Why Black People Running From the Police Makes Perfect Sense

Sociologist Alice Goffman explains why the decision of so many young black men like Freddie Gray to run from the police is completely rational.

Neeraja Viswanathan, AlterNet

Maryland state troopers at a Baltimore protest for Freddie Gray. (@JohnZangas)

This post first appeared at Alternet.

Running from the police is going to continue so long as the police act like an occupying force in these neighborhoods.

Michael Brown. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. Freddie Gray.

As the list of victims of police violence grows longer, the public outcry is getting louder. Not because this is a new phenomenon, but because so many communities have seen the police act as an occupying force for so long.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffmann, chronicling the six years she spent immersed in the Philadelphia neighborhood of 6th Street.” Documenting interactions between the police and her roommates, friends and neighbors, Goffmann shows us a community living under the shadow of mass incarcerations and police violence, trapped by the vagaries and technicalities of the criminal justice system, where minor infractions can result in a lifetime on the run. In the fugitive world,” running not only becomes a way of life; it’s the science and art of survival.

I had a conversation with Goffmann, speaking from her office at the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, earlier this week. The following is edited for clarity.

6th Street isn’t poorest, or most crime-ridden neighborhood in Philadelphia — it’s a mixed income neighborhood, with some middle class families. Yet, according to your book, you saw the police detaining or arresting someone within that four block radius, with a few exceptions, every single day.

It’s a fact in America that in these poorer communities — and in largely African-American neighborhoods like the one I was in — you’re much more likely to encounter a police officer. The level of police presence is just off the charts compared to similar white neighborhoods. So you have the increased likelihood of interaction, and the high probability that that interaction will not be good. Even if there’s no arrest, there can still be a detention, a search, whatever, and who knows how long that’s going to last? It means you won’t be home to dinner tonight. Maybe not even tomorrow. It makes you not only fearful of police contact, but also of the places where the police might go to find you — your girlfriend’s house, your kid’s school, your place of employment.

You noted that your assumptions behind the project changed very quickly, from the idea that only felony offenders were marginalized, to the idea of a fugitive” subclass that’s far more complex.

Definitely. When we began, we were focusing on the impact of mass incarceration on a community. It was based on a lot of quantitative research, and the image that we had from this research was that first you were free, then you were charged with a felony and hauled off to jail, and after you got out came all the financial, emotional, political pressures of being a felon. That was the model: free, prison, felon. But that just wasn’t what I was seeing. I was seeing a lot of non-felons — people with low-level warrants, on probation or parole, with traffic fines or custody support issues, in halfway houses or rehab — living like fugitives, under the radar.

These low-level warrants in particular are a huge issue with police interactions.

When I was writing this book, we didn’t know how many people had low-level warrants; we just weren’t collecting that data nationally. We now know that there’s about 2 million warrants that have been reported voluntarily to the database, and leaving a huge number that haven’t been reported. About 60% of these warrants are not for new crimes, but for technical violations of parole, unpaid court fees, unpaid child support, traffic fines, curfew violations, court fees. And it’s this group of people that are terrified. If they’re stopped by the cops, any of these reasons is enough to bring them in, to get them trapped into the system again.

It goes well beyond being guilty, or even just running from the cops. There’s this story in your book where this young man wants to get a state I.D. during the time he’s clean (i.e. free of warrants). But he just sits there — this big tough guy — and he can’t bring himself to go in.

If you’re part of this class, it means you don’t go to the hospital when you’re sick. You’re wary of visiting friends in the hospital or attending their funerals. Driving your kid to school can be daunting. You don’t have a driver’s license or ID. Most of the time, you can’t seek legal employment. You can’t get help from the government. It comes from, partly, growing up in a neighborhood where you’ve watched your uncles and brothers go to jail, and your aunts and mom entangled in the court system without ever getting free.

You note that women in particular face a great deal of police pressure to inform or cooperate in some fashion.

In a poll I did of the women [living in the four block radius of 6th Street], 67% said that they’d been pressured by the police to provide information on a male family member or partner in the last three years. If you’ve got a low-level warrant or some probation issue, you can be violated by authorities if you don’t inform when asked. So you’re really talking about a policing system that hinges on turning families against each other and sowing a lot of suspicion and distrust. It’s very ironic that people blame the breakdown of black family life on the number of black men behind bars when the policing strategies that put them there are exactly about breaking those family bonds.

It seems like once you have a family member in trouble, you could be in trouble by association.

In terms of public policy, we’re having the opposite effect that we want to see. We should be encouraging people to go work, to go to the hospital when they’re sick, to get a proper ID. We should be making those paths stronger and easier to follow. Now we have a system where, to avoid staying out of jail, you have to avoid your friends, your family, your job. All of those are pressure points that can be used by the police to get to you.

And as long as we have a policing model that’s based on arrest counts and convictions, as long as there’s a legal right to bring in people for things like court fees or traffic fines or technical violations of parole, your’re creating a class of people who are arrestable on sight — a fugitive class. And then the people who don’t have these legal entanglements but are still worried that something might come up, are this secondary maybe” fugitive class.

