“[On the Run]…should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration.”
Forty years in, the War on Drugs has done little to curb drug use or sales. It has, however, created a little-known surveillance state in America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. In her provocative book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, sociologist Alice Goffman examines the largely hidden world of police beatings, court fees, sentencing hearings, and low-level warrants that pervade daily life for young people in one poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia.
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Goffman got a job in the campus cafeteria, where she worked with a group of elderly Black women who managed the lunch and dinner service. By sophomore year, she had moved into the neighborhood she calls 6th Street and befriended the grandchildren of these cafeteria workers: young men caught up in court cases, probation and parole supervision, and low-level warrants. She spent the rest of college and four years of graduate school around 6th Street, documenting the way that the police and prisons have come to organize everyday life, not only for young men dipping and dodging the authorities, but also for their partners, family members, and neighbors.
Goffman introduces us to an unforgettable group of young men—Mike, Chuck, and their circle—who are surviving on low-wage jobs and, when they can’t find work, the very bottom of the drug trade. As low-level warrants, arrest quotas, and high-tech surveillance techniques turn mothers’ homes into last known addresses and family members into potential informants, Mike and Chuck live with the constant concern that they will be stopped, charged, and taken into custody. On The Run shows us that presumed criminality is the hallmark of American policing in poor communities of color. As the police use family and friends to track down suspects, demand information and threaten consequences, relationships become liabilities and the institutions that should comprise a respectable life become paths to confinement.
Harvard sociology professor Bruce Western says Goffman’s work raises basic questions about policing and penal systems conceived to promote public safety and improve quality of life in poor communities. “What her research shows is that these institutions may be self-defeating and may carry very significant social costs,” he says. “And so the whole effort to improve public safety through criminal-justice supervision and through incarceration may have significantly backfired, and may in many ways have contributed to the ongoing poverty and shortage of opportunities that we see there.” Alex Kotlowitz praises On the Run as “a remarkable feat of reporting.” Dr. Cornel West names it “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America,” and Malcolm Gladwell calls it “extraordinary.”
Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics, says of On The Run, “As a work of ethnography it is outstanding. As a piece of social science it is refreshingly and gloriously readable—how often can one say that of sociology these days? And as an insight into the reach and effect of the contemporary penal state on the day-to-day lives of Black urban America it is unparalleled.”
In her presentations, Goffman takes people into the lived experience of young men and women on 6th Street, who struggle to preserve their dignity in the face of late-night raids, trips to jail, and crushing parole requirements. She makes a compelling argument that mass incarceration and its more hidden systems of policing and supervision have created a fugitive life for poor people of color in the United States. “This is a community worried that at any moment, its members will be taken away,” Goffman says. “Can we turn this around?”