The book: For hundreds of years, vagrancy laws — which date back to colonial times in America — gave police a kind of “one-size-fits-all” way to control people who didn’t fit conventional norms of behavior. The flexibility of vagrancy laws allowed authorities to use them in just about any way they wanted and against anyone “out of place” — war protesters, communists, racial minorities, gays, civil-rights activists, and the poor. In Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s, Risa Goluboff *03 describes these powerful and ubiquitous legal tools and their collapse during the 1960s when new legal and constitutional arguments succeeded in invalidating the laws.
The author: Risa Goluboff *03 is a professor of law and professor of history at the University of Virginia School of Law. She is also the author of The Lost Promise of Civil Rights and numerous shorter works.
Opening lines: “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 blond 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.”
Reviews: Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, “[Vagrant Nation is] a masterful exploration of constitutional change! Goluboff presents a fascinating account of how dragnet criminal laws, once considered desirable protection against undesirables, clashed with emerging visions of a more inclusive society.”