It was Burke, wasn't it, who first said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing"?

Only the victim wasn’t. And so the young man, the purse snatcher, walked.

No, he strutted. He swaggered away from that courtroom free as a bird, ignoring even his mother, who appeared to be trying to talk sense into him. I knew, and the cop knew, and the district attorney knew that he’d be back.

Probably for something more harmful to society than purse-snatching.

The image from January’s municipal court comes to mind because I picked up a recent Washington Post and read how it’s gotten so bad in Baltimore that “no show” witnesses are being tossed in jail until the trial.

At first, I felt sorry for the young 19-year-old mother of two whom the reporter hung the story on. She’d been in jail five months awaiting the court date of a man who’d killed in 2002. “I’ve lost my life, my family, my children and my home,” she wrote to the judge, who eventually freed her after she gave a videotaped deposition.

Prosecutors up there, according to the Post, get three to five court orders — called body attachments — each week to jail witnesses either reluctant or scared to come forward. This woman had skipped five different court appearances.

“I would rather not [jail witnesses], but we need to get justice for our victims, and we need to get justice for our community, so we do what we have to do,” the lead prosecutor told the Post. “It’s not always pretty.”

In Baltimore, it seems that it is rarely pretty.

Circulating in that city is a DVD called “Stop Snitching,” which promotes witness intimidation. On it are interviews of men talking about revenge against people who come forward, and in the background, an NBA player, who now claims he didn’t know what the video was about.

I don’t know if the victim in the purse-snatching last fall was intimidated, but this I do know. Unless everyone stands up for the good of the whole society, there, in the end, can be no society.

It was Burke, wasn’t it, who first said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”?

When the girl screamed in that parking lot last fall and I swiveled my bike to see why, there were two men running toward her pulling out cell phones. When I chased the two assailants, who jumped on their own bicycles, another man hopped into his pickup truck and caught up to us a few blocks later. Although that man was easily in his 50s, and the assailant may have been 25, he held him down until I tracked down the cop.

For a few weeks, I was proud to be a Richmonder. None of us knew the young woman, a student from Virginia Commonwealth University. All of us just wanted to do what we’d want anyone in our city to do.

About 40 years ago, the infamous case of Kitty Genovese, showed us how not to be. That was New York, and some 38 people heard the poor woman cry out for 35 minutes and no one did anything — not even call the police — until she had been stabbed multiple times.

The “don’t-see, don’t-care, don’t-make-waves” movement grew for a couple of decades until a no-nonsense mayor named Rudy Giuliani came in and forced change. Basically, New York’s concept of American justice became “guilty until proven innocent” as police nabbed panhandlers, squeegee men and anyone without an instant, valid reason for seeming out of place.

To little avail, former Richmond Police Chief André Parker virtually begged people here to come forward with criminal information, so now we’ve elected a mayor who’s promised to be “the toughest” on crime.

Must everyone be thought of as “guilty until proven innocent” before we’ll stand up and be good citizens?

I know little about the sociological causes of crime and the excuses people give, but I know this: When the Brown Shirts got away with “minor” crimes against the Jews, they grew into Germany’s Nazi party. When the KKK got away with intimidation against former slaves, that grew into lynchings. When men can get away with treating women as possessions, that can grow into stoning one who commits adultery or punishing a man by gang-raping his sister — both incidents of the past year across the Islamic world.

Like most things in life, there’s no simple solution. But I think that all of us must stand up for some societal standards, like testifying. If we don’t, especially those of us who are victims, we need to wonder if we’ve started the slippery slope to New York.

Or Baltimore. S

Randy Salzman teaches journalism and broadcasting at Virginia Union University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


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