On the run with Alice goffman
I just finished reading Alice Goffman’s book on young black men in an inner city ghetto of Philadelphia and their targeting, surveillance, harassment and capture by the (neoliberal) penal state. The book describes and discusses the various strategies young black men employ to stay one step ahead of the encroaching and encircling penal state – police, POs, courts, laws, etc. Goffman refers to these strategies as ‘dipping and dodging’ from the police. While on the run, she relates the roles various family members, friends and neighbours play in facilitating or hindering their abilities to hide from the police, if only for short periods of time. Facilitating the fugitive lives of these men comes at a great cost to their ‘accomplices’ as the police raid their homes at all hours of the night, threaten them with eviction, and often make good on their threats to have child services remove kids from the homes of those who refuse to ‘collaborate’ with the police. In her account of those who facilitate or hinder the fugitive lives of the main characters in this narrative, the word love comes to my mind. Though Goffman loves her adopted community (see the excellent methodological appendix at the end of the book), it is not a concept she uses to analyze and capture the practises of the residents of Sixth Street connected to the lives of the young men on the run. And yet what else do they have but love? What else but love ties these men together and their community in the midst of devastating poverty, hopeless economic futures, and tough on crime penal state using incarceration of young black men as social policy?
On the Run is based on multi-years of fieldwork on Sixth Street which Goffman entered first to tutor two young black high school students and then settled close by whilst becoming a godsister, sister, confidante to young black men (and some women) in the ghetto, and a researcher seeking a PhD from Princeton. Unlike other books on American ghettos that seem to showcase the bravado and machismo of the male researcher above all else, Goffman’s account is free of these self-aggrandizing pursuits.
The book is a gripping account of how young black men experience and endure a life of intensive surveillance by cops, POs, the courts, etc. in and out of jail. Alice Goffman is white, blond and privileged. In the appendix, she discusses how and why she entered the community, negotiated boundaries of whiteness and blackness and how she managed to stay embedded in the community to the point of neglecting her studies, ignoring white society and professors and identifying with the community issues. Whiteness, largely neglected in the book’s narrative, assumes a strong presence in this last section of the book where she discusses its privileges and sometime contestation by members of Sixth Street. Her account of how she met and befriended the boys is included here as is her description of the disturbing details of the death of one of the boys. This latter description made me cry as I had grown to know and care for Chuck.
In sum, this book is about love: the love family members show their young offspring ensnared in a neoliberal penal state (hardly discussed in the book) that no longer cares for black young men and prefers to develop extensive legalistic mechanisms to jail as many of them as it can. Love too by those who divulge the whereabouts of those who have run-ins with the police and the law. In their mind, in some ways, these men are safer in jail than on the streets of the ghetto. Or indeed love for Alice (who is affectionately nicknamed A. boogie) who is brought into the inner group as a confidante, friend and raconteur of their travails.
Eusebio: we hardly knew you.
Some consider Eusebio the greatest Portuguese soccer player of all time, and indeed amongst the greatest in the sport’s history. I have no reason to dispute this claim especially since I do not have the expertise to argue otherwise, and I never saw him play while growing up without electricity and television in the Azores. And as tributes pour in to celebrate the athlete and the man, little is being written on what it must have been like for Eusebio – born in Mozambique but settled in Lisbon since the age of 18 – to live in an imperialist country raping his own country’s (still a colony then to Portugal) natural resources and peoples’ future. What was it like for Eusebio to live in a white society that fed its young people centuries of racist history in trumping them off to black Africa, including Mozambique, to annihilate black men, women and children? Was playing for Benfica (the soccer team he made famous) a temporary suspension from the racism he was embedded in? Or was it another space and institution where he is surrounded by racist practices, attitudes and behaviour? There is evidence that the Salazar regime controlled Eusebio’s football skills by denying him the opportunity to practise his football in other club teams in Western Europe . And what experiences did he have on the field itself in Portugal and elsewhere in Europe. Today football is marred in racist chants, symbols and attitudes. One can only image what it must have been like to play in the 1960s and 1970s against racist players and footballing grounds. No doubt cultural portraits of Eusebio and exalts of his status to national hero will be published now that he is gone. I hope that something too will be published in and outside Portugal analyzing the lived experiences of this black man!
Researching Amongst Elites
My new edited book is out! It focuses on a much neglected research area these days – elites and privilege. It contains chapters on methodological issues of access, as well as case studies of studying elites. In fact, a number of chapters are writings from researchers who have carried out participant observations on elites and spaces of exclusion. It is must read!
June 2012 – In Dublin, in the Morning
It’s 7:45 am and I have been awake for three hours. Apparently, I still haven’t shaken off the jet lag to be awake so early. Yet, back home I’m often up shortly after five. So perhaps it’s not the jet lag at all but perhaps the easing into my regular routine. Routine is also what I’m practising right now as I sit quietly in my hotel room writing these notes. The difference is that I usually do this early at a coffee shop back home.
