** On the Run by Alice Goffman


I find On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City to be barely legible in parts. It’s a book-length version of a years-long ethnographic study of  a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it is not the wretched lives of many of the main actors (in juvenile detention by junior high; parents and drug dealers by high school; in prison for dealing or murder by young adulthood) that makes it illegible, but rather the relentless lying and pettiness in which they organize their daily lives. The author makes it clear that she believes that all the problems of the neighborhood are brought about by overbearing police action, and certainly it seems bizarre to lock kids up for possession of small quantities of marijuana, or for violent behavior at school that is reprehensible, but would not result in imprisonment in nicer neighborhoods. Why waste time checking that parolees are not drinking or smoking marijuana? And why not equip each released prisoner with an ID or a driver’s license? But it’s interesting to note that most of the inhabitants obey the law despite living in the same circumstances as the repeat offenders, and very sad to see how many children are brought up in the chaos and likely to suffer the same fate in a few years.

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