Summary of on the Run by Alice Goffman
In On The Run, Alice Goffman focuses on a particular group of young Black men living in a poor neighborhood, struggling to live a “good” and “fair” life. These boys from 6th street are segregated from resources that would be found in more economically advanced neighborhoods. A “resource” that they do run into more than often is over policing in their neighborhood. As they are disproportionately targeted for arrest to fill quotas, this constant behavior and events deemed as a norm (even little children play a game about cops catching and being overly aggressive to Black boys), hinders their process at advancing within American society. Systematic oppression against a minority group slows and puts racial tension progress at a standstill, as they are continued victims of larger forces.
The dramatic rise of incarceration rates among African Americans since the 1970s has become more visible to the nation as a whole partly because of television shows like the widely popular HBO series “The Wire,” which ran from 2002 to 2008, the current Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” and books such as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” published in 2010. Throughout most of the 20th century, incarceration rates in the United States remained consistently low, but after the 1970s and the beginning of the war on drugs, these rates climbed significantly. “Among Black young men,” sociologist Alice Goffman writes in “On the Run,” “one in nine are in prison, compared with less than 2 percent of white young men.” The result of six years of intensive fieldwork in a Philadelphia neighborhood that Goffman pseudonymously calls 6th Street, “On the Run” continues in the vein of other recent studies exploring mass imprisonment. The book examines the precarious existence of men who are in and out of prison, their constant efforts to evade recapture while back on the street, and the effects of their fugitive behavior on their families and communities. The central characters are Mike and Chuck, men in their 20s who became Goffman’s close friends and even roommates during her research. The son of a mother with a crack problem, Chuck and his two younger brothers were no strangers to the area’s jails and juvenile detention centers. Mike, whose upbringing was more stable, nevertheless turned to selling crack after losing his job in a pharmaceutical warehouse. Mike spent nearly 31 / 2 of the next five years behind bars, and when not incarcerated, he had to make 51 court appearances, living almost constantly under the shadow of warrants for his arrest. This was fairly typical for most of the young men in Chuck and Mike’s world, becoming a significant problem not only for them but also for the people in their lives. Readers following the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by a white police officer, will find no shortage of similar examples in “On the Run.” “Fourteen times during my first eighteen months of near daily observation,” Goffman writes, “I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with their nightsticks.” In one case, Goffman witnessed four police officers chasing and strangling to death an unarmed man, who, it was reported later in the papers, supposedly died of heart failure. According to police officers she interviewed later, this type of violence “represents official (if unpublicized) policy, rather than a few cops taking things too far.” Police brutality was a chilling undercurrent of Goffman’s research, directed not just against men on the run but toward their families as well. In searching for suspects, the police frequently threaten and even brutalize family members into giving up information about their loved ones. Physical force and the destruction of property are often used against suspects’ family members, but police also employ interrogation tactics that involve “threats of arrest, eviction, and loss of child custody.” Constantly present, the police even stake out funerals and emergency rooms in their search for men with outstanding warrants. The pressure to arrest and incarcerate is indicative of the larger failure of the war on drugs, which seems to have resulted only in greater numbers of men in prison, rather than an end to either poverty or the drug trade. Still, Goffman recognizes the difficult position of law enforcement officials who are “essentially the only governmental body charged with addressing the significant social problems of able-bodied young men in the jobless ghetto, and with only the powers of intimidation and arrest to do so.”
In the final analysis, it fills gaps that are invisible in policy analyses and programs addressed to “rescue” young black men, and it provides a counterpoint to well-meant programs and evidence-based interventions that are often not validated in urban communities, perhaps even working at cross purposes to their stated goals. Towards the end of the book, Goffman explains that despite the police brutality she has witnessed, she doesn’t blame individual police officers but instead the policy structures that play out in communities like 6th Street. This book is unusual, moving, and effective and targeted at criminal justice policy changes that are sorely needed.