Offering flowers to police: The history of using flowers in protest

Shadique Mahbub Islam | Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Recently, the photographs of the protesting students of the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) offering flowers to the police have gone viral on social media.

The opening credits of the Zack Snyder film ‘The Watchmen’ also contain such a scene where protesters put flowers inside the barrels of firearms of the police, only to be shot dead the next moment.

But, rifles cannot be disarmed with flowers. Then what is the meaning of the gesture? How did the gesture start? What does the gesture symbolise?

The gesture of offering flowers to the law-enforcing officers has its root in the 1960s and 1970s ‘Flower Power’ movement.

It was the turbulent era of the late 1960s in the USA where the anti-Vietnam War sentiment was skyrocketing every passing day. The country was besotted with anti-war protests; one such protest was the ‘March on the Pentagon’ on October 21, 1967, where more than one hundred thousand protesters had gathered to chant ‘How many more?’ and ‘I am a Vietnam dropout.’

On this extraordinary demonstration, a photo-journalist Bernie Boston took a photo - A protester was placing a carnation on the barrel of the rifle of a member of the military police. He wasted no time clicking photos of the moment.

However, his editor at the now-defunct The Washington Star paid little attention to the photograph, saying that the photograph had little importance. The picture was run on a page deep inside the newspaper and remained unnoticed by the mass before Bernie Boston had sent it to a competition where it had won first place.

The photograph was named ‘Flower Power’ and it made the photographer an overnight media sensation.

Such a feat of courage and non-violence had been unprecedented before, and the search for the brave protester was underway. He was finally identified as George Edgerly Harris III, an 18-year-old actor from New York who had moved to San Francisco in 1967.

Harris performed under the stage name of Hibiscus and co-founded The Cockettes, a flamboyant, psychedelic drag troupe. The photograph was nominated for the 1967 Pulitzer Prize.

The idea of using flowers as a symbol of non-violent protest had been first proposed by the famous poet Allen Ginsberg.

In his November 1965 essay titled ‘How to Make a March/Spectacle,’ he proposed that protesters should be provided with ‘masses of flowers’ to hand out to policemen, the press, politicians and spectators. His idea was to spread love and compassion in the faces of hatred and violence.

In May 1967, an activist named Abbie Hoffman organised the ‘Flower Brigade’ as an official contingent of a New York City parade honouring the soldiers in Vietnam.

The Flower Brigade participants, who carried flowers, flags and pink posters imprinted with LOVE, were attacked and beaten by bystanders.

In response to the violence, Hoffman wrote in WIN magazine, "Plans are being made to mine the East River with daffodils. Dandelion chains are being wrapped around induction centres… The cry of 'Flower Power' echoes through the land. We shall not wilt."

On the following Sunday, WIN activists declared Armed Forces Day as ‘Flower Power Day’ and held a rally in Central Park to counter the traditional parade.

The movement spread far and wide producing a mixed result, prompting a prominent activist, the renowned songwriter-singer John Lenon to comment in 1971, “OK, so Flower Power didn't work. So what? We start again."

The offering of flowers has thus become part of protests worldwide, where the protesters use flowers to express their resolution of fighting the state force with the heavenly purity of flowers.

[email protected]