38 years ago – check out our account of the riot – reposted here, what led up to it, the causes, the reporting, and the aftermath.
The Collier Park Battle
Spring 1971. One of the first major issues the OB Rag jumped into wholeheartedly was to join up with a new OB environmental group, OB Ecology Action, and lead a fight to save Collier Park, an urban patch of land in northeastern OB. Ecology Action, fresh from its victory against the jetty the previous summer, was led by Tom Bailey, the Ferris’ – a young professional couple who lived on Worden, and David Diehl, a young lawyer who had helped push the legal front against the jetty. Within the Rag staff, Bo Blakey had convinced Frank Gormlie that gearing up a campaign to save the park would be an excellent organizing tactic. Blakey had been a veteran of the People’s Park battle up in Berkeley — a campaign that had galvanized the entire campus community. Not coincidentally, Gormlie had been at the take-over of “Chicano Park” on April 20, 1970, when the Barrio Logan community physically occupied a vacant piece of Cal-Trans land, turning it into a park.
Here in OB, the land that was to become Collier Park was only a block away from the Rag’s Etiwanda house. When Blakey and Gormlie took walks on the unfenced property at night, they could see that a boarded-up two story building — the old Door of Hope, an unmarried young women’s home, — stood in its last decrepit and sad days. The old home was protected by a line of pine and eucalyptus trees, and stood at the top of a slight hill that dominated the area. Of course, Gormlie enthusiastically agreed the land should be saved. It was time to move on the park issue. Plans were made to team up with the environmental group and use the Rag in a campaign to “Save Collier Park”.
Collier Park – or at least the western portion – was the battleground. It was part of a large section of land that had been dedicated to “the children of San Diego” by a turn-of-the-century developer, D.C. Collier. According to the OB Rag (Mid-January 1972, Vol. 2, No. 4):
The land, which had been donated to the city of San Diego by David Charles Collier with the express purpose that it be turned into a park “for the children of San Diego”, was dedicated for park use in 1909 when the City Council passed ordinance 3664. The park, however, was not developed and in 1956 proposition L went on the ballot and voters passed the proposition for what they thought was the transfer of some property from Collier Park to the San Diego Unified School District. The deceptive wording on the ballot had, if effect, “un-dedicated” the park land. At the time the city promised concentrate on building another park at Robb Field.
With the electoral “authorization”, the City of San Diego carved up the land, tearing a boulevard through the middle, handing off a good-sized section for the creation of Collier Junior High (later Correia Middle School), another chunk for the YMCA, and the western portion would be sold off by for the development of apartments. In the meantime, the land was vacant and unkempt. The Rag, in issue after issue, using photos of apartments juxtaposed with views of parkland, pushed the fight to save the parkland.
Opposition to the Sale of Collier Park Grows
Opposition to the sale of the land had been growing. In May 1970 the OB Town Council passed a resolution to pressure the city council to re-dedicate the land as park. The Rag began to spread the word in its pages with the December 1970 issue. In mid-January of the new year, OB Ecology Action jumped into the fray, as a campaign developed for parks for both the east and west portions of the area. The Peninsula YMCA and the Point Loma Garden Club climbed on the park wagon. At the January 21, 1971, meeting of the Town Council’s Board of Directors, then director Ray Perine, declared if any apartments were built in Collier West, “the town will rise up” and force their removal. (OB Rag, Late January 1972, Vol 2, No 5.) Yet, there wasn’t consensus throughout the community.
However, not all OB residents were working for the combined land to be park sites. In early February (1971), it became clear that Peninsulans, Inc., the Point Loma/ OB business-realty advisory group to the city council, headed by Helen Fane, was attempting to sabotage the movement for a Collier West park by intimatating (sic) and threateneng (sic) OB Ecology Action nad (sic) the Point Loma Garden Club into withdrawing their support from the western side. Fane, as president, dictatorially squashed discussion of Collier West in Pen.,Inc. meetings.
On February 18, the OBTC passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on any sales by the city on portions of Collier West.
Tensions were rising. In early March, the city property department recommended to the city manager that the City sell or lease the western side. In response, the Ocean Beach Recreation Board voted on March 10, to recommend that both sides of the Collier land be designated as park.
