Alice Goffman | On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City | University of Chicago Press | May 2014 | 45 minutes (12,478 words)
Below is a chapter excerpted from On the Run, by sociologist Alice Goffman, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Goffman spent six years living in a neighborhood in Philadelphia. In her groundbreaking book, she explains how the young black men in her neighborhood are ensnared in a Kafkaesque legal system which makes running from the police their only option, and how these men have made running into an art.
* * *
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.
Chuck put the strategy concisely to his twelve-year-old brother, Tim:
If you hear the law coming, you merk on [run away from] them niggas. You don’t be having time to think okay, what do I got on me, what they going to want from me. No, you hear them coming, that’s it, you gone. Period. ’Cause whoever they looking for, even if it’s not you, nine times out of ten they’ll probably book you.
Tim was still learning how to run from the police, and his beginner missteps furnished a good deal of amusement for his older brothers and their friends.
Late one night, a white friend of mine from school dropped off Reggie and a friend of his at my apartment. Chuck and Mike phoned me to announce that Tim, who was eleven at the time, had spotted my friend’s car and taken off down the street, yelling, “It’s a undercover! It’s a undercover!”
“Nigga, that’s Alice’s girlfriend.” Mike laughed. “She was drinking with us last night.”
If a successful escape means learning how to identify the police, it also requires learning how to run. Chuck, Mike, and their friends spent many evenings honing this skill by running after each other and chasing each other in cars. The stated reason would be that one had taken something from the other: a CD, a five-dollar bill from a pocket, a small bag of weed. Reggie and his friends also ran away from their girlfriends on foot or by car.
One night, I was standing outside Ronny’s house with Reggie and Reggie’s friend, an eighteen-year-old young man who lived across the street. In the middle of the conversation, Reggie’s friend jumped in his car and took off. Reggie explained that he was on the run from his girlfriend, who we then saw getting into another car after him. Reggie explained that she wanted him to be in the house with her, but that he was refusing, wanting instead to go out to the bar. This pursuit lasted the entire evening, with the man’s girlfriend enlisting her friends and relatives to provide information about his whereabouts, and the man doing the same. Around one in the morning, I heard that she’d caught him going into the beer store and dragged him back home.
It wasn’t always clear to me whether these chases were games or more serious pursuits, and some appeared more serious than others. Regardless of the meaning that people ascribed to them at the time or afterward, these chases improved young men’s skill and speed at getting away. In running from each other, from their girlfriends, and in a few cases their mothers, Reggie and his friends learned how to navigate the alleyways, weave through traffic, and identify local residents willing to hide them for a little while.
During the first year and a half I spent on 6th Street, I watched young men running and hiding from the police on 111 occasions, an average of more than once every five days.
Those who interact rarely with the police may assume that running away after a police stop is futile. Worse, it could lead to increased charges or to violence. While the second part is true, the first is not. In my first eighteen months on 6th Street, I observed a young man running after he had been stopped on 41 different occasions. Of these, 8 involved men fleeing their houses during raids; 23 involved men running after being stopped while on foot (including running after the police had approached a group of people of whom the man was a part); 6 involved car chases; and 2 involved a combination of car and foot chases, where the chase began by car and continued with the man getting out and running.
In 24 of these cases, the man got away. In 17 of the 24, the police didn’t appear to know who the man was and couldn’t bring any charges against him after he had fled. Even in cases where the police subsequently charged him with fleeing or other crimes, the successful getaway allowed the man to stay out of jail longer than he might have if he’d simply permitted the police to cuff him and take him in.
A successful escape can be a solitary act, but oftentimes it is a collective accomplishment. A young man relies on his friends, relatives, and neighbors to alert him when they see the police coming, and to pass along information about where the police have been or where and when they might appear next. When the police make inquiries, these friends and neighbors feign ignorance or feed the police misinformation. They may also help to conceal incriminating objects and provide safe houses where a young man can hide. From fieldnotes taken in September 2006:
Around 11 a.m., I walked up the alleyway to the back of Chuck’s house. Before I reached the porch, Chuck came running down the iron stairs, shouting something to a neighbor. Reggie followed him, also shouting. Their mother, Miss Linda, came to the top of the second-floor balcony and told me the law was on the way, and to make sure that Reggie in particular did not come back until she gave the green light. I recalled that Reggie had a warrant out for failure to pay court fees, and would doubtless be taken in if the cops ran his name.
I watched Chuck and Reggie proceed up the alleyway, and then Chuck turned and yelled at me to come on. We ran for about three blocks, going through two backyards and over a small divider. Dogs barked as we went by. I was half a block behind and lost sight of Chuck and Reggie. Panting, I slowed to a walk, looking back to see if the police were coming. Then I heard “psst” and looked up to see Chuck leaning out the second-floor window of a two-story house. A woman in her fifties, who I immediately guessed to be a churchgoer, opened the door for me as I approached, saying only, “Upstairs.”
Chuck and Reggie were in her dressing room. This quite conservative looking woman had converted what is usually the spare upstairs bedroom into a giant walk-in closet, with shoes, purses, and clothing arranged by color on the kind of white metal shelves that you buy and install yourself.
Our getaway had produced a mild euphoria. Reggie brushed past Chuck to examine the shoe collection, and Chuck wiped his arm off dramatically, teasing his younger brother about how sweaty he was.
“Look at yourself, nigga! You don’t run for shit now with that little bit of shell in your shoulder,” Reggie responded, referring to the partial bullet that had lodged just below the back of Chuck’s neck when he was shot the month before.
Chuck laughed. “I’m in the best shape of my life.” He explained that his shoulder hurt only when he played basketball.
Reggie sat on a small leopard-print stool and said, “Name a fat motherfucker who runs faster than me. Not just in the ’hood but anywhere in Philly.”
“Oh, here you go,” Chuck complained.
Chuck joked about the extensive shoe collection, saying you’d never know Miss Toya was like that. Reggie pulled out a pair of suede high heels and attempted to get one onto his foot, asking me to do up the straps. He got on her computer and started browsing pit bull websites, then YouTube videos of street fights. Chuck cringed and exclaimed loudly as Kimbo, a well-known street fighter, hit his opponent repeatedly in the eye, revealing bloody and battered tissue that Chuck called “spaghetti and meatballs.”
I asked Chuck why he made me run, and consequently dirty my sneakers, when I’m not even wanted.
“It’s good practice.”
Reggie grinned and said, “You be taking your fucking time, A.”
“You’re no track star,” I replied.
“What!? I was haul-assing.”
Chuck got on the phone with his mother and then a neighbor to find out how many police were on his block and for whom they had come. Apparently they were looking for a man who had fled on foot after being stopped on an off-road motorbike. They didn’t find this man, but did take two others from the house next door: one had a bench warrant for failure to appear, and the other had a small amount of crack in his pocket. Into the phone Chuck was saying, “Damn. They got Jay-Jay? Damn.”