Though I’m sitting on a chair by the window in my room, it’s only now that I’m beginning to hear the sound of Dublin morning rumbling. I can hear some noises from a dumpster outside my window, but noise is few and far between, and certainly nothing like I have heard outside of hotel windows in downtown Vancouver for example. It is now mostly trucks I hear speeding down Upper O’Connell Street. For a city of this size (over 1 million inhabitants) and the activities I see daily in the city centre, I’m surprised it isn’t louder, noisier. It is a missing feature for me as I like the sounds of cities and early morning trucks stretching out the awakening city as they bring forth a new day through the routines of their routes in their work days. The new day begins early in Dublin since day light arrives in the morning and stays around till late in the evening.
The chair I’m sitting on is surprisingly comfortable even with its straight back, rigid armrests, and missing smooth cloth that covers the chair except for the armrests. Did the upholster run out of cloth? My instant coffee is now cold, but I’ll wait for breakfast to have another. I haven’t had instant coffee since I was a teenager in Montreal when my mom made me Sanka. Does Sanka still sell instant coffee? It is Bewley’s that I’m drinking, which is also the name of a famous coffeeshop in the city.
Emilio, my ten year old son, is still sleeping in the bed next to mine. He fell asleep much earlier than our first night here. I will wake him up soon as we are due for some exercise before breakfast. Our plan is to explore some of the south side of Dublin today. Emilio’s imagination is both abstract and insightful. Yesterday while we walked along the Liffey River, he told me stories about the river and the “purpose” of the ladders scaling the walls out of the river and onto street level. He also described the kniving ways that holes in the concrete, just above the water level could be used for malfeasance. Emilio thinks Dublin needs colour, as do people walking about the city. There is certain dullness to the buildings and colours of clothes people wear. He says that he is the only person wearing bright coloured clothes. He has a point: the industrial nature of our space in the city, the old architecture and the omnipresent cloudy sky over Dublin proves him right, I think. Emilio observed that the Dublin architecture from church tops to night light posts to fences guarding private property contains sharp edges as pointy as the end of a needle. He is not quite sure why this is and what it means, but at 10 years old he recognizes a uniqueness to Dublin that most people much older than he have yet to. There are several monuments on O’Connell and the most visible is the Millennium Spire. It is 120 meters high, 3 metres wide at the base and a mere 15 cm at the top (Frommers: Dublin Day by Day 2011, p18). While this spire pierces the sky as in” the sky is the limit’ (no doubt a once Celtic Tiger theme), the sharp edges of fences and pin sharp tops of church suggest another kind of piercing.
The Liffey River divides the city between north and south and according to one of the guidebooks I have been reading, the south siders see themselves as “superior” to their northern fellow citizens. In fact, the “ha’ penny bridge” (now the Liffey bridge) was the first pedestrian bridge in the city and long ago a half penny was charged for crossing it. Dublin lore has it that this was so to discourage the” riff raff” from the north to cross onto the “cultured” south side of the city (Frommers: Dublin Day by Day 2011, p19). This practise continued to 1919, though of course the snobbery and class privilege persists to this day.
The north side of the bridge has a gritty street scenescape with row houses kissing the street, and tenement housing labels by different blocks where the working poor and the poor live. Both of these types of housing are present on the back side of the O’Connell Street towards Gardiner and beyond. In fact, all about this area, housing is modest to say the least. I do not know what rents are like or what the state of the housing is like on the inside, but from the outside they seem small, narrow and modest. I am comfortable, safe and enjoy this side of the river. Capel Street hosts a series of shops and restaurants offering foods from Eastern Europe (Poland, Moldova) and Asia (Korea and China). When we do venture to the south side, it will be interesting to see if and how it contrasts with this side of the city.
I’m not sure why I write these observations but it may be because the Dublin’s writers Museum is a block away from my hotel, and James Joyce’s statue is a further three blocks in the opposite direction from the museum. Perhaps Dublin inspires writing in the same way that Paris brings forth painters.
Alive and well
At this time of renewed interests in all things Titanic, the following story reminds us of the whiteness in the post-disaster pseudo analysis, then and now. There is little to disagree with the article. But I do wish the author had pointed to the threat to life that racist assumptions often entail (e.g. Trayvon Martin; assassination of black men in Tulsa), rather than to the Costa Concordia cruiseship accident. The former is so much more prevalent and pernicious.
