When Help Might Not Be Just a Phone Call Away

"We're going to send them [the police] as soon as we get a car open," said the dispatcher. Amanda Berry replied, "No, I need them now before he gets back." Of all the courage and strength it took to survive and to escape, one small phrase signaled to me Amanda Berry had not lost her sense of identity in context when she talked with 911: "No, I need them now."

She had begun, "Help me. I'm Amanda Berry," to which the dispatcher responded with the usual, "You need police, fire, ambulance?" Simply and straightforwardly Amanda replied, "I need police." Most other people calling 911 would have thought, "Fine, they will send a police car." Amanda knew, "when one is available" might be, well how long? Ten minutes? An hour? Three hours? Not at all?

When I heard those words I was drawn back in time to when I as a young women lived with my husband and three children in the inner city. I am in no way comparing my situation to that of Amanda Berry, her daughter, Gina DeJesus or Michelle Knight. But nonetheless I felt again the haunting reality of knowing that help might not be just a phone call away.

Her words brought back images. When we lived in a poor neighborhood in an East Coast city, robberies were routine. We and our neighbors would call the police; however, noticing they were not writing down anything we said, we concluded they would not try to find the intruders. But when businesses needed protection, police took notice and went into action. We, the residents of the neighborhood, learned how to cope by ourselves and what help not to expect any time soon. We didn't count. We were automatically devalued.

This is not an indictment of any particular police department or individual, but of our system of values. Who and what is important? Who counts when someone goes missing? Rep. Marcia Fudge who represents Cleveland in the U.S. Congress said in an interview with Rev Al Sharpton that missing persons cases are not given the attention they should receive and that, "There is even less attention given to young women who live in poor neighborhoods." When Michelle Knight was reported as missing, police told her family she had just walked away. Rep. Fudge said, "Had she been in another neighborhood, it is my belief the police would have handled it differently."

All of us contribute to this unequal system of values. When a pretty, blond young woman from a prominent, wealthy family goes missing, we follow the media stories of the search for months. Neighborhoods that do not have such influence are invisible. So, how do we see?

How could no one have seen what was going on inside the house at 2207 Seymour Avenue in west Cleveland? No one came. Some neighbors say they had noticed and called the police, but the police chief said, "We have no record of those calls coming in."

It is true that all sorts of people call 911 making foolish, even distracting calls. However, when someone calls out to 911, to the neighborhood, or to me, I need to be careful not to dismiss or judge, "They didn't give information accurately enough," or they did not speak clearly in my language or use professional English, syntax or grammar. Amanda did! In the midst of possibly distracting questions about why she was calling from 2210 and not 2207, she said clearly, "I'm Amanda Berry. I've been on the news for the last 10 years."

Amanda, Gina and Michelle have said they knew family and friends were waiting and searching. How difficult that must have been. To know and to be locked inside and not able to tell their families, "We're here. We're alive."

And the joy in the neighborhood when those feared dead were found alive. What about our own neighborhoods? We formed neighborhood block clubs, not neighborhood "watches" with one race of people ready to stand their ground against others, but community groups which sought to know and include everyone, walking the streets together. That is a way to gain courage, like Charles Ramsey and Angel Cordero who heard Amanda's cries and (similar to people at the Boston Marathon finish line) walked toward the risk instead of away. Although this is a tragic, almost unbelievable, case, there are people in every neighborhood living in all kinds of bondage, crying out, some silenced, longing to be free.

Our family today lives in a place where we can safely walk the streets, even at night. Not much danger here, and if there is, police come quickly. . . although there are more guns everywhere. But I have not forgotten when we were living among boarded-up houses and dismissed as "those people." We cared for each other as neighbors there. We need to know that in every neighborhood people are valued, even more valued when missing, and that we can count on each other to come now when called.