Interview with Author Alice Goffman

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

June 9, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Michael Slate recently interviewed Alice Goffman, author of the book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, for his radio show on KPFK (90.7 FM, Los Angeles). The following is an excerpt from that interview

Michael Slate: Your book is On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. But it's not just any fugitive life, because it's the story of an entire people, Black people and their relation with the criminal justice system in the city of Philadelphia, but I would think from what I know, extends across the country in every city in this country. Can you put a little more meat on the bones about your book?

Alice Goffman: Yes. I guess growing up I thought of fugitives as very famous people who made the FBI list and movies were made about them. The kind of fugitives that I'm writing about are people who are on probation or parole, or have low level warrants for technical violations or for not paying fees or not showing up for a court date. So, we've had these rising imprisonment rates over the past four decades. Crime has gone up and gone down, but we've had a penal system that has grown by five times since 1970.

We now have a lot of statistics on this. We know that many more Black people are in prison, disproportionate to their share of crime and of the population, and particularly Black men. I wanted to know what this meant for communities of color, for the neighborhood, for family life, for school. So I lived in a neighborhood in Philadelphia, a working-class-to-poor, African-American neighborhood, for six years while I was in college and graduate school. And this is a book about what that life is like.

Michael Slate: It's very heavy, too. As you were saying, these are not fugitives like John Dillinger running around. These are just everyday people who are forced into an underground existence to a certain extent, in the cities where they were born, in the neighborhoods where they were born and grew up and where they were living their life. They're under a constant state of siege.

Alice Goffman: Right. So when I got there—I got there in 2002, and police curfews had been established around the area for those under age 18. So that basically meant anybody under 30 could be stopped and searched and frisked. There were police video cameras on major streets. So the first 18 months I was there, I saw the police stop people in cars, or stop pedestrians, search them, run their names for warrants, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest, every day except five days. I saw the police break down doors, search houses, chase people through houses, 52 times in the first year and a half that I spent there. Helicopters circling overhead beaming searchlights onto local streets. Fourteen times in the first year and a half I spent there I saw the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on or beat young men with nightsticks.

So living in a neighborhood with that level of police activity and violence, you really learn to fear the police and to run when they are coming. This is a very different understanding of the police than the one I had growing up in a white neighborhood in Philadelphia, a pretty upper middle-class white neighborhood.

Michael Slate: When I came to that passage in your book where you were talking about exactly what you just said, this is what it looked like in general. And in that first 18 months, what you saw. I kept thinking about the way that you did this. I know you have that whole last section of your book where you talk about the entire methodology and what was behind it, and why you did it the way you did it. I don't want to get into all of that, but I do have to ask you this question: a lot of times, this idea of actually going and really embedding yourself, and I know embedding has taken on a whole other meaning in relation to everything else in the last decade, but you actually became part of the neighborhood, and I was really curious about that, because you could have just gone and done statistical research. You could have gone out a couple days a week and gotten some interviews, or done whatever. But you instead decided that you had to really become part of the whole life there. Talk about what compelled you to do that.

Alice Goffman: I think ethnography is this method that has a long history in sociology, and it's really about participant observation, so what you do is you try to subject yourself as much as possible to the crap that is being thrown at whoever you're trying to understand. So my teachers Eli Anderson, Mitch Duneier, this is the method that they used. So it wasn't really pioneering, I think. But just living in this neighborhood, like many Americans live in neighborhoods like this, I saw things that many people who live outside of these kinds of neighborhoods have never seen or heard about. So I feel very privileged to be able to talk about what's going on, and talk about it to people who are not aware.

Michael Slate: And when you talk about the kinds of things that you were just running down, it's important for people to understand that this isn't out of the ordinary. This is just part of the normal, everyday workings of the system in that neighborhood. And this neighborhood isn't even considered one of the most so-called dangerous neighborhoods or poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Alice Goffman: That's right. When I interviewed police officers many years later, after I had been living in this neighborhood for a long time, I was very surprised to find out that this neighborhood was not even on their radar. It wasn't like a hotspot for crime. It wasn't a neighborhood that they thought was particularly violent or dangerous. And the same thing with local residents. This is a neighborhood that many of the people living in other nearby neighborhoods were very excited to be able to move to if they got a little bit more money. It had nicer houses; it had more well-trimmed lawns. So the number of young men who are entangled in the criminal justice system, it's on par with some neighborhoods, and it's probably less than other neighborhoods.

