Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thoughts regarding On the Run

Even though author Alice Goffman did not set out to write a book about the drug war, it nonetheless serves as perhaps the defining subtext to On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Lurking ever present in the background, Goffman's work helps bring the drug war's destructive effects more into focus, particularly for those unfamiliar with life among the urban poor. Besides violent police conduct while enforcing drug laws, another negative impact of this policy highlighted by the book is the snowballing of fines and court dates related to drug offenses, oftentimes producing a downward financial spiral through various knock-on effects. Reason magazine's J.D. Tuccille provides a good description of this dynamic in his review of the book:
The police presence in 6th Street is pervasive. Residents, young black men in particular, can expect to be frequently stopped, questioned, and searched. Many initial arrests are for drugs, often possession of marijuana. After that, as Goffman records, the system takes on a horrible logic of its own. Criminal records make employment hard to find, and recurring court dates devour time that might be devoted to work, job searches, or family responsibilities. Without regular income, court fees add up and may prove unpayable. Many of the people Goffman writes about are essentially constant low-level fugitives, hunted by police for missed appointments. Some end up committing additional crimes to pay their accumulating debts to the courts [Indeed, I recall one individual in the book breaking into someone's house to steal items so that he can post bail for a friend arrested on a drug charge].
(It should be pointed out, however, that this problem is not caused by the drug war alone. Both National Public Radio and Cato Institute veteran Radley Balko have written about secondary impacts of fines and court fees on low income individuals, while Charles G. Koch (of eeeevil Koch brothers fame) and Mark V. Holden authored a recent piece in Politico regarding the country's overcriminalization problem.) 

Perhaps equally insidious, the drug war also serves to undermine personal and familial relationships, severing fathers from children, brothers from siblings (a relationship that may be particularly important in the absence of a father figure), romantic partners, etc. While in many (most?) cases those being hauled off to jail are far from model citizens, a father who sells small amounts of drugs on the street corner may still have a more positive impact on a child's life than one that is in jail. As George Mason economist Tyler Cowen notes, just the mere threat of prison time has a pernicious impact:
A core point of “On the Run” is that “young men’s compromised legal status transforms the basic institutions of work, friendship and family into a net of entrapment.” For instance, the police round up fugitives by monitoring and contacting their relatives — and that frays family relations. A young man might avoid showing up at the hospital to witness the birth of his child because he knows he could be caught or turned in. Family gatherings become another hazard, so in-person appearances are often surprise visits. People stuck in this kind of limbo are also reluctant to visit hospitals when they need treatment, and a result, the book says, is a “lifestyle of secrecy and evasion,” driven by the unfavorable incentives set in motion by the law.  
...As every friend or relative becomes a potential informant, cooperation plummets and life degenerates into a day-to-day struggle to remain outside the reaches of the law. Professor Goffman offers a chilling portrait of tactics used to encourage relatives to turn in possible lawbreakers: For example, the police may tell mothers that if they don’t report their errant men, the authorities will yank their children, a threat that may be backed by a charge of harboring or aiding and abetting a fugitive. “Squealing” thus becomes more likely. A community becomes divided between those who are on the clean side of the law and those who are not. And trust breaks down in personal relationships.
If one believes in the vital role of family bonds and a solid upbringing in shaping lives, then this policing approach is absolutely counterproductive to the goal of forming productive citizens. 

Lastly, with regard to the drug war, it should be no surprise that respect for the police suffers when they are perceived to be engaged in a campaign of harassment that is justified on the dubious grounds of halting a victimless crime:
It may come as a surprise that the majority of women I met who learned that spouse or family member was wanted by the police initially expressed anger at the authorities, not the man, and promised to support him and protect him while he was hunted. In part, I think these women understood how easy it was to get a warrant when you are a Black young man in neighborhoods like 6th Street; they understood that warrants are issued not only for serious crimes but for technical violations or probation or parole, for failure to appear for one of the many court dates a man may have in a given month. A second and related reason for women's anger is that the police have lost considerable legitimacy in the community: they are seen searching, questioning, beating, and round up young men all over the neighborhood. As Miss Regina often puts it, the police are "an occupying force." 
It's not hard to imagine that such low regard for the police contributes both to the culture of "stop snitching" and a cultural norm against cooperation with the police, thus removing a traditional avenue for the resolution of conflict within a community. That's bad for everyone.

Besides the drug war, however, the book also struck me as a tale of self-sabotage on an enormous scale. Examples:
  • A group of young men (perhaps teens, I can't recall) are shooting dice, when one of them pulls out a gun and announces that he is robbing another one of the players. Not taking him seriously, the rest then burst into laughter. Humiliated, the individual with the pistol then shoots someone in the head to demonstrate his seriousness. Everyone was high on PCP at the time. This then touches off a gang war which claims several more lives. 
  • The author, a twenty-something white woman raised by two professors in a nice part of town, has trouble for something like the first six months of her study simply engaging in verbal communication with those she interacts with due to their use of slang and, as she calls it, African American Vernacular English. How can someone be successful in society when they can't effectively express themselves with someone from mainstream society? What does a job interview for any position outside of those with very low pay look like? 
  • Babies, often more than one and invariably outside of marriage, appear more the rule than the exception by age 22 or so. 
  • For his 23rd birthday party, one of the main characters of the book rents out a hotel room and then spends $250 on liquor and drugs. Call me judgmental, but if you're poor that's not where you should be spending your money. It beggars belief that this was that individual's only highly questionable financial decision. 
  • At several points in the book the author references homes that are not merely messy or cluttered, but rather filled with trash, animal droppings and -- no surprise -- insect infestations. This seems to speak to a broader values problem, for there is no rule that just because someone is poor that they have to be dirty (indeed, not all homes described -- and they are all from humble circumstances -- are so filthy). Anecdotally, in my own mixed-income neighborhood the amount of trash found in the streets seems proportional to its proximity to low income housing despite plentiful numbers of trash receptacles (Indeed, I've actually seen people drop trash while being literally within an arm's length of such a receptacle). 
Such examples would seem to suggest a need for tempering expectations of what may be achieved through an end to the drug war and/or less aggressive punishments for minor offenses. While it would no doubt be beneficial and result in some marginal improvements, the social ills that plague neighborhoods such as the one described by On the Run plainly run deep, perhaps reflecting a deeper cultural rot that, having set in over the course of many decades, will not be easily eradicated.

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