On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alex Kotlowitz
On the Run is, first and foremost, a remarkable feat of reporting…The level of detail in this book and Goffman's ability to understand her subjects' motivations are astonishing—and riveting…More than anything, Goffman helps us understand why residents of this neighborhood make the seemingly cockeyed choices they do, often for very rational reasons, often because they know well the repercussions of the alternative…You can't read this book without a growing sense of understanding as well as outrage.
Publishers Weekly
When University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Goffman, at the time a sophomore college student, moved into a lower-income black neighborhood in Philadelphia, she began a six-year immersion in the swelling world of fugitives in America, where nearly five million people are on probation or parole. In her first book, Goffman offers an ethnographic account focusing on the impact of probation and parole practices on one community, where living under “fear of capture and confinement” transforms lives. Opportunities for employment, access to medical care, and availability of housing are affected, and relationships are stressed by heavy surveillance, as well as by police threats and violence directed at people linked to former prisoners. Residents fashion ingenious coping methods: the bail office may serve as a bank; a hospital janitor may mend a broken arm; an underground economy provides essential documents. Though Goffman is white, this is markedly not a tale about a white woman in a black world; “A Methodical Note,” appended to the text, details her gradual, intimate access to this community. This is a remarkable chronicle, informed by Goffman’s scholarship, detailed from personal experience as “participant observer,” and related with honesty and compassion. (Apr.)
New York Times Book Review - Alex Kotlowitz
“A remarkable feat of reporting.”
LSE Review of Books
"Extraordinary. . .  . The best work of ethnography I have read in a very, very long time."
New Yorker - Malcolm Gladwell
"An exceptional book. . . . Devastating."
Cornel West
"Alice Goffman's On the Run is the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America. Despite the social misery and fragmented relations, she gives us a subtle analysis and poignant portrait of our fellow citizens who struggle to preserve their sanity and dignity."
Howard Becker
"On the Run tells, in gripping, hard-won detail, what it’s like to be trapped on the wrong side of the law with no way out—the situation of so many young Black Americans today. A brilliant fieldworker and a smart analyst of what she saw and heard, Goffman has made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the administration of the law, urban life and race relations, in a book you will never forget reading."
Carol Stack
"By turns On the Run is heartbreaking and clear-eyed, sad and entangled. With rich ethnographic detail, Alice Goffman reveals the emotional arc of deceptively complex young lives that are criminalized daily in one Black neighborhood in Philadelphia. A triumphant achievement!"
Elijah Anderson
"On the Run is riveting—a clear-headed and sobering account of the 'way it is' for too many of the nation's young black men who live in the killing fields called American cities. It reveals how the everyday lives of these men—their loved ones—are closely monitored and mined for evidence that is then used against them, exacerbating their alienation and fueling the prison-industrial complex. This brilliant book should be required reading for everyone, including President Obama, Congress, and public officials throughout the nation."
Times Higher Education
“This is a truly wonderful book that identifies the casualties of the war on drugs that extend beyond the prison walls. The punitive ghettoisation of the poor leaves few families untouched. The detail is incredible. The research is impeccable. Read it and weep."


Library Journal
Goffman (sociology, Univ. of Wisconsin) draws on the best traditions of participant-observer research. Embedded for six years in a Philadelphia neighborhood, the author documents the ways in which policing has created "fugitive communities." The book opens with a graphic account of an unprovoked beating and proceeds to describe how the victim must avoid medical attention to stay on the correct side of parole rules. Through characters, narratives, and descriptions, Goffman lays out the contradictions and tensions of trying to "stay right." While sympathetic, the author comes across as neither nostalgic nor forgiving. She provides a direct look at the complicated lives of her subjects and draws the reader into the myriad ways in which "the highly punitive approach to crime control winds up being counterproductive, creating entirely new domains of criminality." Goffman's observations are often tragic, but always suspenseful and sometimes even hilarious. (She documents the market for "clean" urine to pass drug tests.) As well as offering commentary, Goffman draws extensively on the social science literature for guidance and explanation. Perhaps that should have been a giveaway, but it was only when perusing the references that this reviewer realized the author is also the daughter of the late sociologist and author Erving Goffman. VERDICT This is an academic book that will appeal to general readers.—Ahmer Qadeer, Brooklyn
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226136714
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/5/2014
  • Series: Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 26,243
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Goffman is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She lives in Madison.

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Table of Contents


1   The 6th Street Boys and Their Legal Entanglements
2   Techniques for Evading the Authorities
3   When the Police Knock Your Door In
4   Turning Legal Troubles into Personal Resources
5   The Social Life of Criminalized Young People
6   The Market in Protections and Privileges
7   Clean People

Conclusion: A Fugitive Community

Epilogue: Leaving 6th Street

Appendix: A Methodological Note

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