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On the Run

Fugitive Life in an American City

By Alice Goffman
18-minute read
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman

In On the Run, author Alice Goffman dives into a dangerous world unknown to most Americans: the poor, predominantly black and crime-ridden neighborhood of Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Living in the area for six years, Goffman witnessed the daily life of the neighborhood and thus gained a unique insight into a crime-plagued society, its members constantly “on the run.”

  • Anyone interested in ethnography and urban sociology
  • Anyone interested in the effects of urban poverty and crime
  • Anyone interested in a real-life version of the TV show The Wire

Thirty-one year-old Alice Goffman is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. She has received numerous awards for her ethnographic work about the Sixth Street boys of Philadelphia and On the Run is her first major published work. Goffman is the daughter of Erving Goffman, considered one of the most influential US sociologists of the twentieth century.

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On the Run

Fugitive Life in an American City

By Alice Goffman
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
Synopsis

In On the Run, author Alice Goffman dives into a dangerous world unknown to most Americans: the poor, predominantly black and crime-ridden neighborhood of Sixth Street in Philadelphia. Living in the area for six years, Goffman witnessed the daily life of the neighborhood and thus gained a unique insight into a crime-plagued society, its members constantly “on the run.”

Key idea 1 of 11

Large swaths of US society live their lives under threat of police arrest.

Sixth Street in Philadelphia is just another poor black neighborhood in America. Those who live there embody a lifestyle familiar to many Americans: a life centered around evading the law, or a fugitive culture.

But from where does this culture originate?

One major source is the US justice system, which has criminalized large parts of society.

US prison statistics show that since “tough-on-crime” and “war-on-drugs” policies were implemented in the 1970s, prison confinement rates have sharply risen. Today, about 3 percent of US adults sit either inside prison or outside under some type of police supervision (such as under house arrest). To put things into perspective, only labor camps under Stalin in the Soviet Union match the levels of incarceration in America today.

Further statistical analysis reveals that black Americans are a group that is particularly targeted. While this group represents only 13 percent of the population of the United States, black Americans make up 37 percent of the prison population. This recent increase was largely driven by welfare cuts that pushed many in black communities into the drug trade to survive – just when the government crackdown on the drug economy began.

We like to think that people choose to be criminals. But most people in poor neighborhoods become criminals as there is little else to do to survive. Living in areas that are plagued by high unemployment, an individual might sell crack on the side to make ends meet. But while selling drugs could help provide needed cash for your family, it could also be the first step in an endless cycle of warrants, court hearings and jail time.

Most of the young people who live in this Philadelphia neighborhood – the Sixth Street boys – are caught up in this cycle and as a result are always on the run.

In this cycle, minor events often balloon into full-scale criminal activity, dragging everyone into its pull. For example, an adult is arrested for possessing marijuana; as a result, he loses his driver’s license. Out on probation, he drives his brother to school, but is then caught driving without a license; he’s arrested and put in jail. Now the brother robs a store to “earn” the bail money...and the cycle continues.

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