Originally posted September 29, 2009
Editor: This is part of a irregular continuing series about Ocean Beach since the late Sixties and the early history of the first OB Rag.
1968: The Rowdy College-Surf Town Morphs Into Hippie Haven
OB was already well-known for its rowdy and irreverent culture of beach, surf & beer; but by 1968, it began its transformation into something more. Bleach blond long-haired surfers lived next door to long-haired hippies, and soon you couldn’t tell them apart. It became official: Ocean Beach had become the hippie mecca. Since the late sixties, Ocean Beach had morphed into the hippie hangout for the entire city. OB had become the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego, shadowing the more famous early birthplace of hippie-ism. But if you were young and a hippie in San Diego, you ended up in OB.
Before it was a hippie town, Ocean Beach was a college beach town, filled with students and surfers. Typical of such summer-oriented youthful beach towns — little more than sand arenas of beer-energized crowds on those the hot days, there was an innate rebelliousness. It was like the atmosphere of a constant spring break hanging in the air.
Over the springs and summers near the end of the decade, there had been a number of rowdy confrontations with police officers — usually on a hot day — usually beginning near the foot of Newport, when water balloons — careening through the crowds — got out of hand. The cops would arrive, and then they would become the targets. There had been the famous Easter Riots. The Labor Day riot.
On Labor Day, 1968, the skirmishing between police and locals became so intense and out of control, that the soon-to-be police chief himself, Ray Hoobler, – then a lieutenant, arrived to personally address the youthful crowds and direct house-to-house searches, as his officers sought those sandy scofflaws responsible for the rebellion.
According to locals, the riot on Labor Day started on the last block of Long Branch when young surfers on rooftops started throwing water balloons and cherry bombs at neighbors and passerbys. It escalated between neighbors, a few cops drove by, then somebody complained, and then the troops were sent in.
Hundreds of kids crowded the sidewalks, rooftops, balconies, porches along the last block Long Branch Avenue as police tried to clear the streets and bring order to the beach.
During those days, young Steve Rowell, fresh out of Point Loma High, with camera, roamed the streets to capture the essence of OB. Later, his black and whites of that day would amaze friends and strangers alike. Doug Porter, also right out of PL, collaborating with Norm Lamisses and other locals, had been publishing OB’s very first underground newspaper, “The Liberator”. Their next issue had an enlarged photograph of Hoobler, clad in his civvies, standing in the middle of the street addressing the youthful rebels. (Porter would later work on the OB Rag, and eventually end up a major writer on the San Diego Door in the mid-seventies.)
OB As An Insurgent Community
Labor Day 1968 was one of them. The Jetty Fight during the summer of 1970 was another. They were signs that OB was a budding insurgent community.
Ocean Beach, then, for Frank Gormlie – first editor and publisher of the OB Rag – presented itself as one of those college communities where the new politics were sprouting. OB had no college itself, but its beach cottages and apartments were filled with students from State, UCSD, Cal-Western not far away. OB was a college town without a college. He likened it to those other insurgent neighborhoods like Isla Vista, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, where, with idealism perhaps stronger than realism, there were real efforts being manifested in creating alternative social-structures within those communities, alternatives to establishment values and institutions.
Tom Hayden, the well-known activist, had written of such insurgent communities. He advocated radicals establishing “beachheads” of progressive politics within the college towns that surrounded the exploding college campuses. Gormlie read him and took him literally. OB was going to be one of these beachheads. Community organizing was where it was at, he thought. This was where he was coming from, when he convinced his close friend and fellow UCSD radical, John Lyons to move to OB and in his discussions with Bo Blakey, the third member of the first OB Rag core, over what to do politically — once they settled in at the Etiwanda house.
“STREET JOURNAL” – San Diego’s First Political Underground Newspaper
Gormlie had been inspired by San Diego’s early ‘underground’ or alternative newspapers, particularly the San Diego Street Journal. The Street Journal, originally the San Diego Free Press, had been organized by a collective of students and grad students from UCSD. Upon the assassination of Martin Luther King in April of 1968, this collective had formed, had moved off campus “to be more relevant”, and began publishing the Free Press out of an old beat-up, two-storied Victorian house between Hillcrest and downtown. They changed their name to the Street Journal, and took on the establishment — and made history. The Street Journal’s campaign against C. Arnholt Smith – Mr. San Diego of 1960 – a major kingpin in local banking and power circles – was instrumental in helping to bring his corrupt empire down. But all this was yet to come. Gormlie saw the potential of a newspaper as a wonderful organizing tool.
