The following article was originally published on March 24, 2011
40th Anniversary to be Commemorated this Weekend
This coming March 28th is the 40th anniversary of the infamous “Collier Park Riot” – an event that reminds me of the refrain from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” which claimed: “… hardly a man is now alive who remembers that famous day and year, ….”
And like the pre-Civil War America to whom Longfellow penned his famous poem, the Ocean Beach of the 21st century has forsaken its very own history that made it what it is today – a celebrated iconoclastic corner of the hippie counter- culture that has consciously set itself apart from mainstream Southern California. And it is true, that hardly a man or woman now alive who lives in Ocean Beach remembers that famous day when the youth of the community stood up to “the Man.”
To counter the sands of time burying all memory of what happened at the end of March 40 years ago, the OB Rag has steadfastly attempted to rekindle the knowledge, if not the recollection, of the confluence of forces that erupted into the largest and most widespread riot in the history of Ocean Beach, a riot that made OB what it is today.
The Peace Protest That Became a Riot
Let’s briefly recount …, back then – after months of meetings, lobbying, and education of the community about the efforts by the City of San Diego to sell off the remaining parcel of land in northeast Ocean Beach that had been donated to “the children of San Diego” by D.C. Collier – an early altruistic developer, and going nowhere, a protest demonstration was called in response. The sale of the land was ostensibly to go to developers who were to build more apartments at the site.
Actually the protest began as a joint action that was initially against the Vietnam War, and then by design, morphed into a gathering at the future park site, which involved hundreds if not a few thousand OBcians and local students. Many, many people were at the war protest down at the beach. They then very peacefully walked up the sidewalks along Voltaire Street to the empty lots sitting atop the hill at Greene Street and Soto. At the site itself, activists had organized a free food line, a band was setting up, and the idea was to have people start to clean up the large lot, strew with old asphalt, glass, and the junk of decades of abandonment.
The OB Rag along with an organization called OB Ecology Action – along with supporters from the OB Town Council – had been waging a campaign to “Save the Park” from development, as the City appeared to be bent on nixing Collier’s intent, and allowing yet more apartments to be built in a already congested and blighted community.
To make a longer story short, a platoon of San Diego police officers appeared, and after ordering the crowd to disperse, attacked the crowd by running into their midst with batons at the ready. The youthful gathering resisted, and fought the cops for hours into the night, as the rioters danced with the police all the way down to the beach.
Full disclosure: I was there and had been one of the organizers of the original event. Up at the hill after the beach rally, the police announced that the assembly was illegal because people blocked the streets. I then helped clear the streets. But this was not good enough and the police still attacked. After the initial charge by the police, I recall looking up at the sky at one point as I was trying to make my way back to my Etiwanda house and seeing hundreds of rocks raining down on the custodians of the establishment. I then was caught up in a tangle with one officer, and fearing for my safety, I boogied out of there and left OB for the safety of a local campus.
Fifty people were arrested – some right out of their front yards, and some for simply being in the vicinity of the action. At least one patrol car was burned, one cop lost an eye, and many more citizens were injured by the police. (I was also arrested months later, went to trial, and did a few months in custody for assault.) When the dust finally settled after the fracas – Ocean Beach had changed forever.
The riot had occurred on a Saturday. On Wednesday, a picket line had formed in front of the SDPD storefront office on Newport Avenue, protesting the transgressions by the police on a peaceful gathering of citizens. The OB Rag even printed a “Riot Special” edition.
That very next weekend on April 4th, people returned to the site and cleaned it up.
The Dust Settles – A Park Is Born
In the aftermath of the riot, in the midst of trials of those arrested, and in the intervening months, others in the community – such as the Point Loma Garden Club – stepped forward to pick up the baton for the park and forced the City to relent.
Finally in the early Seventies, a park was born, and today the “L-shaped” Collier Park still stands as a neighborhood resource, with a grove of towering Eucalyptus trees, at least one giant Torrey Pine, cement picnic tables, a horse-shoe pit, and green lawns for locals and their kids and dogs to romp on. A city maintenance facility sits quietly by, the OB Garden takes up another corner of the land. And an expansive Native Plant Garden is attached to the Park by a short trail.
