I once asked an 11-year-old Black child that I mentored what he did for fun in his neighborhood. He told me he practiced running from the police and finding hiding places with his friends. I asked him if he did something wrong. He told me he didn’t, so I asked him why he would run and hide, and he replied, “So I can survive.”
When Black people resist arrest or run from the police, it’s common for white people to suggest that if only they had cooperated, nothing bad would have happened. Many white people believe that if Black people don’t do anything wrong, they have nothing to fear. These statements present insight into the different lived experiences Black and white people have with the police.
Black people disproportionately suffer from police brutality. Some Black people run from the police because they’re scared of them. They fear the police in ways that white people don’t because they’ve experienced unjustified physical abuse or know people who have experienced it. The fear in Black children starts early. The stories of torture are well known. In a February interview, months before he was shot and killed by the police, Rayshard Brooks talked about how the system hardened him, treated him like an animal, and didn’t provide the support he needed.
Some Black people believe that the criminal justice system will not afford them due process, quality legal representation, or access to an unbiased jury. They know police regularly arrest innocent Black people, who are more likely than white people to be arrested, convicted, and receive longer prison sentences. And they know the majority of people who serve time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit are black. A study found that innocent Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be found guilty of murder, and 12 times more likely to be convicted for drug crimes.
Racial profiling and police bias cause distrust and fear. Driving-While-Black traffic stops and racist stop-and-frisk policies have eroded trust. Racial bias exists in law enforcement because it exists in society. The police disproportionately stop, arrest, and abuse Black people. The probability of being Black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.5 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police. Police discrimination against Black people is rampant in cities throughout the country.
Healthcare disparities contribute to the problem. White people don’t take into account that Black people don’t have access to quality healthcare in the same way they do. As a result, many Black people with mental illness encounter the police instead of the treatment they need. People with mental illness are unlikely to react positively to the threat of arrest.
Some police plant evidence on innocent Black people. Nobody knows how often it happens, but it happens. Black people are more likely to know someone it has happened to, and therefore less likely to trust the police.
Police are frequently viewed as an occupying force in Black neighborhoods, the same way the American military is perceived in other countries. Many Black people have deep-seated views about the police that most white people don’t have. Police are less present in white neighborhoods, and they arrest and abuse white people less frequently. As a result, white people have a different perception of them. Generations of children grow up believing the police are going to kill them. Long before George Floyd, Eric Garner, and others, there was Rodney King, and thousands before King that were never recorded except in the minds of Black people who knew their stories. The harassment of Black family members, invasive searches, dehumanization, and negative interactions builds a lasting impression that strains encounters with the police.
Many Black people with low-level warrants such as unpaid court fees, traffic citations, and curfew violations fear interactions with the police because they know the system can engulf them and ruin their lives. To avoid the police, they may avoid getting an ID card, so they can’t vote, and they don’t go to the hospital when they’re sick because they don’t want to get swallowed by the system, which perpetuates inequality, disenfranchisement, and hardship.
I spent years providing support services to inmates, most of whom were Black men. I’ll never forget their stories or the life lessons they shared with me. It’s hard for most people to imagine what it’s like to fall asleep to the sound of violence, live in poverty and without hope or a role model, attend dilapidated and dangerous schools, spend a childhood visiting a parent in prison, and witness family members beaten, wrongly accused, or killed by police.
Black people have been running from authorities for centuries, dating back to the days of the slave catchers–the predecessors of modern-day police. Once you understand the Black experience in America–the history, threat of police violence, and unjust incarceration, you understand why some of them run from police. Running becomes a way of life to avoid the fate of people before them.
A systemic racial order exists in America. It maintains the status quo and then blames Black people for failing to adapt to it. America was founded on racism, stolen land and labor, and a government and police force complicit in the acts of segregation and discrimination. This country was born racist and remains racist. The question is not over whether racism exists in every facet of our society, but rather how we dismantle it. Understanding the problems is a good first step.