THH Episode 52: Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

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[Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. And she joins us here today to speak about her article that is very related to our most recent episode about Anita Bryant, and I am so excited to talk with you today. Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Beckley: Yeah. And I was telling you before we started recording that, as I was doing the research for the Anita Bryant episode, my boss actually sent me your article. And I was so glad because I was going to get was definitely going to get something wrong in that episode. And it’s always nice to have another historian spoofing and save me from that, and do the work before I have to. So I was wondering – So in your article, you kind of debunk a myth that has been pervasive in our culture for several decades now, I was wondering if you could kind of start off by telling the myth as it’s been told by various groups for decades.

Johnson: For sure. So Anita Bryant, as you know, and as your listeners will know, was a medium famous pop singer in the 1970s. And a really big celebrity in the evangelical world. And she was also famously a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. So, a lot of people have talked to remember this experience of like, coming into their living rooms, and she would come onto her ads and be like, hello, I’m Anita Bryant. And they’re grandmothers – I’ve heard this from multiple people, their grandmothers would be like, hello, Anita. Um, so she was sort of a political in the way that conservative Christians were in the mid-1970s. She had some very political ideas about feminism and about homosexuality. But she identified herself as being outside of politics until 1976, when her local Miami Dade County passed an anti-discrimination code that included affectional, or sexual preferences, which is the mid-1970s way of saying gay people. Um, and she found out about this actually, from her pastor who was furious about it, and who wanted her to use her celebrity in order to spearhead a movement against the anti-discrimination code. And it was personal for her because the sponsor of the amendment was Ruth Shaq, who was a friend of hers, and the wife of her booking agent, and she had told all her church friends to vote for Ruth. So she felt responsible for the amendment. So she became the face of this successful effort to repeal the amendment. It passed two to one, the repeal vote, which happens six months after the code was originally passed. And this mobilized a national response among gay and lesbian, it was mostly gay and lesbian groups then. And one of the things that they did was boycott Florida Orange Juice, because that was her most famous corporate sponsor. And there’s been in both communities – the conservative Christian community and the LGBTQ community – this idea that the boycott destroyed her career brought her down. And it was this early triumph for a new, more radical gay liberation movement. And so I believed that as well, and I was doing research in the archives of the Florida Orange Juice marketing and advertising committee, and found that not only did they not fire her because of it, but they actually probably extended her contract because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking a side. And so, first of all, there was remarkably little discussion of her political activities, even well into the boycott. But they did do a sort of marketing survey to see how well. . . Oh wait, you only asked about the myth.

Beckley: I want – I want to know anything you’ll give us.

Johnson: Um, so they had been looking into Anita Bryant’s effectiveness, basically, ever since they hired her in 1969. They had been doing yearly marketing surveys, and they had been finding that her appeal was declining it, it soared through the 1970’s – 71, 72 and then had been declining since then, sort of steadily and there was no real change as a result of the boycott, they did this kind of emergency study in response to the boycott. And they found that 11% of people said that they supported her more because of the boycott. 10% of people said they supported her less. And the vast majority of people did not care at all. And they were getting letters, sometimes sacks full of letters every week. And they were equally upset on both sides. There were people saying, “If you fire Anita Bryant I will never buy Florida orange juice again. And people saying I’m boycotting Florida orange juice until you fire Anita Bryant.” And to be perfectly honest, most of the people who were threatening to be upset if she was fired, were closer to their core demographic. They were Florida growers and Florida families. And so they essentially didn’t know what to do, they had this really difficult decision to make. And in the meantime, Singer sewing machines had had a contract with Anita Bryant to, for her to have her own like daytime variety show. And they cancelled it in the midst of the controversy, and that went really badly for them. They got a lot of bad publicity. So Florida orange juice said, we’re going to put out this kind of like, ambivalent support letter that says like, we’re very proud to be associated with Anita Bryant, but please don’t involve us in the politics on either side, we’re not interested. And there were a few things that contributed to the sense that she was fired because of the boycott. One was the there was one particular Florida Orange Juice executive who just popped off a lot and said things to the press, like, I wish we would fire her, which and he was very high up in the company, so people took that as gospel truth. And he got a lot of trouble behind the scenes. And then she was actually let go in 1981. But the key thing there was that she had then gone through a really messy divorce with her husband, which he opposed. And she had been both as a pop star and then as a political figure. She had represented herself as this emblem of American motherhood and Christian housewifery and patriotism. And all of that kind of crumbled in the midst of this divorce. So the things that she had based her non-political celebrity on, and the supporters who had rallied around her during the boycott, all kind of fell away. And at the same time, the marketing research that Florida orange use was doing suggested that this kind of 1950s-esque, although it started in the late 60s, view of the sunny, happy housewife was really not resonating with their consumers anymore. And so by 1981, they figured they were far enough away from the boycott, that they could let a let Bryant go without losing too much. And it was close enough that people remember it as being the boycott that sent her down.

