How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
An excerpt from Alice Goffman’s 'On the Run.'
Photo by Hill Street Studios/Matthew Palmer
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support one another, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
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 12-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 11 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 18-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 get ting 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.
Abandoned buildings in North Philadelphia. Photo via Flickr user 秘密
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 18 months on 6th Street, I observed a young man running after he had been stopped on 41 different occasions. Of these, eight 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); six involved car chases; and two 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. From field notes taken in September 2006:
Around 11 AM, I walked up the alleyway to the back of Chuck’s house. Before I reached the porch, Chuck came running down the iron stairs, shouting something to a neighbor. Reggie followed him, also shouting. Their mother, Miss Linda, came to the top of the second-floor balcony and told me the law was on the way, and to make sure that Reggie in particular did not come back until she gave the green light. I recalled that Reggie had a warrant out for failure to pay court fees, and would doubtless be taken in if the cops ran his name.
I watched Chuck and Reggie proceed up the alleyway, and then Chuck turned and yelled at me to come on. We ran for about three blocks, going through two backyards and over a small divider. Dogs barked as we went by. I was half a block behind and lost sight of Chuck and Reggie. Panting, I slowed to a walk, looking back to see if the police were coming. Then I heard “psst” and looked up to see Chuck leaning out the second-floor window of a two-story house. A woman in her 50s, who I immediately guessed to be a churchgoer, opened the door for me as I approached, saying only, “Upstairs.”
Chuck and Reggie were in her dressing room. This quite conservative- looking woman had converted what is usually the spare upstairs bedroom into a giant walk-in closet, with shoes, purses, and clothing arranged by color on the kind of white metal shelves that you buy and install yourself.
Our getaway had produced a mild euphoria. Reggie brushed past Chuck to examine the shoe collection, and Chuck wiped his arm off dramatically, teasing his younger brother about how sweaty he was.
“Look at yourself, nigga! You don’t run for shit now with that little bit of shell in your shoulder,” Reggie responded, referring to the partial bullet that had lodged just below the back of Chuck’s neck when he was shot the month before.
Chuck laughed. “I’m in the best shape of my life.” He explained that his shoulder hurt only when he played basketball.
Reggie sat on a small leopard-print stool and said, “Name a fat motherfucker who runs faster than me. Not just in the ’hood but anywhere in Philly.”
“Oh, here you go,” Chuck complained.
Chuck joked about the extensive shoe collection, saying you’d never know Miss Toya was like that. Reggie pulled out a pair of suede high heels and attempted to get one onto his foot, asking me to do up the straps. He got on her computer and started browsing pit bull websites, then YouTube videos of street fights. Chuck cringed and exclaimed loudly as Kimbo, a well-known street fighter, hit his opponent repeatedly in the eye, revealing bloody and battered tissue that Chuck called “spaghetti and meatballs.”
I asked Chuck why he made me run, and consequently dirty my sneakers, when I’m not even wanted.
“It’s good practice.” Reggie grinned and said, “You be taking your fucking time, A.”
“You’re no track star,” I replied.
“What!? I was haul-assing.”
Chuck got on the phone with his mother and then a neighbor to find out how many police were on his block and for whom they had come. Apparently they were looking for a man who had fled on foot after being stopped on an off-road motorbike. They didn’t find this man, but did take two others from the house next door: One had a bench warrant for failure to appear, and the other had a small amount of crack in his pocket. Into the phone Chuck was saying, “Damn. They got Jay-Jay? Damn.”
About an hour later, his mother called to tell Chuck that the police had gone. We waited another ten minutes, then left for Pappi’s, the corner store. Chuck ordered Miss Toya a turkey hoagie and BBQ chips and brought them to her as thanks. We then walked back to the block with Dutch cigars and sodas.
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.”
When the techniques young men deploy to avoid the police fail, and they find themselves cuffed against a wall or cornered in an alleyway, all is not lost: Once caught, sometimes they practice concerted silence, create a distraction, advocate for their rights, or threaten to sue the police or go to the newspapers. I occasionally saw each of these measures dissuade the police from continuing to search a man or question a man on the street. When young men are taken in, they sometimes use the grate in the holding cell at the police station to scrape their fingertips down past the first few layers of skin, so that the police can’t obtain the prints necessary to identify them and attach them to their already pending legal matters. On four separate occasions I saw men from 6th Street released with bloody fingertips.
