By Leah Blankenship
Have you ever jogged too far from your house or car and find yourself wondering how you’ll ever manage the run back? My favorite time for a jog is early evening, and sometimes I miscalculate and find myself a long way from home as twilight settles in. I watch for tree roots and uneven sidewalks, but stumbling in the dark isn’t my only concern.
I watch out for people who might try to hurt me. I scan my surroundings, analyzing stretches of road that would make me vulnerable and looking for the closest drug store or dog-walker so I know where to go for safety. I listen for footsteps behind me.
I don’t think it’s paranoia. I’ve never been assaulted while on a run, but I’ve had my fair share of creepy dudes catcalling, and one time a middle-aged guy followed me for a while in his white, unmarked van, yelling bizarre questions and offering to give me a ride.
When I lived in Philadelphia, a serial killer dubbed “the Kensington strangler” raped and killed three young women just a few blocks from my home. Years later and hundreds of miles away, I still get a flicker of the fear I felt in the weeks before they arrested a suspect. I know that I’m probably safe, but I’ve also seen the newspaper headlines that prove it’s no guarantee.
In recent years, I’ve learned that a woman jogging at night is like a Black person getting pulled over by the police. Black people are afraid with good reason. News headlines prove their safety isn’t guaranteed, either.
Before Diving In
First, I am a White woman. I’m leery of writing about Black people’s experiences, beliefs, and feelings. I do so now because I’ve heard many thoughtful and empathetic people express genuine confusion over why some Black men in news stories run from the police. This newspaper has printed letters to the editor arguing that if Black men just stop running they won’t get shot, and implying that they get what they deserve. It’s an important question, so I’ll share a few concepts that I’ve found as I’ve searched for understanding.
Second, Black people in America are not all the same–they are individuals with diverse opinions and experiences. It’s essential to respect and listen to dissenting voices within Black communities, and fortunately many of them have far-reaching platforms through conservative media outlets.
However, the Pew Research Center, consistently ranked as “least biased” by media bias watchdogs, has poll results that require attention. 84% of Black Americans think that slavery still affects the position of Black people in society today. 87% of Black Americans say that the criminal justice system treats Black people unfairly, and 84% say that Black people are treated less fairly by police. When was the last time 84% of your community agreed on anything? The numbers are pretty consistent across polls from other research groups, too.
In this article, I’ll say “Black people feel…,” because it would be clunky to continuously specify “84 percent of Black Americans”, and saying “some Black Americans” downplays the remarkable majority consensus.
It’s sort of like saying “women are afraid to go jogging at night in cities.” There are women who aren’t afraid, but we still speak in broad terms since it describes most women and allows for more fluid conversation.
Black People Generally Agree It’s Better Not to Run
I read about 20 articles in mainstream media and major Black publications like Ebony, Jet, and The Root about what to do when stopped by police. Every single piece unequivocally advised readers not to run. Every single piece urged readers to move slowly, keep their hands up, and not to resist arrest.
I’ve also seen multiple YouTube videos and articles about Black parents giving their kids “The Talk.” “The Talk” refers to conversations in which Black parents tell their kids what to do when they’re stopped by police so that they can come home safely. Frequently repeated phrases include “be respectful, keep your hands up, don’t resist.”
If this is typical advice from Black parents, why do so many Black people run from police?
Not Just the Media: Fear Comes From Personal Experiences, Too
Critics say that Black people have no reason to be afraid–that police brutality is rare and it’s silly to get scared because of a few, statistically insignificant incidents.
Can’t you say the same thing about women being assaulted while jogging at night? Yet no one has ever sneered at me for being nervous or careful about that. (As a side note, mathematicians dispute the above claim regarding statistical insignificance of police brutality).
My personal fear while jogging isn’t solely due to the cases that end up in the media. I’ve seen black eyes and fingerprint bruises around a friend’s neck, and far too many of my loved ones were sexually abused as children. My own experiences in broad daylight have shown me that plenty of men enjoy scaring a young woman out exercising, so it’s not a stretch to worry that they might go a little further.
Black Americans’ fear of police isn’t primarily based on media coverage, either. In her article “Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.” for Pacific Standard, Nikole Hannah-Jones explains how incredibly common it is for Black people in her community to personally experience police violence. It’s ubiquitous, not just a few cases here and there. She relates that even her Black friends raised to completely trust police officers have had frightening and humiliating experiences that shook them to the core.
