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.