See something, say something.
That has become the rallying cry for a hyper-alert nation on edge, a paranoid population caught in perpetual dread about the next horror that will befall us.
A young black man with a couple of white kids?!?
Call the cops! Quick! There must be something twisted going on here.
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That’s what happened last weekend in Cobb County when a white woman took it upon herself to be the last line of defense for child safety.
It was a classic case of racial bias coupled with suspicion of men being around children.
Corey Lewis is a 27-year-old black man who runs a child care/mentoring center in Marietta. Last Sunday, he was babysitting two kids, a 10-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother who have attended Lewis’ after-school and summer-mentoring programs.
They went to Catch Air, an indoor play center, and then ate at a Subway. As they walked to his car, Lewis told me, a woman in a Kia drove up and asked, “Are the kids OK?”
He responded, “Why wouldn’t they be?”
The woman came back a second time, he said. “She asked if she could speak to the little girl and ask her if she knew who I was.”
Lewis declined. Later, on Facebook Live, he said to the camera, “Why wouldn’t they be OK? No one’s yelling. No one’s screaming. No one’s trying to run away.”
When Lewis went to a gas station, the woman followed. He drove away, headed to the family’s home. Again, she followed.
That’s when Lewis hit “record” on his phone and broadcast his situation live on Facebook. On the video, the little girl in the back seat can be seen smiling nervously and glancing back at the car behind them.
“This lady has taken it upon herself to say she’s going to take my plate down and call the police,” Lewis said to the camera. “This is 2018 and this is what I’ve got to deal it. I cannot go out with two kids who do not look like me without something being weird.”
He decided to stop by his mother’s home, “because I could only guess how this was going to play out,” he told me. “I stopped there for safety reasons. I knew there’d be witnesses and neighbors around.”
The video shows the woman’s car lingering down the street. Soon, a Cobb cop pulls up.
The officer, who was courteous and professional, spoke with Lewis and his mother and then instructed the kids to get out of the car. He asked them several questions, including, “Are you OK?”
“Oh my God, ridiculous,” Lewis’ mother said on the video. “Jesus have mercy. What’s wrong with this country?”
A fair question.
Soon, two more police officers showed up, Lewis said, and the situation defused after one officer spoke by phone with the children’s mother.
David Parker, the father, told me his wife at first thought someone was pulling a prank.
“On the phone (the officer) was almost embarrassed,” Parker said. “I’m sure they’re used to having to follow up on useless complaints.”
“We think the world of (Lewis); we are so comfortable with him,” Parker said. “Part of his mission is to have a diverse class. That helps kids grow up and not see that division.”
Parker said his kids worried their babysitter was going to get in trouble.
“By all accounts there was nothing suspicious,” Parker said. “The only thing she saw was white kids with a black man. They were caught up in this because someone judged someone by how they looked.”
I called Lenore Skenazy, who heads LetGrow.org and founded the Free-Range Kids movement. She thinks adults have become too alarmist and hovering when it comes to kids.
“Why would an adult male be around a child without wanting to rape and kill them?” she asked. (Sarcasm alert!) “It’s worst-first thinking. You think of the worst possible thing (that might happen) from the outset. When there’s a man around kids, we go to a very dystopian place.”
Skenazy talked about people often posting “close calls” on social media. For instance: A man talking to a kid at the grocery store becomes “My children were almost sex trafficked!!!”
In truth, small children are kidnapped by pedophilia rings almost as often as they are abducted by Martians.
Websites proliferate with “factoids” such as “800,000 kids go missing each year.” It’s enough to keep your young ‘uns locked away in bubble wrap with armed guards.
But peel away the runaways, family disputes and other instances, and you’ll come up with about 100 “stereotypical” kidnappings of children a year, which are defined as a stranger or slight acquaintance making off with a person under age 18, according to a Justice Department report in 2016.
“We hear this story over and over: ‘A child is in danger. He was almost kidnapped.’ Everyone thinks they’re in the middle of a Liam Neeson movie (‘Taken’) or in an episode of ‘Law and Order: SVU.’”
“Anyone with a phone can turn a family’s life into turmoil,” said Skenazy. She said the woman in the Lewis case was thinking, “I’m saving two children from death. I’m not only a Good Samaritan, I’m a superhero.”
David Finkelhor, director of Crimes against Children Research Center and one of the authors of the Justice Department report, said, “It’s hard to know what motivates people (to call police) — abduction or something being inappropriate.”
In this case, “It might be racial or it could be a gender thing.
“Their assumptions can go in the direction of, ‘Something’s not right.’ The difference in the race between the man and the kids made her believe he is not a relative.”
Finkelhor called the matter a “dilemma.”
“We want a society where people feel empowered to protect kids,” he said. “But we want to make good decisions as to what they see as risks.”
Which is a hard thing in a society where Risk and Fear are four-letter words to live by.