Today Cleveland celebrates the return of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight. We feel a collective sense of gratitude and amazement at their survival and reappearance. I listened to versions of their story covered locally, nationally, and internationally and that feeling seems nearly universal.
But they were gone for a decade. Gina disappeared when she was 14 and Amanda when she was almost 17. They’ve spent a significant amount of their lives in captivity, in conditions we don’t even begin to understand. And their prison was in a crowded urban neighborhood, near some of the most heavily re-gentrified neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio City and Tremont. How did this go on for so long? How many times have we asked ourselves that lately? Boston, Newtown, others. Situations that weren’t right but no one could put their finger on what was wrong.
In Cleveland, we faced the same question with the Anthony Sowell case. He was charged in 2009 with the murder of eleven women over a four-year period. The bodies were buried in the yard and stored throughout the house. And no one noticed. At least no one “credible.” There were women who apparently escaped, but no one connected the dots. And the 11 women who died? Other women with credibility issues: addiction, criminal records.
The first woman kidnapped and brought to Seymour Avenue was Michelle Knight. A relative said that the family thought that Michelle left town after her baby was taken away from her by child welfare. So far the media has not pried into Michelle’s past (eventually they will, once the regular details get a little boring). But her situation bears similarities to some of the women killed by Sowell.
What Amanda, Gina, and Michelle also shared with Sowell’s victims was a neighborhood mired in poverty. The Near West Side of Cleveland, outside of Ohio City and Tremont, has rundown housing stock, gang problems, and significant homelessness. Not far from Seymour Avenue is the spot along I-90 where Angel Bradley-Crockett’s body was eventually found by police after several phone calls and a visit by the highway department – the police had dismissed the naked body as a “deer carcass.” Her killer was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In a world whose mantra seems to be, ‘there’s no such thing as privacy,” we’re pretty good at minding our own business in the Midwest. Neighbor puts up a 6-foot fence? That’s his business. Neighbor boards up his windows (providing it doesn’t violate the building codes)? That’s his business. As Charles Ramsey, the neighbor who helped Amanda escape put it, “Like I said my neighbor, you got to have some pretty big testicles to pull this off, bro. Because we see this dude every day. I mean every day.”
There is no one answer to why this happened or went on for so long. But Cleveland seems to keep repeating the same mistakes where its missing poor women are concerned. Back in March there was a movement in the US and elsewhere to draw attention to violence against women around the world. It seems we have a great deal of work to do, still, at home.