Yet, recently, the Park has suffered some neglect: the children’s play equipment has rusted and much of it has been removed. Sections of the park don’t appear to be maintained. And one gets the sense that outside of locals, no one really knows that the park exists – which is quite okay with some of those locals.
But the Collier Park Riot and the subsequent development of the site as a real park were harbingers of the coming role that youthful progressives, grassroots activists, and hippie merchants were to play in the community. They set the stage for the Ocean Beach that we know today – celebrated by mainstream media, tourists, local businesses and those who appreciate the quality of life the community now symbolizes.
Why Was the Collier Park Riot a Watershed Event for OB?
Mention the word “riot” to anyone today, and with their modern day sensibilities, they will probably cringe and shrink away. And rightly so, for most associate the term with something ugly, violent, and dastardly. In fact, beach goers think of the Mission Beach skirmish between police and drunken young men a few years back that lost them their right to drink at the beach.
Yet, life is contextual. And back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, riots – violent conflicts involving the “have-nots” were much, much more common. There had been the riots and explosions of the African-American neighborhoods across the country, forcing the civil rights movement into a Black Power struggle. These convulsions helped pave the way for an entire people to be accepted by-in-large into mainstream society, and allowed for the election of the first Black President – Barack Obama – decades later.
I recall sitting in a Dennys restaurant in Watts in 1970 with some Black friends. The entire place was filled with African-Americans including the waitresses. My friend – who was a local printer – told me that before the Watts Riot five years earlier, Blacks couldn’t even get served there.
The same can be said for the Chicano and Mexican-American communities. Not until the explosive demonstrations of the “Chicano Moratorium” in East LA, for example – where sheriff deputies twice attacked peaceful marches – resulting in deaths, including LA Times reporter Ruben Salazar, did the establishment feel the pressure to open up society for for this minority of our people.
The “Stonewall Riot” of 1969 in New York City was significant for the gay community in standing up to its oppression, leading to acceptance decades later among many of gay and lesbian rights.
And on the college campuses in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there were numerous riots across the nation where students literally fought back against the violent intrusions of campus and local police, forcing an acknowledgment from the establishment of the strength and breadth of the anti-war movement. In California and in most other states, these “riots” forced the closure of many colleges and university campuses in protest of the US war in Southeast Asia.
For months in late 1969 and in 1970, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan – who had called for a “blood bath” against protesting students – could not appear at a state-run campus without causing a riot. The college disturbances made it more costly for a military-industrial-university complex to wage an unjust war, and eventually helped lead to the end of the Vietnam conflict.
Sociologists look at the underlying causes of violent reactions such as riots, and try to analyse why people become violent against those who are paid to protect the status quo – the police. Sometimes, it was the police themselves who started the “riot,” as during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, so concluded the official report of the Kerner Commission.
The role of violence and riots when specific communities literally rise up in reaction to a history of oppression and antagonism from officialdom has special meaning to Ocean Beach. For it is no secret that in the early years of the counter-culture in OB, there was a tough edge of prejudice leveled against the young by police, by other government agencies, by local merchants and the San Diego establishment in general.
In fact, the first OB Rag issue to appear after the riot other than the “Riot Special” ran an editorial by Doug Porter – who today writes for our website – and asked “Why Riot?” (Late April edition, 1971).
“… what happened on March 28, was preceded by numerous events which caused tensions to rise in Ocean Beach. Some sort of outburst was inevitable. Perhaps if everything had been peaceful on March 28th, the people of Ocean Beach would have found a peaceful way to channel their tensions. Much energy has and is being expended on projects like the Inbetween [ a youth drop-in center on Newport], the OB Food Co-op [the forerunner to People’s Food], OB Ecology Action, and, of course, the OB Rag. “
Doug then recounted how a legal aid and assistance office had opened up on Voltaire, community women were forming “rap groups”, and counseling services for servicemen had been set up.
