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On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

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Forty years in, the War on Drugs has done almost nothing to prevent drugs from being sold or used, but it has nonetheless created a little-known surveillance state in America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Arrest quotas and high-tech surveillance techniques criminalize entire blocks, and transform the very associations that should stabilize young lives―family, relationships, jobs―into liabilities, as the police use such relationships to track down suspects, demand information, and threaten consequences.

Alice Goffman spent six years living in one such neighborhood in Philadelphia, and her close observations and often harrowing stories reveal the pernicious effects of this pervasive policing. Goffman introduces us to an unforgettable cast of young African American men who are caught up in this web of warrants and surveillance―some of them small-time drug dealers, others just ordinary guys dealing with limited choices. All find the web of presumed criminality, built as it is on the very associations and friendships that make up a life, nearly impossible to escape. We watch as the pleasures of summer-evening stoop-sitting are shattered by the arrival of a carful of cops looking to serve a warrant; we watch―and can’t help but be shocked―as teenagers teach their younger siblings and cousins how to run from the police (and, crucially, to keep away from friends and family so they can stay hidden); and we see, over and over, the relentless toll that the presumption of criminality takes on families―and futures.

While not denying the problems of the drug trade, and the violence that often accompanies it, through her gripping accounts of daily life in the forgotten neighborhoods of America's cities, Goffman makes it impossible for us to ignore the very real human costs of our failed response―the blighting of entire neighborhoods, and the needless sacrifice of whole generations.

277 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2014

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Alice Goffman

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 390 reviews
Profile Image for Kaylee.
5 reviews10 followers
April 16, 2015
I'll start this off with a compliment: Alice Goffman is a phenomenal writer. She tells stories and weaves a narrative that paints a vivid image of urban poverty, crime, and the failings of the criminal justice system in a striking and captivating way, and deserves credit for that. This book reads quickly and is fairly enjoyable given the subject matter.

The problem is in her methodology and the choices she made in writing this book. Goffman is a sociologist, and in spite of reading like it was written for a mass-market audience, this is putatively a social science research text. Goffman almost completely lacks any kind of reflexive thinking about her own status, identity, and privilege relative to her research subjects. She frequently includes gratuitous information about her informants without a clear connection to her arguments about mass incarceration and punitive police policies. These details serve only to scandalize the reader at best, and at worst they have the potential to reinforce negative racial stereotypes some readers may bring into reading this text.

As a social science book, "On the Run" lacks a clear theoretical framework. Anyone familiar with research ethics who reads her almost 100-page methodological note at the end will recognize serious and glaring concerns that are largely unaddressed in the main text of the book. Although the writing is phenomenal, the book as a whole is deeply problematic and should be read critically.
Profile Image for Melissa.
43 reviews5 followers
May 24, 2014
This is it. This book perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with our society. It shows what is wrong with the war in drugs, the stop and frisk laws, and the error of having intimidate and arrest be our go-to response to societal and economic problems. Read this.
Profile Image for Martin Zook.
48 reviews21 followers
May 4, 2014
On the Run is an incredibly authentic look at an emblematic neighborhood in Philly where more than half the men at some point have a warrant out for their arrest, causing them to be on the run. On the run from the police. On the run from parole officers. On the run from the courts. On the run from girlfriends. On the run from those who would use their vulnerability to victimize them.

This is the world behind the statistical sketch Alice Goffman paints in her preface. Briefly, the US locks up five to nine times more people than western Europe. More than in Russia, or China, excluding Stalin's reign. And it's the Black communities suffering the brunt.

Blacks, who make up 13% of the population, account for 37% of the prison population. 10% of black men are behind bars compared with 1% for whites. 60% of Blacks who do not finish high school will go to prison.

All of this is well known, and has been known for more than three decades. What Goffman does is bring the reader face to face with people caught in this cycle. She follows a group of young men in whose neighborhood she lived and shared their lives for six years while a student.

She introduces us to Chuck. His predicament with the law begins after a scuffle on the playground in high school. It sets in motion the cycle described in the statistics above. He does time for it. Upon release, he's denied re-admittance to high school because he's turned 19. A chippy arrest follows for failing to appear in court. Chuck is on the run.

There is an art to running. Chapter one begins with Chuck teaching his 12-year-old brother how to run: not to a relative's house - the cops armed with enhanced technology know places the refugee frequents. It's to a church lady's house ultimately. In addition to Chuck, Goffman introduces us to four other friends with legal entanglements. It's these entanglements and the subsequent running from them that form the warp and weave of their world, and the world of their families.

Running from the police is an art that according to Goffman resulted in 58% of the men succeeding in eluding the police despite the fact that the enforcement officers devote up to five squad cars in one instance to pick up one suspect on a minor charge.More than 70% of the time, the police had no idea who it was they were chasing in instances where the target escaped.

Running requires the ability to spot police well in advance.

For those who have done time and report to a parole officer, running from the parole officer also becomes an issue. In a quite humorous anecdote, Goffman recounts the instance of Jevon, a born natural actor, who develops a business on the side by taking curfew calls from parole officers. In addition to parroting his client's voice, he is briefed on identifying information the parole officer requests to ensure he has the right subject. It may seem like a lot of trouble to go to, but the penalty for missing curfew in the chippy world of law enforcement in the Black community is two years.