Beckley: Well, and then I have read newspaper interviews that she did, where she went out and kind of blamed the boycott and and her political dealings with – blamed that for her being fired for her losing a lot of revenue. I read one, where she said that she could no longer buy the prime cuts of meat, and now she had to buy the choice cuts of meat. So she was saying, you know, she’s lost so much revenue that she’s had to change every facet of her life. And, you know, I kind of looked at that, at first I was like, okay, so this is her saying that the boycott, and her political dealings did lead directly to loss of revenue and loss of contracts. But when we were talking about it, when we were kind of brainstorming and factchecking were like, oh, well, that is good for her narrative that it was that rather than her divorce, that kind of was the nail in the coffin. So, your work definitely helped there where it kind of contextualize her self-proclaimed victimhood, if you will.

Johnson: Yeah, so she, it wasn’t just the divorce. It was also this kind of broader decline in the American appetite for the kind of patriotic over the top motherhood

Beckley: That Leave it to Beaver type.

Johnson: Exactly. And so it doesn’t. It doesn’t make her feel good to feel either like she is less popular on her own. merits, or that she’s made this huge mistake by divorcing her husband. And her turn towards victimhood is something that’s really emblematic of the new Christian right at this time, which is what we historians call the kind of beginning of the modern religious right in the United States. Leaders had been really skeptical of the African American freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, they are taking that language and using it to say that conservative Christians are being denied their civil rights, that they’re being denied their right to speak in the public square. And they take this kind of rightsp-based language directly from the black civil rights movement and other civil rights movements at the time to make the argument that their First Amendment rights are being infringed. And that’s exactly what Anita Bryant is doing in this moment.

Beckley: Yeah. And I noticed even before that, her using that language, I forget if it was during her press conference here in Indianapolis when she arrived here, or if it was one in Dade County, where she was saying that I don’t want to abridge anybody else’s rights, but my rights are being infringed by allowing gay individuals to influence our children and things like that. So she definitely was already mirroring that even early in her crusade, I guess she called it. So yeah, it definitely kind of as a theme throughout her journey, it seems like.

Johnson: yeah, and I think the thing to remember is that she was really practiced at narrating her own self. She wrote, I think, a record of 11 autobiographies in nine years, she would have had a blog if a blog was possible, but a blog wasn’t possible. And so she just published that much about herself. She had a lot of practice and a lot of finesse with taking what was happening and making it a narrative that suited her brand. So this wasn’t something she was just kind of coming up with, as the Florida orange juice thing was happening. It was something she already really knew how to do. And she actually ends up even mirroring the language of the gay rights community at this time. There’s this great quote, where she says, you know, they were all talking about coming out of the closet. And then I realized, Anita Bryant has come out of the closet too, as a conservative Christian, which is no longer a cool thing to be, according to her.

