Less than two weeks ago, a county-commissioned wrecking crew demolished the house in which Ariel Castro imprisoned the women and child.2 The demolition served as a public condemnation of the atrocities committed and an attempt to remove reminders of the living nightmare.
When I first read the horrors of this story in early May, I wondered how neighbors had overlooked so many indications of wrongdoing – an unaccounted for child looking through an attic window, a naked woman crawling in the backyard, and windows that had long been boarded shut.3
It didn’t take long though to recall how little I know about most of my own neighbors.
Despite attempts to mingle with those living on the same street as me, I’ve still not even met many of my neighbors after three years of living here. I’ve only stepped foot inside two of their homes.
And all I know of the elusive resident two doors down is that he’s an avid Oregon Ducks football fan who watches television from his hot tub. Anyone who walks by would know these particulars about him because of the Ducks trailer parked outside his front door, the nothing-but-Ducks paraphernalia piled high in his garage, and the sounds blaring from his backyard. Come to think of it, even the hot tub is only hearsay.
Ariel Castro’s neighbors knew him on this same level. They knew he was in a band, drove a Harley, and enjoyed salsa music. Some of them shared barbecued ribs with him.4 But not even his relatives had gone past the kitchen in his house.5
If they had, they would have found doors without knobs bolted and padlocked shut. To find the three women and six-year-old child who were chained to the walls, they would have had to pry further and discount any explanations Castro offered.6
Activists Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter quote a modern day antislavery worker as saying, “Sometimes as Americans we don’t want to be nosy, but really, we could be the person that saves [a] life”.7
Knowing our neighbors entails more than sharing barbecues and passing rumors back and forth. It involves hearing one another’s stories and asking questions – sometimes difficult, uncomfortable questions.
It means putting each other’s numbers in our phones, calling when we see someone’s son where he shouldn’t be, alerting one another when someone unfamiliar lingers outside a home. It includes invitations for ice cream, knocking on the door at unexpected moments, and sharing dinners in each other’s homes.
Bales and Soodalter say, “In a society in which many of us go through our day avoiding eye contact and keeping human interaction to a minimum, this requires a deliberate commitment and a change in our normal behavior.”8
I made a choice to live more like the authors describe after taking an anti-trafficking course in 2010. I realized how many trafficking crimes go unreported because we simply look the other way. In a culture where we’ve learned not to ask questions and to tolerate lifestyles that were once unacceptable, we make up plausible explanations.
I’m not suggesting that we should live in a fearful, know-what’s-behind-every-corner sort of way. But when the pieces don’t add up and something’s not quite right, we need to listen to our gut and act accordingly.
During a self-defense course I took in college, a police officer taught that intuition is based on subtle cues and details we’ve picked up without realization. Rather than second guess our hunches or assume our feelings are irrational, we need to trust our intuition is well-informed.
Since taking these courses, I have programmed the anti-trafficking hotline, 888-373-7888, and the local non-emergency police number into my phone.
The anti-trafficking hotline is a tremendous asset with which few people I know are acquainted. The organization behind the hotline, Polaris Project, furnishes information to law enforcement officials specially equipped to respond to human trafficking situations.
If Castro’s neighbors had called the anti-trafficking hotline instead of police when they saw suspicious activity years ago, the women held captive may have been discovered earlier. Neighbors’ reports of a naked woman in the backyard, a child looking from the attic window, and screams for help all point to a potential trafficking situation.
According to Reuters news sources, police came to Castro’s house in 2004 and 2011 but left when no one answered the door.9
Given this track record, I applaud the Cleveland neighbors who kicked in the door from behind which Amanda Berry cried for help.10 They could have called police and simply waited for them to investigate, missing another opportunity for the women’s freedom if no one answered the door. Instead, they acted on instinct and set three women and a little girl free.
I think I would have doubted my intuition and feared the outcome for myself and others. I would have deferred to “the experts” and awaited their arrival. Even overcoming my hesitancy to call the police has taken a concerted effort.
But at some point, on some level, I am the expert. I know my neighbors. I know my community. And based on my studies of Scripture, God’s justice emerges in the context of relationships.
So I’m going to keep lovingly nosing my way into other people’s lives and calling the police and anti-trafficking hotline when my gut says something’s wrong. I anticipate gaining more story-worthy experiences along the way (I’ll share some I’ve already had in a future post). And I look forward to discovering more fantastic friends like the neighbors with whom we now share meals, trade stories, and set up outdoor movie screenings.
1. Henry Gomez, “The Rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight: 30 minutes that ended a decade of nightmares,” last updated May 13, 2013, http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/05/30_minutes_that_ended_a_decade.html#incart_maj-story-1.
2. Kim Palmer, “Wrecking crew razes Cleveland house that held three women,” Chicago Tribune, last updated August 7, 2013, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-08-07/news/sns-rt-us-usa-ohio-missing-20130806_1_ariel-castro-michelle-knight-castro-house.
3. “Cleveland rescue: The Mystery of 2207 Seymour Avenue,” BBC, last updated May 10, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22446157.
4. Greg Botelho, “Neighbor feels ‘fooled’ by Cleveland abduction suspect,” last updated May 10, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/07/justice/ohio-kidnap-suspects-profile/index.html?iid=article_sidebar.
5. Alan Duke, “CNN Exclusive: Castro brother says victims unrecognizable in photos,” last updated May 13, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/13/us/ohio-castro-brothers/index.html?iid=article_sidebar.
6. Greg Botelho, “Deception, threats and abuse: Captives’ hellish life inside Castro’s home,” last updated August 2, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/01/justice/ohio-cleveland-castro-home/index.html?iid=article_sidebar.
7. Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, The Slave Next Door (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 164.
9. Kim Palmer and David Trotta, “Authorities tried earlier to visit house where Ohio women found,” last updated May 7, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/07/us-usa-missing-ohio-idUSBRE94600620130507.