About an hour later, his mother called to tell Chuck that the police had gone. We waited another ten minutes, then left for Pappi’s, the corner store. Chuck ordered Miss Toya a turkey hoagie and BBQ chips and brought them to her as thanks. We then walked back to the block with Dutch cigars and sodas.
Running wasn’t always the smartest thing to do when the cops came, but the urge to run was so ingrained that sometimes it was hard to stand still.
When the police came for Reggie, they blocked off the alleyway on both ends simultaneously, using at least five cars that I could count from where I was standing, and then ran into Reggie’s mother’s house. Chuck, Anthony, and two other guys were outside, trapped. Chuck and these two young men were clean, but Anthony had the warrant for failure to appear. As the police dragged Reggie out of his house, laid him on the ground, and searched him, one guy whispered to Anthony to be calm and stay still. Anthony kept quiet as Reggie was cuffed and placed in the squad car, but then he started whispering that he thought Reggie was looking at him funny, and might say something to the police. Anthony started sweating and twitching his hands; the two young men and I whispered again to him to chill. One said, “Be easy. He’s not looking at you.”
We stood there, and time dragged on. When the police started searching the ground for whatever Reggie may have tossed before getting into the squad car, Anthony couldn’t seem to take it anymore. He started mumbling his concerns, and then he took off up the alley. One of the officers went after him, causing the other young man standing next to him to shake his head in frustrated disappointment.
Anthony’s running caused the other officer to put the two young men still standing there up against the car, search them, and run their names; luckily, they came back clean. Then two more cop cars came up the alley, sirens on. About five minutes after they finished searching the young men, one of the guys got a text from a friend up the street. He silently handed me the phone so I could read it:
Anthony just got booked. They beat the shit out of him.
At the time of this incident, Chuck had recently begun allowing Anthony to sleep in the basement of his mother’s house, on the floor next to his bed. So it was Chuck’s house that Anthony phoned first from the police station. Miss Linda picked up and began yelling at him immediately.
“You fucking stupid, Anthony! Nobody bothering you, nobody looking at you. What the fuck did you run for? You a nut. You a fucking nut. You deserve to get locked up. Dumb-ass nigga. Call your sister, don’t call my phone. And when you come home, you can find somewhere else to stay.”
* * *
When the techniques young men deploy to avoid the police fail, and they find themselves cuffed against a wall or cornered in an alleyway, all is not lost: once caught, sometimes they practice concerted silence, create a distraction, advocate for their rights, or threaten to sue the police or go to the newspapers. I occasionally saw each of these measures dissuade the police from continuing to search a man or question a man on the street. When young men are taken in, they sometimes use the grate in the holding cell at the police station to scrape their fingertips down past the first few layers of skin, so that the police can’t obtain the prints necessary to identify them and attach them to their already pending legal matters. On four separate occasions I saw men from 6th Street released with bloody fingertips.
Avoiding the Police and the Courts When Settling Disputes
It’s not enough to run and hide when the police approach. A man intent on staying out of jail cannot call the police when harmed, or make use of the courts to settle disputes. He must forego the use of the police and the courts when he is threatened or in danger and find alternative ways to protect himself. When Mike returned from a year upstate, he was rusty in these sensibilities, having been living most recently as an inmate rather than as a fugitive. His friends wasted no time in reacquainting him with the precariousness of life on the outside.
Mike had been released on parole to a halfway house, which he had to return to every day before curfew. When his mother went on vacation, he invited a man he had befriended in prison to her house to play video games. The next day, Mike, Chuck, and I went back to the house and found Mike’s mother’s stereo, DVD player, and two TVs gone. Later, a neighbor told Mike that he had seen the man taking these things from the house in the early morning.
Once the neighbor identified the thief, Mike debated whether to call the police. He didn’t want to let the robbery go, but he also didn’t want to take matters into his own hands and risk violating his parole. Finally, he called the police and gave them a description of the man. When we returned to the block, Reggie and another friend admonished Mike about the risks he had taken:
REGGIE: And you on parole! You done got home like a day ago! Why the fuck you calling the law for? You lucky they ain’t just grab [arrest] both of you.
FRIEND: Put it this way: they ain’t come grab you like you ain’t violate shit, they ain’t find no other jawns [warrants] in the computer. Dude ain’t pop no fly shit [accused Mike of some crime in an attempt to reduce his own charges], but simple fact is you filed a statement, you know what I’m saying, gave them niggas your government [real name]. Now they got your mom’s address in the file as your last known [address]. The next time they come looking for you, they not just going to your uncle’s, they definitely going to be through there [his mother’s house].
In this case, their counsel proved correct. Mike returned to the halfway house a few days later and discovered that the guards there were conducting alcohol tests. He left before they could test him, assuming he would test positive and spend another year upstate for the violation. He planned to live on the run for some time, but three days later the police found him at his mother’s house and took him into custody. We had been playing video games, and he had gone across the street to change his clothes at the Laundromat. Two unmarked cars pulled up, and three officers got out and started chasing him. He ran for two blocks before they threw him down on the pavement. Later, he mentioned that their knowledge of his mother’s new address must have come from the time he reported the robbery, and he bemoaned his thoughtlessness in calling them.
Young men also learn to see the courts as dangerous. A year after Chuck came home from the assault case, he enrolled in a job training program for young men who have not completed high school, hoping to earn his high school diploma and gain a certificate in construction. He proudly graduated at twenty-two and found a job apprenticing on a construction crew. Around this time he had been arguing with his babymom, and she stopped allowing him to see their two daughters, ages one and a half and six months. After considerable hesitation, Chuck took her to family court to file for partial custody. He said it tore at him to let a white man into his family affairs, but what could he do? He needed to see his kids. At the time, Chuck was also sending thirty-five dollars per month to the city toward payment on tickets he had received for driving without a license or registration; he hoped to get into good standing and become qualified to apply for a driver’s license. The judge said that if Chuck did not meet his payments on time every month, he would issue a bench warrant for his arrest. Then Chuck could work off the traffic tickets he owed in county jail (fines and fees can be deducted for every day spent in custody).
Five months into his case for partial custody in family court, Chuck lost his construction job and stopped making the payments to the city for the traffic tickets. He said he wasn’t sure if he had actually been issued a warrant, and unsuccessfully attempted to discover this. He went to court for the child custody case anyway the next month, and when his baby-mom mentioned that he was a drug dealer and unfit to get partial custody of their children, the judge immediately ran his name in the database to see if any warrants came up. They did not. As we walked out of the courthouse, Chuck said to me and to his mother:
I wanted to run [when the clerk ran his name], but it was no way I was getting out of there—it was too many cops and guards. But my shit came back clean, so I guess if they’re going to give me a warrant for the tickets, they ain’t get around to it yet.