Beckley: I noticed a lot of mirroring and a lot of very, I mean, probably by the standards of the time, quietly, very homophobic language as far as fruit pies, even, you know, right after she was hit in the face with the pie saying, Oh, at least it was a fruit pie, kind of laughing it off like that. And, yeah, I was not alive during any of this – I’m from the 90s. I was born in 92. So I really didn’t become aware to the early 2000s. Obviously, still a lot of homophobia. But to read, people just saying awful, blatant homophobic things, just in the newspaper for everybody to read. It was just so shocking. This was my first queer history topic that I’ve covered. So I think that going into it, obviously, I expected homophobic language and and kind of coded messages. But they weren’t coded. They were coming right out and saying it and it was pretty shocking to read. I mean, I’m not queer. I can’t imagine being queer now or ever, but just I just admire the people that did come out and did face and Anita Bryant and did kind of come out and proclaim themselves as queer and here and kind of opposing her it was. It made it even more of a topic that I was excited to cover as I read more and more.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s, it’s the casualness of it. I think I also, I run an Oral History Program in Muncie, Indiana, looking into the queer history of the area. And what I’ve heard from a lot of the older generation is that they grew up thinking that they were literally the only gay person who had ever existed. And when you look at like the casual homophobia that was just in mainstream press, and the assumptions that are being made, you can see how you would come to that conclusion, but like, literally no one else in the history of time had ever had these same feelings that you did. And I think that, for me is one of the most heartbreaking things. Another thing about Anita Bryant is that she so she frequently frequently said, I don’t hate gay people. In fact, I love them even more than the people who claim to support them, because I am trying to save them from eternal burning in hell, whereas like supporting them on Earth is nice. Obviously, you don’t even care about their souls.

Beckley: To kind of pivot a little bit and talk about this at a meta level. When I first read your article, I obviously loved it because it crushed it miss conception I had. But also I love it, because it is such a good example of history being an ever evolving process. It’s not, history isn’t a written thing in a book is a process that we are always perform. And every time we uncover a new source, or we include a new viewpoint that’s never been included, that story is going to change. And often times, I find that when you do change the accepted story, the accepted narrative, you get labeled as a revisionist historian, which I don’t think is an insult that people think it is because that’s, again, what history is, is revising those all the time. Have you gotten any of that kind of feedback for your article? Can you talk a little bit about that, and about the process of history.

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. So before we started recording, I said to you that this is the article that has gotten the most negative comments on it. And it was actually a really interesting experience that’s been kind of emblematic of my career, which is that a lot of the comments on the Washington Post article accused me of being homophobic, there’s one person who says, I know this woman, she’s a huge Christian conservative, and I do not know them. And that is not accurate. But then I also got a voicemail where a woman, a Pentecostal woman, essentially laid hands on me over voicemail in order to cast out the demon of homosexuality, which, like I said, is kind of typical of my career. And I don’t know what this says about human nature. But I have found that whatever people are, they assume I’m the opposite. So whatever they want from the history, they assume I’m against them. And I, I think that part of it is that misunderstanding that you’re flagging, but the idea that by changing history, or by finding new things about history, that we, as historians have some kind of bad motive, when really, that is what we are trained to do. We’re trained to find the new angle, the new, the new thing to say, because there are always new perspectives, and always new things to say. And, as I tried to say, in my article, I think the story is really interesting, because it – I mean, we have this kernel of a fact that Anita Bryant was not fired as a result of the boycott and was, in fact, in fact, kept on longer. And yet, I think some of the lessons that have been taken from that myth are still very true. I mean, the fact that and, and that the myth helped those things to become true. So the fact that the gay community felt like they had taken down and Anita Bryant ended up feeling like this huge success, which galvanized the movement and made us stronger in a way that wouldn’t have happened, or maybe, maybe wouldn’t have happened. And a lot of people have said that it set up the activism of the AIDS era that it created those networks that were already in place. So I don’t think this revision is bad for the queer community. I think it actually tells us something more about our history. And that’s what historians in general are trying to do. Certainly, I’m not arguing that we are just objective narrators with no relationship to what we’re talking about. But most of the time, I think when we uncover new perspectives and new facts, what we’re doing is history. That is what historical research is, and we’re trying to shine new light, to get new understandings not to put down communities that have believed things, because that’s the evidence that they had.

Beckley: I often say that if history was unchanging, and if what we wrote in the book, the first time was all that was to be said, then there would be no need for the, what 500,000 different books written about Abraham Lincoln, or, you know, it just seems so obvious that, including new narratives and new  viewpoints is so essential. And as we grow as a culture and find these hidden stories, it’s so important to bring those to light to give those people a voice and to, you know, just correct the narrative. It’s, sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I’m appreciative of the work you’re doing.

Johnson: Thank you. One of the metaphors that we use in the profession is that when history was a new pursuit, in the early 20th century, they thought about it as bricks in a wall, and you would just like, get your Abraham Lincoln brick, and you’d put in the wall, and you’d be done. And you get your civil war brick and put in the wall, and you’re done. And we now sort of since the 1970s, have coming out of the Black civil rights movement out of the women’s movement, the queer movement, this insight that there are a lot of different perspectives on any one event, that there are a lot of different ways of thinking and looking at it. And I think that’s so much more exciting than just having one brick, I think it’s so cool that we get a rainbow on every single thing.

