Reading Goffman’s ‘On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City’

ALICE Goffman begins her book by historically contextualizing her research subject: how Black Americans have been dealt with by the American system for many years and how even after getting their full citizenship rights in the 1960s their freedoms still remained vulnerable to the arbitrariness of the authorities in the name of war on drugs. Goffman informs us that since mid-1970s, the US federal and state governments brought in new laws which increased penalties for possession and sale of drugs and also beefed up police presence around the poor Black neighborhoods. By the 1980s crime rate had spiked which invited newer and tougher measures from the authorities. Though 1990s saw a decline in incidents of crime and violence, yet the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 1994 added new offences to the list, increased the sentence periods, and also bolstered the crime control and law enforcement agencies through extra funding; now there was increase in the number of new law enforcement agencies and units. The poor Black American community became – and still is – a particular victim of the tough-on-crime and war on drugs policies, because millions of young Black men have been sent to jails and prisons since 1980s and “returned…to society with felony charges” (p. 3). By one estimate, 60 percent of Black men without high school certificate serve prison term by their 30s.

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (The University of Chicago Press: 2014)
Author: Alice Goffman
Review by: Muhammad Tahir

Goffman’s research site is a poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia; an area which was pre-dominantly Jewish in the 1950s and 1960s, but opened up to Black residents in early 1970s, and afterwards became a pre-dominantly Black (92 percent), as non-Black citizens moved out of the area gradually. Goffman lived for 6 years in the 6th street neighborhood first as an undergrad sociology student of University of Pennsylvania and then as PhD candidate of Princeton to conduct her research. During this period, she observed the life and culture of the 6th street intimately by living with the residents through their daily ‘normal’ chores and activities, by immersing herself in their milieu like a “consummate ethnographer”, adopting their attitudes, behaviors, and peculiar language; this psychological shift would later make her behave awkwardly when she eventually returned to her original white middle-class background. As Goffman describes it, “I feared the hordes of white people…in cafeterias and libraries and bus and train stations, I’d search for the few Black people present and sit near them, feeling my heart slow down and my shoulders relax after I did” (p. 247).

The 6th street thrives in illegal trade; possessing and consuming drugs is not uncommon in the area. Violence and crime occurs often. It is the legal status of a Black person that becomes his or her central social fact. If police arrive – who arrive most frequently – would a person get away or be taken to jail or prison? This is the perennial question in the minds of the residents. A person can be sent to jail or prison for violation of probation or parole rules, for non-payment of court fines or for not turning up for court date, for giving shelter to a runaway fugitive—and sometimes for just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Young Black Americans in the 6th street are always suspect, are always guilty till proven innocent. The continual brush with the criminal justice system means that people live with certain circumstantial identities that are couched in euphemisms – clean, dirty, rider, snitch, rat, hot. At the crucial juncture of encounter with law and in its aftermath a Black person assumes any of these identities, and it is around these very identities that people maneuver their lives since they come of age in the 6th street.

Black men with compromised legal status avoid funerals (of dear ones) and hospitals (to get treated for bleeding wounds or visit their laboring partner) because police lurk around to nab them. Police even arrive at their workplace and bundle them away. The police, in other words, are after them all the time. For law enforcement personnel, arresting more and more people in the troubled neighborhoods is incentivized: their higher ups reward and promote them on the basis of number of arrests they make. It forces Black men to be on the run continuously and take safer shelter at different locations and purchase goods and services from the shadow economy that emerges in the wake of mass incarcerations.

This shadow or underground market caters to the needs and demands of people with compromised legal status or legal constraints. In this market goods and services are sold without questions asked. It is a thriving business for residents of poor communities or for those public service officials – including prison guards – who exploit opportunities for making extra money.

What complicates their already tough and precariously situated life is the moral and emotional cost the fugitive status exacts on Black men and women. A mother or partner is expected to be loyal and courageous, and in the face of police pressure she is expected not to succumb; she is supposed to be good rider, in their parlance. If she protects her partner or son, “she makes a claim for herself as a loyal girlfriend or a good mother, an honorable and moral human being” (p. 86).

However, it is easier said than done, because the police employ different techniques – from physical threat to emotional manipulation – to pressurize her to give in. Once women succumb and turn their loved ones in, they “suffer public humiliation and private shame, and face the difficult task of salvaging their moral worth in the wake of their betrayals” (p. 75). They come to be seen as snitches. Therefore, Black women in poor 6th street neighborhood live in emotional contradictions.

Prison, though a hateful place for all, sometimes becomes an appropriate retreat in case of gang wars in the neighborhood. Feeling threatened from impending lethal danger from a rival group from the 4th Street, a 6th street male member feels it better sometimes to turn himself in and bade time inside prison till tempers cool down and things return ‘normal’.

While Goffman’s book is praiseworthy for its rich ethnography, it also contains certain controversial details, particularly involving her decision to volunteer to drive with Mike – one of her research informants – to the 4th street for vengeance. Mike’s friend Chuck had been killed by a member of the 4th street gang. In her candid admission, Goffman acknowledges, “I got into the car because, like Mike and Reggie, I wanted Chuck’s killer to die” (p. 260). She further explains that “Looking back, I’m glad that I learned what it feels like to want a man to die – not simply to understand the desire for vengeance in others, but to feel it in my bones, at an emotional level eclipsing my own reason or sense of right and wrong” (p. 261). Here, she is treading an ethically grey area in so far as ethnographic research is concerned, but we can only judge her thoughts in retrospect.

With incredibly richer details, accessible prose, and impeccable presentation, On the Run is a brilliant and engaging work of ethnographic research. Goffman has provided us a rare and humanistic glimpse into the world of poor Black Americans who continue to suffer at the margins of the society with little attention from mainstream American media. Goffman takes us into the heart of a culture that weaves around the lives of poor to lower-income Black Americans, the vast underbelly of ‘American Dream’. Though there are certain tricky legal and ethical issues involved in the way the researcher has conducted herself at a certain stage of fieldwork, that should not mar the overall message this important and incredibly powerful book intends to send across: that American criminal justice system has been partial and discriminatory against poor Black Americans, and: that instead of being useful, the beefed up and extensive law enforcement networks and their modes of operation has exacerbated the problem rather than solving it.

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Muhammad Tahir

The author is an independent researcher

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