The judge ruled in Chuck’s favor and granted him visitation on Sundays at a court-supervised day-care site. These visits, Chuck said, made him anxious: “Every time I walk in the door I wonder, like, is it today? Are they going to come grab me, like, right out of the day care? I can just see [my daughter’s] face, like, ‘Daddy, where you going?’”
After a month, the conditions of his custody allowed Chuck to go to his baby-mom’s house on the weekends to pick up his daughters. He appeared thrilled with these visits, because he could see his children without having to interact with the courts and risk any warrant that might come up.
* * *
If, in the past, residents of poor Black communities could not turn to the police to protect themselves or settle disputes because the police were so often absent and uninterested, now it seems that residents face an additional barrier: they cannot turn to the police because their legal entanglements prevent them from doing so. The police are everywhere, but as guarantors of public safety, they are still out of reach.
The hesitancy of legally precarious men to turn to the authorities has some important implications. First, steering clear of the police and the courts means that young men tend not to use the ordinary resources of the law to protect themselves from crimes committed against them. While those on probation or parole may make tentative use of these resources (and sometimes regret it later, when the police arrest them using new information they provided), men with warrants typically stay away. During my first year and a half on 6th Street, I noted twenty-four instances of men contacting the police when they were injured, robbed, or threatened. These men were either in good standing with the courts or had no pending legal constraints. I did not observe any person with a warrant call the police or voluntarily make use of the courts during the six years of the study. Indeed, these young men seemed to view the authorities only as a threat to their safety.
Ned, age forty-three, and his longtime girlfriend Jean, age forty-six, lived on Mike’s block. Jean smoked crack pretty heavily, although Chuck noted that she could handle her drugs, meaning she was able to maintain both a household and her addiction. Ned was unemployed and for extra money occasionally hosted dollar parties—house parties with a dollar entrance fee offering drinks, food, and games for a dollar each. He also engaged in petty fraud, such as intercepting checks in the mail and stealing credit cards. The couple’s primary income came from taking in foster children. When Ned and Jean discovered they might be kicked out of their house because they owed property taxes to the city, Jean called Reggie’s cousin, telling him to come to the house because she had some gossip concerning his longtime love interest. When he arrived, a man in a hoodie robbed him at gunpoint. Reggie later remarked that his cousin should have known better than to go to Ned and Jean’s house: as the only man on the block with a warrant out for his arrest at the time, he was an easy target for a couple under financial strain.
If young men known to have a warrant become the target of those looking for someone to exploit or even to rob, they may resort to violence themselves, for protection or for revenge.
One winter morning, Chuck, Mike, and I were at a diner having breakfast to celebrate that the authorities hadn’t taken Mike into custody after his court appearance earlier that day. Chuck’s mother called to tell him that his car had been firebombed outside her house, and that firefighters were putting out the blaze. According to Chuck, the man who set fire to his car had given him drugs to sell on credit, under the arrangement that Chuck would pay him once he sold the drugs. Chuck hadn’t been able to pay, however, because the police had taken the money from his pockets when they searched him earlier that week. This was the first car that Chuck had ever purchased legally, a 1994 Bonneville he had bought the week before for four hundred dollars from a used-car lot in Northeast Philadelphia. He didn’t speak for the rest of the meal. Then, as we walked to Mike’s car, he said:
This shit is nutty, man. What the fuck I’m supposed to do, go to the cops? “Um, excuse me, officer, I think boy done blown up my whip [car].” He going to run my name and shit, now he see I got a warrant on me; next thing you know, my Black ass locked the fuck up, you feel me? I’m locked up because a nigga firebombed my whip. What the fuck, I’m supposed to let niggas take advantage?
Chuck and Mike discussed whether Chuck should take matters into his own hands or do nothing. Doing nothing had the benefit of not placing him in more legal trouble, but as they both noted, doing nothing set them up to be taken advantage of by people who understood them to be “sweet.”
A few days later, Chuck drove over to 8th Street with Mike and another friend and shot off a few rounds at the home of the man who he believed was responsible for blowing up his car. Although no one was injured, a neighbor reported the incident, and the police put out a body warrant for Chuck’s arrest for attempted murder.
Hesitant to go to the police or to make use of the courts, young men around 6th Street are vulnerable to theft or violence by those who know they won’t press charges. With the police out of reach, they sometimes resort to more violence as a strategy to settle disputes or defend themselves.
The Net of Entrapment
It isn’t difficult to imagine that a young man worried that the police will take him into custody learns to avoid both the cops and the courts. But young men around 6th Street learn to fear far more than just the legal authorities. The reach of the police extends outward like a net around them—to public places in the city, to the activities they usually involve themselves in, and to the neighborhood spots where they can usually be found.
Three hospitals serve the mixed-income Black section of the city within which 6th Street is located. Police officers crowd into their waiting rooms and hallways, especially in the evenings and on the weekends. Squad cars and paddy wagons park outside the hospital, officers in uniform or in plain clothes stand near the ambulances, and more officers walk around or wait in the ER. Some police come to the hospitals to investigate shootings and to question the witnesses who arrive there; others come because the men they have beaten while arresting them require medical care before they can be taken to the precinct or the county jail. Sitting in the ER waiting room, I often watched police officers walk Black young men out the glass double doors in handcuffs.
According to the officers I interviewed, it is standard practice in the hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of visitors or patients while they are waiting around, and to take into custody those with warrants, or those whose injuries or presence there constitutes grounds for a new arrest or a violation of probation or parole.
Alex experienced this firsthand when he was twenty-two years old and his girlfriend, Donna, was pregnant with their first child. He accompanied her to the hospital for the birth and stayed with her during fourteen long hours of labor. I got there a few hours after the baby was born, in time to see two police officers come into Donna’s room to place Alex in handcuffs. As he stood with his hands behind him, Donna screamed and cried, and as they walked him away, she got out of the bed and grabbed hold of him, moaning, “Please don’t take him away. Please, I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow, I swear—just let him stay with me tonight.” The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list. Alex came up as having a warrant out for a parole violation, so they arrested him along with two other men on the delivery room floor.
I asked Alex’s partner about the warrant, and she reminded me that the offense dated from Christmas, when the police had stopped Alex as he pulled up to a gas station. Since his driver’s license had been revoked, driving constituted a violation of his parole.