There were days when Gormlie felt that journalism was in his blood. He had led renditions of student newspapers during his grade school days, he had written an article or two for UCSD’s radical student newspaper, but he had no formal journalistic training. Having found himself to be an activist at heart at college, this tug of war between his journalistic side and his activist side would plague him for decades. But in the summer of 1970, Gormlie wanted some kind of vehicle, some kind of “in” for his anticipated community organizing. He also understood the power of words — having been a good writer throughout his academic career, and he understood that the power to define events was potentially earthshaking. There was a tradition in this country – starting with Ben Franklin – of the little newspaper standing up and criticizing the rulers. Now, inspired by the Street Journal, Gormlie wanted to do an underground newspaper. It seemed like an excellent idea.
“The Rag” Gets a Name
What about a name? Gormlie had heard about and read an alternative newspaper from Austin, Texas, called “The Austin Rag.” It sounded very cool, as “rag” was often used to describe a newspaper derogatorily. Open a Websters New Collegiate Dictionary, and look up “rag” and in bold capital letters you’ll find at definition number (3), the word, “NEWSPAPER.”
Feeling a certain pride about the community, the future editor wished to enhance its identity and reputation. There was the Austin Rag; he had a subscription to the “Berkeley Barb,” had read the LA Free Press many times, had seen the Village Voice. “OB” had to be in the name. So, it was to be “the OB Rag”, but Gormlie wanted something in its name to signify that the paper belonged to the community, to the people of the community — it became “the OB People’s Rag.”
That Fall — in September, when it’s still hot in San Diego, the first issues were published. Over those first months, the paper settled into publishing every other week — twice a month. It was generally able to keep this publishing schedule over the five years it lasted. It evolved from a scrappy, mimeographed and stapled hand-out to a full-fledged newspaper on newsprint, respected and supported within the community. The Rag evolved into a real community newspaper. Its staff changed several times over those years during the first half of the seventies – three times just within the first year. But the Rag survived and thrived, reaching its peak somewhere in mid or late 1974. It was printing 5000 issues, had an office on Newport, and had staff meetings comprised of a dozen people. Art Kunkin, then the publisher of “The LA Free Press”, the grandparent of West Coast underground newspapers, once called the OB Rag, “the best community newspaper in the country.”
The OB Rag – the Long View
The Rag’s vibrant and brilliant young staffs, energized and wise before their age, were knowledgeable and on top of the most important and significant issues facing Ocean Beach in those days. On the international and national level, the War, of course, was the big issue. Locally, the threat of gentrification and over-development (”Miami Beachization”), more than any other immediate and OB issue was consistently challenged by the Rag. The Precise Plan – the urban plan that would have drastically transformed the community and in the process, uprooted much of the poor and youth within the population, was met head-on by the Rag. In conjunction with local environmentalists, the Rag helped lead the creation of a successful alternative to the plan. The paper led on many other issues, as well: the lack of adequate childcare, organic food, sexism within the community and within the counter-culture, community control of the police, the list goes on…. Often staff members were leaders in their own right in many of the various organizations and alternative institutions that were being created and developed within the community.
Over time, the Rag, in reflecting the trials and tribulations of the community, did give voice to the new sub-culture with its distinctive left-wing irreverent attitude. It blended news and activism and became an outlet for journalistic, artistic, poetic and organizing talents. Importantly, it connected Ocean Beach politically with the rest of the world and it tried, at first very raw, to bring the best politics to OB. It was local and internationalist at the same time.
Not only did the OB Rag reflect the new counter-culture and its adherents within the community, not only did it provide an outlet for homegrown voices of left-wing populism and solidarity, and not only did it lead the seaside neighborhood in many issues, it was responding to a critical need of a sub-culture that was bursting through the seams of the traditional culture, and all the while, being suppressed by the mainstream culture. It needed a voice, a sympathetic voice.
For more of the early OB Rag history and historical events of the Seventies, go here.