On December 28, 1991, nine people were crushed to death at the bottom of a stairwell by a crowd of gate-crashers trying to enter a rap-star basketball game at the City College of New York. Three weeks later, the New York Times still couldn’t figure out what had happened: FATAL CRUSH: CAUSE STILL A MYSTERY, read the headline.
The elusiveness of the cause was a constant theme in the Times’s almost daily reporting on the event. Yet it took the paper nearly a month to run a story on the crowd’s behavior. Even then, the paper carefully prefaced its account with a ritual note of uncertainty: the “Dinkins administration ... has not determined what caused the deadly surge in a stairwell at Nat Holman Gymnasium.”
Those present at the event did not share the Times’ bewilderment. One witness declared: “To me, the most blame has got to be on the people who were pushing, who stampeded. Before you put the blame on the college or whoever, the most blame is on the people who were in the crowd.” A poem posted outside the gym expressed the same sentiment:
Lives taken—not by enemies
Not by flawed security
But by us who don’t look out for each other
By us who didn’t think about the African lives at the bottom of the stairs
By us who selfishly pushed and squeezed the life from eight of us
This line of thinking is apparently too blunt for the Times and the Dinkins administration. Their judgment is focused on the arcane (and unanswerable) question of whether the final fatal surge was triggered by the sight of the cashier’s retreat into the gym with the cash box or by someone reemergmig from the gym after the doors had been closed to the crowd. New York’s media and political leaders have almost all ignored the obvious fact: that the crush occurred because a mass of increasingly violent people tried to push their way into a very small space.
Members of the crowd were not overcome by panic, but animated by impatience. They were indifferent to the foreseeable consequences of their actions. Prior to the fatal surge, members of the crowd twice shattered glass doors leading into the gym. Then, having gained entrance to a vestibule above the stairs leading down to the gym, they continued to push, despite the screams of those caught at the bottom. A woman described the scene: “People were pushing. A girl was sitting up on my chest. She wasn’t even conscious. I just thank God I’m still alive. No one even cared. They wouldn’t stop pushing.” Even after the deaths were announced and the game called off, some people already inside the gym rushed to get autographs of the rap stars, laughing as they scrambled over the bodies of the dead and injured.
Mayor Dinkins’s evasive description of the tragedy reflected not only his own bland style, but also the city’s refusal to pass moral judgment: “Apparently it got very much overcrowded, creating a situation which resulted in six dead here and two [later three] others who died in the hospital.” In Dinkins’s formulation, the “situation,” not the wanton actions of individuals, caused the deaths.
The official report on the incident, “A Failure of Responsibility,” prepared by Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen’s office, did contain a short section on the responsibility of the crowd. This section received virtually no attention in the press. It drew from the Times only a shocked editorial aside for having assigned responsibility “even to the unruly crowd itself [emphasis added].” But the report, like the Timed, laid the preponderance of blame on City College’s poor oversight of the arrangements for the game, which was organized by the Evening Student Government, and on the behavior of the police and private security guards present at the gymnasium.
Only one public figure broke the silence on the responsibility of the fans: Al Sharpton. “We are ashamed of those young black people [who], despite a lack of security, conducted themselves in a way that hurt innocent people,” he declared.
The city’s willful myopia about the proximate cause of the deaths is emblematic of a shift in society’s moral expectations. We shrink from holding individuals accountable for their behavior for fear of being accused of insensitivity or of imposing our values on others. As sensitivity to the charge of “blaming the victim” has become razor-sharp, the categories of victims have multiplied accordingly. People who don’t fill out their census forms, for example, are “victims of the undercount.” If the people who engage in antisocial behavior belong to ethnic minorities, condemning the behavior begs for the even more serious charge of “racism.” Perhaps Sharpton’s candor about the City College incident is owing to his insulation from this accusation.
The denial of individual responsibility places ever-increasing burdens on institutions. If people are not expected to control themselves, these institutions must control them—and be blamed when things go wrong. Thus the Times became a clarion of moral certainty when assessing the responsibility of the overseeing agencies and institutions in the City College disaster. An editorial several days after the game exemplified the paper’s contrasting modes of doubt and righteousness: “The answers [to the questions of] what went wrong and who’s to blame ... are not yet clear; what is clear is that somewhere along the line there was a grotesque and inexcusable failure to provide sufficient security and crowd control.” A subsequent editorial declared, “There were clearly two main culprits: City College ... and, to a lesser extent, the police.”
Blaming institutions, of course, creates an illusion that problems are easy to solve. Society’s capacity to change individual behavior in the short term is slight; by comparison, its power over institutions is nearly total. In the case of the City College trampling, it is not even possible to identify the individuals who kept up the pressure despite signs of danger. Changing the attitudes behind such behavior, which often gestate in dysfunctional families that lie outside social control, would be even more difficult. But if we blame institutional malfeasance, we can appoint task forces, fire a few people, reshuffle authority, and then give ourselves credit for doing something positive. Rather than making the punishment fit the crime, it’s a lot more convenient to make the crime fit our capacity for punishment.
But our moral squeamishness demeans the individuals we shrink from judging by denying their capacity for self-control and rationality. In the City College incident, the press and the city simply assumed that the individuals in a crowd of that size could not have behaved civilly. A Times editorial, for example, said that “at some point, the slow-moving crowd, containing many gate-crashers, became a torrent.” A “torrent” is a blind, uncontrollable force at the mercy of gravity. Calling people part of a “torrent” is really no different from the characterization made by an unidentified police officer at the scene, who said of the crowd: “They’re not people, they’re animals.”
The fact that the individuals involved in the incident were members of a crowd does not absolve them from responsibility. People in crowds sometimes behave differently than they would singly, but “mob psychology” is no excuse for life-threatening behavior. The members of a lynch mob, for example, remain individually responsible for their actions.
Our leaders’ silence in the face of the crowd’s violence reveals their loss of faith in the force of moral suasion. A willingness to speak out publicly against antisocial behavior sets the tone of society by crediting individuals with the ability to understand and act on social norms. Had the city’s newspapers and public officials expressed their outrage at the crowd’s disregard for human life, they would have made available a moral vocabulary that parents, teachers, and friends could adopt. They would not, of course, have transformed society overnight. But as long as they remain silent, social values will continue to decline, leading to more tragedies like the City College crush.