History of the Rowdies and Ruffians of Ocean Beach

by on May 15, 2015 · 11 comments

in Culture, History, Ocean Beach

OB Longbranch-riot-LaborDay68

Labor Day 1968 on Long Branch Avenue.

Originally published May 15, 2015

See an updated version, “The Colorful History of the Rowdies, Radicals and Ruffians of Ocean Beach.”

By Frank Gormlie

The recent spate of violence – the several stabbings down at the beach and the recent fight between  bar patrons on Newport that broke the window at Lola Luna – remind me of the rough and sordid underbelly of OB’s history.

For matching OB’s reputation of being San Diego’s “laid-back”, liberal seaside village of tolerance, peace and hipness – there is a underbelly that shows Ocean Beach in a different light and gives it some of its color.

It’s OB’s history of rowdies and ruffians.

And gathered together, the stories of the different brands of rowdiness and ruffian-isms give rise to the view that OB indeed is a colorful and diverse community with quite an interesting, not-oft spoken history, with some of it downright nasty and ugly.

Now, we’re not talking about the real ruffians who create scandals in OB like pretty-boy Billy Carlson or the land and property speculators – like the now-defunct Peninsulans, Inc. – who tried to ruin OB by turning it into a mini-Miami Beach.

No, we’re talking about characters and locals of Ocean Beach – some of whom had a rough and tumble nature – while others had personal or social, even sub-cultural motivations – but all characters who have created OB’s diverse nature.

(A side note: we can’t go too far back without extensive research into the archives of OB’s various print medias over the decades, so what we offer here is a more limited version.)

beachtownRuth Held’s Beach Town Sins

Ruth Held in her book about Ocean Beach,”Beach Town“, cites a number of incidents or behavior that could be described as rowdy or ruffian. In Chapter 12, Sin and Scandal, she outlines a whole list – a little flurry of crime in 1923, the robbery by a “highwayman”, a local boy jailed for 6 months for stealing 5 gallons of Benzoil, a man fined $10 for shooting a cat, and in a nonchalant tone, Held recounts how in 1927 OB merchants were warned to be on the lookout for “gypsy customers”, and police escorted a half dozen of their cars out of OB .

Held also describes “other kinds of trouble” – where boys stole watermelons and fruit, and on Halloween, local antics included snitching clotheslines and soaping windows. Someone climbed up and rang the Catholic Church bell. Somebody placed a wagon up on a church roof.

She discusses illegal gambling, how some local merchants were bookies, or the beatings of wives and children by drunken fathers and husbands, or the wipings of children by parents, or how during Prohibition there was a lot of illegal drinking of booze at local restaurants, and police raids on illegal stills in a house on Santa Cruz and a house on Cape May, while a house on Bermuda had its roof blown off when a whiskey still exploded.

Held talks about a group of nudists who did dances around bonfires late at night on the beach. She describes how back then anyone who was “different” was teased and ostracized, where fat kids, cripples, old people were mocked and mimicked.

In one section, Held exposes another side of the underbelly of Ocean Beach: racism.

She writes:

As for black people (in those days the polite word was “negro” or “colored”) they were not wanted in Ocean Beach.

We had a little flurry of Ku Klux Klan activity.

One night a cross was burned in the wash at the head of Del Monte Street, and this may have been connected with the talk about keeping the negros out.  We’d  heard a rumor that one was going to move in, but that “we” would never stand for it.

But one did move in, in1923.

Held continues in describing how there were at some point 2 African-Americans living in OB, and then one night a couple of white men showed up, warning them to get out of OB, firing shots into the air. With their tent and house ignited in flames, both of the African-American men left. Later, two whites were arrested and a few months later convicted of arson.  Held writes:

This ended the “colored” problem for a few  years. By the time they tried again, there was no KKK and the general feeling had changed.

But then adds:

So these days (1975) we’re kinder to children, old folks, women, other races. … Is there a chance we’ll get to the point again where we will care about each other’s rights – so we can all be free from so many fears of what others are going to do to us?

Outside of Ruth Held’s history of OB, there aren’t that many sources of OB’s ruffians and rowdies in the pre-Sixties. Except for the memories of the village elders.