“Yet, with all this peaceful activity going on, the power structure (the cops, city government, Copley Press [who published the conservative San Diego Union], the mafia, the minutemen [right-wing terrorists in cahoots with the FBI], C. Arnholt Smith [“Mr. San Diego” who defrauded his own bank and went to jail] and assorted others) continue to harass and attack young people in Ocean Beach. This on-going harassment is the number one reason why there was a riot in Ocean Beach.”
And then he goes on citing a litany of examples of “power structure politrickin’ in OB” and San Diego, tying in the jetty battle, scandals in City Hall, undercover cops who shot a local, mafia efforts to push “hard drugs like heroin and reds”and recruit young women as prostitutes – all the while untouched by the police, housing inspectors targeting youthful residents, the push to make OB “another Miami Beach”, town council shenanigans in ousting the first “freak” from their board, and the terrorism of particularly named police officers.
And then he concludes, using the euphemism of the day:
“Is it any wonder that the people of OB are uptight? People riot because there are such things as PIGS that try to control their lives.”
What the Collier Park Riot Means Today
The riot in late March of 1971 at what was to become Collier Park was OB’s last full-fledged riot. There had been at least two other outbursts of significance that involved the police and aggressive resistance by the young of the community.
In the late Sixties, there had been a number of small skirmishes between the police and young people at the beach. Usually they began with people throwing or slinging water balloons across the sand. The one that stands out occurred on Labor Day 1968, where the last block of Long Branch Avenue became a virtual war zone. This was an apolitical action – but it drew hundreds of kids to the rooftops and porches on that block as the police scrambled to gain control, even to the point where the future police chief himself, Ray Hoobler, led efforts to send the kids home using high-frequency anti-riot sound equipment.
Next of note was the Jetty Battle of the Summer of 1970. The Army Corps of Engineers and the City of San Diego attempted to install a new, long jetty at the beach between south and north OB. Locals saw this as an effort to build a marina as part of the “Miami Beachization” of OB. Everyone from surfers, ecologists, students to old ladies opposed it – and through a combined effort of nearly nightly street battles and legal action the jetty was halted. Its rump still remains as a monument to this victory on the sand.
This “riot” – or actually series of mini-riots – had a political edge, an environmental edge. Surfers were opposed to it because they feared it would destroy the righteous waves of the Big Jetty of North OB. Ecologists opposed it as it would destroy and disturb wildlife, progressives opposed it as it was more development to a community already over-developed. Others saw it as a proverbial battle between David and Goliath and were inspired by resistance to a ‘top-down’ governance pattern that the community had always suffered.
Seven months after the successful conclusion of the Jetty Battle came Collier Park. It was the largest and most wide-spread disturbance in OB history as it involved street fighting from the future park site all the way to the beach, a distance of about a mile. It was also the most political, in that it was an action that started as an anti-war protest and as a demonstration in favor of needed park space. OB has not seen anything like it since.
Inspiration and Momentum
Once the park was finally created, it and the riot that preceded it established a number of bench marks for OB. Call it “inspiration” or call it momentum, grassroots activity in the community took a leap. Here’s how it all played out:
- First, the riot and the campaign for the park firmly established ecological and environmental interests and concerns as a major political force in Ocean Beach. Coupled with the Jetty Battle, the riot and its aftermath crystallized the “green-ness” of OB. From then on to this day, OB has been known for this strong current of ecological fervor and grounding. Over the next several years, this was translated into a momentous anti-development movement among residents and businesses that led to the “re-writing” of the OB Precise Plan and the destruction of plans for any local “Miami Beach”.
- Second, the riot affirmed the youth-led progressive grassroots activism as a real, genuine and major force in the community. No longer would the youth be ignored by local merchants or civic organizations. It wasn’t all about the young, but young people were leaders in every social, cultural, economical and political project born over the next decade. And anti-war and radical politics were accepted and allowed to incubate in this once, sleepy seaside village. The now firmly-planted emphasis on grass-roots democracy flowered into strong efforts to bring urban planning into the purview of the affected local small property owners, businesses, and residents – even if they were tenants. The OB Planning Board grew directly out of these efforts to rein in the power of the elite and to create “green” urban planning from the bottom up.