But, yeah, it was incredible to me just how much this has permeated kind of everyday life. So like the first week I spent there, I saw two boys, five and seven years old, play this game of "chase," where one boy had the role of cop, who was running after the other. And when the "cop" caught up to the other child, then he pushed him down with imaginary handcuffs, and he patted the other child down and felt in his pockets, asking if he had a warrant, or was carrying a gun or any drugs. Then the child took a quarter out of the other child's pockets and laughed and yelled, "I'm seizing that!"

I saw this game repeated many times in the following months: Children running and sticking their hands behind their backs as if in handcuffs, or pushing their bodies up against a car without being asked, or lying flat on the ground, putting their hands above their heads. So children would yell, "I'm gonna lock you up! I'm gonna lock you up and you're never coming home!" I once saw like a six-year-old child pull another child's pants down and try to do a cavity search.

Michael Slate: Michelle Alexander did a book, The New Jim Crow, and she talked about mass incarceration and the impact of the criminal justice system on Black people overall. But in a lot of ways, she did it by marshaling a lot of statistics and facts. But you went into this, and when you were talking about being immersed in the neighborhood, becoming part of the neighborhood, the kinds of things that you saw, you actually painted a picture of the lived experience of all this, the lived experience of people, which made it very powerful and different than anything else that's out there. You talk about how every aspect of the lives of Black people in that neighborhood, and particularly those who are targeted— and there were not only little kids playing at being the cop and the neighborhood resident, but the little kids themselves became targets at a very early age. The whole thing of how it transformed the neighborhood overall, as well as the relations between people in the neighborhood.

Alice Goffman: Yeah, so let's take Tim. Tim was the younger brother of Chuck, who was one of the guys that I got to know very well. So Tim's first arrest came at age 11, when he was stopped in a car. His older brother Chuck was driving him to school in his girlfriend's car, and a cop pulled them over and searched the car and ran the tags, and the car came up as stolen in California, actually. Chuck had never been to California, had no idea which one of his girlfriend's relatives had stolen the car, but the officer took both brothers into custody and down to the police station. They charged Chuck with receiving stolen property. And then they charged Tim, age 11, with accessory. And later a judge in the juvenile courts put Tim on three years of probation. So as an 11-year-old, he was on probation; he had to go to court. He had to pay court fees, which he was unable to pay, and it sort of spiraled from there.

Another guy I got to know, Mike, his first arrest came at age 13 when the police stopped and searched him and arrested him for carrying a small amount of marijuana. He was then put on probation. The arrest that really pushed Chuck off of the good path was when he was 18. He had actually gone all the way through until 18, which he was super-proud about. He was a senior in high school. He got into a schoolyard fight with a guy who called his mom a "crack whore," and he was charged with aggravated assault. The guy wasn't severely injured. Chuck had pushed his face into the snow, which was sort of insulting to him.

So he had this aggravated assault case which dragged on. He went to jail. He was unable to make bail; he couldn't afford bail. So he was in jail during the trial dates. So it went on for eight months and he lost his senior year of high school. Almost all of the charges were dropped. The case was dismissed. But he was 19 when he came out, so the school would not readmit him. So there went his high school diploma. He had been making C's and B's before that. Then he had court fees he had to pay at the end of the court case, which he couldn't afford to pay. So he had a bench warrant out for unpaid court fees. So then he was on the run.

Michael Slate: There's a part in your book where you talk about an entire net of entrapment. And what you're laying out really sort of begins to hint at that. Can we dig a little more into this net of entrapment? When you talk about how it changes what would be normal human life in a neighborhood. It gets completely changed, from the most mundane to the most significant aspects of your life. There's an entire net of entrapment that's been constructed.

Alice Goffman: Yeah, so this is what was really kind of the surprising finding for me of this research, is that once you're on the wrong side of the law, once you have a probation violation, it's exactly the things you would be doing to be a good person, an upstanding citizen, a good father, a good employee, going to work, showing up routinely to your kids' activities, sleeping in the same bed every night, being a known person with a stable routine—it's exactly all those things that allow the police to find you.

So the way the police make their stats and round up enough young men to get these very high arrest rates is by looking for people in all the places that they know them to be. They've got a lot of technology to do this. So your mother's house becomes a last known address. Your girlfriend who you love, and you care about becomes a person who the police can turn to, to provide information. Your job—the police will come to young men's jobs to take them into custody. Also going to the hospitals.

