Monday, February 16, 2009

Free Speech Zone

Posted By on February 16, 2009, 11:52 AM

While the first amendment gives us a lot of rights on the free speech front, especially in the past few years where protests have become commonplace again, very rarely do you hear a lot of people talk directly about it and its impact. But one store not only encourages it, they'll hook you up with everything you'll need to express it!

--- The Free Speech Zone got its start a few years back up the then vibrant area of Sugar House, well before the place became a construction wasteland. Giving locals a place and items to express themselves and opinions in every way from posters to bumper stickers and buttons. When the destruction finally happened, the store dug up roots and firmly planted itself downtown up on 8th East, slowly getting the shop back up and running to continue expressing your rights and theirs. I got a chance to chat with owner Raphael Cordray about the shop's history, some of the objects sold, local politics and a few other topics. All while taking pictures of the new place before its open for business.

Raphael Cordray

http://www.freespeech-zone.com/

Gavin:
Hey Raphael, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Raphael:
I was born and raised in Salt Lake. I graduated from Olympus High School in 1988. I always felt like the underdog in my community on almost every issue I would naturally identify with the minority side in Utah. I was always the non-member surrounded by Mormons growing up. I did live a few years in Southern California and New York City but I missed Salt Lake so I came back in 1995. I think that if you never live anywhere other than Utah you become very sheltered so fortunately I’ve lived outside the land of Zion.

Gavin:
Tell us about the Free Speech Zone.

Raphael:
FSZ is a radical info shop but it is also a gift shop we try to sell things that are hard to come by in Utah like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela posters. We have bumper stickers, posters, pins, cards, art, t-shirts and magnets these items have messages and opinions that people really want to express. Free Speech Zone makes it easier for them to do so. We also have lots of info and zines that are not commonly available. Sometimes being radical is as simple as being different we do this by letting people go to the bathroom for free letting homeless people warm up sometimes and providing other free things like movies, literature and left leaning books to borrow.

Gavin:
For those who don't know the history, tell us a little on where the name origin and why you chose to use it as a store name.

Raphael:
During the Olympics in Salt Lake the powers that be came up with this absurd idea that citizens should be in a “free speech zone” if they wanted to exercise free speech rights. A friend made a free speech zone banner so we could define our own free speech zone. Later it seemed like the perfect name for a shop that provides things with messages that make some folks very uncomfortable, reminding them of the right to free speech seems to quiet them down. Really the name Free Speech Zone is a joke. People come in and say “oh this is a free speech zone so I can say what ever I want.” I always tell them that all public space is a free speech zone according to the constitution not that we actually follow the constitution but we sell a pocket constitution for those who want to know what it says.

Gavin:
Where did the idea come from to start up this kind of shop?

Raphael:
The shop was kind of an accident, I had no idea what I was doing or what would evolve when I started. I originally started by sharing a shop with someone else that had a different name. I was selling things that I made I tried some underwear that a friend had stenciled a picture of George Bush over the word fascist I noticed an interest right away. I started adding stickers and pins with messages that I liked meanwhile my partner got uncomfortable about political speech and we had to quit sharing a space. Luckily this experience showed me I could do it myself I immediately thought of Free Speech Zone as a name because I felt my partner was stifling my expression as I went along I realized what a wide range of areas free speech and free expression cover the inventory easily evolved from there. It still evolves all the time, we created a “free speech zone” for graffiti artists on the walls that surround our property it looks awesome.

Gavin:
Why did you originally choose Sugar House for the first location?

Raphael:
This was all part of the spontaneous creation of the shop I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. Sugar House had a great asset as a pedestrian friendly neighborhood plus a long history of being that way for many years.

Gavin:
Was it difficult or relatively easy getting setup?

Raphael:
It was hard to wear all the hats of a small business. I have had no formal training for any of it. The creative part decorating, choosing products, and making clothing and jewelry to sell was and is fun that is my passion as well as political activism so that is what keeps me interested.

Gavin:
Utah is mostly conservative, but SLC is primarily liberal. With that said, were you expecting hostility or open arms from the community on first opening?

Raphael:
I was expecting some reaction but growing up here and feeling like an oddball already I was sort of looking forward to making conservatives squirm. I immediately noticed a positive response from many people who were thrilled to have access to the things we sell because most things at Free Speech Zone are otherwise not available in Utah at all. I have customers who come from Idaho and Wyoming to get bumper stickers because our messages are lacking in these states as well. Really aside from the internet we have zero competition for miles and miles.

Gavin:
When you finally opened up, what was that first month like?

Raphael:
It was fun. I was so unaware of what I was doing. Sugar House already had some unique businesses so we fit right in.

Gavin:
One of the big things that's commented on is that you know your city history, specifically a lot of the “darker chapters” that tend to get ignored. How did you take up finding out all the info, and what have you taken away from it all personally?

Raphael:
Before I started Free Speech Zone I was already aware of the working class struggle and the effects of capitalism and war on average citizens. The ideal of profits over people has been around for hundreds of years. My father and his friends had a protest against the Vietnam War in 1970 at Fairmont Park since they could not get a permit to protest they applied and got a permit for a family reunion. It was “the Bastille family reunion” which was really an antiwar protest. So I guess finding a way to express my beliefs is in my genes. Salt Lake has a lot of history of protest and activism that is not well known. Naturally I was drawn to how these nation wide struggles played out in my home town. You can really learn a lot from the recordings of Utah Phillips and also the history of the IWW, or Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union started in 1905. There is an IWW symbol burned into a cell at the old Park City jail in 1916 when some IWW members were jailed there for protesting against labor injustice at area mines. Personally I feel inspired and indebted to these predecessors they are like ancestors to me.

