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Life ‘On The Run’ In America's Big Cities

The underground economy where drug war and police lockdown meet urban America. We’ll look at life on the run.

The cover of Alice Goffman's "On The Run" (Courtesy University of Chicago Press).

The cover of Alice Goffman’s “On The Run” (Courtesy University of Chicago Press).

America’s underground economy sprawls far and wide now.  Maybe $2 trillion in off-the-books work and trade.  A big part of it grows from tough neighborhoods where the formal economy is so thin and the hand of the law is so heavy that it’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow.  Sociologist Alice Goffman has gone there.  To an urban economy and culture so shadowed by police and incarceration that it lives “on the run.”  To a system that finds millions living as fugitives in their own neighborhoods.  This hour On Point:  the underground life of America’s most heavily-policed communities.

– Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Alice Goffman, assistant  professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Author of the new book, “On The Run: Fugitive Life In An American City.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Philadelphia Inquirer: Sociologist chronicles tenuous lives of fugitives — “Goffman, 32, spent six years with the men and their families in a poor, minority Philadelphia neighborhood she calls Sixth Street to protect its identity. She began the work in 2002 as a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, becoming so immersed she nearly lost herself in the process. She adopted the men’s survival tactics: the art of fleeing through alleyways, the grit of enduring interrogations. Back at school, though, her heart pounded at the sight of clean-cut, white (in short, coplike) professors.”

Chronicle Of Higher Education: The American Police State — “Starting in the mid-1970s, the United States stiffened its laws on drugs and violent crime and ratcheted up the police presence on city streets. The number of people in American jails and prisons has risen fivefold over the past 40 years. There are now roughly seven million people under criminal-justice supervision.”

New York Times: Fieldwork of Total Immersion – “Though written in a sober, scholarly style, ‘On the Run’ contains enough street-level detail to fill a season of ‘The Wire,’ along with plenty of screen-ready moments involving the author herself, who describes, among other ordeals, being thrown to the floor and handcuffed during a police raid, enduring a harrowing precinct house interrogation and watching a man be shot to death after exiting her car.”

Read An Excerpt Of “On The Run” By Alice Goffman

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  • John Cedar

    My “heart pounds at the sight of clean-cut, white professors” too! Especially sociology professors.

    Professor, there is a reason there are five times more people in prisons than there was 40 years ago…and its not the police state. It is because your ideology has been put into practice and raised ten times more jerks than we had 40 years ago.

    • TFRX

      The jerks who decided to do crack instead of cocaine or meth?

      • John Cedar

        The jerks who fund their drug of choice with robbery and protect their illegal trade with violence.

  • AC

    is this show going to highlight the benefits of bitcoin? the whole concept is geared for criminals….ugh.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    The Son* didn’t do too badly on the streets. He lived large, had plenty of money, help others in need, punished his enemies, fell in love, offered forgiveness, and exerted his will on others. Isn’t that what a successful life is supposed to be about?

    * By Jo Nesbø.

  • Coastghost

    Is Goffman offering yet another “composite sociological matrix” with yet another mythical composite “inner city neighborhood”? populated with fictional composite characters and subjects boasting fictional composite grievances and complaints?
    “Ahhh, but her academic advocacy is sincere, heartfelt, and passionate!”

  • Human2013

    With the rise of debtors prisons around the country, it appears we will all be on run for missing our student loan payments.

    • Human2013

      Seriously, don’t rule it out.

      • TFRX

        I was gonna say “This is the wrong hour for your post”. But then…

    • harverdphd

      Not to mention the rise in potters fields purchases and the buying of bucket loaders and dump trucks by municipalities.

  • AC

    ok, this show is not what i was thinking it would be….interesting.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Police State = Obama = NSA = Gestapo = American Exceptionalism!

    One would have thought we could have done much better.

    • TFRX

      Remember Rudy 9iu11ani, or did that whole decade just pass by in a haze of pot smoke for you?

      (Really, if it did, I wouldn’t pass judgment on you, and it’d explain a lot, “lefty”.)