The author herself is caught up and subjected to what might be considered enhanced interrogation. It's what the women of men on the lam suffer, midnight raids with their living quarters turned upside down and subjection to intimidation to reveal the whereabouts of their sons.

Of course, those caught up in these legal entanglements cannot go to the law for protection or to register grievances. Others know this and take advantage. In once instance, a boy's car is torched because he's late in making a payment to a drug dealer. In another, one of the boys is mistaken for someone else and beaten severely suffering injuries that have been with him into his adult life. He refused medical treatment at the hospital because a parole violation would be filed against him for curfew violation.

In one instance, however, the boys in the hood sought the protection of incarceration by turning themselves in to the law to avoid a shooting war that broke out. One even asked his parole officer for a urine test he knew he would fail.

This is well worth the read to better understand the numbers that are all too familiar.
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,713 reviews1,243 followers
February 16, 2023

This is one of those books that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s very similar to Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (although oddly, nothing I read about this book in the mainstream press or blogs mentioned the earlier book). The author, a white woman, spent six years, beginning when she was an undergraduate and continuing through graduate school, living in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, getting to know a circle of residents, many of whom were involved in criminal activity. She studied how the police/surveillance state kept these men trapped in an endless cycle, even when they were released from jail or paroled from prison, their parole terms were so onerous they were constantly being re-arrested. So they would do almost anything to avoid arrest – they were constantly fugitives.

It's an astonishing story. This book is adapted from her doctoral thesis. She shares royalty checks from the book evenly with the book's central characters.

pp. 40-41: For the eleven years that I have known Reggie, he has been sitting in jail or prison, dealing with a pending court case, a warrant, or a probation or parole sentence…..[Reggie has never had a state-issued ID, and now that he has no warrants or pending court cases, he wants to get one so that when he’s stopped by the police they can run his name and see he has no warrants. First he needs a birth certificate.] After six weeks of hard effort and considerable expense, Reggie had a birth certificate, two pieces of mail that would count for his proof of address, and a social security card. …we drove to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. [Once there, Reggie gets fidgety and won’t exit the car, spooked by the thought that]…applying for this ID would lead employers to run his name and bring up some outstanding ticket or warrant…..We sat in the DMV parking lot for over ten minutes while Reggie attempted to get up the courage to walk through the door. In the end, he couldn’t go through with it…

p. 72: On a hot afternoon in July, Aisha and I stood on a crowded corner of a major commercial street and watched four officers chase down her older sister’s boyfriend and strangle him. He was unarmed and did not fight back. The newspapers reported his death as heart failure.

p. 128: Chuck and Reggie’s mother, Miss Linda, was a consistent user of crack, and would periodically take the money from their pants pockets while they slept (this is called “digging in pockets”).

p. 146: Shonda first smuggled drugs into jail at the age of eight, when she helped her mom pass a crack-filled balloon to her dad, a heavy user who was on trial for aggravated assault. Her mom’s method was to insert the balloon like a tampon, then adjust and pull it out in the visiting room. Shonda’s job was to watch the guards and give her mother the green light. Sometimes she handed the balloons from her mother to her father. Her dad would swallow them, and either throw them up or pass them once he got back to the cell block.

p. 148: After the screening machines came in, [Shonda] began placing the packages [of marijuana] between the inner and outer lining of her panties, in that rectangular patch of cloth that seems made for small quantities of contraband.

p. 158: Twice I accompanied Miss Linda to meet a guard whom she paid to smuggle in marijuana to one of her sons sitting in county jail. Another time I accompanied Mike’s girlfriend to a meeting with a prison guard who accepted a blow job and thirty-five dollars in exchange for smuggling in three pills of oxycodone to Mike, which he took to ease the pain from a severe beating received in the yard.

p. 180: In their early teens, Chuck and his younger brother Reggie began selling crack in the neighborhood. Their ready access to the drug seemed to help control the chaos that their mother’s addiction had brought into their lives. By supplying their mother, they could reduce the number of food stamps she sold to get drugs, and keep her from trading or selling off their possessions for crack. They could also reduce the number of men she would have sex with in exchange for drugs.

p. 222: “You ain’t ugly,” Mike said frankly. “And you got a nice lil’ body.”
“You just…you don’t know how to act.”
Mike then explained precisely what it would take for me to become attractive to the men in his neighborhood – not just to an in-the-way (no-account) guy but to a worthwhile suitor. First off, my clothes were all wrong – they didn’t even match. My toenails were bare and uneven, and what was I doing wearing flip-flops in January anyway? Maybe I could answer this question for him: why did white people wear shorts and sandals in the dead of winter?...The way that I spoke was strange, and I could stand to get a little more husky….I had a bad habit of staring at people, which was rude, especially since I was a white girl.

p. 224: One night, [Mike] called me around ten to ask if I had a state ID. I said I did. He then said, “Take a ride with me.” We drove down to the local police station, where Mike indicated that I should sign for Chuck’s younger brother Reggie to be released. He was being held for making a terroristic thread and fighting with a boy from school (the terroristic threat purportedly had been “I’ma hurt you”). On the form, I wrote that I was his mother, though it was plain to the women working behind the counter that we weren’t related. When he emerged from the side door, a heavy and dark-skinned fifteen-year-old towering over my five-foot-two-inch frame, he grinned and greeted me with “Yo, Mommy! Thanks for coming to get me.”

p. 229: Steve drew his gun and started pointing it at the party guests, demanding that they return Mike’s money. I had never seen anybody pull a gun before and took the opportunity to promptly leave the party. As I made my way down the corridor to the elevator, Steve bounded up behind me, apologizing profusely.

