In high school, I sold Little Debby snack cakes during our morning break. I never made much but at least I could throw some money down on my phone bill or put some gas in my truck. For the poor young blacks of 6th Street depicted in Alice Goffman’s book “On the Run: Fugitive Live in an American City” they sell small bags of weed and crack instead usually not making much money in the process just enough to pay a phone bill, buy some food, or hang out with some friends. The author, like many of us, grew up far removed from the scene of regular drug deals, high crime rates, and heavy policing that the residents of her new neighborhood had grown so accustom to. Usually it started with problems at home but sometimes selling drugs and committing crime were seen as the cool thing to do much in the same way that chewing tobacco and under age drinking were viewed by my peers growing up. The difference being that instead of a slap on the wrist these young black boys were being sent to juvie. Only one person I knew growing up was ever sent to juvenile detention and another two or three were suspended from school due to drugs. In these intercity schools, by the time graduation comes around most of the male students wil have dropped out and out of them 60% will have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system one way or another by the time they turn 30.
To summarize my thoughts of Alice Goffman’s work, I would like to say that I enjoyed her writing. It was a quick and easy read, and the story she tells is an enlightening one. On 6th Street, the fictitious name that the author gives her adopted neighborhood, the residents held a lot of disdain towards the police. These were the same officers who where arresting, beating, and incarcerating their young men. This had far reaching effects on the relationships with their loved ones and friends, the ability of the arrested to find respectable employment in the future, and how the community as a whole was seen. I myself grew up in a predominantly white county in Alabama with a population of approximately 30,000 people, but I could see several correlations between the guys that Alice befriends in her community with the relatively poor “outlaw” crowd I knew growing up. From the buying and selling of moonshine (often in conjunction with underage drinking), speeding, other reckless behavior, and child support cases, those who had one too many brushes with the law or who spent a day in court handling fines, bail, the messy business of divorce, and the shame that came with it, often held a negative view of the police and the courts. However, where the policy of avoidance can often be applied by these folks those on 6th Street and in other communities across America can not avoid the police in their heavily patrolled neighborhoods and once behind they often stay behind with barriers to entry to services that we take for granted such as acquiring a valid driver’s license, gaining access to a hospital, or being able to call on the police when they were victimized.
Apart from a few grammatical errors that where made throughout the book, you can tell that a great amount of time, effort, and attention were put into the writing of this short documentary. At times it feels like Goffman is trying to distance herself from the struggle or lacks common “street smarts” other times it feels as if she has gotten too close to the crime and the violence; however, as she learns the rules and the language of the streets we the readers learn as well and get to partake in the lives and struggles of the individuals that she has come to know and ultimately befriend. This book, first published in 2014, remains a relevant work today and is one that I recommend especially with the ever increasing income gap between the rich and the poor, the decrease of investigative reporting, and the uptick of groups such as Black Lives Matter. Understanding isn’t going to fix the world’s problems but it does bring us one step closer together.
— Author: TBryantS