  • Joe Mahma

    .
    Something tells me that if Alice did not grow up in a “middle class white neighborhood in Philadelphia,” and instead in a lower class black neighborhood, she would have a completely different perspective.
    .

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    If your surroundings aren’t enhancing your life, you need to change them. By moving on. Before your surroundings do you in.

    • Human2013

      Because that’s so easy….

    • Chuck Ditzler

      For some individuals, HLB, your advice could be very good. But keep in mind the possible restraints on moving: family ties and obligations (such as caring for grandparents or sharing custody of children), little money to move, lack of job opportunities elsewhere, on probation, etc. From a societal perspective, it is better to focus on improving these communities, and a major step in that direction would be to address the problems described by Goffman. A disadvantage of encouraging some to move is that they could help to maintain and improve communities.

    • harverdphd

      Good point – go away.

  • AC

    i would think anyone w/o high school diploma is in trouble….are there training programs available?

  • Coastghost

    And young black males are not completing public secondary education because–??

    • Joe Mahma

      Because – the white man.

      • TFRX

        Please, more answers to everything from your privilege. It’s not making you look bad at all.

    • jimino

      PTSD?

  • Human2013

    The “war on drugs” is misnomer….It has always been a “war on black men.”

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      How else are they supposed to be marginalized? We stop them from voting, and once they are given guns and all hope is removed, then they’ll become the cause of their own problems.

      • harverdphd

        No..they’re stupid. It’s as simple as that.

    • harverdphd

      Yet urban crime is down…call it what you want; it’s working.

      • red_donn

        Incarceration has been massively increasing along with fear of crime (according to polls) despite a decrease in crime. There must be a fundamental disconnect to see an increase in fear of something that is decreasing.

        Given that, callously resigning huge swathes of the populace to a prison system, which tends to make itself a lifelong institution for even minor offenses, is incredibly cruel.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    A lot of Americans are condemned in life to be extremely unlucky. Like Chuck.*

    * Per Tom’s guest.

    • harverdphd

      I love chuck…more collagen than round

  • Human2013

    There you have it. Thanks, Judge.

  • Human2013

    This ball is on the roll. At some point, it will start to impact young white men. Someone has to feed the prison industrial complex.

    • harverdphd

      Hence the open borders etc

  • Coastghost

    Why do black parents fail their children at the critical transition to adolescence? Why is there no groundswell of public support in the African American community for dual-parent black families? How extensive are the disincentives for dual-parent black families, and how are these disincentives reflected in public policy?

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Is that you considered opinion? Because you seem blind to your privilege, and to the racism surrounding this issue.

      • Coastghost

        My considered opinion is in part derived from almost four years of work in public secondary education, thank you.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Free public birth control including abortions upon demand.
    If they don’t show up they can’t become a societal problem for the rest of us.

    • Scott B

      One of the big reason crime went down by double digits relatively quickly was the legalization of abortion.

  • X Y & Z

    I wonder how many of the guns that the Obama Administration allowed to be sold to Mexican drug cartels have made it back to the US?

    • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

      Eric Holder for President. Hoober Doober

      • X Y & Z

        First he’ll have to ask Congress not to hold him in contempt anymore. He’s the only Attorney General to ever claim that distinction.

        • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

          At least he’s not the AG (state) charged, convicted, and sanctioned of lying to a federal grand jury and the judge. And he’s not the AG (feds) who went to jail. That’s something, I suppose.* HD

          * WJ Clinton, J Mitchell.

    • hennorama

      Robotic Drone Alert.

      • X Y & Z

        Very childish on your part.

  • mark perreault

    Two points: (1) The lady implies all kids use illegal drugs and otherwise commit crimes, and are lightly handled. The reality is that most do not — they try to do the right thing, work incredibly hard and that is what makes America great. (2) Implicit in her message is a willingness to tolerate more violent and other crime against the innocent. We have been to her excessively tolerant world before; think New York City in 1974, where you would report a crime and police could not even look into it, they were so overwhelmed.

