Alice Goffman, On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City — December 15, 2014

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

Photo of an alleyway between two dingy-looking inner-city buildings with a busted-up sidewalk out front.

There’s a real risk that a book like this will be disaster porn — self-aggrandizing disaster porn, no less. As a matter of fact I think that’s the problem that Slate had with Goffman’s book. They believe that her book plays into all the stereotypes about urban black life — dominated as it is, in the American mind, by crack cocaine, gang violence, broken homes, and bombed-out inner cities.

And that is, indeed, the picture that Goffman paints. She lived for years in a run-down Philadelphia neighborhood, the only white girl in the area. At the beginning she just watched and listened and tried to hide while observing. Eventually she worked her way into her neighbors’ good graces and somehow, oddly, seemed to be riding along with everyone as everything happened to them: shootouts, drug deals, police pat-downs. She ran away from the cops alongside her friends. One time she and the neighbors even watched the police strangle one of their friends to death.

Not much that’s uplifting happens to anyone. All three of one woman’s children are either in prison or dead by the end of the book. Her father lives upstairs in her house, keeping his piece of it neat and tidy while she lives on the first floor and allows it to become infested with roaches.

Always, everywhere, the police are watching over Goffman’s friends, waiting for any chance to book them for something and reach their informal monthly quotas. Goffman says police will hound her black friends anywhere they can find them: at her friends’ jobs, when her friends are in the hospital, or even when her friends are attending funerals. This is, I would say, the most controversial part of Goffman’s book, and the aforelinked Slate piece expresses some (mild) doubts that this could even be possible. Do the police even have the resources to run the records of everyone staying at a hospital? Aren’t they focusing on other things? Makes me consider the possibilities that either Goffman just made this stuff up, that she’s hanging around with particularly bad dudes whom the police would bother expending this many resources on, or that reality is really so much worse than I could ever have envisioned.

You have to grant this premise that the police are omnipresent in the lives of inner-city black Philadelphians, or much of the rest of the book just doesn’t make sense. Since black youth expect the police to be on their case everywhere, and expect that they’ll be jailed at the first hint of misbehavior, they are wary of being anywhere where the police can find them. This means they can’t hold down a regular job; they can’t spend time where the police would expect them to be (mother’s house, girlfriend’s house). So they have to sleep on friends’ couches, always ready to duck and dodge.

Again, you need to believe some pretty strong things about police behavior to make this true. The police are so determined to make life miserable for these kids that they have an almost limitless interest in asking neighbors where the kids are staying. They seemingly interrogate everyone so that they can learn about everyone else. Their methods of interrogation turn girlfriends against their boyfriends and children against their parents. The presence of the police, in Goffman’s telling, has done much on its own to destroy the fabric of black community life. No one can trust anyone else. No one can hold down a job without fearing that he’ll be handcuffed and taken away from that job on a moment’s notice, thereby driving many black youth into the underground economy.

It’s a profoundly depressing story with no hopeful upside. Even Goffman’s own return to the white, manicured world of Princeton, New Jersey is fraught; every backfiring engine makes her shriek in anticipation of being shot. Her book reminds me a lot of [book: Gang Leader for a Day], though Goffman inserts herself into the story much more than Venkatesh did. At one point Venkatesh realizes that the Robert Taylor Homes’ residents had all been protecting him without saying so: they’d kept all the really illegal stuff away from him so that he couldn’t incriminate them when, as must inevitably happen, the police asked him what he’d seen. Goffman is so much in the thick of the action that her book is practically begging the police to interrogate her. It’s a very strange book.

I have very mixed feelings about it. Mostly I just want to be convinced that she didn’t make it all up. Then I want to know what to do about it. In a pinch, “end the monumentally destructive war on drugs” will do as a smart policy intervention, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the problem here. There are *so many* problems that you don’t know where to begin. Begin with the war on drugs? Begin with the lack of job opportunities for high-school dropouts? Begin with the difficulty that convicted criminals have getting jobs? Begin with the CompStat focus on quantifiable policing? Goffman avoids a good many of these questions, quite deliberately: her job is to describe this particular community from the inside, not look down on it from the outside. But her book begs for all of these other questions to be answered.