On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City–Alice Goffman (2014)

On the Run is the most extraordinary book I’ve read this year. (Of course I discovered it thanks to Jenny Davidson.) Goffman, a sociologist—it runs in the family: her father was Erving Goffman—lived for many years in an overwhelmingly Black neighbourhood in west Philadelphia where she befriended a group of young men she calls the 6th Street Boys. (Goffman always capitalizes Black, citing W. E. B. DuBois’s unassailable reasoning about his capitalization of Negro: “I believe eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter.”) Her book is indirectly a record of that time, but it’s not primarily a memoir. It’s an analysis of the way police surveillance structures so many aspects of life in places like the pseudonymous 6th Street. Everyone should be talking about this book. The only thing more extraordinary than Goffman’s book is my utter ignorance (likely shared by most of the book’s probably audience) of the circumstances it describes.

As an undergraduate at Penn Goffman took a job in a local cafeteria that was frequented by mostly white students but staffed by mostly Black middle-aged women. She did so not for the money but for the experience, which she used in a paper she wrote for a sociology class. I tell you that not to criticize Goffman for slumming or stealing other people’s experiences—no one is more alive to the difficulties raised by her position than Goffman; she discusses them at length in a magnificent appendix to the book—but rather to note the fraught and fascinating territory trod by her work, which relies on participant observer fieldwork. The cafeteria is tangential to Goffman’s primary subject matter, but even her she has fascinating things to say, especially about how many of its procedures were put in place to silently, non-judgmentally accommodate employees who couldn’t read.

After a few months on the job, Goffman started tutoring her supervisor’s niece. She met the girl’s friends, neighbours, and extended family members. Before long she moved into the neighbourhood herself, living there for the next six years, and finding herself increasing involved with the 6th Street boys. We meet the flashy Mike and his young boy, the troublemaker Ronny. We meet Alex, trying hard to comply with the terms of his two-year parole, and Anthony, who had no home and lived for six months in an abandoned jeep. And mostly we meet three brothers, Tim, the youngest and about to enter the life of his elder brothers, Reggie and Chuck. The charismatic and intelligent Chuck is the book’s central figure, although perhaps not its most indelible. That would have to be the boys’ mother, Miss Linda, an unrepentant addict and thief who is loyal, smart, and scabrously funny. On the Run shows how the lives of those young men and others like them are overwhelmingly determined by police surveillance and by what the sociologist David Garland calls a culture of mass imprisonment.

The police are everywhere in 6th Street. And they’re not there to keep the peace. They’re there to keep up their stats. This isn’t some anomaly of Philadelphia. Across the US, police departments enforce two decades’ worth of “tough on crime” policies that require them to punish even the most minor offenses. The primary determination of success for a department is its arrest numbers. Officers trawl neighbourhoods like 6th Street for suspects whose location they have identified by accessing bills, employment records, and other personal data, as well as by using sophisticated mapping technologies that track down men who are out on bail or probation. The police check these men for warrants and violations; they also lean on them as a way to get to other suspects. Young Black men, in particular, are routinely pulled over and checked for outstanding warrants. (Thanks to wireless technology, police officers can do all this work from their cruisers.) Most of the men will have some kind of outstanding warrant or parole violation, usually bench warrants for missing court or failing to pay court fees.

People with outstanding warrants are known as dirty. Once dirty it is hard to become clean. The terms of probation are stringent to the point where they seem designed to set men up to fail: they can’t be on the street after a certain hour, they can’t drive, they can’t associate with other “criminals” (i.e. people with open warrants, i.e. their friends, associates, and family members). It’s hard for them to find legitimate work, and if they do it’s hard to get the time off to make their court dates. Failure to appear leads to another warrant. If they lose a job they usually can’t make the payments on their court fees. Failure to pay leads to yet another warrant. Goffman describes a whole series of satellite industries that accommodate those who can’t get clean, no matter how much they might want to: places that sell cell phones that don’t require ID, body shops that don’t require car insurance, even guys who sell clean urine for the drug and alcohol tests required of parolees.

