Remember the Collier Park Riot! March 28, 1971

by on March 28, 2009 · 14 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Environment, Media, OB Time Machine, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Collage from mid-March 1972 OB Rag: left - OB Peoples Peace Treaty rally at north beach; right - protesters march up Voltaire to Collier Park. March 28, 1971.

38 years ago – check out our account of the riot – reposted here, what led up to it, the causes, the reporting, and the aftermath.

Collier Park

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.

vol1no14p8.jpgHere 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

The march up Voltaire to Collier Park from the beach, 3/28/71. Motorcycle officers patrol on th edge of the protest. Ed Riel, a member of the future OB Planning Board, can be seen in the crowd, mid-right forefront, with beard, glasses and white T-shirt.

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.

Anti-Vietnam war rally at the beach - Ocean Beach People's Peace Treaty, 3/28/71.

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.

collierpark1.jpg

"Hoobler's Heros" clear the park of peaceful demonstrators.

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.

collierpark3.jpg

The first of 50 arrests being made. Lt. Crow - seemingly very calm - is in middle of squad of officers.- click on image for larger view

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.

OB Rag “Special Riot” issue - early April 1971

In the aftermath of the riot, the OB Rag published a colorful broadside, “the Riot Special”, listing incidents that had occurred during the fighting. Go ahead and click on the image to see a larger version - click twice.

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.

April 4, 1971: Weekend following the riot: people return to the park and do the clean up that was scheduled before the police attack. Ms. Estes stands to the right in the background with hands on hips.

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.

OBceans returned to the park on April 4 for the clean up. OB Ragster Kenny Eason is seen in the left foreground.

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.

OB Rag Vol.1, No. 13 - late April 1971After 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)

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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.

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For more Ocean Beach and OB Rag history from the 1970s, go here.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Amber Forest March 28, 2009 at 9:54 am

I will remember that day for the rest of my life; a defining moment in my childhood for sure. I work at People’s Food and part of my job is to teach new workers the definition of cooperatives, and the story of how People’s started. I always add a brief bit about the Collier Park riot; it just feels like such a part of our history in O.B. Being ten years old, hanging with my folks, carrying garden tools one minute, and running for safety from the cops the next. The kindness of strangers opening their home to my mom and I, as we ran down Green Street, is a memory that rings as clear as a bell. I like to walk up to the park from time to time, sit under a tree and reflect on the day, and the night that ensued. What a time.

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 28, 2009 at 10:15 am

Also, check out the original comments from the first time this was posted. Click on “Collier Park” above.

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avatar OB Joe March 28, 2009 at 12:31 pm

i’m not certain the article makes it clear why we should ‘remember the collier park riot’ … although i think it’s implied.

clearly, we should remember it as obceans because it’s an important milestone in OB’s history – when the people of OB – mainly the young of the community with help from students of local colleges – stood up to the unbridled authoritarianism of local law enforcement.

the response by those incited to fight back by the police is something we can all be proud of. let me say it again. i am very proud of how obceans fought back that day – as the cops had no right to simply charge into a peaceful crowd the way they did.

we as a community can be proud of how our kids simply didn’t turn tail and run when confronted with their rights being torn asunder. the descriptions of some of the incidents in the ‘OB Riot Flashes’ show with absolute clarity why cops back then deserved the title ‘pig’. i’m sorry, they did.

the collier park riot was probably the most political mass uprising by obceans in OB history. It was even more of a politicized event than the jetty battle – even though the jetty battle lasted several days and nights.

i’ll tell you, it was first an absolute shock when the cops attacked. we hadn’t planned on anything of the kind. music was about to be played, free food was about to be served, and the idea was to get hundreds of people clearing and cleaning up this corner lot.

Shock was soon replaced with anger. How could they do this! How dare they!

As I was running away from the line of skirmish, I looked back and witnessed people being beaten with police clubs, others being thrown to the ground. I took a few more steps and looked up – a saw one of the most beautiful sights i’ve ever seen – the sky was literally filled with rocks – like one of those scenes out of braveheart – but the people were raining rocks on the helmeted heros of chief hoobler.