After the police took Alex into custody at the maternity ward, it became increasingly clear to his friends on 6th Street that the hospital was a place to be avoided at all costs. Soon after Chuck turned twenty-one, his twenty-two-year-old girlfriend was due with their second child. Chuck told her that he would be at the hospital, even though he had a detainer out for a probation violation for breaking curfew. He stayed with her up until the point that she was getting in her aunt’s car to go to the hospital. Then at the final moment, he said she should go ahead without him, and that he would come soon.
Later, Chuck sat with me on the steps and discussed the situation. “I told her I was on my way,” he said. “She mad as shit I ain’t there. I can hear her right now. She going to be like, ‘You broke your promise.’ I’m not trying to go out like Alex [get arrested], though. You feel me?”
As we spoke, his girlfriend called his cell phone repeatedly, and he would mute the sound after one ring and stare at her picture as it came up on the screen.
Just as a man worried the police will pick him up avoids the hospital when his child is born and refuses to seek formal medical care when he is badly beaten, so he won’t visit his friends and relatives in prison or jail. Some prisons make it a general practice to run the names of visitors; others employ random canine searches of visitors’ cars, and run the plates and names from the parking lot.
Funerals also become risky for men worried that the police may take them. Each of the nine funerals I attended for young men who had been killed in the 6th Street neighborhood featured police officers stationed outside with a tripod camera to film the mourners as they filed in. More officers stood across the street and parked on the adjacent blocks. When I asked an officer of the Warrant Unit about funerals, he replied that they were a great place to round up people for arrest. “But we try to stay a block or two away, so we don’t get our picture in the paper.”
Like hospitals and funerals, places of employment become dangerous for people with a warrant. Soon after Mike got released on parole to a halfway house, he found a job through an old friend who managed a Taco Bell. After two weeks, Mike, twenty-four at the time, refused to return to the house in time for curfew, saying he couldn’t spend another night cooped up with a bunch of men like he was still in jail. He slept at his girlfriend’s house, and in the morning found that he had been issued a violation and would likely be sent back to prison, pending the judge’s decision. Mike said he wasn’t going back, and they were going to have to catch him. Two parole officers arrested him the next day as he was leaving the Taco Bell, where he had gone to pick up his paycheck. He spent a year back upstate for this violation.
When Mike got booked at the Taco Bell, Chuck chewed him out thoroughly. Didn’t he remember the time Chuck got taken?
Chuck started working at the local McDonald’s when he was nineteen. Later that year he caught a probation violation for driving a car, his driving privileges having been revoked as part of his probation sentence. Though he had a warrant, Chuck kept working, saying that if the police came he would simply run out the back door.
A couple of weeks later, a former employee got into a fight with three other workers, and the police shut the McDonald’s down while they questioned witnesses and looked for the women involved. When the fight began, Chuck had been in the storeroom, talking on the phone to his girlfriend. He came out, he said, and saw six police officers staring at him. At this point he phoned me to come pick up his house keys, fairly certain he would be taken into custody. When I got there, it was too late—Chuck was leaving in the back of a squad car.
A man worried that the police are hunting him—or at least may take him into custody should they come upon him—also comes to see friends, neighbors, and even family members as dangerous. First, he must avoid people who are “hot.” After Reggie robbed a convenience store and the security camera footage appeared on the nightly news, the cops came looking for him with much more determination than when he only had a warrant out for a probation violation. He became so hot that other men on the block didn’t want to be seen with him, worried that he’d bring heat on them. Mike gave me this advice:
I’ll only tell you this one time, A. Do not be around Reggie. He’s hot right now, he’s on the run. Don’t get caught up in it. They’re going to come for that nigga, and I don’t want you nowhere around there. Don’t let him get in your car, don’t even talk on the phone. If he calls you, bang on [hang up on] that nigga. They probably tracing the calls, and you could fuck around and catch a ya’mean [be arrested on conspiracy charges, for harboring a fugitive, etc.] or something. Don’t come through the block, don’t even wave at the dude. I already told that nigga don’t call your phone no more, but just in case.
Young men’s distrust extends beyond those who are particular targets of the police. Cops may exert significant pressure on a man’s relatives or partner to provide information about him. Out of frustration and anger at his failures as a father, spouse, brother, or son, his partner or family members may freely call the police on him, taking advantage of his wanted status to get back at him or punish him.
Whether a man’s friends, relatives, or girlfriend bring him to the attention of the authorities because the police pressure them to do so or because they leverage his wanted status to control or punish him, he comes to regard those closest to him as potential informants. Like going to the hospital or calling the police, spending time with friends, family, or romantic partners places men at risk.
Cultivating an Unpredictable Routine
Mike, Chuck, and their friends came to see danger and risk in the routine doings of everyday life. They learned to fear the police, and to regard the courts, the hospitals, their workplaces, their residences, and even their own family members as potential paths to confinement. To limit the risks that mundane places, relations, and people posed, they learned to practice concerted avoidance: to run and hide from the police, steer clear of hospitals, skip work, and hang back from their families and close friends.
Another strategy that young men on 6th Street adopt is to cultivate a secretive and unpredictable routine. I first noticed this strategy when Ronny shot himself in the leg when he was fifteen. Six police officers were occupying the ER lobby when he arrived; two of them quickly handcuffed the young man who had brought him in.
Ronny’s grandmother, aunt, cousin, and sister sat in the lobby and waited for news. Some of the young men from 6th Street who had warrants at the time didn’t show up at all, explaining to others that they couldn’t take the chance, even though they “loved that lil’ nigga” and wanted to be there. The men who did come, including Mike, stayed outside the hospital, hovering at the edge of the parking lot. They discussed which local police officers were inside, and what their chances were of going in to see Ronny without being spotted. One of Ronny’s friends waited for a few minutes some yards away from the emergency room doors, heard the status report, and left. He returned periodically throughout the night, motioning through the doors for someone in the waiting room to come out and give him an update. Mike asked me to stay and keep in touch with him via cell phone:
MIKE: Yo, just stay here till you hear something. I’m about to leave out.
MIKE: I’m not trying to get locked up off of Ronny and then they run my record and I got, like, three warrants out for me, you feel me?
When Ronny’s cousin was shot and killed later that year, the men from 6th Street attended his funeral in the same fashion that they had gone to the hospital—quickly and quietly, ducking in and out:
REGGIE: We couldn’t really stay, you know, at the funeral or whatever, you know they’re on my ass [the cops are looking for him]. But we ducked in and out and saw the body and everything. We ain’t go to the gravesite though, but we saw his [the dead man’s] grandmom, and she saved us a plate [of food] from after [the get- together at her house]. Lucky it was so many people at the church, because the cops was definitely out, boy.
Cultivating unpredictability not only helps with evading the police; it also helps to reduce the risk of friends and family informing. Simply put, a man’s neighbor, girlfriend, or mother cannot call the police on him if she doesn’t know where he is.