“My bad, Alice. I ain’t mean no disrespect. You understand, like, I can’t just let niggas take advantage of my man. They think it’s sweet [an easy target], ‘cause he drunk, but it’s not sweet! I’m on they ass, A.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re a good friend, Steve. I was getting tired anyway.”

p. 230: My role of sidekick and adopted sister to Mike didn’t mean that sex and romance never came up. Occasionally when men were incarcerated, they wrote me letters explaining that their confinement had made them realize that they were in fact romantically interested in me. In the language of the community, I chalked this up as jail talk: in al but one case, this interest, or at least its overt expression, ended when the man came home and had access to a wider range of women.

p. 234: Reggie complained to me once about another guy who wouldn’t share his profits after a gambling win, saying that the guy was “acting like a Jew.”
“Do you know any Jews?” I asked.
“No. It’s a fucking expression.”
“You know I’m Jewish, right?”
“You ain’t a Jew. You white.”

p. 240: [Becoming roommates with Mike and Chuck] meant that Chuck, Mike, and other young men could read over my shoulder as I was typing these field notes, correcting something I’d written or commenting on what I was writing about. A few times, Mike and Chuck read some of the notes as they watched TV and remarked, “Yo. She gets every fucking thing!!” Very occasionally someone would say, “Don’t write this down” or “I’m going to say some shit right now, and I don’t want it to go in the book.” In these cases, I took careful heed and did as people requested.

p. 249: [Alice enters graduate school at Princeton] The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry.


[During her time in the ghetto] I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women.

p. 260: When the fumigator guy arrived with his tank of insecticide, he demanded to know outright what a white woman like me was doing in the house, prompting Miss Linda to yell what had become her usual answer: “That’s my fucking white girl. Is it a problem?”

p. 261: Another child – the daughter of a cousin whom I’d never met before – spotted me and immediately leaped onto my lap, then clung to my leg for the rest of the evening. Her mother tried to pull her off, which made her start to cry, prompting her mother to sheepishly acknowledge: she likes white people.
Profile Image for Michael.
155 reviews2 followers
July 17, 2014
Working as an appellate defender (i.e. an attorney who represents indigent criminal defendants on appeals) gives one an interesting perspective on life in the inner city. I’ve read hundreds of trial transcripts and looked at lots of photos and videos, getting a partial but distanced look at a clientele whose lives are vastly different than mine.

Sociologist Alice Goffman’s new book is a field study that sheds light and fills in gaps in my knowledge about the lives of the young black men that are the primary clients of public defenders in urban areas. Goffman spent over six years with a group of young men (and mothers and sisters, etc.) whose lives are spent in constant fear of arrest and harassment by the police.

This explains the word ‘fugitive’ in the book's title. Goffman notes that ghettos are no longer ignored by police. Instead, due to the tough-on-crime approach now prevalent, the police are a constant presence in the lives of young men who do not get adequate educational and vocational opportunities.

Considering this is an academic work, Goffman is a surprisingly good writer. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of what she encountered. What she establishes is that the government, through laws and policies, has created poor communities where the police are not trusted and a residual effect is that it’s hard for anyone to trust anyone. In an environment where fear is constant and so many young men have no chance to better their lot, respect becomes a key factor in how people interact with each other. This creates a world where citizens take matters into their own hands, because the police have no legitimacy.

In this world, people don’t bother to learn each others surnames (thus, you don’t have information to turn over to the police), if you get shot, you try to avoid going to the hospital, because the police might execute a warrant (and they you can get a warrant for the most minor things), and you are constantly finding a new place to crash, hoping to avoid a raid on where you would normally live.

Because it’s an academic work, there are some repetitious parts, and long summaries that aren’t really necessary. But what Goffman brings to light is so important, as this book provides so much insight into what is wrong with our justice system and how we treat poor African-Americans. This book confirmed some things that I thought I knew or suspected and further illuminated things that I would find strange when reading transcripts. Behavior that seems odd to someone raised in a middle class suburb makes more sense now.

Goffman adds a whole section where she explains how the project came about and provides more background on how she conducted this study that adds a lot to the book. This is essential reading.

Profile Image for Leslie.
171 reviews1 follower
May 13, 2014
This is a great book, I hope a lot of people read it and get educated on what's happening in segregated, low-income black neighborhoods, and in turn I hope that enacts policy change. I'd heard about the 'new jim crow' before, but didn't know much about it. I assumed it was activist language threaded with a bit of truth (for instance, I knew POC were much more likely to be charged with drug possession than whites), but Goffman's years-long research and observation draws into focus how accurate that term is, our justice system actively works against people who have very little to begin with.

