Leonard Pitts Jr

Naika’s death was a spectator sport

Naika Venant’s smile belied her pain and depression.
Naika Venant’s smile belied her pain and depression. Facebook

A few thoughts on the lonely death of Naika Venant.

As you may have heard, Naika, a Miami teenager, hanged herself in the dark hours of a Sunday morning. She did this live on Facebook. We’ll likely never know why she chose to do it that way. Perhaps she felt invisible. Perhaps she wanted to be seen.

Her self-destruction drew attention, all right, but surely not the kind she wanted. To read the report by The Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller and Alex Harris is to cringe with disgust:

“A thousand people watched for nearly an hour as Naika Venant prepared to kill herself. They kept watching for another hour as the 14-year-old dangled on her scarf from the shower door in the bathroom of her Miami Gardens foster home.

“People mocked the young girl, called her names and reacted to the video with Facebook’s laughing emoji, said Antonio Gethers, one of her 4,500 Facebook friends. Others posted cruel parody videos pretending to hang themselves, too.”

The bleak despair and dead-end hope that cause people to take their lives is, unfortunately, all too familiar. And those feelings can be magnified dangerously in adolescence., an age where all emotions are outsized, all passions urgent and raw. Factor in that she was a survivor of physical abuse and sexual assault, and it becomes depressingly easy to imagine the forces that drove Naika to destroy herself.

It is less easy to understand why that act was received the way it was.

The harsh laughter and cold ridicule of “people” — the word is used advisedly — who watched Naika’s suicide suggest that we flatter ourselves when we call ourselves a higher species. Apparently, only one individual tried to help; a friend saw the live feed and called police, but inadvertently sent them to the wrong address. By the time it got sorted out, Naika was beyond saving.

Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho blames Facebook for what happened, which is as understandable as it is misguided. Might as well blame the sidewalk where Kitty Genovese was killed in 1964 as she screamed for help that didn’t come,. Or the Golden Gate Bridge, where a 2006 documentary, “The Bridge,” shows passersby passing by without intervening as people climb up on the ledge, preparing to jump. Or the walkway behind a Salem, New Jersey, McDonald’s where a young mother was brutally beaten in 2014 while observers laughed and recorded it on their cellphones.

Facebook is an easy target, but it is not the web service whose behavior is appalling here. It is, rather, the ordinary people, the everyday Janes and Joes who could have acted to save this child, but did not. One is mindful of what’s called “the bystander effect,” which, according to Psychology Today, “occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.”

But that doesn’t explain the laughter. It does not make sense of the mocking derision of a troubled child.

No, that behavior speaks to moral stupidity, to the objectification of other people and their pain, to a selfish inability to extend compassion beyond the barricades of one’s own life. All of which have come to feel far too commonplace. It cries out for families, worship houses and schools to rededicate themselves to teaching what it means to be a truly human being. That would be a good way to give meaning to this tragedy.

It’s haunting to think Naika might have killed herself on Facebook hoping to be seen.

Yes, an audience watched her die. Then they clicked their browsers to see what else was on.

Editor’s note

This column quotes an Jan. 26 article by Carol Marbin Miller and Alex Harris that stated that a thousand people watched on Facebook Live for nearly an hour as Naika Venant, a 14-year-old foster child, live-streamed preparations to hang herself in the bathroom of a Miami Gardens home.

It has since been learned that the actual number is not clear. The original figure was based on the “views” logged on the site as reported by multiple people who watched the video before it was taken down by Facebook. One thousand views may mean 1,000 individuals or it may mean significantly fewer people, with some returning several times. Moreover, it is not clear that each “view” represented someone staying with the video to the point at which she took her own life.

Six people who said they viewed the video told the Herald that cruel comments were posted, with some posts suggesting the hanging was a hoax. The comments, like the video, are no longer viewable on Facebook Live.