Chuck, twenty at the time, explained the dipping and dodging sensibility to his thirteen-year-old cousin:
The night is really, like, the best time to do whatever you got to do. If I want to go see my moms [mother], see my girl, come through the block and holla at my boys, I can’t be out in broad day. I got to move like a shadow, you know, duck in and out, you thought you saw me, then bam, I’m out before you even could see what I was wearing or where I was going.
Young men are so wary that their relatives, girlfriends, or neighbors may set them up that they may take any request from those close to them to show up or stop by as a potential threat. Mike noted:
Nine times out of ten, you getting locked up because somebody called the cops, somebody snitching. That’s why, like, if you get a call from your girl, like, “Yo, where you at, can you come through the block at a certain time,” that’s a red flag, you feel me? That’s when you start to think, like, “Okay, what do she got waiting for me?”
When Chuck’s nineteen-year-old neighbor had a bench warrant out for failure to appear in court, he was determined, he said, never to go back to jail. He slept in a number of houses, staying no more than a few nights in any one place. On the phone, he would lie to his family members, girlfriend, and fellow block members about where he was staying and where he planned to go next. If he got a ride to where he was staying, he requested to be dropped off a few blocks away, and then waited until the car was out of sight before walking inside. For six months, nobody on the block seemed to know where he was sleeping.
Young men looking over their shoulder for the police find that a public and stable daily routine becomes a path to confinement. A stable routine makes it easier for the police to locate a man directly, and makes it easier for his friends and family to call the police on him. Keeping a secret and unpredictable schedule—sleeping in different beds, working irregular hours, deceiving others about one’s whereabouts, and refusing to commit to advance plans—serves as a generalized technique of evasion, helping young men avoid getting taken into custody through many of the paths discussed here.
Paying to Pass Undetected
When Mike and Chuck and their friends had a little money, they spent some of it securing an array of underground goods and services that would help protect them from the authorities or postpone their admission to jail and prison.
One major item they sought was a clean ID.
Many readers may not be aware of how often they are asked to present some form of ID, or to hand over a credit card or proof of address, throughout the course of a day. Those who have these things, and who are free from the threat of the police, tend not to think about it when these documents are required of them. For young men around 6th Street concerned that the police are tracking them or will take them into custody on the spot, legitimate identification is the source of considerable concern.
On the one hand, Mike and Chuck and their friends feared discovery and didn’t want their identity known. They hesitated to carry ID, to tell people their real name, or to write that name down. Around 6th Street, it is considered improper for even close friends to ask each other their last names, and young men routinely give fake names to people they meet, just to be on the safe side. Close male friends sometimes go years without knowing each other’s last names. Yet at the same time that young men wish to conceal their identity, and fear using it, they need proof of it for all kinds of life’s necessities, but can’t get it. The formal documents needed to apply for a job, enter a building with a guard in the lobby, buy a cell phone, or put a car in the shop elude them through a complex combination of their poverty, residential instability, and legal entanglements and fears.
For the eleven years that I have known Reggie, he has been sitting in jail or prison, dealing with a pending court case, a warrant, or a probation or parole sentence, or working through some combination of the three. During a rare month that he was newly paroled from prison and had no pending court cases or warrants, he asked me to help him obtain a state-issued ID. Not a driver’s license, which seemed an almost unattainable goal, but a non-driver’s state-issued identification card. In addition to allowing him to apply for jobs, visit family and friends in jail, and check into hotel rooms, this ID would mean that when Reggie got stopped by the police, they could run his name immediately and verify that he had no pending warrants.
We first needed to apply for his birth certificate, which his mother had only a vague memory of possessing before she left the homeless shelter in which the family had spent the first few years of Reggie’s life. Obtaining this document required many trips to the government offices downtown and other proofs of identity: a social security card and two pieces of mail (not letters but something more formal, such as a bill). After three weeks of collecting these items and two long days spent in fruitless trips to the Division of Vital Records downtown, Reggie shook his head, noting that ID is basically for rich people. “Because you have to have ID to get ID,” he said. “Just like money.”
Having gotten nowhere, we found a man in the 6th Street neighborhood who specialized in applications for birth certificates and other ID. People showed him their proofs of identity and he sent away for their birth certificates from the downtown office, taking forty dollars for this service. Ultimately, this man wasn’t satisfied with any of the documents Reggie could come up with to apply for the birth certificate, and finally suggested we use a close relative’s death certificate to prove his identity and residence. His mother at first refused to allow Reggie to take the death certificate out of the house, so we were stalled once again.
After six weeks of hard effort and considerable expense, Reggie had a birth certificate, two pieces of mail that would count for his proof of address, and a social security card. With these precious documents in hand, we drove to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
As we approached the parking lot adjacent to the building, Reggie began to move around in his seat, fidgeting and adjusting his clothing. Once I’d parked the car, he made no move to get out. I turned to him and asked if he wanted me to go in first and get a ticket for the line. He sat silently for a while and then began to explain his concerns. Showing up and applying for this ID would lead employees to run his name and bring up some outstanding ticket or warrant. He eyed the security guards warily, saying that undercovers probably hung out at the Department of Transportation as well. “It’s like, I’m home now, you feel me? I don’t want to be back in there tomorrow . . .”
We sat in the DMV parking lot for over ten minutes while Reggie attempted to get up the courage to walk through the door. In the end, he couldn’t go through with it, so we drove back to the block.
Like Reggie, a great many people living in the 6th Street neighborhood don’t have government-issued ID, fear using their ID if they do have one, or have ID but can’t do much with it because of their unpaid tickets, outstanding warrants, or the restrictions of their probation or parole. Local entrepreneurs recognize this core problem of poor and legally compromised people, and attempt to solve it in two ways: first by selling fake IDs and documents, and second by supplying the goods and services that typically require ID as part of the sales transaction, with no questions asked.
In the early 2000s, Mike and his friends bought fake licenses, social security cards, car insurance and vehicle registrations, and birth certificates. Merchants around 6th Street offered these goods under the table, if customers made the request appropriately. Salesmen on foot also offered these items as they made their rounds at bars, barbershops, and corner stores.
Mike used fake registration and car insurance documents when he got stopped in the early 2000s. The police didn’t run his real name and so didn’t discover that he had no license or registration for the car. Nor did they find out that he was on probation and prohibited from driving a car in the first place. Chuck was once able to get through an entire court case using a fake name and identification he had purchased from a man operating a stand outside a sneaker store. This fake identity allowed him to be tried for the case at hand without his previous cases coming into play.