So, here’s a brief list of more recent characters and locals where some give OB  a black eye and where others give OB a wink and a glint of consciousness – for I don’t want you to think that all rowdies are bad – sometimes it’s proper if the moment calls for it.

jetty2.jpgBeach Rowdies: in the 1950s, OB was an emerging college-beach town, where beer and sand mixed  with a growing youth and student residential base, spilling a certain rowdiness onto the sidewalks and sands of the neighborhood. By the late Sixties, this mix exploded.

“Rolling” Gays:  the beating up of gay men by local ruffians occurred as late as the early and mid-1960s. Local toughs – some even from the Point Loma High football team – others from the surfing sub-culture would beat up gay men, particularly late at night as they emerged out of OB’s few gay bars or clubs.

Surfer Gangs and other Gangs: OB has a history of surf gangs. Ever hear of the “OB Longhorns“? There’s even some of their graffiti still around.

There’s still some gangs around the village. One such gang – “the OB Rats” allegedly beat up some homeless guys on Newport – as we reported on it – “the OB Rats” – about 2 years ago:

A group calling itself “OB Rats” assaulted and beat a couple of homeless guys, with one of the victims having his nose seriously injured from a kick in the face.  He reportedly had his backpack stolen by the gang of  young males that contained food for his dog.  This attack occurred in the 4900 block of Newport Avenue.

The attackers then tipped over a trash container on the sidewalk along Newport Avenue. A local – a young man – who was sitting near the OB International Hostel, yelled at them to stop and have respect for OB.  The group then crossed the street and began assaulting him and at least one other male in front of the hostel. One of the attackers was thrown on the ground, and his buddies picked him up and left.

Biker Gangs: for decades – at least since the Fifties and Sixties – OB has been a home for several motorcycle and biker gangs, such as the Hells Angels. The rowdy and even violent intrinsic nature of that lifestyle definitely contributed to the colorful side of OB’s history.

Klan: Since Ruth Held’s acount of KKK activity, there has been other incidents of Ku Klux Klan in OB.  Several young Klan members used to come out of hiding every now and then, and flaunt their white sheets and hood on Newport Avenue. A couple of them used to work at Zeke’s Chicken – where Baja Grill is now located.

Posse Comitatis: OB had at least two prominent members of its local town council leadership back in the early 1970s who were members of this extremist, right-wing organization. Their central belief was that the county sheriff was the only legit source of governmental authority, and their symbol, the hangman’s noose, was worn around their necks.

Black Market in Drugs: OB’s always been famous for being a source of illicit and illegal drugs. The black market in such drugs has been prominent for decades, ever since the smoking of weed and the taking of our pills became a part of the youth and hippie sub-culture in OB. But even before the advent of hippiedom in the late Sixties, OB had a nastier side, the heroin side – with its accompanying links into the criminal underground.  Northwest OB became “the War Zone” for its rough and tumble environs. In the early 1980s, there was a shoot-out between police and some nasty drug-dealers  holed up in a two-story apartment building near Cable and Muir. Many shots were fired and the cops eventually cleared them out – no one was killed or seriously injured.

Torching of Apartments: During the late Sixties, the Seventies and even into the early 1980s, there were a number of apartments under construction that were torched. These were all done anonymously – no individual or group ever claimed responsibility for any of them, and no one was ever arrested and convicted of any of the fires. Most if not all of the apartments were successfully rebuilt, and there was even one building on Niagara where the developer simply painted over the blackened timbers – and it still stands today.  These torchings were probably connected to the surfer and surf gang subculture and to the rise in a raw, very grassroots eco-militancy.

Youth vs Cops: Rowdiness came out in full bloom a number of times down at the beach in the late 1960s in totally apolitical mix-ups between OB and Point Loma youth and cops. Two particular incidents stand out. One was on a warm Easter weekend in 1968 (I believe), where water balloon shooters got into a tangle with police and there was chaos  as cops routed beach-goers and began going door-to-door down at the beach looking for ruffians. (People would get surgical rubber tubing and shoot water balloons into the beach crowd or at others with similar weaponry.)

