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Department of History Faculty Highlights

Dr. Chris Agee Debuts His First Book: THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

Dr. Chris Agee Debuts His First Book: THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

The jacket for Dr. Agee's book, The Streets of San Francisco.

Earlier this spring, Dr. Chris Agee made a splash in the publishing world with the debut of his first book, The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972.

The book reveals the surprising and central role that law enforcement and policing played in the creation of urban America's modern liberal politics. Dr. Agee sheds light on police officers discretion when dealing with North Beach Beats, African-American gang leaders, gay and lesbian bar owners, Chinese-American entrepeneurs, and a wide array of other San Franciscans.

We got a behind-the-scenes look at his book in this exclusive interview.

Q: How did you come to your research topic? 

A: I was taking a graduate seminar class on crime and policing and I needed a research topic, and my advisor suggested a scandal he had read about that took place in San Francisco called the "Gayola Scandal." It was a scandal in which cops had been shaking down gay bars. The term is Payola, and the papers dubbed it "Gayola."

My advisor said there would be a ton of material, and long story short, there were no records on it – the court records had been thrown away. I realized I was going to have to do oral histories and find other ways of finding out what happened. I started meeting with gay bar owners and police officers, and they were telling me surprising stories – stories I hadn’t expected. That’s kind of what got me going. 

The general story of policing, the way historians talk about it – “the police are working for city hall, and they come in and kick ass" – they’re sort of representatives of the state. But what I was finding was that these cops were coming into the bar and doing their own thing, which is discretion, they had lots of discretion. The stories that they told me were different than the stories historians had told.

Ultimately, what I found was that the gay bar owners were exploiting the “discretion." 

Discretion is a political science term – tons of choice or power over what I do because I can’t be monitored at all times. This is the story of policing – there are constantly efforts to control the discretion of these cops, but because a police officer is out on the beat by himself (at this time it was all men) and, yeah, he has the authority of city hall behind him. It creates a much more complicated view of policing rather than when there were big things like raids or riots. I’m much more interested in the day-to-day – what happens when the police officer is by himself. 

Q: Any surprises you came across in your research? 

A: There were two big surprises, but one major surprise: What I started discovering was that traditionally, post WWII, when you talk about the rise of law and order, the rise of big, strong police departments, high imprisonment rates – it’s generally told as a conservative story. The story of conservatives drive the story. I, of course, was looking at San Francisco – a city where liberals won, and yet they have a really large police department. My central argument was that liberals were at the center of this creation of law and order. Liberals were driving the expansion of power of policing. 

Q: Any challenges you came across when researching or writing? 

A: Yeah, any time you’re talking about crime or policing, certainly on the crime part of it there’s not a ton of written sources, and even on the police side, the police had already thrown away all of their papers on my period. So I solved this by oral histories; I spoke with artists, gang leaders, politicians, gay club owners, police; those are the major groups. Often these people would have personal papers, so I’d sit in their homes or offices just going through their papers that they had, old clippings. I met this one guy who ran a peacekeeping organization to try to get gangs have truces instead of fighting, and he had a lot of papers from his old organization. I talk abot these gang leaders who would try to be peace keepers. The police weren’t monitoring the situation, so the people did. In any case, he had an audio recording of one of these peacekeepers talking to the riot. This is stuff I wouldn’t have known.

Q: Are you relieved to be done?

A: Yeah, it’s weird. It happened at the same time that I had a baby. It was good to have something to transition to. Otherwise I would have a big void in my life. 

Q: What are your favorite classes to teach? 

A: I like teaching my urban history classes – I teach a US Urban and Global Urban class. Those are a lot of fun because we get to look at really cool primary sources like detective stories – Edgar Allen Poe, films noir – Bladerunner, Hong Kong New Wave Cinema, music – you know, all the cultural creations of a big city. We get to talk about strange things we wouldn’t normally think about like, “How the experience of a city changed when light was introduced.” 

Q: You’ve been described as a “dedicated” and “creative” teacher. How do you feel about your teaching methods? 

A: Yeah, I like teaching. I would say that on the topic of my book, I look at police each chapters’ on a different group – I have a chapter on Chinese American, the Beats, a chapter on Hippies, on and on and on. It’s a complicated story, and teaching was really critical for me being able to figure out how to distill the central points – the main argument. All of the things we’re telling our students to do, but I’m doing it now. That process was extraordinarily helpful in helping me lasso the main argument out of my book.