I was sitting on my porch this afternoon pondering the meaning of Kent State. I had more tears last year when I wrote a post about it. Yet – here it is – the 40th anniversary. Kent State, hmmm, OB, hmmmm. Something was there.
And then I figured it out! I figured out how Ocean Beach is connected to the Kent State massacre of May 4th, 1970. Or vice versa.
I was in college when it happened. I was attending UCSD and in my senior-year when it all came down. I had been involved in the campus anti-Vietnam movement and was deeply affected by Kent State, Jackson State, the entire scary and exhilarating conditions on California college and university campuses during the Spring of 70. (These tales have been told.)
But after all the dust had settled, Kent State radicalized a lot of students of my college generation. Many and from all kinds of different colleges.
What did it mean to be “radicalized”?
Transformed by events such as Kent State, the new young, campus radicals saw an empire willing to shoot middle-class, white college students in order to keep a war that was slaughtering untold thousands of Vietnamese – thousands of miles away, and willing to oppress African-Americans and other minorities. Radicalized, they sought answers by trying to see the roots of the problems that were causing American society to suffer, the racism, the war economy. And attempt to deal with them.
It was global – the radicalized student movements of the Sixties and Seventies – it was across this country, and it was here in San Diego.
But Kent State did it for a lot of people. They became radicalized, they came to see that America was brutal and had to be changed. And many of my university and college peers found a new commitment, a commitment to work to change America for the better.
Many felt that after Kent State, going to college had little meaning. Our own government was willing to kill demonstrating college students in order to keep the status quo, to keep the Vietnam war going.
Whether they graduated or not, college kids of the late Sixties through the mid-Seventies who had been radicalized, who became committed to changing the country, wanted to do something important, dramatic, strategic. Many went into the industrial workplaces in efforts to continue the struggle among “the working class”.
Others went into the professions, for “the long march through the institutions” for social and political change.
Others saw that America – if it was going to change – had to change at its grass-roots, at the community level – where people lived.
And this is how Ocean Beach is connected to Kent State.
Dozens of college students at San Diego schools and universities flocked to OB to become involved either in community organizing or to do anti-war work in the community (not really the same thing, but close).
From the very late Sixties up to the middle of the Seventies, students from San Diego State, from UCSD, from CalWestern (while it was up in Point Loma), while some lived here already, many moved to OB and jumped into a variety of organizing projects.
And in less than a decade, OB had been transformed – in some significant ways – by these young intellectuals, these young activists, these young radicals.
They brought a street activism to the beachtown, an ‘in-your-face’ type of activism, an activism that was not afraid to take risks and work outside of normal political channels. And this activism gave birth to an array of community organizations that brought certain changes to the neighborhood. Groups that had activism at their core.
These young radicals, fresh off the campuses, got involved first in militant environmental groups, such as the Ecology Action Committee – which led the fight to stop the jetty in the Summer of 1970. It also led the fight against over-development on the cliffs for a long while.
They got involved in a funky, spirited underground newspaper called the OB Rag. The alternative media brought an anti-establishment flavor to the discussion. It also was able to move from a two -page stapled mimeographed publication to newsprint and publishing runs of 5,000 to 1o,ooo copies.
They got involved in setting up the Food Co-op that was set up in a shed in somebody’s backyard, that ultimately grew to become OB People’s Food Co-op, the largest employer in the community.
They got involved in starting a free school, challenging traditional public schooling, with a philosophy that the whole world was the classroom. Many of the young people who taught at the school later became teachers and school administrators in the public systems.
They set up the first publicly-funded child care facility, whose modern-day counterpart is still standing and serving local families.
If you look at these efforts, you see an effort to establish alternative institutions to the establishment institutions. An alternative to the media, the conservative Union. An alternative to the public school, an alternative to supermarket food. For a while, there was the Left Bank, an alternative store on Newport Ave.
At one point, there was even a “community tax” that several of the more business-oriented alternatives gave to, which helped fund other organizing projects.
These young radicals of the Kent State era also coalesced around issues that shouted for attention. One was the planning crisis in OB in the early Seventies. Led by this generation, a plan that would have been devastating to Ocean Beach was blocked, and the first democratically-elected planning committee in the State of California was established in OB. It was established by a community election that involved thousands of residents and merchants. A number of community groups were formed over the years to counter run-away development, with one of the the most important being the OB Community Planning Group.
Under then Police Chief Ray Hoobler, the brown-shirted cops that patrolled OB during those times were infamous for their harsh treatment of hippies and youth in general. Young radical community organizers made coalitions with Town Council members and some merchants and forced the Police Department to shed some of its more militaristic practices (like field interrogations – FI’s – where cops could stop people without reason and do an ID check on them right then and there). A group called the OB Human Rights Committee lead the reform movement.
Dealing with human rights of women, a group named WAR – Women Against Rape – formed to counter almost a seasonal rise of assaults on women in the community. There were also women’s study groups and strong women’s leadership in many of the community groups.
To top it all off, members of this political milieu also were involved in “bringing the war home” – trying to relate the anti-Vietnam war movement to the scene in OB. Sometimes the scene got nasty – as during the Collier Park riot of Spring 1971 and the 72 mini-riot on Newport.
There were plenty of other efforts, activist, media, militancy. There was a group who pledged to stop Winchell’s Donuts from moving into OB. There were unknown small groups that lit fires on apartments in the making. These were all part of the spectrum of political activism inspired and created by the young radicals of the Kent State generation.
Their radicalism is what allowed them to withstand the onslaught of governmental and private resistance to their organizing efforts. Their commitment was strong enough to survive the reactionary local San Diego newspaper, The Union, to survive other authorities, police, bureaucrats, landlords, right-wing terrorists, … and not only to survive, but to create wonderful alternatives and grass-root responses that successfully took root and changed OB.
The political movement that the Kent State generation of radicalized students crystallized in Ocean Beach contributed to the overall social and cultural development of the community. Part of the huge wave of youth who were coming of age during that time, OB was like many other college towns of rebellious college students. But it also eventually became a model of community organizing for other neighborhoods and cities.
Combining an anti-establishment stance, juggling concepts of gender and racial equality, the young radicals meshed grass-roots activism with a new, militant environmentalism, grounded in the anti-war and anti-empire experiences of their campus origins. And for many, it was the massacre at Kent State that pushed them over the edge, that pushed them into a commitment so strong that it endured.
This was how the Kent State generation changed OB.