Starting in late summer 2014, a protest movement known as Black Lives Matter convulsed the country. Triggered by the fatal police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the movement claimed that blacks are still oppressed by widespread racism, especially within law enforcement. The police subject black communities to a gratuitous regime of stops and arrests, resulting in the frequent use of lethal force against black men, according to the activists and their media and academic allies. Indeed, America’s police are the greatest threat facing young black men today, the protesters charged. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio announced in December that he worries “every night” about the “dangers” his biracial son may face from “officers who are paid to protect him.” Less than three weeks later, a thug from Brooklyn, inspired by the nationwide anti-cop agitation, assassinated two New York police officers.
The protest movement’s indictment of law enforcement took place without any notice of the actual facts regarding policing and crime. One could easily have concluded from the agitation that black and white crime rates are identical. Why the police focus on certain neighborhoods and what the conditions are on the ground were questions left unasked.
The year 2014 also saw the publication of a book that addressed precisely the questions that the Black Lives Matter movement ignored. Alice Goffman, daughter of the influential sociologist Erving Goffman, lived in an inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood from 2002 to 2008, integrating herself into the lives of a group of young crack dealers. Her resulting book, On the Run, offers a detailed and startling ethnography of a world usually kept far from public awareness and discourse. It has been widely acclaimed; a film or TV adaptation may be on the way. But On the Run is an equally startling—if unintentional—portrait of the liberal elite mind-set. Goffman draws a devastating picture of cultural breakdown within the black underclass, but she is incapable of acknowledging the truth in front of her eyes, instead deeming her subjects the helpless pawns of a criminal-justice system run amok.
At the center of On the Run are three half-brothers and their slightly older friend Mike, all of whom live in a five-block area of Philadelphia that Goffman names Sixth Street. Sixth Street, we are told, isn’t viewed as a particularly high-crime area, which can only leave the reader wondering what an actual high-crime area would look like. In her six years living there, Goffman attended nine funerals of her young associates and mentions several others, including one for “three kids” paid for by local drug dealers, eager to cement their support in the community.
Goffman contends that it is the legal system itself that is creating crime and dysfunction in poor black communities. Young men get saddled with a host of allegedly petty warrants for having missed court dates, violated their parole and probation conditions, and ducked the administrative fees levied on their criminal cases. Fearful of being rounded up under these senseless procedural warrants, they adopt a lifestyle of subterfuge and evasion, constantly in flight from an increasingly efficient and technology-enhanced police force. “Once a man fears that he will be taken by the police, it is precisely a stable and public daily routine of work and family life . . . that allows the police to locate him,” Goffman writes. “A man in legal jeopardy finds that his efforts to stay out of prison are aligned not with upstanding, respectable action but with being a shady and distrustful character.”
Goffman’s own material demolishes this thesis. On the Run documents a world of predation and law-of-the-jungle mores, riven with violence and betrayal. Far from being the hapless victims of random “legal entanglements”—Goffman’s euphemism for the foreseeable consequences of lawless behavior—her subjects create their own predicaments through deliberate involvement in crime.
In 2002, when Goffman began her acquaintance with Sixth Street, the half-brothers Chuck, Reggie, and Tim were 18, 15, and nine, respectively. All had different fathers by the same crack-addict mother, Miss Linda. Their Section 8–subsidized house reeked of vomit, alcohol, and urine; roaches and ants crawled over the inhabitants as well as the furniture; cat feces covered a kitchen corner. Chuck’s and Reggie’s arrest records had begun in their early teens; Tim would graduate from middle school to the juvenile courts when he turned 12. Fatherlessness is a virtually universal condition among the young men in Goffman’s tale, but gradations exist within it. Chuck’s father came around during his early years, which helps explain, says Chuck, “why [Chuck] knew right from wrong and his young brothers did not”—a poignant acknowledgment of the role of fathers in raising sons, even if its premise (that Chuck knows right from wrong) is questionable.
On Sixth Street, drug dealing is tantamount to a bourgeois occupation. Chuck complains that his middle brother, Reggie, lacks the patience for “making slow money selling drugs hand to hand.” Instead, Reggie favors armed robberies, to the admiration of his mother, Miss Linda. “He fearless,” she says. “A stone-cold gangster.” It would be a mistake, however, to think of drug dealing as a peaceful activity. Early on, a disgruntled supplier firebombs Chuck’s car. Chuck responds by shooting at the supplier’s home. In 2007, at the end of Goffman’s chronicle, Chuck is fatally shot in the head while standing outside a Chinese restaurant, one of three shootings that night in Philadelphia. The killer, Goffman writes, was “trying to make it at the bottom rung of a shrinking drug trade.”
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