Brief History of OB Grassroots Activism – Part 2

by on July 26, 2012 · 1 comment

in Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Popular

This is Part 2 of my “brief” history of modern OB activism. Here’s Part 1.  It is taken from a talk I gave at the Open House of the Green Store on July 14th.

The Eighties

The 1980s were a period of accommodation.  Hippie businessmen and women emerged on the scene in OB and were accepted. The projects of the hippie radicals of the late Sixties and Seventies had all but faded away – many of the hippies remained however, buying homes in OB or Point Loma, getting married, and having careers and children. But the radical pioneers had paved the way for a new wave of hippies – it was the coming of age of the “hip-oisie”, a type of hip petite-bourgeoisie.

Young, hip businesspeople not only emerged and opened up shops within OB’s business centers, but they became the leaders on Newport Avenue, breathing new life into a older, moribund business elite that had grown out of touch with the residents of the community.

The new hip-oisie ushered in a new type of activism, an activism that resulted in such mainstays that they are taken for granted today : the OB Christmas-then-Holiday Parade, the Christmas Tree, the OB Geriatric Surf Team, the annual OB Street Fair. In essence, then, over the decade, there had been a re-making of the main commercial street in the village. Newport Ave had experienced an overhaul.

The Eighties witnessed this rebirth of a type of small town commercialism in the form of “hip” – fueled by an acceptance of the surfer/ hippie/ laid-back lifestyle – no, more than simply an acceptance – it was a turnaround from the rejection of the late Sixties into a promotion of OB as that place, that center of easy-going, beach, and counter-culture lifestyles. From rejection to acceptance and then to accommodation and promotion. If the merchants couldn’t beat the hippies, they would become hippies.

A more issue-oriented activism still existed in OB – it wasn’t like the Eighties had no political activism.   In fact, during the early Reagan years , for instance, a strong anti-nuke movement developed across the country – and it had deep roots here in OB – all in response to Reagan’s banging of the war-drums.  A San Diego anti-nuke group that advocated civil disobedience, the Ballast Point Organizing Project, had a strong OB affinity group. Ballast Point named itself after the nuclear submarine base – not the beer – on t he other side of the Peninsula from OB. It staged a major demonstration where dozens were arrested for sitting down in front of the base. This was in the early Eighties.

Also in the early Eighties, OB witnessed a strong and successful local movement to shut down – or change – the Strand Theater, as it had turned into a porno theater by 1981-82.  People were so outraged that there were picket lines in front of the cinema for weeks until the owner relented and returned the theater into more familiar fare – more family style films.

At the other end of the Eighties, of note, was that OB spawned two progressive candidates for the City Council in 1987 – this was before District Elections where the entire city voted for each council candidates. I was one of them – but neither Ron Snyder nor I won, of course, yet between us we gained a quarter of the overall vote.  I advocated for a police review board with teeth, to move the airport, and called for San Diego to be a nuclear-free city.

In 1989, OB became the home of the Green Store, when it first opened its doors on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. It later moved to Voltaire Street and now has just moved into its new digs 4 doors away. But the Green Store has helped OB keep its ecological view sharp with all its resources available to the community. It just celebrated its 23rd anniversary.

The Nineties

Grassroots local activism returned to Ocean Beach during the Nineties, especially with the advent of an irregularly published newspaper, “The OBcian” – which was primarily concerned with development and environmental issues. Alongside the newspaper, a new group developed – the OB Preservation League.

Also during the early Nineties, anti-development activists regained the OB Planning Board. A slate of environmentalists and slow-growth advocates organized by Rich Grosch formed a slate and ran campaigns against what was seen as a pro-developer majority that dominated the Board.  The entire slate won – including yours truly – and Grosch was immediately elected President.

When local merchants and property owners headed up an effort in 1993-94 to construct a boardwalk across OB’s waterfront, it was met with a howl of protest from locals – and especially the OB Preservation League. The League – led by veteran grassroots activist David Diehl – held several mass town hall meetings at the OB Rec Center, and in doing generated so much opposition to the plans, that the boardwalk was effectively shelved away for good … or at least activists thought so (similar talk of a “boardwalk” has recently emerged 18 years later).

