fourth in a series
Go here for my earlier posts in this series.
It was a nice spring day in the month of May. The 21st to be exact. It was in the year 1974. A generation ago. It was show-time for us as we were going up against the Chief of the San Diego Police Department.
Four of us had traveled to City Hall to have a “get-down” meeting with Chief Ray Hoobler and our Councilman. The situation in OB had become intolerable. We had come to talk because police – community relations there had broken down.
The shooting and police clamp down on Feb. 22nd, 1974, had led to outrage and an angry town meeting a week and half later. Out of that, grew an organization to take on reforming the police – the OB Human Rights Committee. Plus, the police were refusing to talk even to members of the Town Council.
Most of us who were going to the meeting were young – in our mid-20s, but we were leaders in our own right – as we were there representing not only the Human Rights Committee, but the entire community – and we were from OB.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t nervous when we were directed to the meeting room. I was probably scared shitless. I had never gotten this close to the Chief before. The only other person that I can remember being there from our side was George Katsiaficas. There were others, but it was 35 years ago. I can’t recall others but I know my palms were sweating, I had a lump in my throat, and I felt like I had a brain freeze.
We entered the room. Thirty-five years later, I can refer to the OB Rag issue for June 74, as the entire meeting was reported on in its next issue, Vol. 4, No. 13. So, luckily I don’t have to remember everything.
On the other side of the table in the windowless conference room somewhere in the innards of City Hall, sat three important people besides the Chief of police.
They included our then-councilmember Bob Martinet (“Pork-barrel Bob” as the OB Rag would call him), Councilmember Maureen O’Connor – still young and attractive, the future mayor was serious and somewhat idealistic, (but a real bummer to us former anti-Vietnam war activists, as she had been the deciding vote on the City Council that opposed a resolution condemning the war just exactly two years earlier, back in the Spring of 1972; protesters had stormed out of Council chambers and had hung her in effigy), and finally Deputy City Manager John Lockwood.
We had come with 7 grievances and 7 “demands” – actually we called them “recommendations.” For three hours, we presented them and argued for them, only to be met with grunts and denials by the police chief of one of the largest cities in the country. Here’s the grievances and what we were asking:
1.) Field Interrogations – a policy of the San Diego Police Department to stop and ask for identification of any one without probable or reasonable cause. This tactic was used aggressively by the PD against hippies and young people in general, including African-Americans and Mexican-Americans.
It was this daily negative contact with police that alienated droves of young people, and was seen as a tactic by the establishment in the cultural war against hippie towns like Ocean Beach. In a survey conducted door-to-door in northwest OB in 1971,
…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. (emphasis added.)
We asked for the abolition of the policy of using these F.I.’s – as they appeared clearly unconstitutional.
Chief Hoobler replied that field interrogations were necessary for proper law enforcement. Period.
2.) Police were subjecting OB to “military-style invasions”; In that stuffy room, we then cited three different “invasions” of the community within the last five months by the SDPD. There was the Feb. 22th shooting and armed camp set up by the police that led to much outrage; there was the April 21st Abbott Street Riot – in which police over-reacted and sent in the troops after everything had settled down; and then for the third incident – okay, I can’t recall the 3rd one (and it’s not mentioned in the old OB Rag).
But, at any rate, Hoobler denied that his men had over-reacted at any time.
One of the undercurrents in our thinking back in those days, was that Hoobler was using his mass police actions in Ocean Beach – and probably other communities – to back up his then-current requests for additional police officers and, of course, an enlarged budget. I don’t think we were way off, as in mid-June that year, the City Council granted the Chief’s request for 105 new officers. That’s a lot.
OB had been the fodder, one of the reason for the increase. So, it turns out that the police had as much a cause to incite riots at the beach as kids in OB did.
3.) San Diego cops were too “gun-happy”; we called for stricter regulations on gun use by police officers. It appeared to us then that our city police was too quick to draw, too slow to resolve problems with diplomacy or non-violently. The SDPD was notorious for being overly militaristic under Hoobler.
In response to this grievance, the Chief stated that the SDPD has “the strictest gun policy in the state.” Notice he didn’t say ‘country’. But anyhow, Hoobler was drowning our expectations here.