This books is written in a research style. So it's somewhat jarring when highly emotional things happen and they're dealt with dryly with little pause for reflection. This is somewhat compensated for by the appendix where Goffman describes her personal experience.

That said, I read it in two days, couldn't put it down.
Profile Image for Catherine.
864 reviews
July 1, 2014
I dinged this one star because there is a bit too much repetition of the lessons learned at the end of each chapter -- I suspect that is because about 2/3 of this book is a dissertation. But the author is an excellent reporter of what it is like for people of color in the inner city in Philadelphia, and in addition the final third of the book, about what it was like for her personally to become so immersed in this experience, is very powerful. Anyone who cares about "The New Jim Crow" and the impact it is having in the U.S. should read this book, but in addition it is worth reading to the end because the author was so transformed by her "research," and conveys so clearly how that felt.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,120 reviews1,199 followers
February 6, 2017
A very engaging ethnography - as a college student, the author moved to the inner city and spent her time hanging out with a group of young black men often on the run from the law. The book is a good look into how heavy policing affects all aspects of individual and community life. And the author is a good storyteller so it makes for engaging reading. Since she writes about one social network it's hard to tell how representative this is, and I think the criticism that the author herself got in too deep is probably valid. She also contradicts herself a few times. Still, it is worth reading.
Profile Image for Frank.
300 reviews
July 20, 2014
I devoured this 260-page book in two days. Coincidentally, my library request for it came through just as I was finishing Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and I thought the two would make for an interesting comparison. In a way they are quite similar works: immersive works by women about a culture not their own. But while Katherine Boo hides the stitching in her work—erasing her own presence and narrating events as if her book were a novel, Goffman's book is first and foremost an academic work of sociology, and she is quite forthright about her own presence as a participant-observer, even concluding the book with a 50-page "Methodological Note" that explains how she got involved in the project and how the experience has affected her. This appendix to the book ends up being an absolutely stunning, gripping conclusion, a kind of meta-document that makes the whole book feel all the more real. Goffman's aim in the book is to provide "an on-the-ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying systems of policing and surveillance." Having started immersing herself in a ghettoized Black Philadelphia neighborhood in college, when she gets to graduate school at Princeton she realizes that she "was documenting the massive expansion of criminal justice intervention into the lives of poor Black families in the United States." Alex Kotlowitz, in his NY Times review, expresses disappointment that the people with whom she spends her time don't emerge as more fully fleshed-out characters, as, perhaps, one might say the people do in Boo's book. Goffman's book is structured more as an argument, backed up with anecdotes drawn from her astoundingly in-depth field work and observations. Though the people's identities and even the name of their neighborhood have been changed (unlike in Boo's book), I think that they actually do come across pretty vividly. Indeed, some of the examples in the book have the resonant drama I associate with the short stories of Edward P. Jones. (I'm thinking of the story of Mr. George, Chuck's grandfather; and of Miss Deena, the Penn cafeteria manager who was Goffman's first contact in her research.) To sum up, I found this to be an immensely fascinating book, reminiscent of Beryl Satter's Family Properties in its blending of the academic and the personal, but ultimately unique and, I expect, unforgettable.
Profile Image for joanna.
38 reviews
September 8, 2014
I did not finish On the Run--after about 150 pages, I was too fed up with Goffman's mixed-up position within the community as researcher/friend/confidant/roommate to find her credible. As a white woman in this neighborhood, she may well have made friends and seen the injustices that are rampant, but using that position to write academic scholarship is disingenuous. My discomfort is much better put in this review by Christina Sharpe: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/black...
Profile Image for Elari.
258 reviews41 followers
October 30, 2021
Also read this for my Methods class a month ago. As it turns out, we were assigned to read this book because it was highly praised before being harshly criticized. I have no time or interest to look into this any further, but according to my professor, this book effectively ended Goffman's career. It's strange not to see this mentioned anywhere on this page (but again, I have no time or interest to look more carefully). PS: he (my prof) and I think the book is still worth reading. The lack of evidence and the alleged false stories were a huge bummer though. Short class assignment is below; references are at the bottom (just copying from syllabus, don't care about format).

“Having no prior knowledge or experience with segregated neighborhoods or US police forces, I read Goffman’s book quite uncritically and simply marveled at the content. Reading the reviews (I’ll admit – a disenchanting experience) made me realize there is much to criticize. Criticism can be divided into two broad categories:

(1) The stories in On the Run aren’t backed by any evidence: many of the more improbable ones are unsubstantiated, unprovable, and are actually rejected as false or impossible by various experts, according to Lubet. The question of power poses itself here: whose point of view should we choose to believe? How can we tell what is true and what isn’t, when there is a conflict of interest among the parties telling contradictory stories? Burawoy takes this as an excuse to justify disregarding evidence, but I found this extremely unconvincing. How can anyone defend the idea that you can not prove your facts and still call what you do credible research? Why should anyone take your “theory”, claims, and conclusions for granted? I agree with Lubet on the necessity of providing evidence, especially for claims that are wild, groundbreaking, hard to believe, etc. If your sources aren’t credible, maybe you should find different sources. If you ask tobacco companies if cigarettes give you cancer and they say no (which happened for decades, right?), that’s on you. It doesn’t mean evidence-based approaches are garbage.

