A Review of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. (University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Book Review

Goffman, Alice. (2014) On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. University of Chicago Press.


What determines the future of a young person? What separates future CEOs from future inmates? Some might say hardwork and upbringing but Alice Goffman begs to differ. In her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, Alice sets out to prove that there many people who are condemned to a life of poverty and imprisonment by a complex confluence of race, class and geography.

Published in 2014, On the Run is a report of 6 year painstaking participatory ethnography of the lives several members of the Black community in West Philadelphia. Particularly, Goffman focuses on the young men’s interaction with America’s criminal justice system (read the law, the police, the courts and the prisons). The book is a product of the six years Goffman spent living on 6th Street (the Pseudonym of the area) where closely interacted with the subjects (Mike, Chuck and their friends).

The 6th Street community consists of poor Black folk most of whom receive some type of government assistance (p. 4). While this community is part of the larger Philadelphia, its experiences are uniquely different from the experiences of residents in other parts of the city. Apart from the poverty, insecurity and isolation that the 6th Street community has learnt to live with, their interactions with and their view of the government and its many agents makes the community a different city from the rest of Philadelphia. If in the other parts of Philadelphia the Police force represent security, on 6th Street their uniforms, cars and sirens remind residents that they can be robbed of their freedom at the snap of the finger. Most residents settle their disputes out of courts because on 6th Street, the Courts are synonymous with imprisonment, arrest warrants and court fees. The heavy police presence in courts also makes them inaccessible to people living in fear of arrests.

Living on 6th Street even changes one’s perception of amenities like hospitals. While elsewhere may take the freedom to go to hospitals for granted, on 6th Street hospitals are a police hunting ground for offenders and people with warrants. Alex could not go to hospital after an attacker broke his jaw. Sadly, the suspicion is not limited to government agencies. The mistrust persists even among family members as they are potential informants and witnesses.

Women in the little city within a city find themselves caught up in the crossfire between their sons or husbands on the one hand and the law enforcement agencies on the other. They are forced to make an impossible choice between covering up for their husbands/sons or informing on them. They risk imprisonment and harassment if they do not snitch on their family members. On the other hand, snitches are humiliated and alienated by the community. Interestingly, some “morally upright” women choose to support their husbands because they feel that the law is unfair to the residents of 6th Street and the larger African American community. Miss Regina is an example of an honest, hardworking woman who defends her son against “the law” because she feels that it is unfair (p.59).

Goffman explores the various ways which the criminal justice system criminalizes young men of 6th Street. The hyper-policing of the streets coupled with stiff punishment creates a vicious cycle of crime. Arrests and imprisonment begin early in the lives of boys on 6th Street. Chuck is first arrested when he is 18 after a school yard fight. Tim is placed on a 3-year probation for riding on a stolen vehicle when he is only 11. Goffman observes that youths in areas viewed to be high crime areas are often subjected to stiffer punishment for trivial mistakes that are likely to be ignored in “safer” neighborhoods.

The stigmatization of these youths together with the high court fees, strict curfew and parole make it hard for young people in this community to avoid breaking the law. Whether they have warrants out for their arrests or not, whether they have any contraband on them or not Chuck advises his fellows to avoid interaction with “the law” at all costs. (p. 9.) This fear is not without justification because on various occasions, Goffman’s subjects are arrested after being stopped and frisked even though they were not the intended targets of the manhunt.  The police are subtly accused of making arrests to meet targets set by their seniors. The result is what the author describes as a fugitive life; people who are always on the run from the government and its agents, afraid to lose their freedom.

After being arrested or imprisoned, young men find it difficult to go back to school, to get back their jobs or to find new ones. Schools refuse to take such boys back on several pretexts including age. Left without education or a job, young men resort to criminal activities like drug dealing to make money at the risk of going back to prison. There is no escape once young Black men have been caught in the quicksand of criminalization.

The process of criminalizing young people begins with the legislation of laws that outlaw harmless behavior that is common among a community. Agents then enforce these laws while ignoring historical and contextual realities of the society. Consequently, poor young African American are channeled to prison while their counterparts are sent to colleges.

Boys on 6th Street lack better schools, mentors and financial support. They are exposed to criminal activities at an early age. These, according to Goffman, are some of the conditions which the criminal justice system and the government ought to address instead of meting tough punishment on the youth.














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