4.) The Red Squad spying and harassing of activists was unconstitutional. The Red Squad – or formally – the Investigative Support Unit (ISU) was certainly a bone of contention for us. And in many ways, it was the biggest, and most emotional issue close to our hearts as activists.
For example, let me draw a picture of an incident of harassment. It was late February 1973. On this particular day, an apartment full of political activists – all slumbering from an exuberant night before – drew the attention of the local authorities. There were guys on the couch, guys in sleeping bags on the living room floor, and a bag of weed open on the coffee table. It was a ground floor unit and the large picture window had its curtain open. You see where I’m going with this?
One of the guy’s dogs had gotten loose. (In those days, dog lease laws were fairly non-existent, but there still was a pound and dog-catchers.) The animal control officer, guided by the dog’s tag no less, was led to the apartment, and to the view through the picture window. He called the cops.
Okay, a normal 1970s-style pot bust? Everybody’s arrested, cited or taken to jail, etc. There was only one baggie of weed, don’t forget, and at least six guys. So, yes all these guys were arrested and cited for this one bag – no one to this day has claimed it – but it gets worse.
Some of these guys were well-known activists, just thorns in the establishment’s heel, yes, but known thorns. Once the police arrived, and figured out who they had, they went for the gold. This was the chance to get info that they had to wait months for and had to pay informants for. The ISU was called in; a total search of the apartment was made. They wanted it all.
Photos, address books, other personal notebooks were seized, and carried away. These personal things were never, never recovered, and were never even admitted to. A simple pot bust turns into something a whole lot more.
In fact, at one point during the bust an undercover officer – probably member of the ISU – came into the apartment in uniform and his long hair. But he covered up his identify by wearing a gas mask. As he left the unit through the back door, an OB Rag photographer was ready. End of story.
The show-down meeting with the police chief was the Spring of ’74 – almost 2 years earlier the GOP had held their 1972 National Convention in Miami. But they at first had planned on holding it here in San Diego. It was Richard Nixon’s “lucky city” after all. While it was still coming here, tensions between police and local activists were ratcheted up several fold. Local police in conjunction with the FBI and other intelligence agencies sent all kinds of spies, provocateurs and informants into activist organizations. Particularly peace and anti-war groups.
This was mirrored in OB, as many in the anti-war movement in San Diego lived in Ocean Beach. They often had friends or roommates involved in the myriad of community activist projects going on at the time. So, when these anti-war folks were harassed or subjected to all kinds of spying and intimidating tactics by the ISU, the FBI or even right-wing terrorists, it all had an affect on others – others maybe not so deeply involved. The bottom line, harassed and spied-upon activists got a lot of sympathy within OB.
And don’t forget when this was – Spring 1974 – a lot of revelations about Nixon were coming out, about Watergate, his “Plumbers Unit”, and other governmental abuse. He resigned that August. This was the temper of the day, nationally and locally, we believed.
So, at the conference table, we asserted that the ISU was essentially a local version of the “Plumbers Unit.” And we called for its abolition. We said that it was a secret police unit that used harassment, provocation and infiltration to manipulate people and groups – and that all of this violated democratic principles.
5. The ISU was a secret police unit; We asked that the files and budget of the ISU be made public. Hoobler snorted, “Ridiculous!” The Chief then claimed that the ISU files were his “privileged” files and not available to the public.
In reply to our claim that politically active people were being harassed by his men, Hoobler answered: “The assumption is yours … it is not department policy to harass anybody.” We weren’t getting anywhere.
Councilmember Martinet was taking his cues from the Chief. whereas Maureen O’Connor appeared non-committal.
Hitting this wall, we went for the nerve. We began discussing collusion and cooperation between the ISU and the Secret Army Organization (SAO), the right-wing terrorist group that turned out to have been guided by a paid FBI informant. The SAO had been responsible for threats, shootings and bombings in San Diego a couple years earlier, including the shooting into an OB activist house, and wounding an organizer.
Hoobler’s face was red, intense. He pushed back in his chair and started to get up. He was threatening to walk out.
