How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support each other, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.