  • Scott B

    Matt Taibi talks in his new book about seeing the same “crimes” in the places he live during his youth, being committed at the same rate, but never saw the cops in the neighborhood.

    “Burning Down the House” by Nell Bernstein talks about how yThe American rate of juvenile incarceration is effecting kids, not just now, but in their future lives, and disenfranchising them politically, socially, economically, even emotionally. “The US rate of youth incarceration is seven times that of Great Britain, and 18 times that of France. It costs, on average, $88,000 a year to keep a youth locked up — far more than the U.S. spends on a child’s education.” She was interviewed for Fresh Air recently, should anyone want to check that out.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    All the solutions are in here.
    http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/the-conservative-playbook-against-hillary-clinton-20140610

    A coffee table book available now at fine stores of distinction. After July 15, look for it at remainder tables.. everywhere.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Holder wants them all OUT.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2014/06/10/doj-backs-shortening-drug-sentences.html

    Free at last
    Free at last
    To do harm
    All over again.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      C’mon – how stupid do you think we are?

      • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

        I don’t hold those thoughts about anyone. Thanks for asking. Hoober Doober

        • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

          Then why do you make so many simplistic statements?

  • Coastghost

    Goffmans’s tremulous voice just oozes with all the care, concern, and passion she’s wearing on her sleeves, her lapels, and her mortarboard.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      And your point is?

      • Coastghost

        Her analytical skills seem not to’ve been enhanced by her affective response.

        • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

          She sounds like she is emotional, so how can she be intelligent, or know what she is talking about?

          • Coastghost

            You might have to ask yet another Harvard genius, Howard Gardner by name.

          • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

            Huh? Non-sequitur-R-Us?

        • TFRX

          You don’t watch any right wing media, do you?

          • Coastghost

            None at all: I haven’t watched TV since I stopped working for one of the legacy commercial broadcasters (ABC, CBS, or NBC) twelve years ago.

          • TFRX

            You need to get out more. Or do a better job quelling all those True Principled Conservatives who are stupider than you, lest we keep thinking you’re not better than them.

          • Coastghost

            I seem to’ve seen a gracious plenty already, but I’ll keep your advice in mind. (That is, I did somehow survive Mardi Gras at age 17.)

    • nj_v2

      Ghoasthost’s ponderous, pedant posts just ooze contempt, derision, and arrogance.

      • Coastghost

        Awww, I deeply appreciate your sincere flattery, or envy, or whatever.

      • harverdphd

        Like yours…

    • hennorama

      Off with her head!

      • Coastghost

        But only if it could be reliably replaced with one capable of more functionality.

        • Ray in VT

          I suppose that you have some sort of evidence to show that she currently lacks functionality?

          • Coastghost

            Nothing beyond what the podcast and the transcript for the hour’s show would reveal. (NB: I was indulging in the traditional metaphorical equation of “head” [brain] with “thought”. Because of her comportment during the program, I saw no need to concede that the human brain is also regarded as the seat of affectivity.)

    • Eliza_Bee

      Yes, Prof. Goffmann is soft-spoken, academic, and cares about a community that is in trouble. Is this supposed to be a criticism?

      • Coastghost

        Not necessarily: I simply maintain a healthy skepticism for conspicuous displays of philanthropy, including academic philanthropy.

        • Eliza_Bee

          I have quite a few friends and acquaintances in academics, and they tend to be pretty passionate about their work. For example, one friend has done medical research in a clinical setting. He cares about his patients. That certainly doesn’t mean he falsifies results if that’s what you’re trying to suggest by the term “academic philanthropy”.

          • Coastghost

            I can get passionately concerned when I encounter trained academics who cannot or will not readily distinguish thought and cognition from passion and affectivity.
            It’s particularly regrettable to encounter this failure or reluctance so readily in female academics, who seem ever willing these days to evade these distinctions in order to claim intellectual validity: if “passion” is offered as a code-word for “sincerity”, are we to understand that their intellectual projects are somehow beyond methodological reproach?
            This is exactly how I’m hearing the recent “On Point” parade of female academics (cf. the recent program on formerly “passionate teachers” who left the field of education altogether) who make much of passion and feeling to the exclusion of rationality, thought, and cognition. (Those former teachers who initially based their respective commitments on “passion” discovered only belatedly that passion alone is no sound foundation upon which to base a career commitment.)
            Affectivity and passion are no sufficient substitutes for the application of thought and reason, which already occupy positions remote from much of human experience, and both are apparently increasingly remote from female academic experience.

