The People Have the (Flower) Power

I am going to guess that it was in the spring or summer of 1970 that my brother and I went into the garage one morning and stuck “flower power” stickers all over our mother’s beige VW squareback. I would have been nearly 10 and my brother about eight.

The original colors
The original colors

The stylized daisy stickers had been a gift, but for reasons unfathomable to my brother and me, were not being affixed in a proper place. They were just kicking around the house, not being thrown out and not being applied to anything. We knew exactly where they should go and thought we would do our mom a favor and put the smaller ones on her hubcaps and the larger ones in prominent places on the back of the car.

Our thoughtfulness, to put it mildly, was not well received. We had seen literally hundreds of cars plastered with the bright-colored daisy stickers everywhere we’d been driven over the last year or so and we were feeling rather left out. Our family’s recent purchase of a VW – which our father could literally not fit into – was clear evidence to us that our mom had joined the counterculture.

In fact, she was doubly upset. Not only did she not want those hideous things on her new car but she was reluctant to have us get them off, since we would be sure to scrape the paint and chrome in the process of getting them off.

Flower power Volkswagen

So they stayed there for a while until she must have convinced someone older than us – one of our babysitters, perhaps – to clean them off. My recollection is that the job was done rather incompletely and that we had at least the increasingly crummy looking adhesive smudges on the car for months.

The origin of the “flower power” stickers is, of course, in the hippie movement. Most sources attribute it to the Bay Area community, particularly the “People’s Park” episode in Berkeley where, in 1967 the University of California demolished a building and then proceeded to do nothing with the empty lot. In the spring of 1969 the local countercultural community began to plant the nearly three-acre parcel with, among other things, flowers.

When I visited Berkeley 14 years later the park was still there, but it had fallen into disrepair and was surrounded by a high chainlink fence. The fence had been installed after then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent a small army of California highway patrolmen, Berkeley police officers and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies into the park where they violently cleared away protestors who were occupying the space. Several people were badly injured by shotgun pellets and James Rector, a college student, was killed.

In the aftermath the National Guard was sent in to occupy the city. They were stationed near all the vacant lots of Berkeley because a movement had begun with the city to plant all the neglected areas with flowers.

People power in action

On May 30, 1969, 30,000 people marched past the barricade People’s Park in protest against the death of James Rector, the occupation of the city and the prohibition against making vacant lots into parks. Young people put flowers down the barrels of the National Guardmen’s rifles.

A year later, on May 4, 1970 the National Guard shot and killed four college students at Kent State University.

And yet the indomitable American urge to turn everything into commerce was already at work on the symbolism of the flower power of People’s Park. Brightly colored abstracted daisies that symbolized the “flower child” protests against the establishment were soon a decorative item available to all.

They have never really quite gone out of style, but a quick search of the Internet yields a landslide of flower power sticker and decal outlets. Now, however, a lot of them are removeable.