Urban ethnographer to speak on fugitive life in Philadelphia

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

LAWRENCE — Alice Goffman, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "On the Run: Fugitive Life in An American City," will give a presentation next week on a little-known surveillance state in one of America's most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Goffman's lecture will take place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 in The Commons, Spooner Hall. The event is free and open to the public. A reception and book signing will occur after the lecture.

She will also participate in an informal conversation session the next morning. “A Conversation with Alice Goffman” will take place at 10 a.m. Oct. 22 in the Hall Center Conference Hall. Audience members are invited to pose questions and advance topics that may not have been touched upon in the previous night’s session. This event is also free and open to the public.

Forty years in, the war on drugs has done little to curb drug use or sales. Yet in Goffman's book, she examines the largely hidden world of police beatings, court fees, sentencing hearings and low-level warrants that pervade daily life for young people in one poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Goffman shares the stories of an unforgettable group of young men who are surviving on low-wage jobs and, when they can’t find work, the very bottom of the drug trade. As low-level warrants, arrest quotas and high-tech surveillance techniques turn mothers’ homes into last-known addresses and family members into potential informants, they live with the constant concern that they will be stopped, charged and taken into custody. "On The Run" demonstrates that presumed criminality is the hallmark of American policing in poor black communities. As the police use family and friends to track down suspects, demand information and threaten consequences, relationships become liabilities, and the institutions that should comprise a respectable life become paths to confinement.

In her presentations, Goffman makes a compelling argument that mass incarceration and its more hidden systems of policing and supervision have created a fugitive life for poor minorities in the United States.

“This is a community worried that at any moment, its members will be taken away,” Goffman said. “Can we turn this around?”

Founded in 1947, the Humanities Lecture Series is the oldest continuing series at KU. More than 150 eminent scholars from around the world have participated in the program, including author Salman Rushdie, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Recent speakers have included Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Toobin, and Sarah Vowell. Shortly after the program’s inception, a lecture by one outstanding KU faculty member was added to the schedule. For information on the series, visit the Hall Center website.