Apprehension was not a one-way street. I sometimes caused fear in others with my running. The most common was the corollary to my fears of running in deserted places. Sometimes pedestrians who thought that no one else was about could hear me approaching and flinched. They would dart around in fright which would quickly turn to relief as they spied a mid-30s, white jogger.
I could relate to what these people felt and was sorry that I had frightened them, but I was amused when I made a woman fearful. I generally was not concerned how I looked when I ran. During the winter I wore old sweats with a cheap knitted cap. I was so attired one mid-day as I jogged in Scarsdale, an affluent, white suburb near White Plains. There was almost no traffic when a car appeared at a stop sign as I approached the intersection in front of her. The white, suburban-mom driver noticed me and looked panicky. Her hand quickly darted from the steering wheel, and I heard the car’s locks click. This funny-to-me moment nourished a prejudice, the one I had about many residents of wealthy suburbs, but I went on to wonder what the reaction would have been had I been black and how many times black men had seen similar reactions from whites.
And then there was the time my running got me involved in the aftermath of a crime and a potential injustice. It was just turning dark on an early winter night, and I was jogging from my house for a loop around Prospect Park. I had just arrived at Grand Army Plaza, which stands outside the major entrance to the park, when I heard screams at a subway entrance. A young white woman was yelling that her purse had been taken and pointing across the Plaza at a young fleeing black man with something dangling from his hand. He was a hundred or more yards from me, but I ran after him and was almost immediately joined by a black kid in the pursuit. I know that I was not trying to catch the purse snatcher (what would I have done had I caught him!), and I don’t think my companion was either. I was planning to keep him in sight and hoping that I would see a cop to flag down who could make the arrest. We followed for a half dozen blocks on an apartment-lined street when the mugger ducked into a building or an alleyway. My companion and I shared a wordless glance that said, “Nope, we aren’t going there.” We turned around and jogged back to the subway stop where a foot cop was with the woman. She seemingly recognized me as one who had given chase. She then saw my pursuing-companion, who was at my side. She immediately yelled at him, “That’s the guy who stole my purse.” I explained the situation, and that ended the matter, but I wondered what would have happened if the black Good Samaritan had been there without me. Mass incarceration has many sides.
The minutes and hours I ran was a small part of my existence, and the rest of my life produced many more apprehensive moments of crime. In those years, fear of crime may not have been omnipresent, but it had a regular recurrence and affected behavior. I have my stories of crime and have heard many similar stories from across the socioeconomic and racial strata from those who lived in New York in those crime-ridden years. There were at the time many tough-on-crime demands, and it was not surprising that many of those cries came from those most affected by crime—racial minorities. Nor should it be surprising that the resulting public policies had undesirable consequences–in this case, fueling the mass incarceration that has filled our jails, wrecked many lives, and put a drain on public coffers.
Often when I was growing up, behavior of an older generation was explained by saying, “She grew up in the depression.” We who had not lived through those times thought that we understood, but perhaps we only humored ourselves about our understanding and empathy. I thought about that more when I realized that my students in “Race, Poverty, and American Criminal Justice” knew on an intellectual level that urban crime rates were once much higher than now, but they did not truly understand the effects all that crime had on segments of society.
At first I thought that they needed a more empathetic and nuanced grasp of how the crime era affected so many of us, but then I wondered if it truly mattered. If they grasped the effects of our tough-on-crime policies–and they did–would it make much difference if they did not fully comprehend how we got to our mass incarceration crisis?