- Third, the riot re-affirmed OB as an ‘anti-authority’ and anti-establishment community, and as the center of hippie culture in San Diego, the anti-pole to a staunchly conservative town that Richard Nixon called his “lucky city.” Ocean Beach became recognized as the capital of the counter-culture – and it still is even today. OB became the symbol of a community resisting the mainstream culture and politics, with its conflicting aspects such as its “laid-back” characterization juxtaposed with its “in your face” reputation. Mainstream media loves to laud OB this way, and every now and then, the local press will publish fluff pieces about OB.
- Fourth, with the Collier Park Riot cementing OB as a beachhead of left-wing and anti-war politics, activists flocked to the community from across the city and from across the nation. Drawn to the potential of the Republican Convention coming to San Diego in 1972, there was an exodus of left-wing young people to San Diego and particularly to OB. In terms of actual numbers, this draw only included a few dozen people, but for a few years they helped staff the new projects and groups, boosting OB’s intellectual reserves and stature. Even philosophy giant Herbert Marcuse – the icon of the New Left who taught at UCSD – came to OB to give lectures. Many of these individuals who stuck around later became college professors, nurses, doctors, iron workers, teachers, union heads, typesetters, lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, merchant marines, social service administrators, political consultants – all greatly contributing to the political and social life of the city at large.
- Finally, the riot and its aftermath provided a shot in the arm to those who jumped into doing progressive projects locally in OB, and who were into building alternative institutions to the moribund mainstream institutions. An OB free school was developed; a legal aid office on Voltaire was opened for awhile; the organic food co-op went from a backyard shack to a storefront on Voltaire; OB Ecology Action became a mainstay in the community for years; and the OB Rag experienced a whole new crop of talented grassroots journalists. Over the next few years, the forerunner to the OB Planning Board formed – the OB Community Planning Group. A civil rights group – the OB Human Rights Committee – exploded into being over night in response to police harassment – which eventually led to reforms in police practices. A women’s group WAR formed in response to high incidence of rapes in the community.
Activists joined the Town Council; young businesspeople with long hair and hippie roots – the “hip-oisie” – opened stores on or close to Newport and eventually took over the merchants’ organization, ushering in a new era of the Ocean Beach business environment. An organic restaurant – the first in the area – opened for awhile on Newport. The Left Bank – a two-story building which housed a community bookstore, a crafts store, meeting space, and office for the OB Rag – opened in the structure that once held the original Bank of America (where Starbucks is now).
All of this, the renewed environmental activism, the affirmation and acceptance of progressive politics, the reaffirmation of OB as the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego, and the influx of progressive and radical young activists into OB – produced this resurgence in local political projects and organizations over the next decade. These led to new victories and successes. Projects and new groups stood on the shoulders of the groups that came before them. The OB Rag was printing 10,000 issues every two weeks, a new Child Care Center opened its doors, teachers from the Free School helped to form the Community School which used resources at OB Elementary. Several OB businesses collected a “community tax” which was then consensually distributed to new projects.
Over the years since the Collier Park Riot, each new era has added its mark on top of this totempole of community activism. There was the successful crusade against a porn theater; new businesses opened which catered to the young and hip; a renewed anti-development effort in the early Nineties occurred; and the formation of the OB Grassroots Organization (OBGO) during the early years of this century blew fresh life back into OB’s street level activism.
Forty years ago, the youth of Ocean Beach took a stand. In its aftermath, a park was born. And from then, the community witnessed and experienced an era of activism that was ushered in, and combined with the counter-culture nature of OB, created the Ocean Beach that we know today.
A small commemoration will be held this Sunday, March 27th at noon at Collier Park, to recognize, enjoy and share the trials and tribulations and successes of a long-forgotten history, a history that after this week should be known by every OBcean … no matter where they live.