Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s


In 1950s America, it was remarkably easy for police to arrest almost anyone for almost any reason. The criminal justice system - and especially the age-old law of vagrancy - played a key role not only in maintaining safety and order but also in enforcing conventional standards of morality and propriety. A person could be arrested for sporting a beard, making a speech, or working too little. Yet by the end of the 1960s, vagrancy laws were discredited and American society was fundamentally transformed. What happened? In Vagrant Nation, Risa Goluboff provides a groundbreaking account of this transformation. By reading into the history of the 1960s through the lens of vagrancy laws, Goluboff shows how constitutional challenges to long-standing police practices were at the center of the multiple movements that made "the 1960s." Vagrancy laws were so broad and flexible that they made it possible for the police to arrest anyone out of place in any way: Beats and hippies; Communists and Vietnam War protestors; racial minorities, civil rights activists, and interracial couples; prostitutes, single women, and gay men, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. As hundreds of these"vagrants" and their lawyers claimed that vagrancy laws were unconstitutional, the laws became a flashpoint for debates about radically different visions of order and freedom. In Goluboff's compelling portrayal, the legal campaign against vagrancy laws becomes a sweeping legal and social history of the 1960s. Touching on movements advocating civil rights, peace, gay rights, welfare rights, and cultural revolution, Vagrant Nation provides insight relevant to this battle, as well as the battle over the legacy of the 1960s' transformations themselves.


In 1949 Los Angeles, a police officer arrested Isidore Edelman as he spoke from a park bench in Pershing Square. Twenty years later, an officer in Jacksonville, Florida, arrested Margaret “Lorraine” Papachristou when she was out for a night on the town.

Edelman and Papachristou had very little in common. Edelman was a middle-aged, Russian-born, communist-inclined soapbox orator. Papachristou was blond, statuesque, twenty-three, and a Jacksonville native. the circumstances of their arrests were different, too. It was Edelman’s strident and offensive speeches that caught the attention of the police—his politics were just too inflammatory for the early Cold War. For Papachristou, it was her choice of companions—she and her equally blonde friend had been out with two African American men in a southern city not quite transformed by the civil rights era.

What Edelman and Papachristou shared despite their differences was the crime for which they were arrested: vagrancy. California law made a vagrant of everyone from wanderers and prostitutes to the willfully unemployed and the lewd. Edelman’s earlier arrests off the soapbox had made him “dissolute” and therefore a vagrant under the law. Papachristou was arrested under a Jacksonville ordinance that criminalized some twenty different types of vagrants, including “rogues and vagabonds, or dissolute persons who go about begging, … persons who use juggling or unlawful games or plays, common drunkards, … common railers and brawlers, persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object, habitual loafers, disorderly persons.” Such a law, noted a judge in 1970, sounded like “a casting advertisement in an Elizabethan newspaper for the street scene in a drama of that era.” To the police, the listed categories did not even exhaust the law’s possibilities. They noted that Papachristou and her companions were vagrants for an improvised and far more modern reason: “prowling by auto.”

As the evocative language of these laws suggests, the crime of vagrancy had long historical roots. William Blackstone, the doyen of eighteenth-century English legal commentators, noted that “idleness” was “a high offense against the . . .

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