We don’t live in a society that can readily imagine Black men being fearful. Angry? Sure. Combative? Certainly. Violent? Absolutely.
But we don’t get to be afraid.
When Black men run from the police, it will always be assumed that they were doing something illegal and were trying to evade arrest—and that’s often the case—but it’s never considered that maybe, at the moment they chose to flee, they were afraid and that fear caused them to make a human mistake. It’s also never considered that Black men have reason to fear cops.
Ronald Greene died after he fled from Louisianna state troopers who caught up with him, beat the life out of him and told officials Greene died from injuries sustained in a car crash. Javier Ambler died after he fled from Texas police who caught up with him and Tasered him over and over again while he frantically pleaded with them to stop, told them about his heart condition and repeatedly told them, “I can’t breathe.” Antonio Harris survived after fleeing cops who beat him and gleefully bragged about the “whoopin'” they said that would go on to give him “nightmares for a long time.” At 17, Devin Carter “was left with bruises on both eyes as well as scratches on his face and back” after California police officers arrested him after he failed to stop when they attempted to pull him over for speeding. (In this case, Carter said he didn’t realize the cops were trying to pull him over.)
In all of these cases, the default assumption is that police violence happened because Black men (and boys) fled. Not enough people ever consider the possibility that Black males flee because police officers seem to be violent, particularly against Black males. People don’t consider that the cops in the aforementioned cases ultimately proved there was plenty of reason to fear them.
So, why did Jayland Walker, a Black man with no criminal record and no warrants, flee Akron police? Well, we’ll never know because he didn’t survive to tell his side of the story, but the shooting has refreshed a discussion about why Black men run.
“It’s the terror of knowing that no matter what you do, this may not end well,” Kerwin Webb, who heads a job and life skills program for young Black men in Asbury Park, New Jersey, told CNN. “It’s an ingrained fear for your life. What is the best way for me to try to survive? It’s the reality of being Black in America.”
Unarmed Black people are killed by police at a rate three times higher than White people, research shows. And many high-profile police killings of Black people in recent years started with a routine traffic stop. Notably, Philando Castile was fatally shot during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2016. And in April, Patrick Lyoya was killed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by officer Christopher Schurr, who was trying to arrest him after a traffic stop in a case that has drawn national attention because of the circumstances leading to the shooting and the multiple videos that show Lyoya’s final moments.
Philando Castile was literally complying with police orders as best as he could while being in fear. He even told his killer, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, that he had a firearm, which he had a license to carry. Still, Castile was shot to death in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Castile didn’t flee. He didn’t resist. He didn’t try to fight a police officer. But he died violently all the same.
“He was scared,” Akron activist Raymond Greene told CNN in regards to why he believes Walker ran. “I know that feeling. They pull you over and, before you stop all the way, there are four or five more cars coming. They have two behind you, one in front of you and one on the side of you. It’s terrifying.”
Charles Ramsey, the former Philadelphia police commissioner, had a different take, of course. While Ramsey told CNN he understands the anxiety Black people feel during police stops, he explained that fleeing is “the absolute wrong thing to do” because “when you’re running, you raise the whole incident to a whole different level.”
“Why are you running? Are you involved in something I didn’t know about it?” Ramsey asked. “Police are being trained to de-escalate, but de-escalation comes from both sides.”
Except “both sides” aren’t trained to de-escalate tense situations—only cops are. And what people like Ramsey fail to consider is that after a use of force incident (deadly or not), a cop’s fear and state of mind at the time of the incident will always be considered while the Black victim’s fear and state of mind are not. We’re expected to behave perfectly, comply immediately and follow all instructions without fail—regardless of our fear and regardless of how aggressive cops are being while giving those instructions— while trained officers routinely use “I was in fear for my life” as a crutch to justify police violence.
“It seems like it’s a very common occurrence where this happens, when really it’s very rare,” Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund Jason Johnson told CNN of police shootings of unarmed Black people. “So, therefore, having fear of it probably isn’t reasonable.”
Except, police officers being more aggressive when dealing with Black people is far from rare. The lived experiences of millions of Black people across America and across generations point to that fact and statistics confirm it.
Furthermore, police officers being killed by unarmed Black people is also rare (if not virtually non-existent)—but cops are still ready to pull that trigger, aren’t they?