Social consciousness in OB remained throughout the decade. For instance, there were reports of a racial incident where an African-American man was assaulted on Voltaire.  Within three days of the incident, a small ad hoc committee had formed, fliered the neighborhood, and held an anti-racist rally attended by hundreds at the corner of Voltaire and Cable.

Similarly, when a young OBcean, Tony Tummunia, was shot down and killed by police in OB on West Point Loma Blvd., there was an outpouring of sympathy and rage – a memorial rally was held in Robb Field not too far from where the local had died.

In addition, there was strong support for the movement against the first Iraq war in Ocean Beach.

One last point about the 1990’s in OB: EXXON – the gigantic oil company – kept trying to get its foot in the door in Ocean Beach; it wanted to open a station in the vacate lot owned by World Oil at the corner of Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs Blvd. But it kept getting shot down by mass town meetings and by solid resistance on the Planning Board.

 21st Century

The first summer of the new century in OB saw an organized re-union of activists from OB’s grassroots organizing of the Seventies.  Dozens of former OBceans – former community activists who had scattered to the winds – traveled wide and far to attend a series of forums, meetings, panel discussions, and social functions in Ocean Beach in July 2000.  There were former members of the OB Rag, the Child Care Project, the Free School, the Community Planning Group, WAR, the Human Rights Committee … all assembled – and encouraging and inspiring new and future activists.

OBGO –  the Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization

The most important group to form during this decade in terms of OB grassroots activism was OBGO – the Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization.  A loose collection of  activists had been meeting and discussing activism, and finally made it formal in early 2000 – the group was formed on three basic principles: human and labor rights, respect for the environment, and support for diversity.  OBGO quickly grew; its first rally was against a rate increase by SDG&, and it held weekly meetings at the Rec Center.

A recent vote of the OB Planning Board. The Board has existed since 1976-77.

When OBGO staged its first town-hall meeting at the OB Women’s Club in early December of 2000, it was standing room only. The issues on the agenda were the wave of hotels being planned for Mission Bay, problems with SeaWorld, a toxic dump also in Mission Bay, and other local development and ecology issues. One noted speaker at this meeting was Donna Frye – before she was on the City Council – advocating for Surfers Tired Of Pollution.

Next on OBGO’s list of projects was the OB Planning Board.  The group sponsored a slate of progressives in March of 2001 and won enough seats on the Board to form a majority.  I was elected President, Doug Zilm Vice-president, and Kim McGinley Secretary – as we were all OBGO members. Our majority held for two years;  the next year Doug was selected as Chair of the Board. Other members of OBGO who were long-term members on the Board included Marc Snelling, Kip Kruegar, and Dan Morales.  Meanwhile, OBGO members had formed a coalition of sorts with Point Loman activists and had likewise developed a majority on the Peninsula Planning Committee during that same period.

One of the concerns of activists in OB was the plans the City had for the Mission Bay area.  San Diego was encouraging the building of a ring of hotels surrounding Mission Bay – where OB would simply be a drop-off point for tourists – a site for gas and food. Also of concern in those days were plans by SeaWorld for a high-rise thrills ride – and OBGO members moved to counter the misrepresentations the aquatic funzone and City were handing to local community groups.

Speaking about SeaWorld, OBGO in the middle of that decade was instrumental in getting the City to deal with an old, toxic waste dump that San Diego had literally forgotten about – right next to where SeaWorld stands. With Donna Frye now on the City Council, OBGO had a friend and Frye responded by forming a committee of activists and scientists that studied water and air emissions from the site. It was determined that there weren’t any seepage into local waters or air of toxic elements.

No to Starbucks in OB !

In the meantime, there was commotion on Newport Avenue. The large corporation of Starbucks was making noises it was going to open up a storefront on Newport. Activists incensed about this formed the Save OB Coalition and focused on opposing this new development.   The new coalition worked with OBGO and held numerous rallies against Starbucks, attended by hundreds; it circulated petitions, and in general staged a boycott of the new storefront – that did open on September 11, 2001.

The saga of the anti-Starbucks campaign in OB is legend – everyone across the County had heard about it – even though it was nominally unsuccessful.  The OB Rag published a detailed accounting of the fight against Starbucks (and similar efforts) on the tenth anniversary of its opening. (Here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and here’s Part 4.)

