Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (277 pp.) is a sociologist’s intimate and immersive account of years of field work in the Philadelphia ghetto. She focuses particularly on the neighborhood in which she lived for some time, to which she gives the pseudonym 6th Street. Readers from middle or upper class areas, and even many poorer ones, are given a far closer experience of this corner of American life than they would have access to otherwise. Goffman’s aim is more than entertainment or informing her readers, though. Her book is framed as an indictment of the criminal justice system that she believes serves to trap the residents of 6th Street in lives of crime, fear, broken relationships, and poverty. Further, she frames the tough-on-crime policies directed toward 6th Street as racist, a penal measurement taken against an entire community and directed primarily toward young black men, albeit with destructive consequences for their families and communities.
Goffman’s text is not supported by documented sources that can use to verify its authenticity. This is first person field work of a sort where the names of the subjects must be altered for their legal protection. Therefore we will evaluate her book on its internal consistency – do her conclusions and presuppositions match her own observations? We will also get some supplemental help and perspective from a work that Goffman herself cites, Peter Moskos’ Cop in the Hood.
I hope that my readers will excuse an unusually long review, even for me. I make a point of giving each work the attention it deserves and analyzing it thoroughly. I have tried to contain the length of this review, but Goffman’s work, despite being a fast read, is highly intricate and makes claims that must be taken seriously. I hope that my readers will find the corresponding investment of time and effort on their part and mine worthwhile.
Goffman’s note in her introduction that “6th Street is not the poorest or most dangerous neighborhood in the large Black section of Philadelphia of which it is a part – far from it,” sounds benign. She supports this assertion with testimony from both the police and residents of surrounding neighborhoods who both attest that it is considered peaceful when compared to much of what neighbors it. This becomes jaw-dropping as we read through the rest of her account. Characterized by surveillance cameras, police checkpoints, and overhead helicopter flights, 6th Street is the stage of a three-phase gang war that includes numerous shootouts and causes multiple fatalities during Goffman’s stay. Marijuana and crack are routinely consumed by many as a way of life and the subjects who are the center of Goffman’s study are actively involved in the drug trade, all with pre-existing criminal records (she has smaller sections dealing with “clean” people).
For these subjects, fear of and conflict with law enforcement drive their way of life. Police actively stop and search those out and about, as well as people simply sitting on their stoops. They also stake out emergency rooms. This produces constant tension for the young men that Goffman studied because they are nearly always wanted, even if they have committed no fresh crimes. They can and often are brought in for court costs they cannot pay, as well as for violations of parole or probation. Goffman also bears witness to brutal drug raids that include willful destruction of property, theft of cash, and wanton brutality in which suspects are beaten despite being handcuffed and subdued. Police also apply extreme pressure on her subjects’ family members, particularly girlfriends and mothers, in an effort to turn them against the men whom they seek.
This creates a climate in which men that Goffman likes to refer to as “legally precarious” have to live in hiding. It makes it very difficult for them to apply for and keep a steady job, and it is tremendously destructive to their family lives, where the bonds of trust between intimates are shattered under the hand of police manipulation. Goffman details a web of interconnecting causes – the criminal justice system makes it difficult for those once convicted to get ID’s and paperwork, and they must keep up with a dizzying array of court appearances, any one of which might result in their being taken away. Both of these add to the difficulty in finding employment. The constant police stakeout of the hospital means that fathers must choose between their freedom and watching the births of their sons and daughters and that many go without vital medical treatment in order to avoid prison. The social landmarks of the lives of young men caught in this web are their court appearances, sentencing hearings, and releases from jail. Their friendships are defined by who will hide them and support them during incarceration.
Goffman also delves into the lives of some of the neighborhood’s “clean” people – those who have no record and can pass a police checkpoint without difficulty. For reference, the young men (those most likely to be incarcerated) around 6th Street are divided 60/40 between clean and dirty. The list of clean people includes families who gather and live regular lives with no need to hide, as well as some who suffer hardship through their bonds with the dirty. For many of the former, their awareness of police activity is mostly limited to hearing sirens outside their homes.
At least some of the treatment that Goffman alleges at the hands of the police is not difficult to believe, especially when we compare her work with that of Moskos, who did his sociological fieldwork as an active police officer. Moskos was a patrol officer, but notes in passing the “notoriously harsh tactics” employed by drug squads, such as those who would perform the raids on individual residences that Goffman describes. Further, Moskos offers an illuminating discussion of the dehumanization of junkies in the eyes of police officers. This ongoing process would almost certainly be compounded as police officers made frequent raids on ghetto homes whose squalor is described by both Goffman and Moskos in enough detail to make squeamish readers feel ill. This also provides some grounds to accept Goffman’s accounts of degradation (some of which she experienced personally) at the hands of law enforcement, often received when one is questioned or arrested. Her claims of surveillance cameras and checkpoints should be publically verifiable and fit well with the continuing, forceful effort of modern politicians and law enforcement agencies to side step Fourth Amendment rights.
Goffman’s claim that these War on Crime tactics in fact create more crime, by increasing recidivism and by creating a need for a black market that supplies fake IDs and the like for those so burdened by the criminal justice system that they cannot obtain these things, is also easy to accept. To her credit, Goffman takes care to qualify her argument so that we know it is not the only factor in contributing to further crime. It adds to pre-existing poverty, lack of education, and other factors. She also points out times where her research subjects could have gotten jobs as there were no warrants out for them at the time, but nevertheless used the criminal justice system as an excuse not to seek regular employment. However, based on the already discussed difficulties that this system introduces for a legally precarious man in finding employment and its role in shattering both his family life and dignity, we can accept it as a contributing factor to continued crime.
