Monday, 3 July 2017

Vagrant Nation by Risa Goluboff

Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s by Risa Goluboff
Published by Oxford University Press in April 2016.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from its publishers via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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-served not only to maintain safety and order but also to enforce 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 answers that question by showing how constitutional challenges to vagrancy laws shaped 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: Beats and hippies; Communists and Vietnam War protestors; racial minorities and civil rights activists; gays, single women, and prostitutes. As hundreds of these "vagrants" and their lawyers challenged vagrancy laws in court, the laws became a flashpoint for debates about radically different visions of order and freedom.
Goluboff's compelling account of those challenges rewrites the history of the civil rights, peace, gay rights, welfare rights, sexual, and cultural revolutions. As Goluboff links the human stories of those arrested to the great controversies of the time, she makes coherent an era that often seems chaotic. She also powerfully demonstrates how ordinary people, with the help of lawyers and judges, can change the meaning of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court's 1972 decision declaring vagrancy laws unconstitutional continues to shape conflicts between police power and constitutional rights, including clashes over stop-and-frisk, homelessness, sexual freedom, and public protests. Since the downfall of vagrancy law, battles over what, if anything, should replace it, like battles over the legacy of the sixties transformations themselves, are far from over.

With its subtitle of 'Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s' and the fact of it having been written by a law professor, I did wonder if I might struggle to understand Vagrant Nation. Happily, it is remarkably accessible for non-lawyers or law students and, other than an occasional legalese phrase or two, I not only comfortably kept up with the text, but also learned a lot about this period of American history. Goluboff stresses the human stories behind the headlines and clearly explains often complex legal arguments. Personally I was amazed at the sheer variety of people who fell foul of the wide-ranging vagrancy laws in America, especially as practically none of the cases mentioned by Goluboff recognisably fitted the classic image of a vagrant! Instead, vagrancy law victims were generally simply undesirables - men and women who didn't fit their locality's narrow idea of 'normal' and 'acceptable'. They didn't DO anything wrong, but they LOOKED wrong and therefore could legally and repeatedly be arrested at the whim of any zealous / bored / malicious police officer even though they might have money and a job and a legitimate reason to be wherever they were. I was reminded of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping - an outbreak of neighbourly fingerpointing could result in an arrest record.

I was fascinated and frequently shocked throughout Vagrant Nation and I am sure Dave started getting fed up of me interrupting him to read out excerpts! Goluboff briefly discusses vagrancy law's Elizabethan roots (English colonialism at fault again), and takes us into courts across America, from local towns to the Supreme Court, to meet lawyers and victims over a period of some twenty-odd years from 1949 until 1972. She examines the influences of diverse challenges to vagrancy law from civil rights, women's rights and gay rights groups, and does a fantastic job of making what must have been a sprawling mess of arrest records and lawsuits into a strong coherent narrative, tracing threads across states and years. I am glad to have read Vagrant Nation and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in twentieth century history and social sciences.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Risa Goluboff / Sociology / Books from America

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