Second in a Series
OCEAN BEACH, CA. In my earlier post, I described how all hell broke loose 35 years ago on February 22, 1974. It was the day that Pete Mahone tried to commit suicide by cop – a guy many of us active in OB’s progressive community knew. The subsequent armed take-over of Ocean Beach by the San Diego Police in response to the shooting led to an outrage among residents, an outrage that manifested itself into a campaign for human rights and reforms in police practices – a campaign that eventually did win some changes.
The harassment, the arrests, the sheer and overwhelming intimidation by the police of Ocean Beach residents that day has been described in my post, in personal accounts left in comments to my post, as well as in the pages of the original OB Rags we scanned in.
That day a cop went down, yes. But the overzealous reaction by San Diego law enforcement was on such a magnitude that obviously uninvolved residents, property owners and businesspeople blocks away were subjected to rough, police-state tactics. Four people had been arrested, with one of them being assaulted while in custody at Robb Field – where police had set up a command post. All the charges on all of them were dropped, although one organizer was re-arrested on the same accusations.
The impact on the community from that day was so significant, that the reforms in police practices that it generated are still with us today. But back then police-community relations, simmering for years – barely beneath the surface – came to a boiling-point.
Outrage among OB activists was immediate and intense. Two activists were among those arrested that day. Most everyone knew Pete Mahone. Some of those particularly close to him wanted to ensure that he received a proper legal defense and they began forming a legal defense committee.
The March 4th Town Meeting
Others were so pissed off at the cops, that they wanted to do something right away about how police should act when they related to Ocean Beach. A small group dashed off a leaflet that called for a community-wide meeting “to discuss violence and the police” on March 4th at the Ocean Beach Rec Center. Volunteers took copies door-to-door to many residences in north OB. (The leaflet had been controversial as it had pictured a handgun on its cover. Some activists had objected to the image as too violence-oriented, whereas those who designed it felt that the gun symbol was what they needed to draw people’s attention.)
March 4th came, and that night the Rec Center was packed. The original OB Rag called it OB’s “largest mass community meeting since the Republican Convention was scheduled for San Diego.” (See “OB Responds” from the Late March 1974 – Vol 4, no. 9 – issue.) At least two hundred people crowded into the meeting rooms on the west side of the Recreation Center. It was literally wall-to-wall people, many simply sitting on the floor. By reading the verbatim remarks of people who attended which were published in the Rag, you get a sense of the electricity and tension in the air.
From that night on, and over the course of the next couple weeks, OB residents formed a group to deal with what they perceived – and rightly so- as abuse of the community and its citizens by the police. They felt strongly that OB citizens’ human rights were being violated and they wanted to stand up and say ‘enough!’ The group was called the OB Human Rights Committee (HRC).
As the March 4th meeting adjourned, under cover cops who had been silently monitoring the meeting, jumped one of the activists as he left the Rec Center. Coming out of a meeting to discuss police abuse, someone is jumped by that very same police. It seemed incredible, the level of harassment at times. Then another riot occurred on April 21st along Abbott Street. Another huge show of force to intimidate the local natives. The tension was mounting.
During the third week in May, representatives from the Committee met with Councilmembers Bob Martinet and Maureen O’Connor and the Police Chief Ray Hoobler. HRC members had come to the meeting with seven grievances and seven recommendations to improve police-community relations. When the meeting was finished, HRC people emerged and held a press conference.
The Committee spokesperson stated: ”
None of our recommendations were accepted. And our fears are confirmed that the Police Department is heading into becoming an independent para-military and intelligence force in our community.
This was definitely a very dire analysis of the state of police-community relations in Ocean Beach. How had all this come to past? How had relations between the residents and those who had sworn to protect the very public that now accused them fallen to such a state?
The 1970s: The Deterioration of Police-Community Relations in Ocean Beach
The morphing of Ocean Beach from a typical early sixties college and beach town into a hippie haven – literally the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego, has been amply described on this blog in the “First OB Rag History”(which begins here).
In just a few years, Ocean Beach community-police relations went from the typical level of police conduct in a beach neighborhood of beer-guzzling college students and surfers – to that of a new era where cops were on the front lines of a cultural war against the hippies – who by the late sixties had just arrived . This is how we had earlier described it:
The Persecution of the Hippies
It is perhaps difficult to understand what it was like to be a hippie, forty years after their initial appearance on the American cultural and political landscape. The hippies, the peaceful warriors of the counter-culture were seen as a threat to the mainstream culture and its values. The system – the establishment – reacted very negatively when young men and women in massive numbers discovered and asserted themselves in the new hip ways, with dress, hairstyles, and language. A whole array of institutional forces slammed down on the hipsters, from police harassment, to landlord abuse, institutional and bureaucratic blocks, and business prejudice. It was cultural suppression. A cultural war.
