'We call them jump-out boys': Videos of protesters getting picked up by unmarked police cars spark outrage, but many say it's not new

Kamilah Newton
Protesters marched past the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, when federal officers began a phased withdrawal from the city. (Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Protesters marched past the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, when federal officers began a phased withdrawal from the city. (Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

A flurry of reports about federal agents using unmarked vehicles to pick up Portland, Ore., protesters — followed by the recent video of an 18-year-old New York City protester being snatched off the street in broad daylight and thrown into an unmarked van by law enforcement — has left much of the country in a state of shock and disbelief.

“A lot of us have watched in pain what’s been going on in Portland, Ore., and the fact that you see federal agents, federal officers, federal troops, clearly doing inappropriate things meant to undermine our democratic process, that’s just thoroughly unacceptable,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in response to the video. “It’s the kind of thing that we don’t want to see in this city. This is not Portland.”

But many are taking to social media to call out the fact that these police practices — of grabbing up suspects into unmarked vans that speed away, in scenes that resemble a kidnapping — are nothing new in America. There’s even a popular, if alarming, slang for the plainclothes agents: “jump-out boys.”

“White people really be oblivious to what happens to us everyday,” noted a post on the Facebook page Kinfolk Kollective (self-described as “ramblings of a Black woman hellbent on destroying white supremacy”) wrote on Thursday. “I can’t tell you how young I was the first time I saw the ‘jump out,’ plain clothes cops in unmarked cars with tinted windows, hop out and take somebody in my neighborhood. This s*** is nothing new.” That post opened the floodgates for people from New York, Texas, Michigan and other states across the country to share their experiences with the so-called jump-out boys within the comments.

One user wrote: “‘There go them jump out boys’ usually would send our neighborhood boys into flight… One day a 12 year boy didn’t run fast enough. When his mom went to pick him up they barely could recognize his face. All he could say was they snatched him, beat him, then locked him up on resisting....he was 12!!! And I don't recall anything being done about it. It became one more thing we feared because we knew even if you were doing nothing wrong if they felt like it, they would jump out on you.”

Many stories like it followed:

Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective
Screenshot: Facebook/ Kinfolk Kollective

Maria Haberfeld, co-director of the NYPD Police Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she is familiar with the term “jump-out boys” and says this tactic — of plainclothes officers picking up suspects unannounced in unmarked vehicles — has been commonly used and can sometimes make a lot of sense. But it is “problematic” in the context of crowd control, she says, “because the emotions are high on both sides. … People don’t know who is law enforcement and who isn’t, so it creates that visual perception that something illegal is happening — which is not necessarily the case.” Haberfeld adds, “In my opinion, this is very ineffective, and actually creates another layer of distrust between the public and the police.”

Related: 18-year-old woman stuffed into NYPD unmarked van at protest

The origin of “jump-out boys,” according to Dictionary.com, can be traced back to the early ’90s, referring to “any law enforcement official, ranging from a police officer to an FBI agent” who utilized “the law enforcement tactic of jumping out to ambush victims.” In 1999, the Hot Boyz (the hip-hop group responsible for Lil Wayne’s start) released a song about the jump-out boys and their regularly scheduled “sweeps.” Since then, throughout the years, they have been referenced in lyrics by rappers from Juvenile to Paul Wall and Travis Scott. Also, in 2008, DMX’s action film called Lords of the Street was also known by another name — Jump Out Boys.

Cops use “jump-out boys” often and “departments officially call it ‘proactive policing,’” writes Brandon Soderberg and Baynard Woods, co-authors of the just-released book I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad, in a July 29 op-ed for the Guardian. The writers call the practice “unconstitutional” at its core, adding that “these practices presume people guilty and ignore constitutional protections. We, in turn, are all too ready to ignore these violations, especially if the victim has a criminal record and the cops actually find drugs or guns during the search.”

Ironically, some police departments have reclaimed the nickname to make it official. In 2003, the Enhanced Foot Patrol Unit within the Chicago Police Department became known as the “jump-out boys,” but their run was apparently short-lived. In 2013, members of a gang within the Los Angeles Police Department were also self-identified as the “jump-out boys,” even “tattooing their members with a skull wearing a bandanna and holding a gun,” but were reportedly fired after an investigation found that they “promoted aggressive policing and glorified shootings.” More recently, it seems that officers in Tulsa, Okla., have even adopted it among one another as a term of endearment, using it in a Twitter hashtag.

Despite so many people already being familiar with the moniker and the practice, one woman, who is white, commented on Kinfolk Kollective’s post about why so many people do not. “We [just] assume ‘there must be a reason’ — we’re really good at minding our own business in some circumstances,” she writes. As author and sociologist Jessie Daniels explained in another Yahoo Life story recently, “a lot of white people are able to live in a way where they insulate themselves so thoroughly from any awareness, or from being reminded that racism exists in a way that they don’t like.” 

Another Facebook commenter noted, “Any black person growing up in DC in the 90s knew about jumpouts. As someone on Twitter said, ‘racism is just fascism that hasn’t gotten to you yet.’ Black people been the canary in the coal mine, but when you don’t listen, you learn the hard way,” echoing a sentiment expressed in 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Or as Diana McHugh from the Women’s Prison Association tells Yahoo Life, “When we witness the arrest of a community member and assume their guilt, we are perpetuating a state of surveillance rooted in racism, sexism and violence when, instead, we can demand fair and restorative practices that honor the humanity of our neighbors and address challenges through safe, proactive and community-based solutions.”

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