On The Run, by Alice Goffman

On The Run, by Alice Goffman (June 25, 2014)

The first time I saw someone cut off his GPS monitoring device I was surprised by the casualness of it. He was a student in a GED class I was teaching, and we were standing outside near the corner of Eager and Greenmount and I thought the young man would just run. But he threw "the box" in an alley and walked around the corner to get something to eat. A couple weeks later he was apprehended and incarcerated for violating the terms of his release, and he faced new charges stemming from his destruction of "the box." While out he slept on couches, attended a family reunion and a funeral, moved from the east side to over west, attended a GED program, sold drugs when he needed money, lived.

To be "on the run" has a particular resonance in America's myth about itself: Huck and Jim rafting away from the slave catchers, lightin' out for the territories; Pretty Boy Floyd ducking and dodging depression-era G-Men, putting groceries on the farmers' tables along the way; Angela Davis and Weathermen living underground waiting on a revolution. Edward Snowden had to go to Russia.

Being on the run has come to mean something completely different in Baltimore and every other metropolitan area in America, where there is a hypersegregated, impoverished community.

America has begun a public conversation about its unprecedented experiment in mass incarceration over the last generation, during which time our United States locked up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow have parsed prison's meaning and named its purpose. Conservatives have come to fear the cost of the decades-long tough-on-crime ideological experiment.

But we have yet to come to terms with the millions upon millions who are not incarcerated but still caught up, as collateral damage, in the watchful gaze of the criminal justice system: people on probation and parole, house arrest, or wearing a box; people with a bench warrant, a body warrant, a name in a database; people with a "failure to appear," or "violation of the terms of release;" people on the run. Running from the police in Baltimore is an art form and a necessary way of life for some.

Alice Goffman's On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is a necessary read if you want to understand this reality and try and make sense of significant aspects of life in contemporary America. Goffman's focuses on a neighborhood near City Center in Philadelphia. But it could easily be Baltimore.

Goffman is a new professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—she is the daughter of famed sociologist Erving Goffman, author of the massively influential Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Asylums. But this all started when she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and went to live in the largely black block she calls "6th Street," not naming the specific Philadelphia 'hood. Over six years she lived with and among her subjects detailing their family lives, drug deals, court visits, periods of incarceration, and underground medical care—people on the run can't be seen in the ER without going to jail.

Goffman's lively prose—communicated in a striking voice rare for an academic—opens a window into a life where paranoia has become routine. The "sheer scope of policing and imprisonment in poor Black neighborhoods," she observes, "is transforming community life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who are their targets but for their family members, partners and neighbors." More, Goffman's on-the-ground ethnography is an antidote to pseudo-verisimilitude that has come to stand in for the overexposed authenticity as in something like The Wire.

She goes beyond her street-level focus to argue something more profound. This nether world of not free, but not incarcerated "now plays a central role in the production of unequal groups in US society, setting back the gains in citizenship and socioeconomic position that Black people made during the Civil Rights Movement."

The lie of punishment in America is that you can actually serve your time. Systemic criminal-justice punishment has become a permanent condition, an identity given to and now inhabited by the dispossessed in America's cities: Hundreds of thousands of semicitizens, defined by their legal status and their skin color, are living lives in cordoned-off corners of the cities where helicopters, "warrant apprehension" task forces, and undercover police hunt their prey.

On the Run makes it plain: "The US ghetto [is] one of the last repressive regimes of the age: one that operates within our liberal democracy, yet unbeknownst to many living only a few blocks away. In a nation that has officially rid itself of a racial caste system, and has elected and reelected a Black president, we are simultaneously deploying a large number of criminal justice personnel at great taxpayer cost to visit an intensely punitive regime upon poor Black men and women living in our cities' segregated neighborhoods."

The next time some 12 O'Clock Boys buzz you while catching air on Liberty Heights Avenue, the next time the local news highlights the jump-out video and the police chase, next time the police commissioner, the mayor, or the governor talk about a new team of federal, state, and local law enforcement going in hard to serve warrants on the worst-of-the-worst bad guys in our city, know that it is likely not in your community. And they got those other communities on lock. They aren't part of the social contract, the social fabric, they are on the run.