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Prior to the 1950s, it was remarkably easy for police to arrest people for a wide variety of activities performed in the streets. Throughout the country, vagrancy laws were far-reaching and pervasive. Yet by the end of the 1960s, streets across America hosted both massive political protests and a cultural revolution that reshaped not only the nation's public spaces, but more broadly its public life. For the era or against it, virtually all agreed that America after the 1960s was starkly different than before it. What happened? In Vagrant Nation, Risa Goluboff provides a truly groundbreaking explanation of the transformation. Focusing on Court decisions that loosened vagrancy laws and opened up the streets to Americans in all their variety, she shows how legal change helped fuel highly public social movements advocating everything from civil rights to peace to gay rights to cultural revolution. Indeed, increased access to the streets increased their public presence and thereby social power.
The book is a brilliant example of how a seemingly small event -alteratations to the relatively minor crime of vagrancy-can contribute to a social revolution. Not only that, Goluboff powerfully demonstrates how the courts can advance social change-make history, so to speak. The vagrancy laws were that were on the books virtually everywhere in the 1950s served as a catchall device for police forces intent on establishing public order; you could be arrested for everything from causing a disturbance to behaving in a way contrary to the norm-fraternizing with a member of another race, for example, or publically preaching non-mainstream beliefs like communism. Given the very fluid interpretation of vagrancy, police inevitably abused it to the point where they could arrest almost any "nonconforming" person. Once the Supreme Court began invalidating these laws, it opened up public space to any manner of dissenter or nonconformist: hippies, war protestors, civil rights activists, interracial couples, gays, and, of course, vagrants-all the people occupying spaces previously off-limits to them. Goluboff's account is not just a investigation of the relationship between law and social change, however. It is also a ground-up history-from Skid Row to the Supreme Court-of the culture wars between the New Left and New Right. The results of these battles are abundantly evident today in both positive ways-like the increased openness to all in America's public spaces-and negative ways-especially the explosion of homelessness afterward. In sum, she shows that major societal changes can result not only from big waves, but from seeming ripples too.