Improved law enforcement technology has made it more and more difficult to use a fake identity to get through police stops. Indeed, giving a false name to the police has become all but impossible: beginning in the mid-2000s, squad cars were equipped with computers for running IDs. Philadelphia police around 6th Street now refuse to accept a driver’s license or non-driver’s state ID, asking instead for the man’s photo number. This number is issued at a person’s first arrest, and as one officer told me, “Any guy who says he doesn’t have one is lying.” Through the photo ID number, the officer can pull up an extensive description of the man, along with pictures of his face and body, from the computer in the police car. Some police cars in Philadelphia are now also equipped with finger print machines, so that a man’s prints can be run quickly and on the spot without the trouble of taking him down to the police station.
As another strategy for passing under the radar, young men around 6th Street pay those with legitimate identities to put things in their name, such as apartment leases, utility bills, even accident claims. This makes it significantly harder for the police to track them. Before Mike was sentenced to a year and half in prison, he was doing very well financially. He had two used cars in two different women’s names, lived in an apartment in a friend’s name, had a gun registered to a friend of his uncle, had a cell phone in his children’s mother’s name, owned a dirt bike in the name of the previous owner, and rented furniture in his mother’s name. In exchange for borrowing their identities, he gave these relatives and neighbors cash, food, drugs, and DVDs. Some also had occasional use of the items.
Five times over the six years I spent in the neighborhood, I observed people stopped by the police successfully use the name of another person they knew to be “clean.” Once Mike gave a friend’s name to get through a traffic stop and then went to court to pay the tickets for the moving violation, still using the man’s identity. As compensation, Mike lent this man his leather Eagles jacket for a season.
A number of neighborhood businesses allow people to make purchases with no questions asked. Wanted people seek places to shop that don’t require any documentation, because getting an ID in the first place could lead to an arrest; buying things using an ID would make it easier for the police to track them; and their dealings with the criminal justice system have rendered unusable the identification they have (for example, their licenses are suspended). These places where items ordinarily requiring identification may be bought without showing ID, signing one’s name, or showing proof of insurance are known as ducky spots.
A man concerned that he may be taken into custody also fears using the hospitals, and so purchases a variety of medical goods and services from people in the neighborhood who work in health care and who supply drugs, medical supplies, and their general expertise to legally precarious community members. Chuck paid a neighbor working as a custodian at the local hospital around forty dollars for antibiotics when his foot got infected after he ran through some debris during a police chase. After two weeks of severe tooth pain, Chuck’s neighbor, a twenty-year-old man, pulled his own molar with a pair of pliers and paid his cousin, who worked at a doctor’s office, eighty dollars for a course of antibiotics. Reggie broke his arm when he tripped over the curb while running from a man trying to stab him. His neighbor brought over material for a cast from his job at the VA hospital, heated it in a pan of water on the stove, and made a hard splint that Reggie wore for five weeks. Reggie gave him a large bag of marijuana as compensation.
Mike and Chuck and their friends around 6th Street also paid friends and neighbors for their silence and cooperation, and for news about the police. In a community filled with suspects and fugitives, every resident is a potential conduit of information, either for the police or for the men they’re after. Mike and his friends tried to ensure that neighbors who could alert the authorities to their whereabouts or activities were instead helping them hide.
In the same way that payments for sex can be placed on a continuum from prostitution to marriage, the money that legally entangled people pay others in the neighborhood to help protect them from the authorities ranges from explicit, short-term, quid pro quo exchanges, in which a set fee is paid for a single piece of information or a single refusal to talk to the police or testify as a witness, to longer-term relationships, in which the arrangement is largely tacit, and the legally precarious party provides extended financial support in exchange for silence, watchfulness, and general help in evading the authorities.
The most extended relationship of this kind that I observed on 6th Street involved two brothers who sold marijuana in the area. The pair had grown up in the neighborhood but had long since moved away. They didn’t mention their business or anybody else’s illicit doings over the phone, they came and went quickly, and to my knowledge, no person on 6th Street had ever been to their house—or even knew where it was.
When the two brothers came around in their dark SUV to drop off drugs or pick up payments, they gave back to the community. They helped pay for the funerals of three young men who were shot and killed during my time there. They also contributed grocery money to the mothers of the deceased, rent money to their girlfriends, and haircut money for their sons. They gave cash to people who had recently come home from prison: a kind of get-started money. They put money on the books of neighborhood men who were fighting cases in county jail.
As these two brothers coached and mentored younger guys on the block, they often discussed the importance of giving as a core obligation to those less fortunate. But they also occasionally mentioned that their generosity encouraged others to protect them from the authorities. In particular, they made sure that those neighborhood residents with frequent dealings with the police didn’t feel angry or resentful toward them. The older brother explained it like this to a younger boy on the block:
What makes a nigga call the cops? Hate [ jealousy]. It’s only a matter of time before they see your picture or your name comes up [during a police questioning]. You want them to pass right by [the picture], you want them to choose the other guy, the guy who never did nothing for them.
Mike and Chuck regarded this practice with admiration, acknowledging that it’s smart to send money to a man in jail who, if he gives you up, will see his commissary account quickly dry up. But like a marriage, this relationship requires consistent income, and most men in the neighborhood have only sporadic work in either the formal or the informal economy, with quite uneven and low returns.
Mike and Chuck certainly couldn’t afford to maintain long-term relationships in which a steady flow of cash or other resources guaranteed the ongoing cooperation of neighborhood residents. But they did occasionally scrape together enough money for one-time payments, mostly to witnesses during trials.
According to Mike, about two years before we met, he had been walking home from a dice game with a large wad of cash when a man put a gun to his head and ordered him to give up his money. Mike told me that he refused, and attempted to draw his own gun when the man shot him. Other accounts have it that Mike attempted to run away and shot himself by accident, whereupon this man took his money and then stripped him of his sneakers and watch. Whatever the details of this encounter, Mike emerged from it with a bullet lodged in his hip. His mother looked after him for five months while he was unable to walk, and then drove him to the outpatient clinic twice a week for months of physical therapy.
By the time we met, Mike could walk normally, though he said his leg hurt when he ran or stood for long periods, or when the weather changed. He believed this man had left the neighborhood, but about a month later he thought he spotted him driving around in a Buick. Mike told me that the man looked at him, he looked at the man, the man tensed, and Mike opened fire. Mike said, “I ain’t know if he was going to start chopping [shooting], you know, thinking I was going to come at him. Better safe than sorry.”
Two days later Mike saw him again, this time while driving with Chuck and another friend. Although I wasn’t present, Chuck told me immediately afterward that the men in both cars opened fire, shooting at each other as they drove by in opposite directions. I couldn’t confirm the shots that Mike, Chuck, and another friend fired, but the glass in the side and back windows of Mike’s car was shattered, and I counted seven bullet holes in the side doors. Mike quickly towed the car to a friend’s garage, worried that the police would see it if they hadn’t been alerted to the shootout. This was around noon.