If you’ve never been in a mass uprising – or what the establishment calls a ‘riot’ – it’s difficult to describe the intense heat of solidarity – of those you’ve with – physically struggling with forces of repression. it’s unlike any other feeling. you are swelling up with both anger and love all at the same time. you are angry at those causing harm and injury to your brothers and sisters – and you are totally inspired by the actions of your fellow citizenry – you love your people, your community.

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avatar Amber Forest March 28, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Just read through the eye-witness accounts: John Torrez was my stepfather, and that’s me and my mom at the end of the piece. Wow . . . talk about taking a trip back in time.

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 28, 2009 at 5:10 pm

OB Joe – wow!

Amber – I was hoping you would see this post and comment, as your comments on the original article were simply awesome.

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avatar Dave Gilbert March 28, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I’m trying to get a lay of the land back then to understand just how big the park or parcel of land was in ‘71. Currently Collier Park is bordered by Soto & Green streets and runs up behind the Greencliff Apts. I know Nimitz was built in the mid 50’s but what about those apartments?

Also, did Collier Park extend east through what is now the Point Loma Native Plant Reserve and down to Nimitz? The San Diego River Park Foundation which keep the PLNPR grounds was founded in 2001 so I have to wonder what was going on back there for 30 years as well.

And at the north end of the park there’s a lone building and the OB Community Garden. Did that garden bloom from the riots too?

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 28, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Dave, to answer your question, go to the link in the post in first paragraph “Collier Park”. The original land given to the “children of San Diego” can be seen as a large rectangular piece of land, with Nimitz intersecting it.

By 1971, the apartment complex that sits at the top of the slight rise had just been laid out, pre-construction-wise. The community garden was not there, as neither was the Native Plant Reserve.

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avatar Dave Gilbert March 28, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Thanks Frank, I had looked at that map earlier and from what I could see it took up all of the land that I was talking about, except that grey area where those apartments are now, but were not yet built at the time of the riot.

Interesting how it was eventually divided up. Most of it now is some form of a park…sounds to me like you guys and OB won!!! ;)

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avatar D. Tumminia March 29, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Power to the People (& plants and animals be recognized as biological kin).

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avatar Jettyboy March 29, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Say it loud and say it proud “Shovel…shovel… shovel
Apologize for being obscure, but I think I had to sign a non-discloser form, (sarcasm)
Some readers will know exactly what I’m referring to.

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avatar Wireless Mike March 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm

I wasn’t there, but I remember the event. As I recall, it was a major victory for the people of OB because it led to getting us a real park.

When I go by the park now, I see people walking their dogs, throwing frisbees, playing hackey-sack, or just chatting with neighbors, and doing what a neighborhood park is for. I wonder how many of those people realize the sacrifices that were made so they could even have a park. Most of my neighbors I’ve talked with have never even heard of the Collier Park Riot, or they remember it as a bunch of “filthy hippies” stirring up trouble. It’s sad that they don’t know the history of the place.

The lawn at Soto and Greene streets is more than a park. It is proof that people can fight government corruption and win.

To quote Quicksilver Messenger Service: “When you stand up for what you do believe, be prepared to be shot down.”

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avatar Frank Gormlie March 30, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Jettyboy – I know what you’re digging at. heh heh

Wireless mike – you are so right. maybe we should spend some time at the park with copies of the article, and hand them out to folks coming into the park.

It is a great neighborhood park. I used to take my dog there every weekend until she passed away last year, but she spent a lot of time there. My daughter grew up in the park. I can still remember chasing her around that large pine tree – playing catch-me. Now she’s 20 years old.

Please note: the playground equipment that once dotted the area underneath the giant eucalyptus trees has pretty much been taken out, rotted away, or fallen into disrepair.

There is no “Friends of Collier Park” around to fundraise for new kids’ play things.

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avatar Patty Jones March 30, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Snickers at Jettyboy. Hmm, I don’t think I signed any disclaimer…

I really like the “Friends of Collier Park” idea. Any volunteers out there?

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avatar OB Bro July 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Hi All,
I am a two decade OB resident and I frequent the park. Thanks for all you all did to protect our open spaces and community places. I am also with the San Diego River Park Foundation and am the program manager for the Native Plant Garden. I was researching info for some interpretive panels we are going to install in the garden thus I came across these articles.
Very interesting. I may have to include info on the panels regarding the fight to keep the area a park so that garden visitors will know of the sacrifices made by the earlier residents of the area.
Thanks again.

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