So when Alex, another young man I got to know, when his girlfriend was giving birth to his first son, he had a parole violation for drinking alcohol at the time. So he didn't want to go to the hospital because he was worried the police would arrest him at the hospital. But he went anyway, because he wasn't going to miss his son's birth. So he stayed with his girlfriend for many hours of labor. I got there after the baby had been born, and we were there in the delivery room. And two police officers came into the room and arrested him on this parole violation. And when I asked them how they had found him, they said that they had run the names of the men on the visitors' list and had arrested him and two other men with low-level warrants who had also been on the delivery room floor. So hospitals become dangerous.

Later when he was on probation and working very hard to complete his probation, he got beat up in an alleyway and then refused to go to the hospital to seek medical treatment because he was so worried that being beaten up and going to the hospital would cause him to violate his parole—for being out late, if there was alcohol in his system, etc. So his eyes are not set at the right level in his face, and he speaks with a muffled lisp. But he didn't go to the hospital and he completed his parole.

So it's setting up this incentive system where doing exactly the things we would want people to do to be good people wind up as sort of pathways to prison. So kind of not the way we would want it to be organized to encourage people to stay on the right path....

Michael Slate: There's so much in this book, so much in the experience that you had. I want to give people the sense of terror that pervades throughout the entire community to a very large extent, the question of raids. And you had personal experience in a raid. I want people to get a sense of what that was like. What happens with these raids? How are they carried out? What are they carried out for, and what happens during them?

Alice Goffman: Yeah, so I was present for a few nighttime raids, and I heard recounted a good deal more. The one that I talk about in the book, it was late at night, and we had been watching Gangs of New York, on the couch. I was at Mike's mother's house with Mike and Chuck and Mike's mother and I'd fallen asleep on the couch and I heard the banging in my dreams sort of mixed in with the title page music. And then two police officers busted through the door, both white, SWAT gear, guns on the sides of their legs. One officer pushed me down onto the floor and put his boot over me and then cuffed me with plastic handcuffs and yelled at me to say where the guys in the house were hiding.

At this point I didn't know where they were. It turns out that they had fled. So then another officer comes in and takes everything out of the fridge and opens the cabinets and throws the china out of the cabinets and then comes into the living room and takes out the drop ceiling and throws the drop ceiling squares down on the floor and opens the closet and takes out the old shoes and games. And I can hear Mike's mother upstairs screaming at them not to shoot her and screaming at them to let her get dressed. And all the while the cop with his foot on me is saying, "You'd better tell me where they're hiding. I can tell that Mike's mother takes pride in her house, and we don't want to have to ruin it," which they had sort of already done.

So like over the course of these raids and also interrogations, what the police do is convince women that if they don't give up the men in their lives, they will be evicted, their children will be taken away, they will be arrested for the man's crimes. And if they're trying to turn a girlfriend, rather than a mother or a sister or a friend, like I was, then the police use all this technology at their disposal to show women that the men have cheated on them, or that the men don't really love them, or will be trying to blame them for their crimes. And then they do the same thing to the man. So they do these kind of complex, two-way maneuvers where women learn that the man that they love they can't trust, and they imagine these long years in prison if they don't inform.

This is something you see in the movies happening to women who are involved with very, very high profile murderers. But this is like sort of something the police are doing in poor communities of color to many young women, to many mothers and sisters and cousins as a kind of routine way to round up enough men to make their stats.

Michael Slate: And it's a very special oppression that they aim at women. As you're pointing out, including this point about the threat—there's all kinds of other threats beyond the question of turning them against the man who's their partner in life, or at the time. But there's a very special pressure that relates to children and security whether you're going to have a house and whether you'll be able to keep your kids. And all of this stuff gets put on the line very heavily. From what you're saying, it's a routine thing to pressure women in this manner.

Alice Goffman: Yeah, so we did this survey, Chuck and I, one summer. We interviewed the households in this four-block radius of the area that I use the pseudonym "6th Street" for, because I just wanted to know if this was happening to most women, or just a few, or just the ones I'd gotten to know. So it was really incredible. We found that, I think, a third of women had been interrogated like this in the past couple of years. So it's happening very routinely to women. It's something that's part of what they have to deal with. And these are communities that are struggling with all kinds of problems beyond the kinds of violence and pressure from the criminal justice system, right? There's poverty, there's high crime, there's drug addiction and all the kinds of problems that come with being in a community that's been historically excluded and marginalized and impoverished. So people are dealing with all of this, right? But then on top of that they're dealing with the threat of the police and the men in their lives going in and out of prison and all this.

