Alice Goffman's intimate portrait of life (and living) in the inner city, On The Run, is a fascinating look inside a world within our own that feels a million miles away. Ms. Goffman embedded herself in a not-so-great part of Philadelphia for six years, befriending a group of young men and women, chronicling their exploits, following them through their many run-ins with law enforcement and learning a social code that will make little sense to anyone who has not grown up in poverty. In the Philadelphia Goffman chronicles, police officers are racists who mercilessly beat the young men they arrest, lean on girlfriends and family members to give up their fugitive boyfriends/sons, and wantonly destroy property during raids. The men they are after are no better - poorly educated, rarely employed (and then, for only brief periods of time), father children they can't afford and engage in criminal behavior from the petty (minor drug dealing) to the more severe (gun fights, robberies, and assaults). The criminal justice system is an assembly line, churning out warrants, sentences on plea bargains and moving these fungible young men through the system - probation, incarceration and parole - over and over again.
The numbing repetitiveness of this cycle has drawn mainstream attention in recent years, through books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and a recognition at the federal and state level that mass incarceration, particularly for low-level and/or non-violent crimes, is not only untenable fiscally, but is perpetuating an underclass in our society that is unsustainable. That the new vogue in criminal justice policy focuses on diverting petty drug offenders out of prison and into treatment, prison populations are being reduced in both blood red Texas and deep blue California, and legislative bed fellows Cory Booker and Rand Paul are advocating for even more change, speaks to the pendulum swing that a generation ago focused solely on being "tough on crime" and launching a "war on drugs."
To be sure, drugs animate much of Goffman's narrative. Many of the men in her study deal drugs, largely hand-to-hand to scratch out a living, and accept the consequences that come with being involved in a criminal lifestyle. The collateral consequences to them, the people in their lives, and the community at large ripple out in ways both great and small. Family members are put in the difficult position of deciding whether to condone or reject sons who break the law, toggling between disdain for the police and their own children. Girlfriends and paramours have a code of their own, battling each other for the affection of men who father their children but can't support them, cycle through prison and cheat on them - often in plain view, who they fight with and turn in to the police only to reconcile as a court date or sentencing approaches, or risk arrest by smuggling drugs into prison.
The community ecosystem is also affected. A black market for everything from bogus IDs to clean urine (lest one give "hot piss" to his parole officer) sprouts up as a side business for otherwise "law abiding" individuals and those with even rudimentary medical skills are sometimes called upon to set a broken arm, extract a wonky tooth or procure antibiotics because the police linger in the emergency room of hospitals trolling for young men who are wanted by the law. The world Goffman describes will appear foreign to many who read her book, but within it is a perversely moral universe that has its own code and lexicon - snitching is wrong, riding (protecting a wanted man from the police) is lauded, and small gestures, like attending a funeral at the risk of arrest, are counted among those in the neighborhood.
The protagonists Goffman lived among are hardly sympathetic. The men are rarely if ever employed and the women in their lives often bend over backwards to aid and abet their criminal lifestyles. As Goffman notes, one man she met, Steve, did not hold down a job during the six years she knew him, which included periods when he had no active warrants or criminal cases pending. Most of the other men she associated with did not work either and those that did, held jobs for short periods of time, never opening bank accounts or renting apartments or homes. And while Goffman rightly points a finger at the fines, penalties and assessments that accumulate with each court date or conviction and make it almost impossible for someone to say, get their driver's license restored, there is far less drilling down into the responsibility each of these young men has for their actions.
Goffman is no passive observer to any of this and her active participation in the lives of these families may give the reader pause. Unlike a documentarian maintaining some objective distance from her subjects, Ms. Goffman clearly shows her sympathies toward those she has befriended. The book is littered with casual mentions of her hanging out with people as they use drugs or discuss criminal activity, which might be written of as the sort of de minimus behavior not uncommon among teens and young adults, however, it is when Goffman's allegiances lean too heavily toward conduct few of us would accept that she erases the line of neutrality. For example, when a twelve year-old boy who threw rocks at his teacher has his day in court, Goffman is there to support the boy, and when the teacher doesn't materialize, Goffman describes the "exciting prospect" that the case will be thrown out. Huh? Since when do we revel in the possibility that a twelve year-old would avoid punishment for throwing rocks at an innocent teacher?
Most egregious is a story Goffman buries deep in a lengthy afterword ("A Methodological Note"). There, she mentions driving around one of the guys she befriends while he's toting a gun and seeking vengeance for the shooting and murder of one of his friends. Had he gone through with his plan, Ms. Goffman would have been an accessory to a really serious crime and her passing reference to it in a place in the book few are likely to look suggests an utter lack of judgment about what she was doing in the service of her research. While hanging out with people smoking a joint could be written off, volunteering to drive somebody to a shoot out is a bridge too far.
Also missing from On the Run is any discussion of ways that policy makers could impact the lives of these families. While Goffman might brush this criticism off as "outside the scope" of her work, because of her immersion in the neighborhood and with young men and women along a broad age range, she is in a unique position to opine on these topics, but chose not to. While the answers might seem axiomatic (a data point she mentions more than once is that 60% of African-American men who do not graduate high school get arrested before their mid-thirties), there is little probing into how (or why) kids drop out of school, or whether they consider the consequences of having children when they are teens or in their early 20s, or why it is that so many of the young men Goffman meets spend an inordinate amount of energy avoiding responsibility, dodging the law and scamming when that same energy could have been turned toward more prosocial pursuits. And the answer is not entirely environmental. Goffman touches on some "success" stories in her book - of young men who avoided the criminal lifestyle and, while not rich, managed to avoid the many pitfalls their peers seemed incapable (or unwilling) to avoid. In the end, one is left to conclude that Goffman's closeness to her subjects impacted her ability to look at them with a more jaundiced eye.
On the Run is a valuable piece of reporting, but the solutions that could be advanced by somebody who has this level of granular knowledge about what happens in communities like this is maddeningly out of reach. Ultimately, readers are left to ponder where the balance lies between our responsibility as a society to offer opportunities to those living in poor communities and the personal responsibility that must be taken by those that live there. Left unsaid is the fact that while most of the men Goffman encounters are either dead or in prison by the end of her time in South Philly, they left behind numerous young children who we can only expect will perpetuate this cycle of despair.