Chris Agee – Important Insight into How Law and Order Developed Alongside Liberal Politics in San Francisco

Published: Feb. 5, 2018

Chris Agee, Assistant Professor of HistoryThrough personal papers and over forty oral histories, Assistant Professor of History Christopher Lowen Agee researched seldom-reported, street-level interactions between police officers and San Francisco residents during the 1950s and 60s for 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 played in the creation of urban America's modern liberal politics. Agee found that postwar police officers exercised broad discretion when dealing with North Beach beats, African-American gang leaders, gay and lesbian bar owners, Haight-Ashbury hippies, artists who created sexually explicit works, Chinese-American entrepreneurs, and a wide range of other San Franciscans. By the late 1960s, marginalized San Franciscans, young white professionals and even rank-and-file police officers were rallying around issues of police discretion to forge a new liberal coalition. Promising both democracy and physical safety, San Francisco liberals became a driving force behind a national transformation in urban liberal politics.  Agee says of the research for the book, "Any time you're talking about crime or policing... there's not a lot of written sources. Even on the police side, the San Francisco police had already thrown away all of their papers on my period. I solved this by collecting oral histories. I spoke with artists, gang leaders, politicians, gay club owners, police and others. Often these people would have personal papers, so I'd sit in their homes or offices just going through their papers and old clippings. I met this one man who ran a peacekeeping organization trying to get gangs to have truces instead of fighting, and he had a lot of papers from his old organization. I talk about these gang leaders who would try to be peace keepers. The police weren't monitoring the situation, so the people did."