- Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s by Risa Goluboff
The police power to enforce order has long been defined by its elasticity, its endless range of objects, and its wide discretionary ambit. For students of the history of uniformed police officers in the United States, though, the connection between this constitutive feature of modern governance and the everyday actions cops took on the streets has not always been clear. Risa Goluboff s detailed and prodigiously researched Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s illuminates how vagrancy laws served as the medium of this connection. With their roots in the economic transformations attendant to capitalism's enclosures and dispossessions and intended to compel the poor to work, vagrancy laws regulated people's status rather than their specific conduct. The vague, catchall character of vagrancy laws became unsustainable during the long 1960s, as the policing of status proved increasingly antithetical to the era's new cultural and social norms, legal protections, and political demands.
With limpid and stylish prose and an eye for illustrative detail, Goluboff traces how the "vagrancy law regime" came to be challenged and ultimately eliminated (p. 4). But this compelling history, with its strong narrative flow, ranges widely beyond the chambers of the Supreme Court, offering a social history of legal change. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of the challenge to vagrancy laws, pinned on particular cases, individual lawyers, or [End Page 472] sociocultural phenomena, from the civil rights movement to hippies. In this account, the long 1960s began in 1949 with the arrest of Los Angeles soapbox orator Isidore Edelman and concluded in 1972, when the Court struck down vagrancy laws in Papachristou v. Jacksonville. Goluboff makes the bold case for rethinking this conjuncture in terms of what linked seemingly disparate groups, political struggles, and state actions that the historiography generally treats in isolation from one another. In this period, "the coercive and always implicitly violent power of the criminal law," she argues, "was ubiquitous" (p. 336). Vagrancy law was the cornerstone, although it "systematically rendered itself invisible" (p. 333). At points the book threatens to become a general history of the various currents, flotsam, and jetsam that composed the stream of the long 1960s, but I found Goluboff s analysis of hippies and the law revelatory. Despite the book's few glances at the political economy of poverty, I wonder how the postwar boom conditioned the possibility of challenging vagrancy laws. Low unemployment rates combined with relative ease for many to eke out a living transformed the regime's basic economic imperatives.
Vagrant Nation is a necessary contribution to the history of police and social movements in the postwar United States, highlighting how and why the highly flexible vagrancy law regime was continually at the center of contentious politics, whatever the goals of various movements were. Goluboff concludes with a strong argument for why it mattered legally that the vagrancy law regime crumbled, but the most intriguing part of this history is the chapter on Terry v. Ohio (1968). This decision allowed the police to conduct street stop-and-frisk operations when harboring reasonable suspicion that a crime has happened or will soon occur. Although Terry preceded Papachristou, Goluboff shows that the more limited and transparent stop-and-frisk tactic was essentially exchanged for the vague and hidden power of vagrancy law. After the legal achievements of the black freedom struggle, which included the dismantling of the vagrancy law regime, a paradox arose: the Terry decision's specificity has meant that it is not applied as broadly as vagrancy laws were, but instead stop and frisk has become a racially targeted form of harassment. Could the type of social and legal activism in Goluboff s history model how to dismantle this regime?