Beckley: Absolutely. And that’s, you know, one of the things we try to do is tell some of those stories that people might not have heard yet and Indiana’s history. So thanks for helping us with that. I wanted to give you a minute here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or tell people where they can find more of your work or even the the article we’ve been talking about so much. Sure.

Johnson: Sure, so the article we’ve been talking about is published in The Washington Post’s made by history blog. And this research is all based on my book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 called This is our Message: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right, and it looks at Anita Bryant, as well as a number of other prominent Christian women, including Tammy Faye Baker for another queer angle on it. And even though it is published by University Press, I tried to write it in a way that was still fun.

Beckley: Well, thank you. And I think that is all for today. I hope all of our listeners at home have enjoyed this as much as I have come back in a few weeks for our next episode. And thank you for joining us today.

Johnson: Thank you so much.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, The Myth that has Shaped the Christian right and the LGBTQ Rights Movement for Four Decades, June 21, 2019.

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Oxford University Press, 2019.

THH Episode 34: Giving Voice: Kera Lovell

Transcript of Giving Voice: Kera Lovell

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice. For this installment of Giving Voice, I’m joined by Kera Lovell, professor of American History at the University of Utah Asia Campus and the author of a forthcoming book about people’s parks. If you haven’t listened to our most recent episode discussing the Black Market Firebombing and the people’s park erected in its place, I recommend you go do so now, as it gives you the context needed to better understand our conversation.

And now, Giving Voice.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Song]

Beckley: I am here today with Kera Lovell, who is at the University of Utah Asia Campus. She’s a professor of American History there, and she’s currently working on a book about people’s parks. Thank you so much for being here today, Kera.

Lovell: Absolutely, thank you for having me.

Beckley: So, when I was doing my primary research into the Black Market and the people’s park that kind of came out of the Black Market tragedy, I was trying to look into people’s parks a little bit more and came across your work and as soon as I saw it, I knew we needed to have you on the show, so I really appreciate you making the time here in this kind of crazy time of ours to come on the show and kind of chat a little bit.

Lovell: Absolutely, I would love to spend this crazy moment with you that we are having in the world. So absolutely, whatever questions you have.

Beckley: Well, I think that we should probably start at the beginning. Could you give us a little bit of a background lesson about the origins of people’s parks and where the movement kind of got its founding?

Lovell: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a great question because they’re not the same thing. So, people’s parks, the reason that we know that phrase, and honestly, probably 99% of your listeners are confused about what that even means. People’s parks is a phrase – a “people’s park” is a phrase that we use in the 1960s and, I say “we” meaning “me,” so it’s a phrase that I use to describe a type of protest in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, honestly some examples came through the ‘80s, in which activists took over vacant lots and converted them into parks. And they called them people’s parks and that’s why I call them people’s parks.

So, the first famous one is in Berkeley in 1969; however, that’s actually not the first one. And so my research covers not only that there were people’s parks, because my research is much more interested in what they were saying through protest, about the visual,  the material, the performative culture, like how is the act of protest a form of communication, but also how can we embed these protests in their particular cities and contexts.

So, if you actually go to the first one that we know of, the first one that I know of is in San Francisco in 1968, and it’s actually this environmental action group called Ecological Action in 1968. They are planning a movement to protest a landlord that’s buying up housing, and so what they want to do is, in response, is protest it at city council meetings and whatnot. Well, one member of the group is actually killed in this really sad car accident, and so instead, in this act of mourning, in protest of this landlord that’s buying up land, they take over a vacant lot and they turn it into a park. And they do this, performatively, visually, materially – in which they plant trees, they make art, they have these performances in the park. And that’s the first one that we know of that’s not just a garden or a gathering spot, but it’s actually a performance protest piece. And it doesn’t last that long – it’s only a few weeks, but that one, which is super interesting, is at the same spot in which more than a year later is the most famous one, which is Berkeley’s People’s Park. Essentially, we had spectators at that one that was like, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting. I see what they’re doing.” And more than a year later, students at the University of California Berkeley do the same thing in which they’re protesting how landlords are buying up affordable housing from students, and so they’re going to take over this vacant lot and turn it into a park. The only difference is that with the first one, it’s very quiet, and so they just bulldoze over the spot. With the second one, they fence it up and bring in the National Guard, and it’s this terrible standoff in which the National Guard troops kill bystanders, and it’s just this horrible public relations campaign that makes it into national news that then sparks this national movement of students and other people that are taking over vacant lots and turning them into parks. So that’s what I study, not only that they did it and where they did it, but how they did it and what it meant to them in this moment of time.

