Why We Used To Run

By Dennis Henderson, M.Ed., ACLU of Pennsylvania Client

Dennis Henderson, an African-American teacher who was wrongfully arrested and jailed for 12 hours. photo credit: Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney Sara Rose and Dennis Henderson, an African-American teacher who was wrongfully arrested and jailed for 12 hours. photo credit: Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette 

Growing up in a public housing complex, my friends and I were conditioned to run when we saw a patrol car coming our way.

Between the ages of 6 and 10, we weren’t breaking any laws while walking home from school or playing in our neighborhood, but we knew we’re supposed to run when we saw a police car.

Every now and then, one would sneak up on us. Shock, anxiety, and fear would grip us. During those times, we just stood still not knowing how to respond while the patrolling officers drove past us slowly staring us down with a look of suspicion.

Between the ages of 11 and13, I figured that I shouldn’t have to run from the police if I didn’t do anything wrong. I stopped running. Looking back, I stopped at a good age, because that’s when the police started chasing. Many of my friends were caught and placed in the juvenile to prison pipeline system for reasons that would be considered “typical adolescent male behavior,” if they were from white middle class families.

Because of the detainment of many of my peers and witnessing the arrest of many of the adults in my neighborhood, as a teenager I still retained the emotions of anxiety and fear when encountered by a police officer.

It was also during this time that I encountered great mentors that taught me black history. I was educated about numerous African Americans who contributed their work, ideas, talents and lives to enrich the quality of life for all Americans.

While in college and as a young adult, I learned that in 1619, Africans were brought to the shores of North America in bondage, recognized as only 3/5th of a person under the ensuing U.S. Constitution, and subsequently, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled blacks had no rights in the Dred Scott decision.

Today, as an adult, I now mentor youth. As a middle school history teacher, I share with them what I’ve learned and teach them that the very same Constitution that restricted our rights eventually outlawed slavery and granted full citizenship and equal rights! So I thought.

On June 26, 2013, while standing next to my truck exchanging contact information with another individual, a police car sped across the intersection towards us. We assumed he was responding to a call, however, as he got closer, the patrol car continued to veer closer to where we were standing. As he passed, both of us pressed ourselves against my truck to avoid being struck by the police car.

His actions were unprovoked and shocking. The officer then made an abrupt u-turn and came back to enquire if I had a problem with what he did. I had no reason to run.

Now educated about my constitutional rights, I was no longer afraid. I choose to exercise my rights by requesting his name and badge number. This request prompted him to get out his car and demand our IDs. Concerned for my safety because of his erratic behavior and questionable intentions, I informed him that I was documenting the remainder of our conversation on my smart phone. He told me I had no rights to record him.

At that moment I realized that he didn’t agree with me having the audacity to believe I had rights [Dred Scott Decision].

He used his car to endanger me and treated me with no dignity or respect during our encounter [3/5th of a person].

I was handcuffed, slammed to the ground, arrested and locked in a cell [since 1619].

According to a recent article published in the “Crime &Delinquency” journal, a study indicated nearly 50 per cent of black males are arrested before the age of 23. I have no doubt that at least half of those arrests were unwarranted such as mine.

A harsh reminder as to why we used to run when we saw a patrol car coming our way.

Dennis Henderson is a middle school teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh. Read more about Mr. Henderson’s case

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

10 thoughts on “Why We Used To Run

  1. Dennis, your students are so lucky to have you as their teacher — an insightful person with a passion to reach others with his own story. thank you for teaching me today.

  2. The actions of the police officer we very abrupt and unwarranted. Brutality in the city of PGH is real and it’s about time we had someone stand up against them. We live in a racist city and thank God this didn’t end up just like Jordan Miles!

  3. Very informational piece. You have been a inspiration to my family and I throughout this situation. A teaching tool to all those going through this same issue everyday and how to deal with this in their community. I share a same story as you and can also relate to this “police” behavior. Not all of them behave this way, but there is major precedent to claim all across the nation.

  4. Dennis thank you for listening. You have grown into a fine young man and adult who knows about his history. Thank you for sharing with the young people today. Let’s us work to help them understand they don’t have to run but stand tall and handle their business with dignity and respect.

  5. dennis very true we did run probably because whenever they came somebody got taken away or haraassed so we ran

  6. “Truth…Young people who still run, have a lack of trust in the span of “leadership”. It’s Amazing how the power of education and implementation can either set the rules or break them. The same government that denied us remains in tact to date, changing the rules every now and then. Trapped! The youth are conflicted and to have well rounded support like yours, they duly stand a chance. Thank you!

    Being trapped without trust…creates the platform for violence when in fact, there is no where to run, in a sea of generational ignorance and distrust.

    Your consistency and work is critical and very much appreciated as abundantly important. I know its hard for black men. I’m proud to say, you are genuine and have always “Practice the Person you Pray to Be” with certainty your core values began at home. Your mother is one of the greatest community leaders/role models I’ve ever known, and because your respect and trust for her, you were able to listen and receive from others, magnifying your confidence and trust within.

    Still today, the freedom that bind the bondage of America’s past continues to haunt and set plague throughout generational decline, ignition for ignorance, and viloence, resulting the creation for a mecca of wealth for govt., and villoneus predators.

    “THANK YOU for always being positive, TRUE & DEDICATED to the mission as well as yourself.”

    “Young people who continue to run…have no where or one to run to…so they run from EVERYTHING.”


  7. I already foresee a movie/documentary in the making about this incident that will serve to enlighten our country of this horrible denial of the “pursuit of happiness” afforded all Americans, but being denied some of the most vulnerable citizens. In light of the recent trail to vindicate Jordan Davis’s death and the travesty of Trayvon Martin’s death I hope you story reaches the Whitehouse. More, needs to me done on this matter from our highest courts to our Commander and Chief.

    Keep on being that light, witness, and leader (as you were in college) as God demands we stand for justices and the fundamental value of every man, including the Black man and boys. I am encouraged by your spirit Dennis and will continue to request God’s protection, peace, and power over you and your loved ones during this struggle. We already have the name of the future book/movie… “This is why we ran”.

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