Michael Slate: A whole new social world gets created in relation to what the criminal injustice system is doing to the people there. There's a whole new social order that gets created. You point out that all the things that are the significant moments in one's life, so many of them, in a normal neighborhood or whatever, in a neighborhood that's not a Black neighborhood that's under the gun of the police 24/7, what ends up happening is you have a prom, you have a marriage, you have all these things. But in the neighborhoods that we're talking about, in the neighborhood that you did your study in, the whole social life of the neighborhood gets warped and changed into something very different in relation to what's going on in terms of the oppression that comes down on people there.

Alice Goffman: Right, so the kind of key moments in young adulthood, if you think about the key moments of adolescence: first year in high school, first day of school, graduation, prom, first job, all these kinds of moments. A few people were getting to have these moments. But many young men, and many women too, their moments were, first time being arrested, first time going to jail, coming home from jail. Bail hearings became a big moment. Court cases. So when prom comes for a young man, it's like OK, who are you going to invite to prom, right? That's a pretty big sign of who is the most important girl in your life, right?

But for Mike, and Chuck and other young men that I got to know, this was like a court date. So the sentencing hearing became these times where like, well who are you going to invite to the sentencing hearing? And who was going to sit next to your mother in the first row? So it's a kind of transferring over of all of these moments of young adulthood into the criminal justice system. So not graduations and first days on the job, but sentencing hearings and parole hearings and bail. They became these moments where people kind of came together and figured out who was who in each other's lives.

And they're not the same, right? I mean, they're profoundly sad. So even when you're the woman who gets picked to be sitting next to the mom of a man getting sentenced, you're still watching the person that you love be sentenced to ten years in prison. It's a kind of hellish sort of graduation.

And then, in terms of the fabric of community life, one really surprising thing to me was that there's all of these job opportunities for people who can't work and who are not able to find work in the legal economy. There's this whole underground economy that's been created to provide for people who have legal entanglements, who are on probation, who are on parole, who are sitting in jail. So people are selling fake documents, people are selling clean urine so people can get past their court cases. People are smuggling basic goods into jails and getting paid for that. So there's this whole kind of underground network of support, and people making little bits of money out of the legal woes of their neighbors and friends and cousins. So that was surprising to me, too.

Michael Slate: That was the next question I was going to ask you. There was something that was really interesting to me, in that, yes, there were people who were saying, OK, they have a chance to make a little extra here, to do this, do that. But a lot of them were rising to serve, like you said, a certain need. It was interesting to see people, one way or another, they have some understanding of, there's something very terrible going on here, and the whole question of restoring some element of humanity. Even the guy who was running the half-way house that you write about, who would let people leave the half-way house overnight, violating all the rules, cover for them, because he wanted them to have an element of humanity. For all these things that people do, yes, making money, getting a chance to do this, do that, but at the same time there was also this element, and I don't know how widespread it was, but there was something terrible going on and I want to do something to counter this.

Alice Goffman: There was a woman who I got to know pretty well who was studying to be a nurse's assistant, who ended up bringing drugs that were needed, like antibiotics, kind of an underground provider of antibiotics, and also she would make casts and reset people's arms when they had been broken and things like that for people who were too scared to go to the hospital. So Ronnie was climbing on a bus and shot himself in the leg by accident with a gun he was carrying because his older cousin had just died in a very violent conflict. He had come home from juvenile detention and was very scared for his life. Anyway, he got on this bus, the gun went off, shot himself in the leg. And she came and took the bullet out on his grandmother's kitchen table, knowing that he was refusing to go to the hospital because he didn't want to go back to jail.

So there's a lot of women and some men providing health care to people who are too scared to seek formal care. There's also, like you said, this man that I met who worked in a half-way house, who was letting men leave the house at night. It was this very overcrowded halfway house. Men were sleeping two and three to a bunk. The plumbing system was all screwy so there was sewage like on the floor of these rooms so he basically thought that was wrong and he talked about wanting to be on the right side of history, and he would let men out at night to see their families and then come back before count in the morning. He was partly taking some money on the side for this, but he was also letting people go for free. He talked about it as an underground railroad.

Michael Slate: Throughout the book and throughout this interview we've been talking about the repercussions of all the police activity against all of the people in this neighborhood. To my mind, this is obviously something that gets repeated in one way or another in neighborhoods just like this all over the country. I wanted to ask you this: you also made a big point about surveillance of people, and the fact that people are living under almost constant surveillance in one way or another. And I wanted to know if you could expand on that a little bit more.