Beckley: Wow, that’s really interesting. I had never dug deep enough, I guess, to find the actual roots of it. I thought that it started at Berkeley. I guess that was kind of where the national movement started, would you say that’s right?

Lovell: For sure, for sure. Absolutely. And I think that’s the difference. Because with the Berkeley’s People’s Park, and again I say Berkeley’s People’s Park, but there’s more than a dozen of them actually in Berkeley, because they’re so good at their campaign that even around the city, there’s many different people’s parks that are started at this time. But I would say that that park is so successful in its campaign, not necessarily successful in its long term campaign, we can actually see other spaces, and I’m happy to talk about them, in which they’re more successful in being culturally accepted or socially accepted, but Berkeley’s People’s Park that’s right next to the university is the most famous because it’s able to utilize the underground press in campaigning for the idea that it’s unjust, what has happened to them, and really capitalize on tens of thousands of readers in a couple of days’ time span and sort of catalyze them into a protest movement against this.

Beckley: So, when you talk about other parks being more successful in being socially accepted, I know that some parks, like Bloomington’s Peoples Park, was later legally sanctioned – do you see a correlation between a park being socially accepted, or, I guess, the movement behind a park being social accepted, and a later legal sanction?

Lovell: I think that’s a great question. So, yes and no, and I think Bloomington’s a great example because, while it becomes legal, it doesn’t become socially accepted. So, in a lot of these different cases, what you find is that because the historical context changes from protest movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the demand for space by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, which, if I’m going to refer you to a historian, there’s a great cultural geographer by the name of Don Mitchell, and he writes a really interesting book about the right to space and about how by the late ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s a push for the homeless, because there is an increasingly white homeless population, and their demand for public space, and how a lot of these different spaces like Berkeley’s People’s Park become an issue over free speech and right to public space become an issue of homelessness and how we’re not actually addressing the needs of that. So, I say that all to mean that most of these spaces become socially, culturally tainted of, like, the people that occupy those spaces are no longer the people that are interested in free speech and politics, but are interested in homeless encampments. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with it – I’m not trying to put my speech one way or the other, I’m just saying that the context has changed from the ‘70s to the ‘80s to the ‘90s, in which we’re much more interested in are people poor, and do they have a right to that space, rather than are they students and more political and in the ‘70s, they were much more interested in are you political, should you be in public space, whereas not it’s are you homeless and should you be in public space.

But one positive example that I give, which is, I think, if we’re looking at ranking these parks, the best example of a people’s park I would argue, is Chicano Park in San Diego. And that begins as an illegal park, and that is because it is park – ok, so let me back it up. So, actually, it’s this group of Mexican Americans in San Diego in Barrio Logan, so what they are campaigning the city council for is a park, for years. And so what happens is that they’re campaigning for a park, campaigning for a park, and they never get it. And so what happens is the area where they had been told was going to be their park, actually one day, the state brings in bulldozers to build police headquarters there by the highway. And so they flip out, and they are, justly, very angry at this, and it actually coalesces with the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, in which they take over the lot that they’re actually – the state has decided they’re going to convert into police headquarters and they’re like, “No, no, no, no, no, no. We’re going to make this into a park.” So they take over the bulldozers. They start planting their own things. They start having food. Like, they literally take it over and they start an encampment and they’re like, “We deserve a park for our community, because we’re being run out of town.” And so, what’s important is that, because it happens in 1970, about a year later, after Berkeley’s People’s Park, plus they’re interested in legalizing it in a way that they want it institutionalized. They want a park for their community. So they stick with it for the long haul in a way that I don’t know if other spots in other cities are interested in. So, I say that in meaning that what happens is that in San Diego, they get it legalized. They get it institutionalized as that takeover as a park. And what’s really cool is that, not only is it successful in the takeover, but that the people who created the park were much more interested in, “how do we evolve the park? And how do we push it? And how do we create it as part of, embedded in the community?” Which is more than a political symbol of a takeover of a space. Like, Chicano Park, which you can visit today, is involved in local parades. It’s involved in local festivities. It’s involved in local celebrations of Mexican American culture, in a way that it’s institutionalized in not only a protest over, “We want to claim space,” but it’s also an important part of the local culture of San Diego in a way that I don’t see in a lot of other people’s parks otherwise.