Goffman shows that many young men turn to dealing drugs, usually unwillingly and intermittently, because it is the only work they can get. One of the unusual, even refreshing things about On the Run is that, although it doesn’t ignore drugs, it doesn’t put them at the center of Black life. To be sure, many of the men in the generation Goffman focuses on had parents who succumbed to the drug epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. But what shapes—more accurately, deforms—life for these young Black men is police surveillance. This fact comes across most heartbreakingly in the scene where Chuck teaches his little brother Tim how to run from the police: how to watch for unmarked cars, how to spot a plain-clothes police officer, how to duck and weave through the alleyways of the neighourhood, how to scrape your fingertips to avoid fingerprinting, and, most painfully, how to decide which friends, relatives, or loved ones can be relied upon to shelter someone on the run (which often means knowing who is most vulnerable, in other words, who has outstanding warrants or other weaknesses the police can exploit).

Thinking about this twelve-year old boy learning to contort his body in ways as damaging and restricting as those suffered by Harriet Jacobs in her attic one hundred and fifty years ago, I wished Goffman had said more about the place where the cycle that leads to repeated incarceration begins: school. (Maybe that’s another book.) It’s usually only in passing that we learn that most of the men featured in the book entered the criminal justice system through fairly mundane incidents of misbehaviour (fighting and the like) that were handed over to the police even though they took place on the school ground.

Being on the run influences every aspect of life for the people who live around places like 6th Street. It requires them to follow unpredictable routines, so that cops can’t easily find them. It forces them to avoid the legal system, making them vulnerable to crime and leading them to solve disputes themselves, often violently. It places men under constant strain: every encounter with the straight world is fraught. If they go to see their children at the court-appointed time, will they find a police officer there to arrest them? It places women under different but no less significant duress: will they protect their man, not roll over on him and give him up, even when the police threaten their children or other loved ones? Can they find the time to support their men in jail or on trial by travelling long distances and enduring long wait times for visiting hours or for other cases to be tried?

On the Run is fairly short, but it’s extraordinarily rich. I haven’t even mentioned her chapters about people who stay clean even despite the many, near-systemic obstacles they face or about the ways people turn to their temporary advantage the legal system that usually oppresses them. Nor have I described the most amazing part of the book, a long appendix called “A Methodological Note” in which Goffman describes how her life in the neighbourhood affected her relationships with family and friends, her academic work, and, most of all, her sense of self. (When she began commuting from west Philadelphia to Princeton for graduate school, her cognitive dissonance grew so severe she suffered a near-breakdown. In particular, she became frightened to the point of panic by white men.) The appendix ends with a long and powerful description of Chuck’s death. He is shot in a turf war with young men from a nearby neighbourhood. Goffman was at his bedside when he died. (Many of his friends couldn’t be there, because cops wait at hospitals to arrest men who arrive as patients or as visitors. Many men miss the birth of their children because they are afraid of being arrested.) In the days that follow Chuck’s death, Goffman finds herself driving around the city with his boys, looking for the man who killed him. Her participation in this vigilantism shocks Goffman, even though she acknowledges the power of the way the experience taught her “to feel [vengeance] in my bones, at an emotional level eclipsing my own reason or sense of right and wrong” But she is scared by the depths of her feelings, even more than she is for the ongoing safety of the rest of the men she’s spent years living amongst. By the end of the book, Goffman recognizes that her experiment—which nearly became identical with her entire life and sense of self, such that “experiment” doesn’t seem the right word—has brought her to the brink of madness and dissolution. I wanted Goffman to say even more about the toll her experiences took on her, but I appreciate that she is self-aware enough that allow us the possibility of indicting the very methodology that made it possible for her to show privileged readers like me things we need to know.

