On the Run | Alice Goffman

Summary of: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City
By: Alice Goffman


In ‘On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City’, Alice Goffman invites the reader to dive deep into the world of Sixth Street, a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia. The residents of this area navigate a fugitive culture, stemming from the US justice system which criminalizes large segments of society, particularly the black population. This comprehensive book summary highlights the impact of ‘tough-on-crime’ and ‘war-on-drugs’ policies on people living in poor neighborhoods like Sixth Street, where most individuals are trapped in a cycle of crime. Learn about the extent of living in this fugitive culture, with aspects such as police awareness, lack of trust in family and friends, constant fear of arrest, and the underground economy that thrives in such communities.

The Criminalization of Black Neighborhoods

The US justice system is one major source of the fugitive culture that pervades poor black neighborhoods, statistics show. Since implementing “tough-on-crime” policies in the 1970s, prison confinement rates have risen sharply. People in poor neighborhoods become criminals as there is little else to do to survive, and black Americans are particularly targeted, composing 37% of the prison population despite representing only 13% of the population. Welfare cuts in the black community drove many into the drug trade, just as the government cracked down. The result is a cycle of criminal activity that is often fueled by minor events and that drags many individuals in black communities into its pull, as illustrated by the example of the Sixth Street boys in Philadelphia.

Surviving Sixth Street

In areas like Sixth Street, the police are always a threat, regardless of whether or not you’ve broken the law. For the boys growing up in this environment, the only option is to become highly aware of police presence, learning not only how to identify officers but also how to run and hide when necessary. This constant fear of being caught creates a culture of fugitives where even innocent individuals can become targets. To survive, one must always be alert and maintain a healthy distance from police authority.

Sixth Street Boys’ Reality

In a fugitive culture, Sixth Street boys cannot trust anyone, not even their closest family and friends who might turn them in to the police using information coerced through various tactics. Mothers and partners may give in to questioning if the police threaten to alert Child Protective Services or take away their social housing benefits. To avoid arrest, Sixth Street boys flee to unknown places, not even trusting their best friends.

The Paradoxical Life of Sixth Street Dwellers

Sixth Street is a place where residents don’t have a regular routine as police are always on the lookout for arrests. Any predictable behavior would lead to immediate surveillance and tracking of the person. Living a fugitive life on Sixth Street means missing out on basic societal institutions like justice and health care systems. This summary portrays the difficult life of Sixth Street Boys through real-life stories, highlighting the harsh realities of living a life characterized by fear and isolation.

Surviving in a Fugitive Culture

Residents of Sixth Street have learned to survive in a dangerous neighborhood where traditional conflicts often result in violence. Instead of risking their lives, many choose to turn themselves in to the police on outstanding warrants just to be safe in prison. They also use the bail office as a form of banking, keeping their money safe from theft or abuse by family members. Despite the 20% charges, they consider it better than losing everything. In some cases, bail is even used as a form of collateral to borrow money from local dealers when traditional banks reject them due to their criminal record. This shows how people can adapt and make the best of their tough circumstances.

Fugitive Culture and Relationships

The influence of a fugitive culture on personal relationships is significant, as demonstrated by the story of Lisa and Reggie. On Sixth Street, women often threaten their partners with calling the cops to control them. In some cases, false allegations are made to pressure men to leave new partners or stop hanging out with friends. Relationships in a fugitive culture are defined by mutual risk-taking, and hiding a fugitive friend demonstrates affection. Conversely, denying shelter to someone is a sign of dislike. The impact of fugitive culture on personal relationships highlights the importance of understanding the social and cultural context in which individuals live.

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