What’s amazing is how this subculture is almost completely based around the criminal justice system. Almost all social interactions have adapted to it.

Once you have so many young men in a neighborhood coming of age not at school or work, but in court, in probation hearings, in jail, then the whole round of social life — dating, friendship, family — it actually all gets moved into those institutions. So your first time visiting your boyfriend in jail is a big day. Supporting your husband on his court date is how you show your devotion to him. Standing in front of your house while it’s being raided by police looking for your son is what a good mother does. It’s not about checking tests, going to soccer practice or parent-teacher conferences. It’s going to fight for the freedom of your children.

And running — from the police, from the legal system — is central to all this, from a very early age.

I know this guy driving his 11-year-old brother to school in his girlfriend’s car when he got stopped. Turns out that the car was stolen, so the cops charged the guy with receiving stolen property. And then they charged the 11 year old with accessory to receiving stolen property, and gave him 3 years of probation. So from now on this 11 year old is in legal jeopardy. Any less-than-positive encounter with the police could mean a violation of his probation, and send him straight to juvenile hall for the entire three years. He could be out past curfew, or sitting on the stoop with his brother’s friends, or asked to inform — anything could lead to a violation.

So now his older brother sits him down and teaches him the basics of running. How to spot undercover officers and cars. How to negotiate a stop without escalating it. How to find a hiding place. Teaching his little brother to do this becomes what being a big brother is all about.

There’s a lot of violence in your book, but what’s surprising is how much forgiveness and reconciliation there is. You would think that some of the transgressions, like informing on someone and sending them to jail, would damage a relationship beyond repair, but your book had numerous examples of rebuilding and re-bonding.

There’s clearly a lot of love for family. But it’s also about resistance — against a system that is incredibly destructive. It’s amazing how people fight to preserve family or forgive friends who have informed or testified against them. In this neighborhood, it’s understood that you can be placed in a position where you’ll have to choose your freedom over someone else’s. Any one of us likes to think that in that position we’d be honorable or selfless, but we don’t know. For most of us that’s a hypothetical. But there are families making this choice over and over and then trying to come back together.

It sounds like it becomes a survival instinct to run from the police, even after seeing something like the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina.

It’s going to continue so long as the police act like an occupying force in some of these neighborhoods. When the police see and treat young black men with low-levels of schooling as the enemy, and when being a good police officer means putting as many of these men behind bars as possible, it becomes possible to justify any amount of violence and psychological pressure.

Now, this was definitely not my experience growing up in a largely white, middle-class neighborhood. And in college — we had campus police whose sole role was to prevent us from being arrested by the city police. They’d break up fights, help people home when they’re drunk, or to the hospital when they’re too drunk. But they’re not raiding parties or doing stop and frisks or looking to make as many busts as possible. If they were, a good percentage of the kids I went to school with would have records. And almost no one does.

But the level of scrutiny on the police has increased dramatically since your book came out last year.

What’s been great about that is that we are now, finally, getting the data about what’s happening — not just the Justice Reports, but first-hand observations and journalists actively investigating these incidents. We’re finally getting the numbers on the unauthorized use of force by the police in Philadelphia and other cities, which we never tracked before. It’s really important.

It makes a huge difference when you’re watching a video of the interaction.

Well, now people are actively recording their lives, and this is what it’s showing. But it’s been a change that’s a long time in coming. The public debate had been about federal sentencing reform, marijuana law reform, curtailing stop-and-frisks — really trying to reform sentencing and end the drug war. But policing wasn’t really part of the conversation until Ferguson happened. Now there’s this incredible, African American led protest movement, mostly working class people, that’s telling the public — showing the public — what’s been happening. It’s an amazing moment to be involved.

Do you think the protests around police violence will lead to real change?

The question is: how much are we going to make of this moment? You see the right and left coming together on these issues and asking for bipartisan reform. But are we really going to see an overhaul of the criminal justice system? Or will we see moderate reforms that still leave a lot of racial disparity, police violence and the highest per capita incarcerated population in the world?

After my time on 6th street, seeing how hard people tried to find and keep jobs, seeing how many kids have records for the same things that go unchecked on college campuses, it makes it harder to believe in the U.S. as a place of opportunity that doesn’t discriminate, no matter what color you are. So this reform and protest movement is really trying to hold us accountable to these ideals and meet them better than we have been. And that’s pretty exciting.

Read The Art of Running,” excerpted from On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, below:

Learning the Art of Running in On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City”

by Alice Goffmann

A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.

One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers — what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.

When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.

Chuck put the strategy concisely to his twelve-year-old brother, Tim:

If you hear the law coming, you merk on [run away from] them niggas. You don’t be having time to think okay, what do I got on me, what they going to want from me. No, you hear them coming, that’s it, you gone. Period. Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten they’ll probably book you.

Tim was still learning how to run from the police, and his beginner missteps furnished a good deal of amusement for his older brothers and their friends.

