LAST MAY, the wired world was treated to an unpleasant, yet hardly unique, slice of Atlanta’s public transportation system via “MARTA GIRL,” a video that showed a deranged young woman berating and threatening an elderly train rider. The older woman dealt with the barrage of threats by doing what any sane consumer of public transportation knows to do instinctively: stare straight ahead and pretend that some screeching lunatic or addict isn’t threatening to harm you.
Awful things were made visible on the video. In a train filled with physically able passengers, nobody stepped forward to shield an elderly woman from an aggressive assailant who was inches from her face, screaming that she was going to “beat [the elderly woman’s] ass.”
Men who could have contained the young woman (“N.Z.”) did nothing. The person who videotaped the assault did something, I suppose, by recording and posting the video. But how do you justify taping an incident like this instead of trying to stop it?
Were these people afraid to intervene, lest the situation escalate? Dressed as she was, if N.Z. had a concealed weapon, it was concealed creatively. But instead of stepping in, a few men merely called out from their seats, telling the girl to calm down. “Chill, it’s an old lady, man,” said one lackadaisical observer.
N.Z. continued down the train’s aisle and lashed out at another passenger. He rose up and grabbed her by her hair, and a short slapping match ensued. Now there was physical violence in addition to the assault on the elderly woman: two crimes. Yet nobody made a move to call the police. Even after they exited the train, it appears that none of the witnesses contacted authorities. N.Z. was arrested and charged with a crime only after the video was circulated on-line.
Were these people afraid to report N.Z. because they anticipated sharing a future train with her? Were they even afraid of drawing attention to themselves by calling police from the station? Did they expect (reasonably) that their complaints would be dismissed? (And were they?) Or did this incident simply seem ordinary and not worthy of action?
Whichever is true, such are the terms of the new, negative social contract: I will ignore your abuse of someone else if you do not abuse me next. The man who reared up from his seat and grabbed N.Z.’s hair only after she started lunging at him may be seen as merely exercising the soft terms of this contract.
BUT AFTER SHE WAS ARRESTED, of course, the N.Z. story became a story about something else: this time, the controversy over releasing mentally ill and drug-addicted defendants to “community treatment” centers instead of incarcerating them.
Like so many defendants — drug-addicted, mentally ill, youthful or not — N.Z.’s needs and problems became the sole focus of the judiciary as soon as she set foot in court.
As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, N.Z. was already on probation for a previous attack on a transit officer when she attacked the elderly train rider. According to the solicitor in her most recent case, N.Z. had “a lengthy criminal history of violent outbursts” and “never showed up for the mental health diversion program in another case.”
She had faced no consequences for failing to perform the requirements of probation in the officer’s assault – seeing a probation officer and performing community service. Even though she further violated the requirements of probation by committing another assault (or two), DeKalb County State Court Judge Barbara Mobley chose to halt the criminal case against N.Z. and refer her to a “pretrial diversion program for mentally ill people” instead of allowing the state to prosecute her.
By “dead-docketing” N.Z.’s prosecution, Judge Mobley told the public that their safety simply did not matter – because N.Z. has a mental illness. In other courtrooms, other judges are delivering the same message to other communities: “your home being broken into doesn’t matter because the defendant has a drug addiction,” or, “your car being stolen doesn’t matter because the defendant is a youthful offender.”
N.Z. seemed aware of this double standard, if little else, as she stood hollering on the train. Out of all the people there, only N.Z. felt comfortable asserting her rights to legal protection. On the video, you can hear her shrieking it:
“I’m pressing charges. I’m pressing charges. I’m pressing charges.”