On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman

Dick Hobbs on how the intense nature of policing creates secondary casualties in poor communities

May 15, 2014

For some time, orthodox Western liberal discourse has been critical of the “war on drugs”. The blindingly obvious fact that this is a war that cannot be won has become an unremarkable feature of press releases issued by chief constables who are approaching retirement, and of late-night post-dinner conversations conducted over a small tray of something potent from Colombia. Human rights activists have highlighted the impact of the war on producer countries, and scholars have documented the impact on the prison system and the creation of global policing systems. But much of this cacophony of righteous outrage is concerned with abstractions or actuarial-based arguments that ignore the war casualties sprawled inelegantly on our own doorsteps.

Alice Goffman’s fieldwork in a black working-class neighbourhood of Philadelphia was no career-inspired flying visit: she lived in the war zone for six years, and this work is powerfully informed by the people she met, interviewed and lived among. Police raids, chases, guns, drugs, arrests and a cop’s boot on her neck typified her time in a community that was corralled, controlled and regularly beaten to the verge of submission. For although prison has provided the focus for much of the growing critique of the war on drugs, Goffman’s analysis shows how the war declared by Richard Nixon and enthusiastically escalated by Ronald Reagan has produced not only a fivefold increase in the prison population of the US, but also the ways and means to wage war on a civilian population whose resources have already been decimated by neoliberalism.

Successive political regimes in the US responded to economic decline by normalising “tough on crime” policies that target not only drug possession but also prostitution, vagrancy, gambling and other crimes of the poor. Zero tolerance is now an uncontested political orthodoxy. With one in nine young black men in prison and 60 per cent of black men who do not finish high school serving prison time by their mid-thirties, the prison industry has clearly benefited from the war on drugs. But so have the police.

Despite falling crime rates, America’s war on drugs has licensed huge increases in police numbers, an expansion of police technology including in-car computers and, most importantly, a ferociously applied, barely comprehensible grid of linked warrants that compound a wide range of petty infractions into a palpable threat of imprisonment. Bail and probation conditions are rigidly policed by a range of agencies that have developed warrant enforcement specialisms backed up by synchronised computerised systems and pushed by data-driven management. The computer mapping program that coordinates the various local intelligence systems, Goffman notes, was developed by a Philadelphia FBI officer who took his inspiration from a documentary about the Stasi.

Goffman painstakingly describes how these systems and the agencies that implement them have created gulags within ex-industrial settings where, in an environment stripped of legitimate work and welfare provision, the drug trade is one of the few options. Poor black communities provide a rich harvest of low-hanging fruit for performance-driven law enforcement agencies. Court fines and fees, technical offences and violations of probation or parole, along with petty offences, mean that large proportions of the population are constantly on the run. The supervisory conditions imposed by probation and parole include not only curfews but also restrictions on driving a car, crossing state lines, drinking alcohol and visiting certain parts of the city.

Violations and even suspected violations mean a return to prison, even if the charges are later dropped. Arrests are made at work, at funerals and in hospital delivery rooms as fathers accompany their partners at the birth of a child. The intense nature of policing means that it is all too easy to have freedom revoked, and as a consequence those on the run avoid visiting hospital, home or friends and become heavily reliant on the underground economy for medical treatment, shelter and, of course, income. In doing so they become vulnerable to predators, and as there can be no recourse to the police, they must defend themselves. Everything is expensive, and friends, relatives and neighbours become implicated in complex machinations involving risk, loyalty and pragmatic self-interest. All become embedded in a fugitive culture; all must be ready to run.

In a book replete with poignant examples and episodes, one that stands out is a conversation between brothers, one a streetwise man in his twenties and the other a 12-year-old boy.

“What you going to do when you hear the sirens?” Chuck asked.

“I’m out,” his little brother replied.

“Where you running to?”


“You can’t run here – they know you live here.”

“I’ma hide in the back room in the basement.”

“You think they ain’t tearing down that little door?”

Tim shrugged.

“You know Miss Toya?”


“You can go over there.”

“But I don’t even know her like that.”


“Why I can’t go to Uncle Jean’s?”

