Book Review: America’s Gulags

Roger Rabbit iconAmerica has places that resemble police states, but most Americans don’t notice, because these conditions — a mix of KGB-style surveillance and third world-style tinpot tyranny — mostly exist in poor minority neighborhoods.  Places that middle class Americans don’t visit, don’t care about, and know little about beyond vague stereotypes of chronic unemployment, poverty, crime, gangs, drugs, racism and segregation.

Sociologists have studied America’s inner cities for over a century, trying to determine what causes their social ills and why they resist reform efforts.  The latest in this parade is a young sociologist named Alice Goffman, author of On the Run:  Fugitive Life in an American City.  The subject of her research and book is Philadelphia, a city long notorious for its police brutality.’s blurb for On the Run states, “Forty years in, the War on Drugs has done almost nothing to prevent drugs from being sold or used, but it has nonetheless created a little-known surveillance state in America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. … Alice Goffman spent six years living in one such neighborhood in Philadelphia, and her close observations and often harrowing stories reveal the pernicious effects of this pervasive policing. Goffman introduces us to …young African American men … caught up in this web of warrants and surveillance … [and] the relentless toll that the presumption of criminality takes on [their] families and futures.”

Surveillance state.  Pervasive policing.  Presumption of criminality.  That’s what poor urban minorities live under.  The police motto “serve and protect” has no meaning to citizens who fear the police, and whom police see as the enemy.

Presumption of criminality is a key concept.  It explains why police stop people for “driving while black” or just walking down the street in places like Ferguson, Missouri.  It explains New York City’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy of randomly stopping and searching people based on profiling.  It means the police assume you’re up to no good, and are predisposed to arrest you, regardless of probable cause.  See, e.g., For a similar example in Seattle, see and

This has repercussions far beyond the immediate effects of being treated badly by the police.  As an reviewer pointed out, “a simple arrest can lead to a life diminished by law enforcement.”  An arrest record can block access to schools, jobs, and credit; and for Americans living under police oppression, that requires nothing more than a cop writing a ticket you can’t pay, which leads to an arrest warrant when you don’t pay it.  This is what the Ferguson riots were about; a white-run city government extorting money from its poor black residents by sending cops out to write pretextual tickets that turn otherwise law-abiding people into outlaws.  Michael Brown was shot for walking away from a cop writing him up for strolling in the street.

That’s not exactly what Goffman’s book is about.  The young men she profiles are mostly real criminals, and focusing on them drew flak from some book reviewers.  But she didn’t ignore the issue of abusive policing; as former public defender James Forman Jr., writing in The Atlantic, noted in his essay on Goffman’s book, “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 … coerce mothers and girlfriends into revealing a fugitive’s whereabouts by threatening them with arrest, eviction, or loss of custody of their children.”  Goffman even described a Philadelphia police practice of trolling maternity wards to grab people visiting wives or girlfriends having babies.

Another reviewer targets the arbitrary unfairness of the broader social system that Goffman’s book exposes:  “Her key themes are highly political, controversial and shocking to most of us living in the bubble that is mainstream America. She describes the day-to-day lives of an alternate society consisting to a significant degree of young fugitives, ‘on the run’ from a social and legal structure that officially espouses neoliberal principles of equal opportunities for all while instituting a stunningly punitive judicial system that is guilty of blindly disenfranchising, imprisoning and oppressing significant numbers of black youth. In her view, this is nothing less than an updated version of racism, segregation and apartheid — a horrifying American Gulag Archipelago. Based on the evidence, this is an accurate and compelling statement.”

Maybe, then, the real point of Goffman’s book (and others that preceded it) is the question it asks us:  What are we going to do about America’s police gulags?










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