Black people hear real-life stories of negative police encounters from their grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings and friends–the people they love and trust the most. (And remember, the beatings, bombings and hatred of the 1960’s civil rights era are well within living memory. Imagine if your grandma told you about being clubbed and fire-hosed by police officers!)
In short, it’s not just about the headlines; it’s also lived experiences that create fear and distrust.
It’s Not Just About Getting Shot
Whether or not a Black man is shot, an interaction with police can have serious ramifications. In “Why Do Black Men Run From Police?” in the Chicago Defender, Kai El’ Zabar explains that even small charges generally mean you won’t be home for dinner that evening, and may be detained overnight or longer.
Research shows that Black people are significantly more likely to be charged for minor or ambiguous offenses, like loitering or disturbing the peace. They’re also likely to have longer sentences for minor infractions or be held for extended periods before trial because they can’t make bail. As a New York bail re-evaluator, Kai El’ Zabaar had a client with no prior arrests who was held in prison for 13 months for stealing a carton of cigarettes.
Furthermore, small charges increase your risk of being arrested and jailed for small infractions in the future. It snowballs.
Nikole Hannah-Jones describes a young Black man who lived on her block. He was poor and disheveled, but quiet and polite. The worst she’d ever seen him do was drink beer on the stoop. An officer stopped the young man one day as he was leaving a shop, and when the young man asked why he was being stopped, the officer threw him on the ground and tased him. The young man was arrested for resisting arrest. He never found out why the officer stopped him for questioning in the first place.
The young man lost his job over the incident, and was given a fine that he’ll struggle to pay. If he doesn’t pay on time, he’ll be facing a warrant for his arrest and may end up in the jail system.
Admittedly, we don’t know the whole story. Hannah-Jones says that neighbors recorded the incident, but didn’t publish the video.
Regardless, the point is that the overwhelming majority of Black Americans believe they won’t be treated fairly by police officers or the criminal justice system. The story doesn’t sound at all unusual or unbelievable to them.
On a personal note, I’ve gotten a glimpse of how a misdemeanor or felony can follow you for the rest of your life. My mom and her friend ran a little prison ministry for years. They’re both smart ladies with plenty of resources and common sense, but when they tried to help a young man named Corey navigate his release from jail, they couldn’t even get him a library card, let alone a driver’s license (which he needed to get a job). I was shocked by the strict parole requirements, and sad but unsurprised when Corey ended up back in jail because he didn’t meet them.
I can see why a young Black man might run to avoid minor charges that could wreak such havoc on his life.
They Wouldn’t Run if They Weren’t Guilty
Another sentiment you’ll hear is that Black people have no reason to be afraid if they’re not doing anything wrong. That makes sense, right?
The first complication is that in the United States of America we presume innocence until proven guilty.
Secondly, it’s not always the case that a person running away did something wrong.
I grew up utterly trusting the police. Common sense says that if I haven’t done anything wrong, officers will question me and move on. But in most Black communities, common sense goes the other way: every encounter with police could go wrong, so avoid it if at all possible.
Finally, many of the Black people shot while running from police aren’t perfectly innocent. They have unpaid traffic fines, marijuana possession, unpaid child support, or other charges. They’re much more likely to end up in jail if they have any priors (remember, small charges snowball into serious jail time), so they may run because they don’t want to go to jail. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but running from the police doesn’t mean you’ve committed a crime worthy of death.
Many of my friends ran when college parties were busted by the police. Some of them might be your children or the kids you taught in Sunday School! My friends didn’t deserve to be shot for non-violent misdemeanors like underage drinking and running from the cops, and the same goes for Black people.
Most police officers are wonderful public servants. In my own life, I’ve only seen officers provide protection and reassurance. But at this point, I think that just about everybody agrees that the relationship between police officers and Black communities needs some work.
The plainest answer to why Black men run from police? Fear. Fear that their lives will be ended by a bullet or derailed by criminal charges.
I don’t know the answers to this great problem, but as a Christian, I believe that “perfect love casts out fear.” Even on an individual level and in conversations at our family dinner tables, may we speak about Black people with love rather than condemnation—even when they run. That would be a start.