Beckley: Do you think that the People’s Park Movement – I know that you had mentioned, the park right before Berkeley’s park, sorry I’m blanking on the name, but that that one was the first that wasn’t just a garden. Now, I know today, or at least a few years ago, guerilla gardening was kind of a big thing. Do you see a influence from the People’s Park Movement in the guerilla gardener movement?

Lovell: That is an excellent question, and I am – the only reason, I am both excited and hesitant to answer, but only because I‘m excited in that you made a connection, but also hesitant in that I also don’t know the exact origin. For example, there are historians in African American history, for example, that have been able to pinpoint guerilla gardening way before Berkeley’s People’s Park.

Beckley: Wow.

Lovell:  Yea, and so there’s excellent research on, say, if you have poor people that move to a new neighborhood, they create gardens. If you look at immigrants who move to a new neighborhood, they create gardens. And those are inherently guerilla gardens in they’re not on property that they own. So, does Berkeley’s People’s Park make it more fashionable with young college students? I would say yes, because they have a greater handle on popular culture and especially the underground press to push it to become popular. And to be popular meaning that they are trying to make it a political statement. Is guerilla gardening a political statement before Berkeley’s People’s Park? I don’t know if it is. Again, there are historians that will argue that guerilla gardening, for example, during World War I or World War II is a political statement in arguing that it is very much important as a part of a resistance to an “other” identity beyond our country. However, I can’t be a good person to say that, but I’m so glad that you said that, and I think that if you think it’s because, since the late 1960s and ‘70s, Berkeley’s People’s Park has been associated with this leftist political identity of we should take over public space and make it into gardens. However, people have been doing that since there has been land to grow food on.

Beckley: So, I’ve just – my mind’s kind of working now, and I’m thinking of another, I don’t know if I would classify it as a movement, but something that’s happening in, I believe San Francisco, people are grafting fruit tree limbs onto decorative trees in the middle of medians and things like that in order to – ‘cuz those limbs will then produce fruit still – they’re doing that in the hopes of providing a free source of food for the homeless population – do you, especially it being in California, I just, I can’t get past that there might be a connection there but then it just might be that it seems like a good idea and I’m just making connections where there aren’t any.

Lovell: No, I think you’re right on track. I think that the only difference is that in my research, what I can see, is that when this movement starts, and I say movement meaning that there is a huge source of these parks that start in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they don’t use the word homeless. So, they use the word street people. They use the word, like, “It’s parks for the people.” And so, they’re interested in, like, “it’s free, because it’s for the people.” So it’s really not until we go to the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, in which we begin to use the word homeless that it begins, that people start to talk about, like, “we need a space for the homeless.” And it’s not because we don’t have people living on the streets beforehand, it’s just, it’s not necessarily part of their identity as, like, a social ill. And again, that’s even problematic to say because if you looked at Reagan, he would definitely say that street people in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a social problem and an identity, but they themselves wouldn’t see it. And so, to me, the answer to that question is best explored in the history of Berkeley’s People’s Park, because there’s actually so many archival sources on this one park, because you can go through and see its design over the years and how through the early ‘80s, in which they’re actually thinking about homelessness, and they’re actually thinking about access to people with disabilities, and we have new activist groups that are trying to redesign the park to make it more accessible and to make it more accessible not only for people in wheelchairs but for people that are homeless. And how, it’s never easy, like, they’re constantly struggling with, “how do we design it? And how will people accept it?” And I think it reveals more about how people are more increasingly trying to situate themselves within the context and be better, and yet they’re struggling with the issues that are going on within society.

Beckley: I’m wondering, what do you see as some of the direct legacies of the movement that are still seen in society today?