(2) Goffman got too implicated in her research, to the point of contributing to and enabling a conspiracy to murder (Burawoy strikes again by saying the research justifies the crime; to this I say, “Nazi medicine”). Kotlowitz’s review in particular got me wondering about the ethical implications of the ethnographic research process (when Goffman fails to, say, prevent or report a crime). The dilemma that appears here is: to what extent should the researcher stay removed from their research settings (i.e. avoid influencing the course of events to guarantee more accurate reporting)? A way to reverse this question would be: to what extent should a researcher intervene in settings where something immoral such as a crime seems imminent? The interference would probably ‘contaminate’ the ethnographic results or even cut the research short, but the ethical dimension should probably hold primacy in such cases.”

Lubet, Steven. 2015. “Ethics on the Run.” The New Rambler.
Goffman, Alice. A Reply to Professor Lubet’s Critique.
Kotlowitz, Alex. 2014. “Deep Cover. Alice Goffman’s On the Run.” The New York Times, June 28.
Rios, Victor. 2015. Review of On the Run, AJS
Cohen, Philip N. 2017. Review of On the Run. Social Forces
Burawoy, Michael. 2019. Empiricism and Its Fallacies. Context
Profile Image for Mike E..
266 reviews9 followers
July 23, 2014
It is hard for me to begin a book and not finish it . . usually.

Goffman's immersion into life in the crime-ridden "Sixth Street" of urban-poor Philly is beautiful--especially the mutuality and genuineness of her remarkably uncommon friendships. Goffman makes bold (& I assume accurate), infrequently told claims about incarceration rates in the USA. She states that arrest rates were basically the same in the USA until about 1970: approximately 1 in 1000. Today the rate is about 1 in 107. She states that our rate of incarceration is unparalleled among contemporary developed nations. To find similar rates, one must look across the timeline to dictatorial oppressors like Stalin. This is troubling and calls for analysis and change. But what needs to change?

In the early chapters of her book she repeatedly details the expansion of warrant departments in law enforcement. Her thesis seems to be that ever-expanding, intrusive police tactics prevent many who are born into poverty from even having a chance in life--they're destined for prison or a life on the run. However, her own meticulous first-hand reporting of these men's day-to-day lives details their frequent criminal actions. Causality is always hard to prove. Why are so many in the USA being locked up? I don't have any experience in this arena, but it seems to me that those who deal drugs, steal, lie to the police about their own names, etc., need a reformation of the heart, not of the police precinct.

My point is not that her thesis is false, as it misses the mark.

I have not finished this book . .
Profile Image for Aimen.
174 reviews14 followers
October 7, 2016
This sub-urban raised white woman does not have a good factual based scholarly approach to her book/dissertation. She is exposed to ONE neighbourhood, and now she believes the police are arresting too much? Imprisoning innocents too often? She was in ONE area. ONE!!! That's nothing. You can't base off your whole dissertation off one long experience in an area. This is what UPenn students do with their time- jack off to confirmation biases and look for reasons to cause sociological question. Alice Goffman needs to experiment in North Philly, and tell me that they need less police patroling the city. Her writing portrays Philadelphia like it's ignoring its poverty stricken areas and legal conflict with its citizens. SHE LACKS sophistication in her whole conclusion. Only uses ethos to symphatise with her subjects / characters in her book. Living in Philadelphia, you are given resources, emphasised at a young age to pursue collegiate education and take advantage of the adversely seeming environment you're in to achieve better.
Her whole book is bullshit, she hasn't lived here long enough to sustain such beliefs- no matter her degree or position in sociology...
Profile Image for Emily.
178 reviews11 followers
May 20, 2014
This is an incredible work of sociological scholarship, but more importantly, it's an amazing read. It's also an extremely important book, and I hope it is widely read and discussed. Dr. Goffman puts you right in the lives of these men and women, because she herself was there. Imagine what it would be like if you couldn't seek medical treatment because cops hang out at the ER looking for men with outstanding warrants. Or if you had to choose between betraying the man you loved or losing custody of your kids. It's happening every day, and Dr. Goffman lays bare the impact that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration is having on poor communities. A must read.
Profile Image for Tony.
1,393 reviews71 followers
December 26, 2020
This riveting report from six years living amidst marginalized people in Philadelphia is a version of the author's fieldwork for her PhD thesis, revised for a general audience. Goffman immersed herself in the lives of ordinary young black men and their families, building a layered understanding of the effects of the war on crime on a single community. Through the experiences of her subjects, the prisoner's dilemma of decisions faced by the guilty and innocent alike comes vividly to life. You get a very clear picture on how an entire neighborhood creates its own strategies for survival amidst the consequences of unintended incentives created by the modern criminal justice system.

The two main subjects are Mike and Chuck, who scrape money together through low-level drug dealing (a notoriously poor-paying profession) and various unskilled wage jobs. Under almost constant formal and informaladministrative supervision, they can't really live in the reader's world -- rather they live in a kind of semi-permanent fugitive state. This "fugitive" world is layered on top of the everyday one, and encompasses everyone who lives there -- not just those caught up in running the streets. Its margins are so thin that a missed ride here, an unheard voicemail there, or a $100 court fee bill can be all it takes to move from freedom to prison.