Alice Goffman: I thought a lot about surveillance as I was doing this project, particularly because technology was changing across all kinds of groups in society. So like, as a middle-class white person, I think like lots of people, I'm scared about what the government knows about me. But most of the way that this technology works in my life is when I swipe my card at a train station it can tell me what trains I've taken in the past and ask me if I want to go on that one again. Amazon knows what things I might want to watch. It's sort of helpful in my life.

In this neighborhood this technology is being deployed to make people feel unsafe in their homes, and to round up people at their jobs. And it's really impressive the kinds of technologies that are being used. So like the question of, how do you create a kind of fugitive life for this many people in poor communities of color? And the answer is like, well partly just through lots of police. There's this huge ramping up of policing. In the second half of the 20th century, urban police departments across the country got kind of flooded with federal dollars. All these special units got created. But there's also this incredible transformation in technology. So the police officers that I interviewed in Philadelphia, when they're looking for somebody they use social security records, court records, hospital admissions records, electric and gas bills, employment records. They go to a person's usual haunts—his home, his workplace, his street corner. They threaten family and friends with arrest. And they can find out all the places where family might be or their friends might be through all this information that they can pull up very quickly on the computer screen.

They also turn to people in the neighborhood who have their own pending legal entanglements and put pressure on them to provide information about whoever is on their list that day. Also, the warrant units operating in the Philadelphia police department, they use this pretty sophisticated computer mapping program that tracks people that have warrants or who are on probation or parole or have been released on bail. So then you can round up these people and get them to provide information about whoever you're looking for.

A local FBI officer got inspired to develop this computer program after watching a documentary on the Stasi, the East German secret police. They also track people in real time with their cell phones. It's really incredible the technology at their disposal and the harmful effects of it in this community.

Michael Slate: There are some people who operate in the world who understand some of the complexity of this massive web of surveillance and are very careful about the kind of tracks that they leave. Not that they're doing anything illegal or anything untoward. They just don't want to be followed. Yet you look at this and this is for people who are really on the bottom of society, and yet are faced with such a massive web of surveillance. It's incredible. And it must be really incredibly repressive and oppressive in people's lives.

Alice Goffman: And the cost of this. It could be put toward much more kind of socially positive and job creation, better schools. We're talking about a massive budget here going to this policing and imprisonment.

Michael Slate: You've talked about the penal system, that the overall penal system has become America's way of managing the problem of Black poverty. Let's talk about that.

Alice Goffman: Michelle Alexander and other scholars and others have made this case that the War on Crime and the War on Drugs have substantially targeted Black Americans, and that the felony conviction that people receive when they get out of prison is equivalent to a second-class citizenship status—the same kind of second-class citizenship status that Black people suffered under Jim Crow.

I think what my book shows is that many poor Black Americans are living not just as felons, but as fugitives. They're worried that at any moment they may be seized. And this also goes very far back. So during slavery, through the fugitive slave laws, during Jim Crow through the vagrancy statutes that arrested large numbers of Black people trying to move north during the First and Second Great Migrations. After slavery and Jim Crow we had the Civil Rights Movement, right? Black Americans finally won the rights of citizenship that had eluded them for centuries.

What my book shows is that these citizenship rights have been removed and people are now living as fugitives, and that's kind of the lowest form of citizenship we could imagine, when the state is actually on the hunt for you.

Michael Slate: It's very heavy, because in a way, you're a prisoner whether you're in jail or not in jail.

Alice Goffman: That puts it very well.

Michael Slate: Bob Avakian has said this—what you're looking at with the onslaught, after the War on Drugs began under Nixon, and the idea that as Haldeman quoted him, "the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to." They know what happened in the 1960s, with all the massive rebellions and whatnot, and the idea that, in these decades, they don't want to have that happen again and this was a way to sort of clamp down on that possibility. .And as this all developed essentially what you end up having is the launching of a counter-insurgency at a time when there is not yet an insurgency.

Alice Goffman: I think the whole concept of mass incarceration is sort of premised on the idea that this isn't just about punishing single offenders. This is about imprisoning an entire group of people. I think that that's what we're seeing for poor African-Americans today. The question moving forward is, what place are African-Americans going to have in our liberal democracy? Are we going to continue to be a society where African-American young men are living as felons and fugitives and with a secondary citizenship status, or are we going to really include African-American young men in the labor market, include them in higher education? Are we going to grant full membership in American life to Black young men, or not?

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