Goffman’s book is predicated upon the assumption that the current criminal justice system is racist. This is central enough to her work that she owes us a detailed discussion of why we should accept that and, moreover, why we should believe it applies to the population she has studied. She notes that one in nine young black men are in prison compared to less than two percent of whites. She dedicates one brief paragraph of her literature survey to sociologists who have reached this same conclusion, citing their works but giving almost no description of their arguments. She also describes the current situation as a chapter following previous forms of racial oppression, but doesn’t give hard proof of a historical link.
Moreover, she neglects to analyze information that she presents both explicitly and implicitly in order to credibly isolate racism as an underlying element of the police pressure that some young men of 6th Street face. For example, while forty percent of the young men of the neighborhood do get in trouble with the law, sixty don’t. The forty percent is a staggeringly and saddeningly high figure to be sure. However, to define race as the cause neglects to note that many of the clean residents, young men included, with whom Goffman spends time, don’t have to run from police. She produces no stories of clean young black men being falsely accused of crimes and subsequently locked up. Goffman’s discussion with Mr. George, grandfather of some of her research subjects, is also illuminating. He talks of how the crime enforcement climate of 6th Street arose. While he sees some element of racism due to the number of young black men locked up, he also clearly outlines a chain of events. The police attention began not after blacks began moving into the neighborhood, nor when the white residents moved out. It began after crime arose and was initially welcomed by many in the community.
A fantastic case in point is when one of her unfortunate research subjects, whose pseudonym is Mike, finds himself the subject of a body warrant as an indirect result of the fact that he is dirty and therefore cannot seek police protection. The chain of events linking his dirty status and the warrant are instructive for multiple reasons. After a rival in previous criminal activity firebombed his car, Mike decided in conjunction with his 6th Street friends that the best course of action was to seek revenge, at which point he went to his rival’s apartment and fired multiple rounds at the building from his handgun. To label the ensuing and intense police hunt for Mike as racist fails to take into account that the residents of the building who presumably reported him were black, and the dense urban community into which Mike fired multiple unaccounted for bullets that can be lethal for over a mile away is inhabited by black people, all of whom are the ones that the police responded to initially and protect when he is removed from the streets.
In sum, Goffman makes race a central theme in her work. Therefore, she owes us her own detailed analysis, whether based on prior scholarship or her own observations, that allows us to isolate racism as a definite cause rather than merely identify a correlation of the police enforcement so feared on 6th Street. Let me be clear: I am not denying that there is an element of racial injustice in our criminal justice system. I am making no claim one way or the other. I am only pointing out that in making her assumptions regarding racism so integral to her book, Goffman took on a burden of proof that she failed to meet.
The description of Mike’s actions above transitions into one last criticism. Another cause of the terrible cycle in which Goffman’s subjects find themselves sometimes seems almost lost on her at times: their own free will. To her credit as an objective field researcher, she makes it clear that they broke parole or probation conditions for reasons of convenience or recreation, and that they engaged in crimes including attempted murder, accessory to murder, and drug trafficking, which even they viewed as morally troublesome. This is added to personal lives that abound in adultery. The number of times that they are caught carrying drugs also leads us to wonder whether incompetence at their criminal trade is also a factor (one of her subjects voluntarily allowed himself to be searched when he knew he was carrying drugs and then tried to run when they were found). With this in mind, the sympathy with which she seems to treat them, and the tone of victimhood with which she talks of them, leads us to question her judgment. She details in her methodological note the intense emotional attachment she developed towards her subjects, and this must be taken into account when evaluating her work.
These criticisms notwithstanding, I commend Goffman’s book to everyone. What I have discussed with academic distance above, she humanizes dramatically. I said that “many go without vital medical treatment in order to avoid prison.” She describes music turned up to muffle the screams of people undergoing surgery with or without anesthetic and performed by any untrained person with access to medical supplies. This book offers many Americans the closest thing to a firsthand experience of the ghetto that we are likely to get. We need this glimpse, because as voters and citizens we are making decisions that support or will turn the tide on the policies of Goffman describes. Here is where we learn what the smiling District Attorney running for Congress means when he says he has been “tough on crime.” As slow a read as this review may have been, rest assured that Goffman’s actual book is easy to fly through. Read it because of what it will teach you about America, and how fascinated you’ll be with the degree to which she immerses you in what is an alien culture to most of us.
 P. 4. Goffman makes a point of capitalizing the word “Black,” following W.E.B. DuBois’ capitalization of “Negro.” I will retain her usage when quoting her and revert to standard practice otherwise.
 Moskos, Cop in the City: MyYear Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 70. Please note that all of my page references for Moskos refer to the Kindle Edition.
I should point out here that Moskos was a police officer in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia. However, the high level sharing of tactics and methods among law enforcement officers nationwide, the federal (and therefore centralized) impetus that drives the War on Drugs of which both departments are part, as well as the repeated parallels between Moskos’ and Goffman’s observations suggest a similarity in tactics. The notion that their approaches would be similar compounded by the fact that the cities are located very close together, and have gangs that are organized similarly – in small, local groups rather than the large city-wide organizations epitomized by Los Angeles’ infamous Crips and Bloods.
 Ibid., pp. 42-45.
 This is when the police actively seek someone for arrest, as opposed to a bench warrant when they will simply take him in if they find him.
 According to Moskos (p. 106), this is not uncommon