“ ’Cause they know that’s your uncle. You can’t go to nobody that’s connected to you.”

Disconnection is the name of the game. All the informal props and everyday assumptions of community are dangerous, and friends and family ties are vulnerable to a potent combination of sophisticated surveillance and brute force. Indeed, the extent of the pressure the police impose on friends and family is one of the many lasting impressions left by this powerful book. Goffman describes how the police impose unbearable choices and, in so doing, create a culture of informants that is nightmarishly contradictory, and where mere paranoia would be a blessed relief.

Yet the residents of Philadelphia’s 6th Street are not mere pawns in the games played by law enforcement agencies. Some use prison as a resource to escape street violence, the bail office becomes a bank, and fugitive status is a way of ducking personal obligations. Importantly, the culture manufactured by the war on drugs becomes all-encompassing, the spider at the centre of a web that must be negotiated with enormous care. Goffman highlights how local residents risk secondary legal jeopardy to provide goods and services to fugitives and those subjected to various restraints on their freedom: an informal answering service for those on curfew, clean urine for those about to be tested, forged documentation and a range of goods and services that normally would require a legitimate ID. For the desperate and entrepreneurially inclined, the underground network created by the war on drugs includes smuggling contraband into prison and arrangements with corrupt prison guards. Some of the more harrowing accounts here relate to the medical treatment available to those on the run, often administered by individuals whose connection to the medical profession is little more than tenuous.

Yet somehow, niches of humanity, decency and even conviviality are negotiated in this (barely) open prison. The fact that Goffman has managed to portray this culture as one that is imbued with compromise, forgiveness and honour is tribute to her skill as an astonishingly appreciative ethnographer.

This is a truly wonderful book that identifies the casualties of the war on drugs that extend beyond the prison walls. The punitive ghettoisation of the poor leaves few families untouched. The detail is incredible. The research is impeccable. Read it and weep.

The author

“I’m sorely lacking in hobbies,” admits Alice Goffman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

“Oh, here’s one. I like picking. I like untangling knots or picking all of the seeds out of a pomegranate. Maybe my other hobby is note-taking. I take a lot of notes on my phone – observations of everyday life, conversations. Even when I’m not doing sustained fieldwork, I’m writing down what I see.”

She came to Madison (a city “surrounded by water, by lakes on two sides; children growing up here learn the word isthmus very early in life”) for its sociology department. “It’s where my doctoral adviser Mitch Duneier worked before moving to Princeton University, and it’s where Devah Pager did her dissertation. Her work on discrimination against black job applicants with criminal records was a big inspiration to me. They both said this was the best place to be an assistant professor, and they were right. I feel hugely lucky to be here and to have this job.”

Her academic path follows that of her mother, her stepfather and her late father. Was she ever tempted to rebel against going into the family business? “That’s funny – I never thought of it as the family business until you said it. My parents are linguists, so sociology was a departure. My father [Erving Goffman], who was a sociologist, died before I could remember him, so going into sociology didn’t feel as weird as it probably would have if he had lived.

“My dad, Bill Labov, just called last night to tell me that he was reading the book and enjoying it. It means a lot to me that he and my mum think it’s any good, especially since they remember a lot of the events, and know most of the people in it.”

On the Run grew out of her doctoral thesis at Princeton, which won the 2011 Dissertation Awards from the American Sociological Association, which itself grew out of research she undertook while an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.

In adapting her dissertation, Goffman says she “wrote three new chapters and rewrote the original ones. The appendix took eight months. I had to go back to my notes and reconstruct the stages of the research, the major events.

She notes: “One thing that’s changed between when I finished the dissertation and now is the growing reform movement. We’ve seen small decreases in incarceration over the past four years, for the first time in four decades. President Obama and Eric Holder, the Attorney General, are making speeches about ending mandatory minimums for drug sentences. For those of us who have been working on the causes and consequences of historically high incarceration rates, it’s incredibly exciting. We didn’t think we’d see this in our lifetime.”

In On the Run, Goffman details her own harsh treatment at the hands of Philadelphia police officers when living in the neighbourhood she calls 6th Street. Did she ever consider filing a complaint about being manhandled and subjected to racist and sexist verbal assaults?

