United National General Assembly events in New York. Whilst this was a great opportunity to bring Stand by Me to a wider International audience I was more interested in visiting Kew Gardens in Queens New York where Kitty lived and was murdered. 

I took telling Kitty’s story to 1000’s of people as a serious responsibility, recognising that whilst I have told it many times, for most people it is the first time they are hearing it. And it is important as incidents like this are still happening and people are still not helping. As a woman, I feel it personally and though training participants would never know, I could easily cry every time I tell her story. it’s a story most women dread and fear happening to them and for some it does happen.

It was an emotional and somber journey walking around the block witnessing the two areas where she was attacked, the car park by the train station where she parked her car, the tower block that oversaw the first attack, the spot Winston parked in, waiting to see if anyone would help, the doorway she stumbled to and was finally murdered. 

It felt like a pilgrimage to honour a young woman that never should have died but did, and 60 years later her story continues to be told to show the impact of inaction and act as an encouragement for people to do something…anything, anything but ignore it and walk on by. 

If you want to find out more about Kitty Genovese and what happened, there are several books you can look for:

  1. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook 
  2. Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences by Catherine -Pelonero
  3. No One Helped: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy by by Marcia M. Gallo
  4. Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case by A.M. Rosenthal