Gavin:
What inspired the Joe Hill posters, and how have people taken to them over the years?

Raphael:
Joe Hill was a member of the IWW who was executed by a firing squad at the Utah state prison in 1915. At that time the prison was at Sugar House Park. Many believe Joe Hill was framed by local business men because he and the IWW were organizing the workers at Utah mines who were being exploited by the mine owners. He was also a great song writer who inspired the working class with his music. As a martyr who was executed in Utah I felt more people should know about him. Most people don’t but they’re starting to. People are very curious about the posters and the history of Joe Hill in Utah.

Gavin:
A big thing at your store is that the products are sweatshop free. Was that an idea from the start or was it something you decided to do along the way? And how has it affected you as a business?

Raphael:
We avoid selling things that are made by slaves and are mostly garbage because they end up in the landfill so quickly. I was already avoiding these things as a consumer so it was important from the start. It has been a great way to educate the public about the effects of Americans rampant consumerism and the negative consequences this has around the world. More and more American made and abuse free has become novel this is great for business and it helps me sleep.

Gavin:
Are there any Utah-made products that people can check out?

Raphael:
I sell a lot of things I make myself like wallets, tote bags, washable menstrual pads, jewelry and clothes. Most of these things are made with recycled and discarded fabric. I carry other locally made things like stickers and t-shirts.

Gavin:
Have you ever gotten flack from anything you've sold, or are people generally respectful of the free speech rights you express?

Raphael:
Some people are pretty offended by some things we sell. For the most part they don’t come in; when they do I tell them that if they don’t like it they are always free to leave. Middle aged white males seem to be the ones who want to argue. I don’t bother. In this struggle white male patriarchs have the most to loose this makes them defensive.

Gavin:
What was it like first learning you'd have to leave of Sugar House?

Raphael:
I was very upset we were really starting to hit our stride. It felt like a death of something I had created and the death of a unique neighborhood. I knew it would end up a big hole in the ground for years. Now it is basically another cookie cutter area with chain stores and no local flavor.

Gavin:
How did you decide to move to downtown instead of other areas in the city?

Raphael:
I looked for quite awhile for somewhere to go. I could not see Free Speech Zone being appealing in a strip mall. Mostly I wanted a place where I would not be evicted by a greedy property owner so I wanted to buy a place. It was a challenge to find something I could afford so when I found the place at 411 So. 800 E. I was thrilled. It has been way more complicated to comply with the city and open up then I ever expected. Our new location is great you can see the Trax station from the shop and we are between the U and downtown.

Gavin:
As a business owner, how is it operating in downtown right now, and how are things for you in this current economy?

Raphael:
We have been unable to fully open before adding a wheelchair ramp, parking and other things to bring the space up to code. The shop is in a 1905 house. It is in a commercial zone however the house has been residential. Converting from residential to commercial has been a huge project. All through out this process we have maintained interest and anticipation. We have something for everyone and a lot of it is under $5.00 with the scarcity of liberal information and expression in Utah, Free Speech Zone seems to work. We have a niche. As a person who is not a capitalist I measure success by a lot more than making money. We support the community and they support the store.

Gavin:
Aside from what we've talked about, what other fun stuff can people expect to find at the store?

Raphael:
We have so many stickers and pins with different messages and points of view that encourage tolerance and inclusion of all humans and their beliefs. We have stickers for agnostics, alternative energy, anti-war, anarchists, atheists, bike riders, Christians, civil rights, environmentalists, family planning, feminism, GLBT rights, gender equality, global warming awareness, human rights, health care access, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, justice, labor/workers rights, love, non-violence, nuclear abolishment, pro choice, peace, resistance, revolution, racial equality, religious freedom, sexual freedom, socialism, unions, veterans, vegetarians, vegans and more. Bring in a new friend or a first date you will quickly find out where they stand on so many issues.

Gavin:
I know this is a open-ended question, but I'm really curious. Are there any thoughts you'd like to express on current politics in Utah?

Raphael:
Thank goodness we have some decent leadership in Salt Lake City and County. I’m no democrat though, I’ve been in the Green Party for years. When it comes to the state Legislature I am disgusted with the white, male, Mormon, patriarchs who use their positions to repress equal rights and subject their moral values on the entire state. I find so much hypocrisy in these values. It’s as if the life of a fetus is more valuable than a child’s well being after it is born. These same moral experts use their positions to pass laws that benefit their own financial interests over the public’s interests, to me that is immoral. We need more female and other minorities in positions of power in order to create balanced policies. I’d say that sexism is the most destructive issue in the world and Utah’s leadership is very sexist, the repercussions of this are huge. The most important thing for people to remember is that local elections are what really matter and have immediate and direct effects on their daily life. Your vote probably won’t have much impact on the presidential election but a very small number of votes are often the difference between the winner and loser. If you want to change things, start locally.

Gavin:
What can we expect from you guys over the rest of the year?

Raphael:
We will be getting out there more and be stepping up our expression as an owner and not a renter I have so much more freedom to speak out. We will have music performances, poetry, drumming and art inside and outside.

Gavin:
Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Raphael:
Just that we exist!

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