Past Present Podcast: Dallas, Conventions, and Vaccines


In this week’s episode, Niki, Natalia, and Neil debate the police shooting in Dallas, the role of conventions in presidential politics, and the rise of anti-vaccine activism.


Shooting in Dallas

The nation is grieving the death of five Dallas police officers, one of the deadliest events for police in the nation’s history. Natalia observed the shootings immediately conjured memories of JFK’s assassination in Dallas in 1963. Niki commented that the immediate aftermath of both events had parallels as well, as Dallas the “City of Hate” was blamed for killing JFK rather than Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone much as some have charged Black Lives Matter is responsible for the police officers’ deaths rather than the individual gunman. Neil rooted the history of police and African-American relations in the Reconstruction period where Southern towns established police forces to use the Thirteenth Amendment’s loophole to re-enslave African Americans who committed even the smallest infractions. For present context, Natalia cited a piece by a Dallas native that pointed out the city was losing police officers to surrounding suburbs that could pay more. Neil described how the Blank Panther movement’s militarization in the 1960s led to wide public support from white Americans, including Governor Ronald Reagan who passed a gun control bill in California in response to Black Power demonstrations in his state. Niki recommended David Graham’s Atlantic article, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens,” for more reading on this.

Conventions and Presidential Politics

It’s time for the Republican and Democratic conventions! Niki situated this summer’s conventions in a long history that showed their changing role in the political process. Neil remarked on the Republican politicians who have said they won’t attend this year, and the many humorous explanations they’ve come up with for why they have to miss rather than saying it is because of Donald Trump. Natalia and Niki both outlined the long history of violence at political conventions; Niki pinpointed the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a turning point when the violence moved from the convention floor to the outside. That was about intraparty skirmishes, so Neil offered the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City as another turning point because now non-Republican protestors assembled outside the convention hall to protest the proceedings going on inside. Niki also spoke about her upcoming attendance at the Republican National Convention where she’ll be providing historical analysis for the assembled media.

Anti-Vaccine Activism

A California law requiring parents immunize their children in order to register for school has now gone into effect. Natalia explained the anti-vaccination movement has defended their cause on the basis of “parental rights” and also with the language of “wellness” and “natural living.” Niki cited the political scientist Brendan Nyhan’s work that showed ridicule has not been an effective tool in changing the minds of anti-vaxxers. Neil observed that African-American mistrust of the medical establishment and public health efforts owed to a history that has included forced sterilizations and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Niki recommended Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as a good source on that history. But Niki also pointed to the larger suspicion of science among white Americans following World War II because of the rise of the nuclear bomb and the complicity of Dow Chemicals in the production of napalm for the Vietnam War, something Robert Neer documents in his recent book Napalm: An American Biography. Natalia recommended Alondra Nelson’s book, Body and Soul, and Jason Johnson’s article “Where are the Black Anti-Vaxxers in the Measles Debate?” for further reading on African-American responses to the medical establishment and vaccination. Neil discussed the politics of the vaccination debate, including conservative support for vaccination mandates as “good government” and attacking anti-vaxxers as “anti-science liberals,” but noted conservatives didn’t seem concerned about parental rights in this case. Niki noted that conservatives did use parental arguments, however, to oppose HPV vaccination mandates.

What’s Making History

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