The book isn’t perfect. For example, it can’t decide exactly what it wants to be. Is it an academic monograph? Is it a “crossover” book? I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about this uncertainty. Sometimes it works in Goffman’s favour—her book isn’t stultifying the way a lot of scholarly work is, and it doesn’t cravenly seek to be accessible the way many crossover books do. But I wonder if Goffman couldn’t have written another, even better book, one that would have expanded upon the marvelous energy of the appendix. This book would have told us even more about Goffman’s relationships with the Boys as well as with her family and friends from her other (I wanted to say “ordinary”) life, her privileged white life. But that book would need to be careful not to be all about. Admittedly there’d be a kind of fascination to such a book—Goffman is a fascinating person, not least because she so resolutely refuses to portray herself as fascinating—but it would be dishonest too, running counter to the whole point of the book she has written, which is to cast light on an all-too common aspect of American reality that is practically speaking invisible.

That appendix is so amazing because it does away with the awkward ethnographer’s voice that sometimes comes up elsewhere in the book, such as its insistence on translating its subjects’ speech. To be fair, annotations of this sort are often helpful, as when Goffman explains that the phrase “that’s what’s up” means “that’s good.” But other times they’re unnecessary, even pedantic, as in this transcription of Reggie’s thoughts about his girlfriend’s loyalty: “Shakira ain’t like that, though; she riding like a mug [motherfucker, i.e. very hard]. She worried about me, too.” We don’t have to know what mug means, exactly, to know that it describes intensity. And we definitely don’t need to know that “motherfucker” means “very hard.” It’s a no-win situation for Goffman, I suppose, since other readers might not need the first example explained, either. Still, there were times when I couldn’t help but be reminded of a story a musicologist once told me, about an introduction to popular music that, discussing “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” explained that the “baby” of the lyrics is “the speaker’s lover.” (I don’t care if the story’s apocryphal; it perfectly describes the humourlessness of musicology.)

The need to translate its subjects is an unavoidable ethnographic risk. More irritating is Goffman’s insistence—which is probably sociological protocol rather than personal idiosyncrasy—on repeating her claims over and over again, so that the conclusion of each chapter is simply a tedious recitation of what she’s already said. It’s as if the mere force of repetition were enough to make observations and claims true. I wish Goffman had more respect for the idea of the anecdote, were more willing to let her stories stand for themselves. I recognize that this is akin to asking her to be a literary critic instead of a sociologist. No one can dispute the power of her observations—she pulls from years’ worth of meticulously recorded incidents. But the circularity of her argumentation means that her conclusions leave something to be desired. At the beginning of Chapter Four, for example, Goffman writes, “Both men and women at times selectively make use of the form this intervention [a legal system designed for mass incarceration] takes, appropriating their legal entanglements for their own purposes.” Fifteen pages later, she says the same thing again: “From these examples, we can see that young men and women around 6th Street sometimes reappropriate the intense surveillance and the looming threat of prison for their own purposes.” Abstraction organizes the evidence that is said to prove the abstraction. Although it’s clear that Goffman deplores what systemic surveillance and no-tolerance policies are doing to many Black communities, she’s more interested in describing than prescribing. After explaining that her book shows how young people in a particular neighbourhod experience contemporary surveillance policing Goffman offers the unimpeachable yet anodyne hope that “perhaps these perspectives will come to matter in the debate about criminal justice policy that now seems to be brewing.”

When Goffman reports from the field, though, she doesn’t hedge. And when she loosens the straitjacket of her discipline her writing is strong and compelling. On the Run would surely have resonated with me no matter what, but the fact that I lived near but so very far from 6th Street made it even more moving for me. I regularly used to ride the R5 SEPTA train from the moneyed suburbs of the Main Line into Center City Philadelphia and regularly averted my eyes and my conscience during the grim stretch from Overbrook to 30th Street Station, preferring to anticipate the pleasures (of shopping, dining, walking, of convivial city life) that awaited me downtown. Goffman’s book should be read by every person whose primary experience of the police or other forces of law and order is as something he doesn’t expect to experience. This remarkable book is even more timely in light of the events in Ferguson, MO, not because Michael Brown was a 6th Street boy but because the overt brutality that led to his untimely, unwarranted death is supported by a covert system of surveillance that is even more powerful, even more pervasive, even more insidious.

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