The Ghetto Archipelago

Life in an inner-city police state


On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman, University of Chicago Press, 288 pages, $25

For six years, starting as a University of Pennsylvania sophomore, the sociologist Alice Goffman lived in a black Philadelphia neighborhood that she calls 6th Street. (The place name is a pseudonym, as are the names of the people Goffman describes.) There she immersed herself in the family lives and legal woes of people whose experiences were far removed from her own. In On the Run, her book about the experience, Goffman concludes that the neighborhood is molded by its young men's relationship with the criminal justice system and that such places constitute an archipelago of racially tense police states within a larger liberal democracy.

The police presence in 6th Street is pervasive. Residents, young black men in particular, can expect to be frequently stopped, questioned, and searched. Many initial arrests are for drugs, often possession of marijuana. After that, as Goffman records, the system takes on a horrible logic of its own. Criminal records make employment hard to find, and recurring court dates devour time that might be devoted to work, job searches, or family responsibilities. Without regular income, court fees add up and may prove unpayable. Many of the people Goffman writes about are essentially constant low-level fugitives, hunted by police for missed appointments. Some end up committing additional crimes to pay their accumulating debts to the courts.

People living on the wrong side of the law are both dependent on and vulnerable to those around them. Goffman documents how chronic legal problems prevent young men from attending the births of their children or the funerals of their friends, since the authorities often monitor those occasions looking to make arrests. Those legal problems also provide opportunities for angry girlfriends and other acquaintances to avenge perceived wrongs with a simple phone call to the cops.

Neighborhoods heavily populated by young men on the run (usually in the most figurative sense, since their lives become circumscribed by familiar people and streets) also create business opportunities for those willing to serve their idiosyncratic needs. One memorable character in On the Run is Jevon, whose memory and ability at mimicry allow him to earn money impersonating men to their parole officers for curfew-checking phone calls. Another, Rakim, augments income from his passport photo business selling clean urine to men facing drug tests. Many local businesses-such as rental car lots and motels-have two price sheets, one for mainstream customers and one for those who have no credit cards or ID.

Identification itself is a commodity, with employees inside the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation selling drivers licenses-basically, new identities-for a substantial fee. (Other public employees, from court clerks to prison guards, also find it lucrative to sell favors and services.) "The level of social control that tough-on-crime policy envisions-particularly in a liberal state-is so extreme and difficult to implement," Goffman writes, "that it has led to a flourishing black market to ease the pains of supervision."

Not everybody profits from assisting these fugitives. Indeed, the depth and quality of intimate relationships are often judged by the degree to which people are willing to put themselves on the line to shield those sought by the police. That puts otherwise legally unsullied people at risk, as authorities pressure them for information using an arsenal that includes repeated raids and vindictively strict enforcement of a spider web of laws, including building codes, traffic rules, and business licensing requirements.

Through it all, policies intended to battle crime wind up creating a more criminal world. Barriers to legitimate employment multiply, so that many find it easier to stay outside the law than to work within it. This community is subject to excruciatingly close scrutiny; transgressions that might go unnoticed elsewhere result in serious consequences-and in more criminals to be policed.

Goffman's book has won both praise and pushback. Some of the questions its critics have posed are almost inevitable for a work at the intersection of sociology and advocacy journalism. Is the author just recording observations or is she trying to reveal a larger truth? And what about her very palpable presence in the lives of the people under scrutiny-eating alongside them, helping them out of jams, even professing unlikely ignorance under police questioning? How does that influence the final result?

One prominent critic is Dwayne Betts, a Yale Law School student who comes from a background comparable to that of Goffman's subjects. Writing in Slate, Betts objects that the author's "unrelenting focus on criminality is just as likely to encourage more arrests and surveillance than to convince people that mass incarceration should end." The book, he writes, is essentially a titillating peek into an alien society, one less likely to enlighten the reader than to give him license to marvel and shudder.

But Betts seems to suggest it's better to ignore the cycle of criminality and police reaction that make up a large part of life in many troubled neighborhoods. (Betts himself spent eight years in prison for carjacking before moving on to a very different life.) The book's unflattering portrait of the cops and courts hardly encourages calls for a heavier police presence.

Sara Mayeux of the University of Pennsylvania Law School has criticized Goffman for not adequately supporting some of her claims, such as her assertion that police peruse hospital visitor logs for people with open warrants. On Mayeux's blog, she argues that Goffman's "book is unevenly footnoted," requiring reader faith in the accuracy of portrayed conversations and experiences.

As a method, ethnography deliberately engages subjects in ways that escape the mile-high social-science approach; the tradeoff for such intimate and compelling access is that you're going to have a hard time documenting everything in a traditional scholarly way. And yes, it's true that Goffman's subjective approach and the advocacy built into it are open to challenge by those with different experiences and agendas. But Goffman does acknowledge the many neighborhood residents who work legitimate jobs and enjoy minimal legal entanglements, often as the result of a great personal effort to resist the pressures of the surrounding culture and the ever-present scrutiny of the police.

Goffman does have an ax to grind. She sympathizes with her subjects even as they venture into lives of criminality that are not always victimless. (She has an understandable soft spot for Tim, whose first arrest came at the age of 11 while traveling in a car he didn't know was stolen.) Yet despite that sympathy, Goffman is capable of criticizing the people of 6th Street. She notes, for example, that while encounters with the legal system make seeking work and getting ahead difficult, "being wanted also serves as a way to save face and to explain personal inadequacies." Constant conflict with the law not only raises hurdles to success but becomes a convenient excuse for failures that have little to do with courts or cops.

The world Goffman captures is not one amenable to easy solutions-though backing off the heavy-handed law enforcement would be a good start. A culture damaged and defined by decades under what Goffman describes as "one of the last repressive regimes of the age" is not one that's going to heal overnight.