From what I gather, some readers dismiss the book out of hand because the author was a young white woman of privilege (her parents are distinguished academics) exercising her gaze on those with less power than her to create this book. However, there's a very long "Methodological Note" after the main text that walks the reader through all the ethical and other decisions she made in order to do her research, and I found it entirely persuasive. Indeed, it really makes more sense for it to be at the start of the book, because in reading some of the reactions, it's clear a lot of people missed it.

The bottom line is that if you're the kind of person who has sung the praises of "The Wire" for its nuanced take on big city problems, or has stuck a BLM sign on your lawn in solidarity, or just live or work in a big city, you need to read this.
Profile Image for Stefan Schmager.
22 reviews1 follower
November 20, 2019
A deeply concerning and eye-opening book, on multiple levels. It gives a great insight on how male PoC are deprived and stifled especially during their young age. And it makes you aware of the privileges you enjoy just by being white.

The author has received a lot of criticism on her field work about being too careless of keeping academic professionalism. However I think the stories she tells are worth telling & reading despite any elitist resentments.
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,487 reviews221 followers
August 26, 2021
I'm years late to the party, but On the Run is a tour de force. Based on ethnographic research done in the early 2000s, Goffman describes the lives of a handful of young men and their families under the full repressive apparatus of the war on drugs. The obvious parallel is with Simon and Burns' The Corner , but while Simon and Burns are journalists and look for the story, Goffman is an academic and she's looking for the theory. There's no hope that any of her protagonists will escape.

What this book is about is about being on the run. The protagonists, Mike, Alex, Chuck, and Reggie, are in their late teens or early 20s. They've all been in and out of jail. Most have outstanding warrants. They've never had basic parts of the straight world like a driver's license or a bank account. If they have money, it's because they're selling drugs. And any stability in their lives is purely provisional before they have to run from the cops in earnest, spend years in jail, or wind up dead or crippled from violence that is their stock in trade.

Fugitive life as Goffman describes it is a life of paranoia, of knowing how to spot the cops and outrun them. It's a pattern of unpatterns, since stable residences, relationships, and jobs are just places to get caught. It's knowing that friends, lovers, and relatives will turn you in to the police, and trying to figure out who can be relied on in extremity.

I'm a Foucauldian by training and orientation, so for me the purpose of power is to normalize deviance; to correct it and render it safe. Instead, what Goffman reveals is the opposite of a panopticon. State power for these young men operates in a kind of wrath of god mode, where any interaction is liable to be negative, given that they're by default wanted men for anything from unpaid court fees to possession of drugs to attempted murder. You can run for a long time, for years even, but the odds of making it to 30 free and alive are basically nil. And the path starts at a very young age. Power here, the police and courts, don't deter or correct anyone. They just let you keep going until a bad break, and then it flattens you.

A lot of the negative reviews seem to misunderstand both the scope and limits of this book. While the topic is adjacent to a study of race in America or the sociology of mass incarceration, what this actually is is an ethnography of a few young men and their relations at the bottom of the war on drugs. Goffman did most of the primary fieldwork as an undergraduate; she started tutoring a young woman on the border of the street and got sucked in to the primary. And yeah, she's the white child of academics writing about black criminal men, but this book is nowhere near as unreflective as the critics claim. She got as a close as a person could get, and if it's not the Truth, I dare you to find a better mirror. The official story from the police ain't it. The self-posing gangster biographies (apparently an enter genre of literature I was unaware of) aren't it either. On the Run is fascinating and challenging and well worth the read.
Profile Image for Lashaan Balasingam.
1,360 reviews4,619 followers
March 6, 2018
This ethnography conducted by Alice Goffman on six years is definitely eye-opening and filled with fascinating anecdotes to stun readers. Making a statement that "high imprisonment rates and the intensive policing and surveillance that have accompanied them are transforming poor Black neighborhoods into communities of suspects and fugitives", this sociologist writes a compelling read to show us how individuals come together to create a completely different social world that their are forced to live in.

From strategies to run away from cops to ways to bypass the conditions that surrounds their parole, On the Run is filled with remarkable knowledge. It's one thing to hear about them, but to be able to live in it has given Alice Goffman an opportunity of a lifetime to study people who now have bonds almost as strong as family with her. Although this book reads really well and does a great job in throwing arguments and proving them with anecdotes and analysis, I'd still keep a critical eye on what is read.

While the tough-on-crime strategy is reproached and that policy changes are wished for, this book still depicts some situations and people in ways that make it hard for readers to see a direct link between policing and the behaviors of individuals. While a lot of the points seem relevant and do instigate a need for change, there still seems like a lot of angles haven't been explored.

This book still does a great job in illustrating some of the social phenomenons that are created because of the peculiar conditions in which the people live in. The relationships between people is thoroughly investigated, and remains one of the strongpoints of this book. Definitely a great read for those who are interested.

