Cleveland kidnappings: putting the poor on trial

Some observers are verging on blaming a whole rundown neighbourhood for Ariel Castro’s horrific crimes.

Nancy McDermott

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Topics USA

‘Ha!’ The ladies at the nail salon are snorting with derision. A news anchor on the TV is describing how Ariel Castro, the man who imprisoned Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in his Cleveland home for a decade, excused his actions on the basis of his hard childhood.

‘That’s just stupid!’, opines one.

‘The death penalty is too good for him!’, says the lady next to me. ‘He should be held in a dark room’, she adds. ‘And he should be beaten!’ It’s the Friday before Mother’s Day and emotions are running high.

The nail salon is the twenty-first-century female equivalent of the barbershop. It’s a place where the women in the mainly working-class town in New York state where I live come to compare notes and gossip over a mani-pedi or gel tips. Talk about Cleveland is inescapable. It’s interspersed as apparent non-sequiturs between conversations about little league, the impending holiday, and socks. We pick it up seamlessly because, the truth is, no one can stop thinking about it. ‘The one I feel sorry for is Michelle Knight. Five miscarriages! Can you imagine?’

‘She had to deliver Amanda Berry’s baby in a kiddie pool!’

We are all intimately acquainted with the details. On the television screens on the wall opposite our massaging spa chairs, reporters from CNN and MSNBC are standing on Seymour Street, the West Cleveland block where Castro lived and where reporters have been camped out for the past week.

It’s hard to say how much is new information at this point. News anchors in their New York studios relay the latest developments to the reporters on the ground, who then summarise what we know so far and pose new questions. We’re told Americans are ‘asking themselves how Castro kept his dark secret for so long’.

First one network then the other cuts to an interview with Castro’s tearful daughter. She’s describing how, when she visited the house, her father told her not to go upstairs because it was filled with junk. Everyone shakes her head in disbelief.

‘How could you not notice something like padlocked doors inside a house?’

‘You’d be surprised what you might not notice. It’s not like you see a locked room and think: “I bet there’s a woman tied up in there.”‘

The talk swings back and forth between elation, shock and dread that someone else might be doing the same thing somewhere. But when the conversation comes to an end, it’s on a high note: Amanda Berry’s courage. Everyone, admittedly mothers all, conclude that Berry’s courage must have been spurred by the fact that she had a daughter, and she wanted something better for her. We are as sure of this as we are that Castro’s acts were enormously depraved.

Beyond the nail salon, there was shock of a different kind in America following the escape of Amanda Berry and rescue of the other two women. Later that night, talk-show host Bill Maher pointed out that ‘there are areas of Afghanistan or Pakistan called “unincorporated regions”’, which are ‘lawless’ and out of control, he said. The Cleveland kidnapping scandal suggests there are also ‘unincorporated areas of America where we don’t go’, he continued.

Though Maher probably meant well, he inadvertently betrayed his own prejudices about the life of America’s working poor. Referring to the man who helped rescue Amanda Berry and who became an internet sensation as a result, Maher said: ‘You saw that Charles Ramsey guy saying “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s”, and you get the feeling that… “My McDonald’s”… he eats there every day.’ Perhaps he does. So what?

Maher’s idea of ‘unincorporated areas’ was echoed in much of the coverage of the kidnappings. Only in a blighted neighbourhood could a monster like Castro go undetected, commentators implied. Only in a place like West Cleveland would a 911 dispatcher fob off a frantic Amanda Berry with the words, ‘We’re going to send them [the police] as soon as we get a car open’. The undertone of some of the coverage seems to be: if only the abductions of Knight, Berry and DeJesus had happened in an affluent suburb, maybe more people would have been suspicious of a house with boarded-up windows. If only the families of the women had the wherewithal to mobilise the media more efficiently, the women might have been found sooner. In short, almost every aspect of this story could, it seemed, be put down to the fact that it took place in a poor neighbourhood.

This focus on inequality is reminiscent of the writings of Victorian reformers, who believed that the squalor of slums reflected the character of the slums’ inhabitants. But unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, today’s media do not see moral corruption in West Cleveland so much as incompetence, ineptitude and gullibility; media outlets make sweeping assumptions about Cleveland, portraying the people in Castro’s neighbourhood as passive and powerless.

The worst thing about this rather elitist approach is that it has blinded commentators and others to the positive aspects of this story. For instance, according to Rachel Dissell, a reporter who covered the disappearances for the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer, in the case of the younger girls who were kidnapped there was actually ‘a lot of attention from the local media, [and] people followed the case for years’. There was also attention from the police and FBI, she says. Moreover, the families organised searches and worked tirelessly to find their missing loved ones. They held vigils every year and continued to put up flyers around the neighbourhood.

‘Before she died a number of years ago’, Dissell recalled, Amanda Berry’s mother ‘would call and talk to any reporter in town… newspaper, TV, anybody who would give any attention to the case… just repeating the details trying to spark some kind of memory, a witness, anything.’

The West Cleveland neighbourhood, which the Huffington Post describes as the sort of place where ‘furniture is rentable, tattoos adorn everyone from teens to grandmas, and you might encounter a pig in a back yard or two’, is certainly shabby and run down. But its residents, if not exactly trusting, still maintain a sense of connection with their neighbours and extended family. Many came out to help look for Gina DeJesus. And yes, many of them knew Ariel Castro, in the sense of saying ‘hello’ to him in that casual way neighbours do.

That is because, by most accounts, Castro seemed just like everyone else. As Charles Ramsey put it, ‘He’s someone you look at and you look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. Nothing exciting about him…’

It is understandable that the residents of Seymour lament that they did not recognise the signs that something was amiss with Castro. Some take the view that the residents were too trusting. Others believe it shows that they should be more involved in one another’s lives. But there is no reason to believe that a man who hid a terrible secret from his family and closest friends for years would be unable to do the same in a different neighbourhood. The truth may be far simpler: no one recognised the signs that Castro was a monster because there were no signs to see.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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