          • Eliza_Bee

            Female academics publish in the same journals as males and are subject to the same standards of peer review.

            Your slimy attempt to disparage female academics by making repeated groundless suggestions is beyond creepy.

          • Coastghost

            Hark! Do I hear your application of “analytical affectivity”?

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Obama drones. Patrolling up and down Main Street. Morning. ‘noon, and night.*

    * Big Bro, yo.

    • X Y & Z

      Don’t give them any ideas.

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    Capitalism can not fix any problem created by Capitalism.
    –The Story of Humanity

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Are you being paid to flood us out with inane comments?

      • TFRX

        Actually, this is one of his better ones. I’ve been known to post:

        “Capitalism can survive any economic system devised by man, except perhaps capitalism.”

        • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

          Some of HLB’s posts I agree with, but then he/she posts so many others that contradict each other, it certainly leaves the impression with this reader that he/she is just copying and pasting whatever strikes his/her fancy at that moment …

    • harverdphd

      You can probably afford a ticket to China: go.

  • Scott B

    In the Buffalo area, a young black man was walking home and the cops stopped him for no real reason, then continued to followed him for 2 MILES s he continued walking him. When the young man asked, with some agitation I’m sure can be well understood, asked the cops why they were still following and hassling him, they arrested him for a host of trumped up charges, including resisting arrest for just asking the question as to why they were bothering him.

    • harverdphd

      B’lo’s a tough town. Love it or leave it.

  • Chuck Ditzler

    The two On Point topics this morning–paying for higher education and this one–overlap. Over the past 30 years states have been investing much less into public higher education when taking inflation into account but have been increasing spending on corrections, especially for prisons. The US crime rate did decline greatly over those years; however, most criminologists agree that the vast majority of that decline was probably not due to incarceration. Neighborhoods hit with the imprisonment of nonviolent residents have been made worse.

    • harverdphd

      Sources?

      • Chuck Ditzler

        1. Corrections spending by states (2010 dollars) increased from $15 billion in 1982 to $48.5 billion in 2010. The 2010 figure is a decline from a peak of $53.5 billion in 2001. BJS “State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982-2010,” Appendix Table 2, p.11: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/scefy8210.pdf 2. I’ll try to get back by 6/13 with an online source that summarizes well state higher ed $. 3. Crime rates– BJS “Crime Victimization, 2012″ report, figure 1, violent crime declined over 50% from 1993, using both UCR and National Crime Victimization Survey data: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv12.pdf The property crime rate decline started before the steep decline in violent crime. This longer report contains graphs of specific crimes from 1993 to 2010: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mpcncvs.pdf 4. crime rates and imprisonment–see Zimring, chp 3 in The Great American Crime Decline or this video on NYC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXZgSnKfN5U

  • Eliza_Bee

    I strongly agree with Goffman’s point that kids are treated differently depending on where they’re from. I went to college in the 1970′s, and there was a whole lotta law-breaking behavior going on then. Had I and my friends been caught, like the kids she talked about, I hate to think where I’d be now. As it is, I and all my old law-breaking college buddies are mostly upper-middle-class, productive, tax-paying citizens.

  • Publicdefender

    I found this super-interesting and want to read the book, but I am troubled by the discrepancy between the story she tells here, about “Ronnie” who is shot in the leg and has the bullet removed at home by a janitor while his grandmother turns up the music, and in her New York Times Opinionator piece, about “Eddie” who hurts his arm jumping a fence in flight from police and is sewn up by a janitor at home while his grandmother turns up the music. What’s going on with that? Her credibility is so critical here and this makes me wonder about it.