Late one night, a white friend of mine from school dropped off Reggie and a friend of his at my apartment. Chuck and Mike phoned me to announce that Tim, who was eleven at the time, had spotted my friend’s car and taken off down the street, yelling, It’s a undercover! It’s a undercover!”

Nigga, that’s Alice’s girlfriend.” Mike laughed. She was drinking with us last night.”

If a successful escape means learning how to identify the police, it also requires learning how to run. Chuck, Mike, and their friends spent many evenings honing this skill by running after each other and chasing each other in cars. The stated reason would be that one had taken something from the other: a CD, a five-dollar bill from a pocket, a small bag of weed. Reggie and his friends also ran away from their girlfriends on foot or by car.

One night, I was standing outside Ronny’s house with Reggie and Reggie’s friend, an eighteen-year-old young man who lived across the street. In the middle of the conversation, Reggie’s friend jumped in his car and took off. Reggie explained that he was on the run from his girlfriend, who we then saw getting into another car after him. Reggie explained that she wanted him to be in the house with her, but that he was refusing, wanting instead to go out to the bar. This pursuit lasted the entire evening, with the man’s girlfriend enlisting her friends and relatives to provide information about his whereabouts, and the man doing the same. Around one in the morning, I heard that she’d caught him going into the beer store and dragged him back home.

It wasn’t always clear to me whether these chases were games or more serious pursuits, and some appeared more serious than others. Regardless of the meaning that people ascribed to them at the time or afterward, these chases improved young men’s skill and speed at getting away. In running from each other, from their girlfriends, and in a few cases their mothers, Reggie and his friends learned how to navigate the alleyways, weave through traffic, and identify local residents willing to hide them for a little while.

During the first year and a half I spent on 6th Street, I watched young men running and hiding from the police on 111 occasions, an average of more than once every five days.

Those who interact rarely with the police may assume that running away after a police stop is futile. Worse, it could lead to increased charges or to violence. While the second part is true, the first is not. In my first eighteen months on 6th Street, I observed a young man running after he had been stopped on 41 different occasions. Of these, 8 involved men fleeing their houses during raids; 23 involved men running after being stopped while on foot (including running after the police had approached a group of people of whom the man was a part); 6 involved car chases; and 2 involved a combination of car and foot chases, where the chase began by car and continued with the man getting out and running.

In 24 of these cases, the man got away. In 17 of the 24, the police didn’t appear to know who the man was and couldn’t bring any charges against him after he had fled. Even in cases where the police subsequently charged him with fleeing or other crimes, the successful getaway allowed the man to stay out of jail longer than he might have if he’d simply permitted the police to cuff him and take him in.

A successful escape can be a solitary act, but oftentimes it is a collective accomplishment. A young man relies on his friends, relatives, and neighbors to alert him when they see the police coming, and to pass along information about where the police have been or where and when they might appear next. When the police make inquiries, these friends and neighbors feign ignorance or feed the police misinformation. They may also help to conceal incriminating objects and provide safe houses where a young man can hide.


Running wasn’t always the smartest thing to do when the cops came, but the urge to run was so ingrained that sometimes it was hard to stand still.

When the police came for Reggie, they blocked off the alleyway on both ends simultaneously, using at least five cars that I could count from where I was standing, and then ran into Reggie’s mother’s house. Chuck, Anthony, and two other guys were outside, trapped. Chuck and these two young men were clean, but Anthony had the warrant for failure to appear. As the police dragged Reggie out of his house, laid him on the ground, and searched him, one guy whispered to Anthony to be calm and stay still. Anthony kept quiet as Reggie was cuffed and placed in the squad car, but then he started whispering that he thought Reggie was looking at him funny, and might say something to the police. Anthony started sweating and twitching his hands; the two young men and I whispered again to him to chill. One said, Be easy. He’s not looking at you.”

We stood there, and time dragged on. When the police started searching the ground for whatever Reggie may have tossed before getting into the squad car, Anthony couldn’t seem to take it anymore. He started mumbling his concerns, and then he took off up the alley. One of the officers went after him, causing the other young man standing next to him to shake his head in frustrated disappointment.

Anthony’s running caused the other officer to put the two young men still standing there up against the car, search them, and run their names; luckily, they came back clean. Then two more cop cars came up the alley, sirens on. About five minutes after they finished searching the young men, one of the guys got a text from a friend up the street. He silently handed me the phone so I could read it:

Anthony just got booked. They beat the shit out of him.

At the time of this incident, Chuck had recently begun allowing Anthony to sleep in the basement of his mother’s house, on the floor next to his bed. So it was Chuck’s house that Anthony phoned first from the police station. Miss Linda picked up and began yelling at him immediately.

You fucking stupid, Anthony! Nobody bothering you, nobody looking at you. What the fuck did you run for? You a nut. You a fucking nut. You deserve to get locked up. Dumb-ass nigga. Call your sister, don’t call my phone. And when you come home, you can find somewhere else to stay.”

Excerpt from On the Run by Alice Goffmann. On the Run copyright © 2014 by The University of Chicago. Originally published in hardcover by The University of Chicago Press. First trade paperback edition published April 7, 2014, by Picador/​Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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