Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s. By Risa Goluboff. (New York and other cities: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 471. $34.95, ISBN 978-0-19-976844-8.)

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 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 Papachristoii 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. …

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