P.S. Full review to come

Yours truly,

Lashaan | Blogger and Book Reviewer
Official blog: http://bookidote.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Amar Pai.
960 reviews101 followers
December 17, 2014
Super depressing. The "War on Drugs," the prison industry, militarization of police, parole-- add it all up and you have a system of racial control. Parole especially. Fuck a piss test. Why should anyone have to take a drug test, ever? The number of situations where this seems legitimate is vanishingly small. Pilots maybe, people operating heavy equipment, cases where you'd ideally administer an sobriety test on the spot but it's not cost effective. Other than that, fuck a piss test.

Let's end the "war on drugs," that would be a good start. Mandatory body cams on police. Get rid of the "are you a felon" box on job applications, make it more specific as the job requires. Give inmates job training and some chance of actually getting a legit job when out. Don't let cops monitor funerals and hospitals looking to catch anyone with a warrant. Nix the whole parole system. My platform if and when I'm elected.
Profile Image for Maria.
126 reviews
July 12, 2014
Outstanding ethnography. Easily one of the most important books of this decade and a crucial starting part (along w/Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow) for understanding the interplay of race, inequality, and criminal justice.
Profile Image for Simone.
1,440 reviews45 followers
September 10, 2014
This book is compelling for sure. I first heard about it on the New York Times Review of Books podcast. And I think the subject matter at hand is a very important one. The mass incarceration and policing of certain segments of the population is a problem. Coming from a privileged perspective, it's hard to say how much of this book speaks to the truth about the experiences of those living in a community such as 6th Street. Though at one point in the beginning of the book, Mike has charges leveled against him, Goffman says something like, since no one I knew had ever been arrested before, I assumed this would be of great concern, but it was just sort of run of the mill for the boys of 6th Street. It also highlights the gap between the observer and the community she is observing. Ultimately, I think this book is important, but I am uncomfortable that every review seems to fixate on the author’s position as a white woman. An article like this (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_an...) for example, highlights the problematic nature of her positions and conclusions - including calling into question some of her findings.

For me, I actually found the most fascinating part of this book to be the “Methodology” section, which I would imagine the book publishers shuffled to the back, after the epilogue and acknowledgments. In reality, I think it should have been moved up – probably to one of the first chapters, because it provides such a critical frame for what is to follow. In an interview I read with Goffman she tries to emphasize that the focus should be on the lives she chronicles and not her own life, but it doesn't seem to work like that. In the methodology section she acknowledges for example that fellow white male grad students immediately wanted to know if she was sleeping with the men whose lives she was caught up in. Perhaps in the end what matters most is simply that Goffman chose to stay and continue her fieldwork to write such a detailed book. However, if as she suggests some form of policing has been passed from generation to generation (she talks of early vagrancy laws) she offers little in the ways of which we might begin to free ourselves from such a massive police state. Reading this as the trouble continue to unfold in Ferguson, for example, demonstrates just how salient these issues are.
Profile Image for Bruce.
1,351 reviews18 followers
January 27, 2015
In her preface to the results of her six years of fieldwork in Philadelphia, Goffman writes, “This book is an on-the-ground of the US prison boom: a close-up look at young men and women living in one poor and segregated Black community transformed by unprecedented levels of imprisonment and by the more hidden systems of policing and supervision that have accompanied them. Because of the fear of capture and confinement has seeped into the basic activities of daily living—work, family, romance, friendship, and even much-needed medical care—it is an account of a community on the run.”

The bulk of the book is carefully presented sociological observations, backed up with thirty-eight pages of endnotes providing backup by other social scientists that her observations in Philadelphia have been replicated in cities across the nation that conclude the wars waged against crime and drugs have not achieved their desired results, and instead have unwittingly reinforced the continuation of the very ills that they hoped to suppress and created a repressive regime of racial oppression.

More poignant is the methodological note that Goffman appends to explain how a young white college student was able to win the confidence of the fugitive young Black men, live in their neighborhood, study and befriend them during the six years of her study, and how she gradually adopted their language and sense of the world and grieved when one of them was murdered.
Profile Image for Mary.
433 reviews47 followers
February 12, 2016
This book reads like what it apparently is: an academic thesis or dissertation. The author did extensive field work -- meaning she lived with and among her subjects in a poor Black neighborhood in Philadelphia -- for more than a decade. Her argument is that many poor Black men are living for years as fugitives from the law due to the aggressive policing in those neighborhoods. She definitely makes her case, but unfortunately the books reads like a college paper. She doggedly supports each argument, and redundantly summarizes the points she just made in each section. It's tedious.

She apparently needed to write that way to fulfill her academic requirements, but the subject would have been served better if she'd used some more engaging storytelling. Her 60-page "methodological note" at the end tells the story of how a white college student became part of a Black neighborhood to learn about the men's lives. It's far more interesting reading.

The book also fails to give some much-needed context, especially about police tactics. It seemed like a lot of the police activity she described may have been illegal, which wouldn't be surprising in such a community. But I don't know enough about current law to know if that's the case. It would be helpful to have more information. She doesn't really accuse the police of any misconduct. She notes that they are under pressure to fulfill informal quotas. But some of the stuff they do sounds very shady.