This war of the cultures was played out in places like Ocean Beach, where hippies lived. After the 1968 wide-spread flowering of the hip generation, housing inspectors swept through the beach community, citing landlords for poor housing conditions. But the effect was to have condemnation proceedings used to rid OB of its worst slums – knocking out housing that hippies and young people could afford.
Many straight businesses showed their prejudice against the hippies unabashedly. Long-hair on men was abhorrent, they had to be dirty. Hippie women were loose and promiscuous. Officialdom in Ocean Beach shunned the hippies. Newport merchants eyed them with a deep, animal-like suspicion whenever a young person perceived as a hippie entered their store. It was likely the merchants who pressured city officials and the police to do something about these hippies.
We can chuckle at this now, four decades later. Many of these hippies are now retired grandparents, and some even ended up buying property within the neighborhood or becoming businesspeople on Newport Avenue. Of course, time plays a long story of irony on us.
Yet, living through that different world of long ago in Ocean Beach was a very raw experience. And we have attempted to chronicle that experience within our pages, demonstrating several ways how police conduct then was not conducive to a democratic society.
Back then the cultural war expanded, as Newport Avenue merchants complained, as City fathers wrung their hands, and as the front line cops did their thing, the hippies just simply wouldn’t go away. There had been several violent outbursts at the beach between police and the young of the community, around holidays and kids getting out of hand. 1968 was like that. There was a particularly hot Easter, and then again on Labor Day. Police officers were quick – a little too quick – to react to the rambunctiousness of youth.
These outbursts make the famous 2008 “Labor Day riot” which greased the way for ‘no alcohol on the beach’ look like kid’s play – not in terms of the violence by young men, but by the scale of the skirmishing and the violence of the police. In one incident in 1968, Chief Hoobler directed his officers to go door to door in search of scofflaws while he stood in the middle of the street in his golf shirt with his bullhorn.
By 1970 the large-scale incidents between youth of OB and the police grew much more political. There was the Jetty Riots of 1970, the Collier Park Riot of 1971, and the anti-war skirmishes on Newport in 1972.
On top of the politicization of the police-youth confrontations at the beach, was the day-to-day contact between police and young people in general. At the time, police employed a technique called the “Field Interrogation” where they would stop anyone at any time in a public place and do an identify check. That meant that cops could stop someone without probable cause, without even a reasonable suspicion that a crime was a foot and the person they stopped was involved, and demand proof of who they were. These type of stops were a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.
The Field Interrogation, or “F.I” was used systematically against young people, hippies, and against African-Americans and Mexican-Americans – “minorities” – who represented a challenge to the status quo. All this led to a generalized tension with the police that was more obvious in youth-oriented communities, either at the beach or around local colleges. Ocean Beach was both a beach town, and it was also a college town – without a college. With half a dozen colleges within a few miles, OB has for decades been a bedroom community for all the schools.
These type of police practices deepened the animosity that already existed between those who guarded the status quo and the generational rebels. It was manifested in daily contacts, in the politicized confrontations, and as the late sixties pressed into the early seventies, everything was being politicized due the ongoing Vietnam War and relations between the Establishment and the social movements that screamed for change.
Ocean Beach, no different than many college towns, was in turmoil. The community was being politicized, and more and more people became activists doing things, organizing protests, handing out underground newspapers, creating an activist storefront, holding rap groups, beginning a food co-op, and a free school.
And in the atmosphere of the day, with Nixon still President, with the Republican Convention coming to San Diego, the abuses under the title of “Watergate” were abound. Local police worked hand in hand with the FBI and other intelligence agencies. That meant that police spies and informants were everywhere, including Ocean Beach. (See GOP Convention Ratchets Up Tension Between Police and OB).
At times the tension was thicker than a room filled with marijuana smoke.
A number of local students who lived in OB along with several professors from area colleges did a study on residents’ beliefs. We reported:
The prevalence of the hippie – youth tension with cops was clearly evident in the results of the Spring 1971 OB Study of a White Youth Ghetto (see “New Blood”). The survey, home interviews of 741 residents of north-west OB, found a generally negative view of San Diego Police. 40% of those contacted considered police harassment to be one of the most disagreeable factors in living in OB. 71% of those between the ages of 15 – 18 expressed this view. More than one out of every three people interviewed had experienced some form of adverse contact with the police in OB. Nearly 40% of the 15 to 18 year group reported being field interrogated themselves. Finally, approximately 56% interviewed favored community control of the police.
No one was making any of this up. The tension was real. It was so real the one of the most conservative groups in OB – the OB Town Council – formed a committee to field residents’ complaints about the police. The Police Activities Committee was organized in the Fall of 1973. But the police refused even to meet with it.
The stage was set for a major shift in the relations between the police and the residents of the seaside paradise called Ocean Beach.