Three days later, on March 13th, an all-night vigil was held in Collier West by residents, trying to bring more public attention to the pending sale or lease. Under intense community pressure, the City of San Diego’s Park and Recreation Board on March 17th voted to retain both sections as natural park land. Finally, the issue went before the City Council. The Council ordered the City Manager to make a recommendation, who in turn, ordered the Recreation Department to do a study. The issue was to return to the Council in early April.
Campaign Becomes a Riot
The campaign to save the parkland was brought to a head, when on March 28th, San Diego police attacked a demonstration in support of the park. A large demonstration in support of the park — but also against the Vietnam War was planned – for weeks. Rag staffers and Ecology Action teamed up with a group of anti-war students and faculty from San Diego State to play this duel demo: it was to be an anti-war rally, then a march up to the park, where free food was to be distributed, music provided by a local band, and everyone was supposed to then lend a hand and clear the park area of debris.
A forecast of subsequent events, the day started off when Rag staffers attempted to hang a banner announcing the rally – to be held at the beach – along a southern fence of the city utility yard adjacent to the park open space. Two motorcycle police officers showed up and grabbed the banner.
Hours later, on the grassy area next to north beach, hundreds of people gathered for the event. After speakers, guerrilla theatre, and some songs, the crowd very peacefully got up and began a march up the sidewalks of Voltaire Street to the park. It was about a mile from the beach to the intersection of Soto and Greene Streets. As the hundreds of people filtered into the park, the free food line and a rock band were setting up.
Without warning, a platoon of San Diego Police officers arrived in force, forming a skirmish line at the top of the hill. Organizers were told that it was an illegal assembly because the streets were being blocked by the demonstrators. The streets were then cleared. The lead officer. Lt. Crow, then picked up on his bullhorn and announced that it was in an illegal assembly, and ordered the crowd to disperse within 30 seconds. The crowd stood there, stunned. Hundreds were silent. Suddenly, three quart-sized beer bottles came flying out from the rear of the crowd, smashing on the asphalt in front of the police.
Lt. Crow gave the order to charge. The skirmish line of brown and black uniformed officers began to trot toward the demonstrators. It was chaos. Hundreds scattered in all directions but one. The police were charging with billy clubs swinging. It was the famous “Collier Park Riot” – an event all but now forgotten, when hundreds of young people stood their ground metaphorically, and resisted the over-reaction by the authorities.
Most of the crowd fell back down the hill in the direction of the beach, all the while, pelting the officers with rocks. It was a full-fledge police-community riot and skirmishes between cops and residents and young people became a crazy dance that sashayed all the way down to the beach. At least one cop car was burned, fifty people arrested and one officer seriously injured; scores of young people were injured – including one man found unconscious on the grass in front of the Fire Station on Voltaire.
The riot was on a weekend. That Wednesday, a picket line circulated in front of the OB police store front on Newport, protesting the police attack.
On the following Sunday – April 4th, a week after the riot, several hundred people returned to the vacant land with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, flowers and plants and finally cleared the park of debris and started a park.
Over the months, as trials of those arrested wound through the courts, as rumors that the City was going to sell the west portion persisted, the dust from this dust-up eventually settled down, but not before more suspicious maneuvering by the City.
The Rag reported later, ten months after the riot (Vol. 2, No.5):
After the demonstration/riot the city dispelled any talk of sales or leases and OB was flooded with rumors that our government had finally come to the conclusion that Collier West should be a park. Part of its fence was taken down and children began to plan (sic) on the land.
In August, four months after it was due, the city manager made his report. The only advice given was for the eastern side to be designated a park site. Collier West was noticeably absence (sic) in any recommendation. The council so designated Collier East. Collier West remained in limbo, in a ‘hold’. No plans for a western park were made. In fact sometime around November of ‘71 the sale of Collier West almost became a reality. The details of this are known to only a select few.
After the Special Riot Issue, the staff changed. The next issue of the OB Rag (Vol.1, No. 13 – printed late April 1971) published a commentary, entitled: “why riot?”. (click on the image for a larger version)
Eventually, the City relented, and built a park.
A huge grassy lawn was put in. Donated playground equipment – since eroded and removed – was installed. And to this day the park exists, in northeast OB, a block north of Voltaire and bordered by Soto and Greene Streets – next to the Community Garden, and adjacent to the Native Plant Garden.
You can see people, kids, and dogs in it every day.
For more Ocean Beach and OB Rag history from the 1970s, go here.