Profile Image for Yusuf.
230 reviews28 followers
August 15, 2020
Bugüne değin okuduğum en iyi etnografilerden bir tanesi oldu Goffman'ın kitabı. Wacquant'ın Ruh ve Beden'ini andıran, ama ondan daha "canlı" bir metin. Genel olarak gazeteciliği (journalistic) andıran, akademik referansları ve yorumları neredeyse ihmal eden tarzı nedeniyle tartışma konusu olmuş. Bu tespitler doğru, ama tespitlerle varılan sonuç yanlış. Elimizde etnografik yazımın en uç sınırlarına ulaşmış bir metin var ve hayır, gazeteciler böyle kitaplar yaz(a)mıyor. Bu tür bir tarzı herhangi bir kişinin, akademik ya da gazeteci yapabileceğini, dolayısıyla bu tarzın "kolay" olduğunu söylemek için bu işlerle hiç alakası olmaması gerekiyor insanın. Hayatınızda bir kere bile gündelik hayattan herhangi bir sahneyi tasvir etmeye çalışmışsanız, bu şekilde yoğun betimleme yapmanın ne kadar zor olduğunu bilirsiniz ki Goffman bunu bütün bir kitap boyunca yapıyor.

Kitabı okurken Goffman'ın "sahaya" ayağına taş bağlayarak atladığını hissediyor insan. Öyle bir immersion seviyesi. Bu işlerin yarattığı yükler konusunda düşünen bir insan olarak bunun yarattığı kişilik karmaşasını tahayyül edemedim. Büyük bir iş, her yönüyle.

Sanırım kitabı övmeye saatlerce devam edebilirim, o yüzden bir yerde bırakmak istiyorum. İyi bir etnografya okumak istiyorsanız ya da iyi bir etnografya nasıl yazılır diye merak ediyorsanız kesinlikle okuyun.
Profile Image for Jim Robles.
436 reviews40 followers
September 17, 2014
The combination of our pernicious drug laws and advanced technology have trapped a significant portion in a permanent underclass. In previous generations it was possible to move into the "legitimate world," after a questionable early life. We have blocked that path, and we need to unblock it.

The sixty-fifth book I have finished this year.

p. 37. Mike, Chuck, and their friends came to see danger and risk in the routine doings of everyday life. They learned to fear the police, and to regard the courts, the hospitals, their workplaces, and their residences, and even their own family members as potential paths to confinement.

Social media and computing power are part of this: as the story below show, this is everywhere.

Police in Spain Arm Themselves With Social Media to Fight Crime


There is an excellent related discussion in:

Crime, Bias and Statistics
Charles M. Blow SEPT. 7, 2014
Profile Image for Blair Conrad.
736 reviews27 followers
December 31, 2014
A good book, full of important information. It really opened my eyes to how problems with the law can affect not only the young urban black men who first commit an infraction, but their families and loved ones, and for their entire lives. The book showed me that while it's easy for an outsider to dismiss their problems as being of their own making, the justice system really does make it harder for affected people to go clean and better their situation once they've committed an infraction, nearly no matter how small.

The book itself started out strong, but weakened in the middle, with (I thought) relatively little new information being provided, or at least no information that rivalled the power of that in the early chapters. And I never really felt like the book was building to a unified conclusion. As a result, it was slow going for a while, to the point where I considered not reading the research methodology at the end. I'm glad I stuck it out, though, as this section was nearly the most engaging.
Profile Image for Doug.
197 reviews12 followers
December 4, 2014
I don't know how academically rigorous the book is - although the methodological notes were almost as interesting as the actual story, I think she should put it the beginning of the book to give the stories more background. I don't know how typical the experiences of the 6th Street Boys are compared with the rest of the typical inner city population - although, given the incarceration rate of black men and the sheer number of them processed in the criminal justice system, I can't imagine that it's too far off. It's a fascinating look at life in the inner city, the failure of the War on Drugs, and its disastrous effects on the community, sort of like the movie City of God set in urban Philadelphia. It made me much more sympathetic to the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson and the Eric Garner choking death in New York City, but it made resigned to the fact that in both cases, they didn't return an indictment.
Profile Image for Lissa.
1,099 reviews113 followers
February 7, 2017
Unfortunately, this is going to be a short review, since I am exhausted. This book is eye-opening, to be sure, but I found myself questioning some of it. In particular, Goffman's claim that an eleven-year-old (Tim) was sentenced to three years of probation because he was riding in a car that turned out to be stolen. Uhh, that's not a crime in Pennsylvania (unless you took a part in stealing the car, which according to Goffman, he didn't - the person driving the car wasn't even aware that the car was stolen). So we're either not getting the entire story here or Goffman made this up; either way, it made me question her truthfulness and accuracy when relating other events to the reader.
Profile Image for Umar Lee.
214 reviews34 followers
March 18, 2022
This is a book that may not be that interesting to people such as myself because all of these stories and issues are super familiar to us and are those of family and people we know and grew-up with; but may be informative for NPR listeners in middle-class neighborhoods who don't know people in the system, have no friends dealing with issues of poverty, and struggling with issues such as getting a government-issued ID. This book is very well-written, but I'm troubled by the lack of ethics and professionalism. Is this sociological field work? Or is this a bored white college student seeking a little excitement in the hood? Is this an academic study or a popular memoir? Why is the writer repeatedly putting herself into the story? The stories themselves can be told in any poor, overpoliced, and majority-Black neighborhoods in America.
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