I don’t know who it was, maybe it was Maureen O’Connor – she remained calm and collected – who convinced the Chief to stay.
Somewhere we asked the Chief if he had infiltrated our group, the Human Rights Committee. Had he directed the ISU to spy on us? “It would be ridiculous,” Hoobler threw back, “for me to tell you if I have.” He paused. “But when you cross that line from legality to illegality, we’ll be ready.”
We were astonished. “Don’t you mean ‘if’ we cross the line?” asked Katisficas.
Hoobler leaned in. “No. ‘When’ that line is crossed… you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.” Amazing. The Chief of Police accusing the very people who’ve come to negotiate of committing crimes. We probably gulped, umm, and asked ourselves privately, gee, I wonder what he has. No. This was outrageous. This is the guy we had to deal with. This was San Diego’s Chief of Police.
The implication that flowed from our question about whether the Chief had anyone spying on us was spot on. Later, that year in the Fall, I believe, we uncovered a woman who had infiltrated the HRC who had been working for the police.
6.) Lack of adequate police complaint procedure; We suggested that the then Police Community Relations Office on Newport Avenue be turned over to a citizens advisory group in order to develop an adequate complaint procedure. It was suggested that the storefront be kept open weekends and nights to allow working people access to the office.
This idea was tabled for further study. But nothing came of it. Later, the police couldn’t even afford the increasing rents on Newport and had to close the place down.
7.) Police officers are kept in the community for too short a time; our final recommendation was that the Department change its policy of keeping officers in a community for only six months, and then rotated out. We wanted cops to stay in OB, to get to know the community and its people, to bring back the ol’ beat cop (thus was the forerunner to the concept of ‘community policing’).
This was simply unfeasible, said Hoobler. “My men need to know all communities.”
Wow. 0 for 7.
Plainly exasperated, we argued that the police were not being cooperative in OB, as they had refused to meet with or talk to the Town Council’s Police Activities Committee. O’Connor responded to this. She asked the Chief to direct his Community Relations people to talk with that Committee. Up to now, Hoobler had refused to allow any contact as he perceived it as a type of civilian review board. Now, he agreed.
This was the concession. This was the most positive thing achieved. Bob Martinet also agreed to attend a town meeting that HRC was to set up. Okay.
But we were pretty downcast and pissed off by time we lef the conference room. We walked into the Council Lounge, where we held a press conference. Here’s what our representative said:
We feel that the meeting was a step forward in citizen input into police policies and practices, but we have mixed feelings on the outcome. 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.
Obviously disappointed and somewhat demoralized, we returned to Ocean Beach to figure out our next move. For one, we had a town meeting to organize. Some of us had to write up a report for the OB Rag. Others had to get ready to go to a City Council budget committee meeting to oppose Hoobler’s request for over a hundred cops.
Then, just a few days after the meeting, it was announced that Chief Hoobler had transferred Lt. Stevens, the head of the ISU. It would be another year before Hoobler himself retired and San Diego would have a chief to fit the modern world.
Over time, Field Interrogations were determined to be unconstitutional and were halted. The concept of ‘community policing’ came into vogue. Other police reforms were instituted. What was happening in San Diego was part of the wave of reform emanating out of Washington DC.
The Nixon nightmare had come to a close, and all the abuses he and his men had authored were coming to the light of day – and hey, today we find ourselves in a similar situation as the Bush nightmare has ended and we are discovering all the things he and Cheney were doing in their haste to bury the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In reaction to Nixon there came to be in the mid-1970s a national reckoning and reappraisal of the secrets and role of government. The Church Senate Committee unearthed all kinds of FBI shenanigans. Police and FBI abuse were disavowed. Police spying on activists fell out of favor.
We must have felt vindicated. But only in hindsight are the connections made and realized. We probably just felt burnt-out. I know I did. It was tiring having to ram your noggin into the unyielding establishment wall all the time. It took its toll. Activists do burn-out and succumb to the everyday world of work, family and bills.
Yet the history of our community needs to be told. Lessons remembered and accounted for. If you’re right, it doesn’t matter if you’re only 25 and have to have a show down with the Chief of Police. If your people demand it, if your community demands it, you have to do it.