July 2011 – Michel `Pag` Pagliaro – My Own Tribute
I’m not into nostalgia as I find it troubling in that it looks back rather than forward and often the past it looks back to is reorganized as ordered, sanitized, and bland with all the vibrancy and messiness of place and events sucked out of it. But on 16 July 2011, I heard for the first time live Michel `Pag` Pagliaro do his retro set of songs, and what a wonderful experience I had. I actually surprised myself how much I enjoyed it since I hardly listen to `classic rock` as I`m much more interested in listening to contemporary music rather than what radio marketers tell me is `classic`. `Pag, ` to his Quebecois fans, is a generation older than me but when I was growing up in Montreal in the late 1970s, he struck a chord with me. In a rock `n` roll culture of white faces, white fans, white names – whiteness – Pagliaro stood out for me as both within and outside rock. Within it as his songs played on the local rock station (one of the few Québec acts it played) and certainly gained local fame if not fortune. And for an adolescent boy like me at the time, lyrics like the following were at times painfully true:
Ooh you, how would I know just to hold you
How could I show that I want to
Cause I do, want to hold you
Yes I do
Ooh you, how would I know if I told you
You wouldn’t laugh if I told you
Cause I do, want to hold you
Yes I do, want to hold you
But Pagliaro was also outside rock with his not-quite-yet white name (Pagliaro), which to his credit he kept when the logic at the time was to anglicize to get air time and have any hope of succeeding. He also struck me as not quite portraying the rock image of the time. For a kid who wanted to emulate the rock (white) look but couldn’t because I was never thin enough nor could grow my hair straight (think Roger Hodgson of Supertramp) as it turned frizzy and curly when long enough – a dead give away of my non-white background – Pagliaro`s hair too couldn’t be disciplined to stay long and straight enough. In fact it was quite frizzy and curly as he sang away on this summer evening:
Hitch any ride you want to
Do anything you wanna do
Just keep ridin’ your way
Take anyone you want to
Long as I can hear from you
Just be mine in your way
Just be mine in your way
Just be mine in your way
Lovin’ you ain t so easy
Would never try to please me
But I’ve got time any old way
I’ve got time anyway
Hundreds of people like me listened, sang and danced to his classic songs. And every once in awhile I could sense a hint of rebelness and gentleness in his mood, style and lyrics:
Unis, unis, nous voilà enfin réunis
Nous sommes, nous sommes tous en frères
La main, la main, oui tous la main dans la main
Allons, allons tous partager
I can’t remember a more enjoyable performance in my entire life. Certainly it was because of the music but so it was also due to throwback identification with Pagliaro (whom I have never met) that I have kept secretly and cherished since I was a kid.
Class Consciousness and the Federal Election
It is true that virtually no one could predict the rise in popularity of the federal NDP as we head into the national election on May 2. Yet, we should not be so surprised by the sudden rise in the federal NDP’s brand as it ascends in all likelihood to the official opposition and perhaps even the government of the land.
At a time when working class Canadians are tired and fed up of the breaks and privileges that elites continue to draw for themselves from the Canadian state and tax payers, the NDP has tapped into this class consciousness to articulate itself as the Party that will hold elites and the bourgeoisie accountable, in check, and wrestles from this traditional class power gains for the working class.
It is refreshing to hear Jack Layton honestly speak about the plights of many Canadians and how the economy – which Harper claims only he and his Party can management and make prosper – hasn’t reached most Canadian families and made a difference to their economic well being. At a time of so much economic uncertainty and employment precariousness, Canadians seek to choose a new course that marks out for them a more economically just and brighter future.
It seems to me that this is no greater indictment of Harper and his governing of the economy than the response of Canadians to the NDP. In other words, one can interpret the rise of the NDP as clearly an indication that the Harper government’s economic policies haven’t delivered to working class Canadians and that his stewardship of economic growth and promise of prosperity is whistling in the wind.
Sears Sale Pitch
Did anyone else notice the latest Sears sales pitch going on right now? No? Well you’re in for a treat.
Apparently, February is “white sale” month at Sears. I’m not joking: it says so in the flyer I got this week in my junk mail. First I thought this designation was only at my local store. But no, it is a cross-country promotion.
Does anyone else think this is a strange sales promotion? Does anyone else feel awkward about a ‘white sale’ in February during black history month? Why white in February? There is nothing in the flyer about snow, and surely January is at least as good a candidate as February for this sales pitch.
So, is it ignorance or defiance on the part of the marketing department at Sears that flaunts this arrogant pitch? This promotion might strike some people (me) as incredibly insensitive (to say the least) to push a white sale at the same time as black history month cements itself in February. Is this promotion another example of the common sense of whiteness that does not see anything remotely problematic about running a sales promotion under this name at the same time as black history month seeks to move from the margins to mainstream social and political spaces in our society.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a white sale in February is another way of marginalizing blackness and recentering whiteness in peoples mind. How idiotic it is to promote a white sale when black history month deserves all the ‘visibility’ it can get. Shame on Sears for putting out a sales pitch refocusing on itself and thus competing with a topic that we too often forget is also part of Canadian history and the increasing fabric of Canadian society even if some people/organization would like to imply otherwise.