The Society of Fugitives

The Effect Aggressive Policing Has on Black Communities

The Atlantic's James Forman Jr. writes on On the Run, a book from sociology professor Alice Goffman that details how the constant contact many Black males have with the criminal justice system affects the entire community

by The Atlantic, September 29, 2014

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The Society of Fugitives

The Society of Fugitives

The police, in Goffman’s portrayal in On the Run, are at full-fledged war with residents. They beat up people under arrest, steal from suspects, smash up homes while serving warrants, and use the results of surveillance to turn lovers or family members against one another. Such behavior shocks Goffman, at least at first. But the neighborhood’s longtime residents are more resigned. To them, police raids are like thunderstorms: take cover if you can, and don’t go back outside until it stops raining.

Police surveillance on Sixth Street has few limits, as one of Mike’s friends, Alex, learns when he accompanies his girlfriend, Donna, to the hospital for the birth of their first child. Shortly after the delivery, police officers arrive to handcuff Alex. One of them tells Goffman that they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim and followed their practice of running the names of men on the visitors’ list; Alex’s name came back with a warrant attached. (The warrant had nothing to do with the shooting; Donna later tells Goffman that it had been issued when Alex was found to be violating his parole by driving after his license had been revoked.) Donna begs the officers to let Alex stay and promises to go with him to the police station the next day, but to no avail. They take Alex into custody, along with two other men on the maternity ward. Once his friends learn of his arrest, they decide to avoid hospitals, even at the cost of missing their own children’s births.



In places like Sixth Street, Goffman argues, “the sheer scope of policing and imprisonment … is transforming community life in ways that are deep and enduring, not only for the young men who are their targets but for their family members, partners, and neighbors.” She writes at length, for instance, about how the police coerce mothers and girlfriends into revealing a fugitive’s whereabouts by threatening them with arrest, eviction, or loss of custody of their children. She notes that a woman who yields to such pressure may come under criticism from others in the community, while those who resist may be regarded as strong and loyal. To Goffman, this is an example of what happens once the criminal-justice system “has come to occupy a central place” in people’s lives.





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