Lovell: Ohh, that is an excellent question. I think that, if we were fresh on the Occupy Wall Street movement, it would be really easy, because that was such an easy time to be able to say that people are interested in the relationship between space and power. And understanding the idea that if you take over a space in public and you claim it as your own illegally, it is a form of power, and how do people negotiate that? And so, I think that that parallel to what we see in the late ‘60s and ‘70s in which people are much more interested in the performative, symbolic act of, we’re not necessarily going to grow a field and it last for 20 years, but, like, we are going to take this over and see how people react and see how we can bring communities together. So I think that’s one thing that I think people find – it’s confusing for people nowadays that want to have their backyard and find it difficult, the idea that someone would go to a vacant lot and take it over as a symbol of protest – it’s very confusing, and I totally understand that. So I think that, if you take that away and we’re not just looking at symbolism and protest, one thing that I think would be very important is that Berkeley’s People’s Park is this really famous symbol at the very beginning of the environmental movement, so we have a lot of other environmental issues that are going on in America, and yet the human factor of Berkeley’s People’s Park, the fact that, if we’re just looking at symbolism at the end of the day, it’s a lot of people that are planting flowers in this vacant lot and they are shot for that. And for understanding of very different ways. But the fact that people are shot for gardening, it catalyzes this national – even international – movement in which people are interested in planting flowers and are interested in bettering the environment. And we actually see for many years after that in different environmental actions in which they refer to Berkeley’s People’s Park as this moment in which we can see people just trying to care for public space. And so, I think that’s very important that at the time, it was a catalyst for we should take care of the environment and care about it and care about the people that are tending to the environment. And I think that it’s only later because of public relations that we’ve kind of gotten confused on that issue, but at the time that was the number one thing that comes about was that we have environmental action campaigns in Berkeley, nationally, and in other cities that are really important.*

Beckley: I love speaking with you because every time you kind of bring up a new facet of the People’s Parks Movement, I kind of see it reflected in Bloomington’s Peoples Park as small scale as it was. I found a lot of newspaper clippings talking about people experiencing homelessness being there and then being kicked out of there and then camping on sidewalks and being allowed back there with increased police presence. And just everything you say kind of brings me back to Bloomington’s Peoples Park, which is something I love about history -just all of the little connections between such a big national and international movement and something that happened here in Bloomington, Indiana.

Lovell: It’s true! And I didn’t even mention racism, which is such a critical component of Bloomington’s Peoples Park, and which often doesn’t get talked about with the early people’s parks in the Bay Area, but it absolutely was like the first people’s park in San Francisco, which is about ecological, created by ecological action, but what they do is they’re very much interested in how can we create these parks and neighborhoods in which we can bring white people and Black people together? And even with Berkeley’s People’s Park, in which it becomes national news, they’re very much interested in how can we create a space in which we can get the Black Panthers involved? Or we can get anti-racist activists involved. And they’re very interested in how we can use these parks as coalitional issues, which I think is so beautiful about the Bloomington’s Peoples Park, in which it is, even though symbolic, a beautiful moment of coalition for people in that community.

Beckley: Well, I think that is a beautiful place for us to end today. Thank you so much for being on the show. I think that this is one of our best conversations to date, and I cannot wait for people to hear it.

Lovell: Yay! I’m so glad. Thank you so much, Lindsey.

Beckley: Thank you.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]

Beckley: Once again, I want to thank Dr. Lovell for taking the time to talk with me for this episode. We’ll be back soon with another new episode, but in the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

*Note: This Giving Voice episode was recorded in May 2020, before the widespread Civil Rights protests began in reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality across the nation. During the recent protests, some interesting parallels with the People’s Parks Movement have emerged, the most striking of which is Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The Autonomous Zone, alternately called the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), is a section of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood which has been occupied by protesters and labeled as a “no-police zone.” It is meant to be a place to live out the ideals behind the Black Lives Matter movement, an experiment in decreased policing and communal living. The parallels between CHOP and the People’s Park Movement are very clear – a group of people have illegally taken over public spaces visually, materially, and performatively in order to demand action. As of June 23, 2020 the CHOP is still active, although Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has announced that the city will be working with Black community organizers to clear the encampment after three shootings occurred in the area.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Kera Lovell

Learn more about Dr. Lovell and her work here.

Contact Dr. Lovell at keralovell@gmail.com.

Learn more about the history of people’s parks here.