“No. I was trying to understand everyday life in the 6th Street community on its own terms – as much as someone as different as I am possibly could. Participant observation is about cutting yourself off from your prior life and subjecting yourself to whatever’s being thrown at the people you want to understand. Making a formal complaint – that’s not what anybody I knew was doing,” Goffman says.

“Also, the police have lost so much legitimacy in communities like 6th Street, complaining to them would just not make sense. To say they have lost legitimacy is not even really covering it. There’s a palpable anger at how the police treat people; the violence and the arrests and the raids. They aren’t people you can turn to for redress.”

On the Run also refers to the low-paid (mostly black) support staff at the University of Pennsylvania, the way they are viewed by (mostly white) undergraduates, and their poor work conditions. One of the staff Goffman mentions is Miss Deena, a long-serving senior catering employee at Pennsylvania who was made redundant when she was just two years away from being eligible for retirement and a pension.

Does Goffman feel that support workers’ conditions and concerns are largely invisible to students and academics at the institutions she’s attended and worked at?

She responds: “I taught an undergraduate class last term where students, for their fieldwork, shadowed members of the university staff – custodians, people working in recycling – around on their jobs. My fabulous teaching assistant Martina Kunovic thought of it and made it happen.

“I think some of the students were shocked and outraged at how little the workers were paid; their presentations were all about the people who keep the school running but are invisible to students and faculty. Many in the class hadn’t considered this before. But at Madison I also teach students whose parents are paving the roads around the university, so some students are pretty aware.”

Were any of her academic supervisors or other lecturers concerned about the situations she found herself in while carrying out her research in 6th Street?

“Ha. Good question,” Goffman responds. “There’s a long tradition of doing this kind of fieldwork, going back to the early Chicago School. This was a tradition in full force at Pennsylvania where I started the research. Elijah Anderson, Chuck Bosk, David Grazian – these were Chicago School ethnographers doing serious fieldwork and encouraging their students to go out and study the city. I also took classes with Michael Katz, the urban historian, and Randy Collins, the theorist. They were very encouraging to me, and inspiring.

“I did take a non-fiction class from an English professor who was pretty concerned about the fieldwork. He actually asked to meet with my parents. But that was the thing – my parents were hugely supportive. So was Mitch Duneier at Princeton, who became my adviser. Other folks I worked with at Princeton, like Paul DiMaggio and Viviana Zelizer, were not ethnographers, but they believed in first-hand observation, and they were extremely supportive of the project.

“Were people worried about me? Yeah, sure they were. But I was pretty adamant about doing the research. And the way I looked at it, I wasn’t taking on any excessive risk – I was simply living in a working-class-to-poor African-American neighborhood in a large metropolitan area in the US.”

Asked if she has had valuable feedback from the people who appear in the research behind this book, Goffman says, “Yes, certainly. Reggie is the most avid reader and writer in the group. In prison he penned a lot of what he called ‘hood novels’. When he came home he’d lose interest in writing, but when he was locked up, which was most of his teens and twenties, we’d talk about writing a lot.

“His basic comment on the book – as a 23-year-old going in and out of prison – was that it was very academic-sounding. ‘We’re giving you this exciting material and you’re making it boring,’ he once told me. ‘Like, my life is interesting.’ I tried to listen to that and write in a style that people outside of sociology might want to read.”

Did the tradition of gangster/ghetto memoirs known to some of the people who feature in On the Run play a key role in ensuring that they did not object to being the subjects of your research? “I guess the answer is that I’m not sure. It started as a college thesis, then became a dissertation. A book was our hope for it – mine and Mike’s and Reggie’s – but it took me so long that I think a lot of the guys didn’t quite believe it would ever actually come out. On the other hand, a lot of the time, nobody really cared that I was taking notes all day. There were way more important things going on.”

If a good fairy could give Goffman the gift of any skill or talent, she says she would choose “a sense of direction. I’m hopeless at getting places.”

Karen Shook

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

By Alice Goffman
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226136714 and 6851 (e-book)
Published 13 May 2014

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