    • Alice Goffman

      Hey PublicDefender,
      To clarify, Ronny took a bullet in the leg, Eddie broke his arm while running from the police. Both were patched up at home rather than go to the hospital and risk arrest. The story I told here and the one in the Opinionator are separate incidents. Hope that clears it up, and thanks for writing in.

  • CriticalMind

    The solution is clear from the profile of the first poor guy.

    First, we need to decriminalize shooting. There is no reason that the poor guys life should be ruined just b/c of the minor act of trying to shoot someone.

    Second, I agree that living one’s life on the run due to an outstanding warrant is also horribly unfair. Therefore, we need a new law that provides automatic amnesty to anyone who is able to avoid arrest for more than 5 days.

  • Mike_Card

    But…Eric Can’t’er gets righted! Too sweet for words!!

  • twenty_niner

    This is an intractable problem. As a business owner, I don’t know how one of these guys ever gets hired. The caller from Nashville sounds earnest enough, but he’s competing with applicants with spotless backgrounds and good work histories.

    This is one area where the government might be the only solution, but even then, if you gave preference to convicts trying to get back on their feet, people with clean records who need jobs are going to sceam bloody murder.

  • WEC Pawn

    Did anyone mention, and I did not hear in the show, that politicians, both parties, could care less about this issue. Why is it that many shows on NPR that cover social issues that have gone awry rarely point the finger at both political parties? While the government funds certain programs then pulls the plug, they just ignore issues like these. Real journalism or reporting would start pointing the finger also at Washington not just repeat the same old NPR laments racisim, prejudice, inequality ,etc.

  • AlyshiaNorgaardlab

    Eva . I can see what your saying… Robert `s comment
    is surprising, last thursday I bought themselves a Infiniti from making $7905
    this – 4 weeks past and-also, ten-k last month . with-out a doubt this is the
    easiest-work Ive ever done . I began this 8-months ago and right away started
    to earn minimum $82 per/hr . official website R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

  • CriticalMind

    Ms. Goffman clearly has an agenda, which is that some of our criminal laws either should not exist or perhaps should exist but just not be enforced. As a lawyer, we try to use examples that make our point clear to the judge or jury. Yet she leads with a story of someone who is on the run bc the police want him for shooting someone. What in the world is wrong with that? She’s never clear about her solution, but i don’t think that repealing our criminal code is the answer. I also think she is not old enough to remember the circumstances that caused the so-called “war on crime.” Three strikes laws did not get passed in a vacuum. If the police were as invisible in North Philly as they are in my middle-class suburban neighborhood, it would not take long before community activists would be screaming for a greater police presence. The police are in a no win situation here.

  • CriticalMind

    56% unemployed sounds about right; the high school graduation rate can’t be too far from that number. I don’t have a clue what high school dropouts do except perhaps go to prison. In our current economy, the demand by employers for high school dropout labor is essentially nil.

  • Other Chris

    I thought it was just me! I can’t stand that valley girl tic that’s spread like wildfire!

    • Emily Corwith

      Is that what it is? Interesting … I can hardly bear to listen to radio/TV any more … another phrase I can’t stand is “that being said” … none of these people have their own voices … they’re all clones of each other!!!!

  • Josh

    Hello All
    I am actually from sixth street and my story is also told in this great body of work written by Alice Goffman. I believe some of you are missing the point that is trying to be expressed. We all know that wars have collateral damage and what has become extremely more clear over the years is that this collateral damage has outweighed any of the benefits that the “war on drugs” have provided thus far. These negative effects have made it harder on the communities and also the police forces that are in charge of keeping order in these communities. It easy to pass all of us off as “bad decision makers” but in truth this is not the case. Some of my friends describe in the story have become so dehumanized by our enviroment that they are probably behind reach but at one point in time we were all children looking direction and guidance that wasn’t there. I believe the only truth of this story is that this is occuring at alarming rates in impoverished communities all over the US, whether you choose to differ on your reactions to it is your call but as a nation, please believe this affects us all.
    AKA Josh

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