That afternoon, Chuck and this friend came to my apartment, took some wet (PCP), and lay on the couch and floor with covers over their heads. They didn’t eat, drink, or get up for almost twenty-four hours, occasionally murmuring curses at Mike about how close they had come to death.
Two nights later, the police came to Mike’s old address, his uncle’s house, to arrest him for attempted murder. Mike’s uncle phoned his mother to let her know they were coming for him, so Mike left her place and hid out in various houses for the next two weeks, including my apartment for four days. The police raided his mother’s house twice, then his grandmother’s house, and then his children’s mother’s house. After two weeks he scraped together what money he could, found a lawyer, and turned himself in. He didn’t know who had called the police, but the lawyer showed us the testimony of the man who had robbed him, explaining that this man would be the main witness at the trial.
When Mike made bail, the man got in touch with him through a mutual acquaintance. He explained that he wanted only three hundred dollars, which was what it would cost him to repair the shattered windows in his car. Mike considered this a very low sum to get out of an attempted murder charge and happily paid him. He also paid for a hotel room for this man to stay in on the appointed court dates, in case the police came to his house to escort him to court. This man then failed to show up as a witness for three court dates, and the judge dismissed the case. To my utter astonishment, Mike and this man now appeared to be “cool.” The night after the case ended, we had drinks with the man and played pool together at a local bar.
People in legal jeopardy can pay others not to show up as a witness at a trial; they can also pay people in the neighborhood to alert them if the police are coming, or can pay those who know of their whereabouts, activities, or identity not to give this information to the police. With such a large number of wanted people in the neighborhood (as well as people committing illegal acts who are liable to be arrested should those acts be brought to the attention of the authorities), 6th Street engages in a brisk trade in this kind of information and cooperation.
It should be noted that the payments legally precarious people make to the purveyors of false documents, or to those who might inform or testify, are in addition to the money they pay to lawyers and to the state directly in court fees and fines, bail, probation and parole costs, and tickets. These payouts for their continued freedom represent no small portion of their income.
If a young man exhausts the avenues discussed above, he may attempt to avoid confinement by giving the police someone they want more than they want him. In contrast to fleeing, avoidance, cultivating unpredictability, or paying to pass undetected, this strategy carries heavy social judgment. Indeed, informing is understood to be such a lowly way to get out of one’s legal problems that men tend not to admit when they have done it. Since young men and women typically inform inside police cars or interrogation rooms, behind closed doors, it was difficult for me to study.
Chuck and Mike were close friends with a young man named Steve, who was about a year older than Chuck and a year younger than Mike. He lived across the street from Chuck with his mother and grandmother, his father having moved down south when he was a small child. Steve’s mother worked in administration at Drexel University, so the family was better off than many of the others on the block. With his small build, light skin, and light eyes, Steve looked sneaky, Chuck’s mom said, someone to keep your eye on. He was also notoriously hotheaded, pulling out his gun at inappropriate moments, like birthday parties for Mike’s children.
Chuck and Mike hadn’t thought that anyone could make Steve give up the bachelor life, but after high school he fell in love with Taja, a young woman who had grown up a few blocks away. Their stormy romance lasted longer than anyone expected—longer than they expected, they sometimes laughed. For almost the entire time I knew Steve and Taja, they were trying hard to have a baby, but Taja would miscarry every time Steve got locked up: three times in their six-year relationship.
Steve was a drug user more than a drug seller; when we met he was nineteen, and under house arrest awaiting the completion of a trial for possession of drugs.
In the spring the police stopped Steve while he was carrying a gun, and charged him with possession without a license to carry. He made bail, but then got picked up soon after for drinking while driving, revoking his bail. Steve sat in county jail as the court dates dragged on.
To our great surprise, Steve came home on house arrest three months later, still in the middle of his trial dates. He explained that the court released him for the remainder of the proceedings because the jails were overflowing, and the judge determined that he didn’t pose a flight risk.
In confidence, Mike admitted to me that he did not believe Steve, since he’d never heard of a person coming home on house arrest during a trial for a gun case. He suspected that Steve had likely cut a deal to be at home during the lengthy court proceedings, most likely by giving up somebody the police seemed more interested in.
A week later, a local man on trial for murder phoned Reggie and told him that his lawyer had shown him Steve’s statement. Apparently, Steve had signed an affidavit that he had been present at the time of the murder. A younger friend of Reggie’s was at his house when he got the phone call, and soon began spreading the news that Steve was a snitch.
Faced with the public and personal disgrace of his betrayal, Steve spent three days threatening violence against Reggie’s young boy, and then he told him to come to his house so they could discuss it. As the young man entered, Steve began yelling, “Who the fuck told you I was a rat, nigga? Who?”
“You just going to sit here and act like you ain’t say shit,” the young man said coolly. “They got your statement on file.”
Steve said he would kill him, and the young man made a move toward Steve. Mike attempted to pull the two apart, but Steve pulled his gun and pistol-whipped the young man in the face and then in the back of his head.
“You been home less than a week!” Chuck admonished, as the young man covered his bloody face with his hands. “You can’t pistol-whip a nigga that calls you a snitch. Plus, that makes you look like you really did do that shit.”
“You ain’t mature in jail at all,” Mike added.
Mike asked the young man if he could go to the hospital, and he replied that he had a couple of open cases, but no warrants. We took him to the ER for stitches. Mike, who had a bench warrant for failure to appear in court, hovered in the parking lot, checking in every half hour or so via cell phone.
To my knowledge, this young man never again mentioned that Steve had snitched. A few days later there was another shootout, and the whole affair took a backseat in the local gossip.
Most of the time, young men don’t resort to violence to rebuild their reputations after they snitch. Instead, they attempt to regain the trust and goodwill of the person they wronged.
When he was sixteen, Ronny and a few other young men from 6th Street drove to Montgomery County late one night and tried unsuccessfully to break into a motorcycle store. When they couldn’t get in, they returned to their ’89 Bonneville, only to find that the car wouldn’t start. Ronny called Mike to come get them.
When Mike got the call, he and Chuck and I were watching movies in the apartment. It was around 2:00 a.m. I heard Mike on the phone to Ronny as follows: “Where the fuck is that at? Okay. Gimme like, a hour [to get out there].”
Mike turned to me.
MIKE: This lil’ nigga out in the middle of nowhere. Car ain’t starting. We still got them cables [jumper cables]?
ALICE: No. Who is he with?
MIKE: The boy Dre, couple other niggas.
ALICE: Why is he out there?
MIKE: I don’t fucking know—probably because he trying to steal something. I’ma beat his lil’ ass to the ground when I see that nigga. Now I got to get up. [shakes his head as he puts on his boots] Fuck it. I’ma just wear my long johns.
