On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City - Alice Goffman

 

                Undoubtedly this book is compared to both Code of the Streets and Gang Leader for a Day.  Such a comparison would be fair, and Goffman herself was a student of Andersen (author of Code of the Streets). 

 

                Goffman’s book presents her study of a group of people, predominately young men, in a poor, largely African-American section of Philadelphia.  This is far from the community that Goffman herself grew up in, though most people (Goffman included) whether or not they know it, know someone like the young men and women in the book.  And this, in fact, seems like part of the reason for the book.

 

                It would be just to say that Goffman gets too close to her subject.  In fairness, however, how can one truly study someone’s community without becoming immersed in it?   But there is the story of that Goffman tells almost in passing about the police strangling a man, the implication being that the police strangled him to death.  Goffman than says that the press reported the man’s death as a heart attack.  The question I have, is why, given her privileged status (something that she admits to and details) did she not try to reach out and do something?  There is something disquieting about the story that stretches beyond the idea of police brutality, disquieting enough in of itself.  Another just criticism could be that she should have tried talking to police more than she did, at least for the book, but considering what does happen in the book, it doesn’t seem likely that she would approach the police or that they would answer her questions.

 

                That point aside, it is impossible to disregard the power of the description of life that Goffman writes about it.  While like the books that precede her, Goffman looks primary at the men, she does play more attention to the women and other members of the community.  More attention is planned to how the underground economy works, and how the community centers on what occurs.  It’s not only the physical actions, but how people judge those who “snitch” or break some community rules.   At the very least, Goffman’s book is important because it allows for greater understanding.  It makes the problem more visible to those who are lucky enough to live outside of it.