Cops get involved in a street dispute in North Philadelphia. Photo via Flickr user Scott
Avoiding the Police and Courts When Settling Disputes
It’s not enough to run and hide when the police approach. A man intent on staying out of jail cannot call the police when harmed, or make use of the courts to settle disputes. He must forego the use of the police and the courts when he is threatened or in danger and find alternative ways to protect himself. When Mike returned from a year upstate, he was rusty in these sensibilities, having been living most recently as an inmate rather than as a fugitive. His friends wasted no time in reacquainting him with the precariousness of life on the outside.
Mike had been released on parole to a halfway house, which he had to return to every day before curfew. When his mother went on vacation, he invited a man he had befriended in prison to her house to play video games. The next day, Mike, Chuck, and I went back to the house and found Mike’s mother’s stereo, DVD player, and two TVs gone. Later, a neighbor told Mike that he had seen the man taking these things from the house in the early morning.
Once the neighbor identified the thief, Mike debated whether to call the police. He didn’t want to let the robbery go, but he also didn’t want to take matters into his own hands and risk violating his parole. Finally, he called the police and gave them a description of the man. When we returned to the block, Reggie and another friend admonished Mike about the risks he had taken:
REGGIE: And you on parole! You done got home like a day ago! Why the fuck you calling the law for? You lucky they ain’t just grab [arrest] both of you.
FRIEND: Put it this way: They ain’t come grab you like you ain’t violate shit, they ain’t find no other jawns [warrants] in the computer. Dude ain’t pop no fly shit [accused Mike of some crime in an attempt to reduce his own charges], but simple fact is you filed a statement, you know what I’m saying, gave them niggas your government [real name]. Now they got your mom’s address in the file as your last known [address]. The next time they come looking for you, they not just going to your uncle’s, they definitely going to be through there [his mother’s house].
In this case, their counsel proved correct. Mike returned to the halfway house a few days later and discovered that the guards there were conducting alcohol tests. He left before they could test him, assuming he would test positive and spend another year upstate for the violation. He planned to live on the run for some time, but three days later the police found him at his mother’s house and took him into custody. We had been playing video games, and he had gone across the street to change his clothes at the Laundromat. Two unmarked cars pulled up, and three officers got out and started chasing him. He ran for two blocks before they threw him down on the pavement. Later, he mentioned that their knowledge of his mother’s new address must have come from the time he reported the robbery, and he bemoaned his thoughtlessness in calling them.
A Philadelphia police officer frisks a man. Photo via Flickr user BKL
Young men also learn to see the courts as dangerous. A year after Chuck came home from the assault case, he enrolled in a job training program for young men who have not completed high school, hoping to earn his high school diploma and gain a certificate in construction. He proudly graduated at 22 and found a job apprenticing on a construction crew. Around this time he had been arguing with his baby-mom, and she stopped allowing him to see their two daughters, ages one and a half and six months. After considerable hesitation, Chuck took her to family court to file for partial custody. He said it tore at him to let a white man into his family affairs, but what could he do? He needed to see his kids. At the time, Chuck was also sending $35 per month to the city toward payment on tickets he had received for driving without a license or registration; he hoped to get into good standing and become qualified to apply for a driver’s license. The judge said that if Chuck did not meet his payments on time every month, he would issue a bench warrant for his arrest.Then Chuck could work off the traffic tickets he owed in county jail (fines and fees can be deducted for every day spent in custody).
Five months into his case for partial custody in family court, Chuck lost his construction job and stopped making the payments to the city for the traffic tickets. He said he wasn’t sure if he had actually been issued a warrant, and unsuccessfully attempted to discover this. He went to court for the child custody case anyway the next month, and when his baby-mom mentioned that he was a drug dealer and unfit to get partial custody of their children, the judge immediately ran his name in the database to see if any warrants came up. They did not. As we walked out of the courthouse, Chuck said to me and to his mother:
I wanted to run [when the clerk ran his name], but it was no way I was getting out of there—it was too many cops and guards. But my shit came back clean, so I guess if they’re going to give me a warrant for the tickets, they ain’t get around to it yet.
The judge ruled in Chuck’s favor and granted him visitation on Sundays at a court-supervised day-care site. These visits, Chuck said, made him anxious: “Every time I walk in the door I wonder, like, is it today? Are they going to come grab me, like, right out of the day care? I can just see [my daughter’s] face, like, ‘Daddy, where you going?’”
After a month, the conditions of his custody allowed Chuck to go to his baby-mom’s house on the weekends to pick up his daughters. He appeared thrilled with these visits, because he could see his children without having to interact with the courts and risk any warrant that might come up.
- surveillance state
- On the Run
- criminal justice system
- Prison-industrial complex
- Alice Goffman
- field work
- On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
- how to run from the police
- running from the cops
- poor young black men
- is it smart to run from the police
- rubbing off your fingerprints
- family court
- police in poor communities
- University of Chicago Press