ALICE: I’ll see you later.
Mike cursed the boys but went out anyway to retrieve them, saying that he couldn’t refuse his young boy anything. Chuck and I waited until around four. Mike didn’t come back. The next afternoon, I got a call from a cop at a Montgomery County police station, asking if I knew a man named Keshon Jackson. After a beat I realized that this was likely the fake name that Mike had used when he got booked so that any outstanding warrants wouldn’t come up.
Apparently, when Mike pulled up, the dealership’s silent alarm had already gone off, and the cops were waiting behind a hill for the boys to try to break in again. The cops ran out from behind the hill and chased Mike and Ronny, along with the other boys, across covered pools and sandboxes and through bushes. Two of the boys got away; Ronny, Mike, and another young man were caught and taken into custody.
According to the signed affidavit that Mike’s lawyer read to us later, Ronny and his friend, both sixteen, were separately interrogated and agreed to name Mike as the one who had put them up to it. In exchange, the police dropped the charges against the minors and drove Ronny and his friend home. Mike, who was twenty-one at the time, was charged with attempted breaking and entering, vandalism, and trespassing.
When Ronny got back home, he fervently denied that he had informed, claiming he would never betray Mike like the other boys had. But Mike had seen the police report. On the phone to me from jail, he said he was deeply hurt by Ronny’s betrayal, since he considered Ronny a younger brother:
Even if they [the police] was telling him like, look, just say it was Mike and we’ll let you go home tonight, he should have played his part [remained silent; done the right thing] just on the strength of everything I done been through for that lil’ nigga. Almost everything he got on his back was shit I passed off [gave to him], you feel me? Any time he need a couple dollars, who he coming to? He ain’t going to his nut-ass pop, he ain’t going to Nanna [his grandmother]. He come straight to me like, “Yo, Mike. Let me hold [borrow] this, let me hold that.” I done broke him off, like, so much change. Who he think keeping him fed out here? Nigga, you ain’t eating [making money] by yourself! Ain’t no other motherfucker out here looking out.
Mike spread the word that Ronny had snitched. It was worse than that, in fact, because Ronny had blamed Mike for a crime that he didn’t even commit. For almost two weeks, Ronny didn’t come out of his grandmother’s house except to go to school. Then he took Mike’s gun and robbed a house in Southwest Philadelphia. He sold the TV, stereo, and jewelry, and paid Mike’s bail.
Mike came home and still refused to speak to Ronny. He wouldn’t allow Ronny to come to the apartment where he was staying, though Ronny came to the door a number of times.
By the time Mike drove out to Montgomery County for the preliminary hearing, he and Ronny appeared to be on better terms. In fact, Ronny accompanied him to all the subsequent court dates to show his support. As we were walking out of the courthouse on one of these occasions, Mike said to me:
I know, you know, he a snitch, but that’s my little nigga. I raised that nigga from this tall. Plus, like, he don’t have no real family, like, his pops gone, his mom out there in the streets. Nigga had to look out for himself.
The support Ronny gave Mike during his court dates, and the money he risked his life to obtain to pay Mike’s bail, seemed to have prompted a reconciliation between them. Though Mike treated Ronny somewhat coldly in the following months, he stopped telling people that Ronny had snitched.
Two years later, Mike was in state prison for a gun case, and Ronny’s botched motorcycle theft came up in conversation in the visiting room. Mike and I had a good laugh about how stupid Ronny and his friends had been to try to break into the motorcycle store, and Mike recalled that he had run across a covered pool for the first time in his life. Then Mike cursed Ronny’s friend for snitching on him. He said that if he ever saw the kid again, he’d beat the shit out of him. I didn’t mention that Ronny had snitched, too, and Mike didn’t, either.
Five years after this initial snitching incident, Mike was back home, and Ronny got into a fight with a young man who, after Ronny had beaten him soundly, began talking about how Ronny had snitched on Mike a while ago, though “a lot of niggas don’t know that.” Mike handed Ronny his T-shirt to clean himself off and said to the offending young man, “Get your fucking facts straight, nigga. Everybody knows Ronny ain’t do that shit.”
Ronny’s strategy to repair his public persona and his relationship with Mike after he had informed on him was to post Mike’s bail, attend his court dates, and slowly regain his trust and forgiveness. He also denied that he had snitched, and after a time Mike denied it along with him, even sticking up for Ronny when others tried to revisit this piece of history.
* * *
For young men around 6th Street who worry that the police will take them into custody, the everyday relations, localities, and activities that others rely on for their basic needs become a net of entrapment. The police and the courts become dangerous to interact with, as does showing up to work or to places like hospitals. Instead of a safe place to sleep, eat, and find acceptance and support, their mother’s home is transformed into a last known address, one of the first places the police will look for them. Close relatives, friends, and neighbors become potential informants.
One strategy for coping with the risky nature of everyday life is to avoid dangerous places, people, and interactions entirely. Thus, a young man learns to run and hide when the police are coming. He doesn’t show up at the hospital when his child is born, nor does he seek medical help when he is badly beaten. He doesn’t seek formal employment. He doesn’t attend the funerals of his close friends or visit them in prison. He avoids calling the police when harmed or using the courts to settle disputes. A second strategy is to cultivate unpredictability—to remain secretive and to dip and dodge. Thus, to ensure that those close to him won’t inform on him, a young man comes and goes in irregular and unpredictable ways, remaining elusive and untrusting, sleeping in different beds, and deceiving those close to him about his whereabouts and plans. He steadfastly avoids using his own name. He also lays out a good deal of money to silence potential informants and to purchase fake documents, clean urine, and the like. If a man exhausts these possibilities and does encounter the police, he may flee, hide, or try to bargain for his freedom by informing on the people he knows.
The danger a wanted man comes to see in the mundane aspects of everyday life, and the strategies he uses to avoid or reduce these risks, have some larger implications for the way he sees the world, the way others view him, and consequently the course his life may take. At a minimum, his hesitancy to go to the authorities when harmed leads him to become the target of others who are looking for someone to prey upon. His fear of the hospital means that he doesn’t seek medical care when he’s badly beaten, turning instead to underground assistance of questionable repute.
More broadly, a man in this position comes to see that the activities, relations, and localities that others rely on to maintain a decent and respectable identity become for him a system that the authorities exploit to arrest and confine him. Such a man finds that as long as he is at risk of confinement, staying out of prison and maintaining family, work, and friend relationships become contradictory goals: engaging in one reduces his chance of achieving the other. 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, with all the paper trail that it entails, that allows the police to locate him. It is precisely his trust in his nearest and dearest that will land him in police custody. 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.
* * *
Reprinted with permission from On the Run by Alice Goffman, © 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. Paperback edition published by Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing. All rights reserved.