George Bush’s Iraq War

Resistance to George Bush’s war in Iraq started early in Ocean Beach – during the Fall 2002 run-up to war OB was having rallies and mini-marches, with OBGO being the principle organizer of these. There were also many OBceans participating in city-wide protests against the invasion – which occurred in March 2003.

I remember one rally where I dressed up as Paul Revere – complete with pony-tail wig – and as we walked through some OB neighborhoods, I rang a large bell, shouting out “War is coming! Watch out! War is coming!” I remember we used to tell other anti-war activists around San Diego that if other neighborhoods were as against the war as OB was, it would never have started.

Voltaire Park – corner of Sunset Cliffs Blvd and Voltaire Street, by OBGO.Photo by Marc Snelling.

Voltaire Park

One of the greatest projects that OBGO sponsored was the development of a park on the vacant lot at Sunset Cliffs and Voltaire Street.  The lot – owned by World Oil – just sat there, with old asphalt, weeds, … people would dump trash, junk, old washers … and it just sat there. So, OBGO activists adopted the lot – and without permission from anyone – cleared it and cleaned it up; we dug up all the old asphalt, planted flowers, trees, bushes, made paths, a memorial was set up after a young, local businesswoman who had died.

We created Voltaire Park – built by a spontaneous movement fueled by people’s energy, without government authorization or okay. Kip Kruegar and Colleen Dietzel of the Green Store were instrumental in all of this – particularly getting water to the site – which of course was crucial. (When I gave the talk at the Green Store, several people murmured “Marc, Marc, …” recalling how Marc Snelling – an OBGO member – threw himself into making the park happen. Marc has since returned to Canada.)

OBGO maintained the park for at least two years.  Then, on the morning of May 15, 2003, without warning, bulldozers and workers arrived – accompanied by a van of police officers to be on hand in case any trouble started – and the garden was destroyed and torn up; a wire fence was thrown up around the lot – and it’s still there – an empty eye sore surrounded by a fence.

The Response to the Police Shooting of Danny “the Walker”

Oil painting of Danny the Walker Woodyard.

In early February of 2003, San Diego police officers confronted a well-known OB homeless man, known as Danny “the Walker” on a stretch of West Pt. Loma Blvd. In front of dozens if not hundreds of OB residents, police ordered Danny to drop a knife he had been using rummaging through a dumpster. When he didn’t follow their instructions, police shot and killed him.

The response from the community was immediate and one of outrage. OBGO jumped into the situation, and within days organized a memorial service at the site of the killing in conjunction with his family, and then OBGO led a 500-person strong march against police brutality down to Newport Avenue where a rally was held.

A large town hall meeting – with more than 200 participants – was held on March 4th at the OB Rec Center where officialdom responded. The councilman was there, the police chief (Jerry Sanders) was there, along with DA Bonnie Dumanis – all promised to get to the bottom of the incident. Two months later, Dumanis issued a report exonerating the police officers involved in Danny’s shooting.  We knew then that Bonnie had indeed become part of “the old boys’ network”.

Around this time, some members of OBGO and the Save OB Coalition came together and published several issues of a new OB Rag – all in color and on paper.

By the middle of the first decade of the new century, OBGO had faded away – some like to say ‘OBGO was gone.’ However, some of its members stayed involved on the Planning Board, and worked on other issues and in other groups.

The Green Store continued … and it’s still here, to give us support and comfort us – it has stayed the center of ecological awareness in OB all these years.

Much of the focus in more recent years of grassroots activism in OB has been in saving social services, like the OB library and its hours, the Rec Center, the fire rings at the beach. When Mayor Sanders threatened to close down the libraries, hundreds of OBceans rallied to prevent the shutting down of the branch on Santa Monica Avenue. Sanders relented and later said it was the efforts that OB residents made in saving the OB Library that convinced him to take them off the chopping block.

As we wind down this brief history of OB activism, it’s important to come away with an understanding how these grassroots efforts – in the main – have created, saved and made OB the community it is today.

OB still has many problems. Gentrification, homelessness, high rents, threats to social services, … so, there’s always a need for grassroots activism – it’s the lifeblood of Ocean Beach.

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