Labor Day 1968: The other more documented incident was on Labor Day 1968 – another warm day – when rowdies up on rooftops and balconies – particularly along the last block of Long Branch – began throwing beer cans and other debris at passersby. Eventually, the police showed up in force, ordered Long Branch cleared (which can be seen in excellent photos of the incident by local Steve Rowell). So, in compliance, hundreds of kids climbed up on the roofs and walls of the houses along the block. The cops set up a sound-device that was supposed to make people scatter.

 jetty1.jpgThe Jetty Battle: This epic fight erupted during the summer of 1970 down at what used to be called “North Beach”. The City and Army Corps of Engineers had manufactured an excuse to build a jetty, and when construction began, a rebellion among OBceans occurred, from irate surfers to “little ol’ ladies”. Hundreds of people would show up after the work crew left for the day, and attempt to undo what had been done during the day.  This led to a number of violent clashes with police, the firebombings of the crane and other equipment, multiple arrests. (For more details …)  The end result can be seen today at the rump of a jetty that protrudes into the water. Yes, the jetty was stopped in its tracks by a combination of rowdiness and civil disobedience – coupled with a legal suit.

 Anti-War Militants: With the Vietnam war, came anti-war activists and militants. Much of the student base of OB was against the war and many of the leaders of San Diego’s anti-war movement lived in OB. Here are a few of the incidents where anti-war militants became rowdy:

  • May 1970 – It was during the great Student Strike of May ’70, when activists from OB joined college students from all over San Diego in a protest at the gates to the Navy’s electronic lab up in Point Loma off Catalina Avenue. 3-4,000 students staged a slow-down across Catalina, stalling traffic into the military facility for hours. Police were out-numbered and there was no violence nor any arrests.
  • OB Collier-Pk-riot-2-edCollier Park Riot – late March 1971, an anti-war rally and march combined with a Collier Park clean-up event became a riot when police ordered the peaceful gathering to disperse. Rock-throwing and rioting flowed down Collier Park in northeast OB all the way to the beach. 50 were arrested, many people injured by police as cops became the ruffians. “The Most Violent Day in OB History“. Part of the impetus for the incident was a protest against the city selling off more of the Collier land gift for apartments. Collier Park is there today.
  • Protests against Bank of America: B of A still had a branch on Newport – where today the Apple Tree Market is planned. The bank was the target of anti-war activists in 1972 because of its role in the Vietnam war, and there were several peaceful pickets out in front and at least one guerrilla theater skit. (A photo of one of the pickets is up on the wall in Tony’s on Newport.)
  • May 1972 – More anti-war protests swept the country in May of 1972. Hundreds marched onto freeways in downtown San Diego, while in OB there were a few scattered trash cans along Newport Avenue set on fire as part of the militancy. No windows were broken and there was no arrests in OB.
  • Flag-burnings in OB.  There was at least 2 American flag-burnings in OB as symbolic anti-war protests.  One occurred at night during the summer of 1974 after anti-war activists had partied extensively with tequila, and spilled out onto the beach and down to Newport Ave, where they found the American flag still flying. It was lit in the Pier parking lot.  Meanwhile police had been called but any confrontation was avoided as the drunken rowdies scattered to the darkened beach.  The other incident occurred in broad daylight on the beach at the end of a small anti-war and anti-development protest, also probably in 74 or 75.

OB on Lockdown: The San Diego Police became the ruffians – after what happened on February 22, 1974, – OB was turned into a “police state” after the non-fatal shooting of an officer by ex-inmate Peter Mahone. Mahone was probably exercising what we today call “suicide by cop”. Everyone lived, even after dozens of cops poured lead into the shack where Mahone holed up.  Many shots were fired, but the violence was limited to a narrow field, but OB was on “lock-down” for a while; residents couldn’t leave, and people were jacked up by police blocks away from the incident.

Ecology Militants Against Apartments: For several years during the mid-1970s, a group called the OB Ecology Action led picket lines and demonstrations against the opening of large apartment buildings along the fragile Sunset Cliffs. This was during the pre-thirty foot height limit days and there were virtually no controls on apartment development. The eco-rowdiness took the form of confrontations with realtors (one window was smashed) and with prospective condo buyers, as well as with the lobbying of downtown politicos. Several large buildings – which would have been illegal today – were prevented from being constructed.

 Mini-Riot Along Abbott Street: In the late Spring of 1975, police were sent in to Ocean Beach along Abbott Street, as a crowd had prevented an officer from arresting a man who had momentarily taken his gun. For a short period before the cops arrived in force, peaceful anarchy broke out along Abbott and Saratoga – people smoked pot openly and a nude skater took to the street.

Campaign Against Winchells Donuts: There was a concerted campaign against Winchells Donuts opening up a store in OB. The campaign included picket lines, a kids’ coloring book, negotiations with the city and with corporate Winchells, and it involved, infamously, the setting of minor fires in at least two Winchells stores in other parts of town. In the end, Winchells withdrew its application.

OB’s Marshmallow Wars – Mid-Eighties to 2014. Much has been written and discussed about this rowdy side of OB. It ostensibly ended last year.

Picket Line Against Porno Theater: For weeks during the mid-1980s, a rowdy group of OBceans picketed the outside of the old Strand Theater which was turning into a porno theater. It worked.

Campaign Against Starbucks: An infamous boycott of OB’s Starbucks. Everyone heard about it – locals still practice it. There were some rowdy sides of the campaign, but no significant damage or vandalism ever occurred. See this and this.

So that’s our history lesson for the week, a look at the history of ruffians and rowdies of OB.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Blavatt May 16, 2015 at 3:06 am

My favorite historical story Ned Titlow told us was about “The Fishing Bandit”. This OB guy would cast his fishing line into restaurants and bars stealing wallets and purses. His big mistake was going to Old Town. They caught him and shot him.
Nobody in OB could believe this was the guy that had had been stealing for all those years… he seemed so nice.


mjt May 16, 2015 at 8:10 am

In the past the little guy could run wild, break some rules and get by.
Today it is the Government, the Police State, and Big Business who have taken over and does all the stealing and bullying.
In the old days it wasn’t organized like it is today.

Endless groups of malcontents crying all the time and their henchmen lawyers, have figured out how to further their own agenda’s.
A big brother brain washed society living in fear, the media broadcasting every transgression like it was a capital crime.
Movies, TV crime shows, a self serving criminal justice system, all banging the drums of fear.

In 1970 with 230 thousand in jail and today with 2.3 million in jail, with eighty thousand in solitary confinement, we have come a long way.

What we had then was freedom. People may think it is better now, but to me people has become a product rolling off an assembly line.

When I was six years old I would walk alone to school
My mom didn’t have to work. The doctor would make house calls and charge five dollars.
Kids would play ball in the streets, run around, climb trees, bully each other.

You get what you pay for, and I hope people are satisfied customers.
I’m not.


Goatskull May 16, 2015 at 9:25 am

Though these are all negative things that happened, they DO sore of add to the colorful history of OB. Lord know I’ve done some stupid drunken shit in my younger years.


Frank Gormlie July 31, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Goatskull – not true – that all were negative things.


Frank Gormlie May 20, 2015 at 12:27 pm

I was reminded recently that there’s another rowdy OB group – “Outlaw Skateboarders”.


starviego May 11, 2016 at 9:52 am

“Labor Day 1968: … – when rowdies up on rooftops and balconies – particularly along the last block of Long Branch – began throwing beer cans and other debris at passersby.”

My late friend Gary Casse was in on that one, and he loved to talk about it. He said the rowdies overturned a couple of police cars. He ended falling off the roof he was on due to the fact he was on Reds. Messed his back up good.


“Biker Gangs”

I remember an incident in the late ’70s where a Vagos was stabbed to death by two Hells Angels, in an alleyway off Newport.


Frank Gormlie July 2, 2017 at 7:39 pm

NaH, I was there as an observer and no cop cars were overturned; it wasn’t that rowdy. I’ve never heard of a police car being overturned in OB at all; one was torched I believe during the Collier Park Riot of 3/28/71.


jettyboy June 8, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Point of info: OB Rats were not a real gang, just a bunch of kids trying to be tough. Gone now.
OB Longhorns, not really a surfer gang. Bunch of guys into extreme localism trying to keep some surf spots along the cliffs to themselves. Still around I think.


George June 10, 2016 at 7:25 am

I think we can say that the 4th of July marshmallow fights descended into rowdiness at some point.


doug July 3, 2017 at 5:26 pm

The “Jetty Battle” was the best: when they wouldn’t listen we occupied their machinery!
The next day the ruling came in stopping the “Jetty” : now called the stub. Anyone remember the judge’s name.
Another victory: stopping the “Boardwalk”!
OB loke David D was key in both as I recall.
Now thats political action that benefited all of the public!


editordude August 9, 2017 at 12:01 pm

We’ve just published several older posts of worth, for your summertime reading.


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