March 28: Anniversary of the Collier Park Riot in Ocean Beach – Who’s Collier and What Riot?

by on March 28, 2018 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

What’s Its Significance?

March 28, 1971 was the day of the historic Collier Park Riot in Ocean Beach – 47 years ago. It was probably the wildest day in OB’s history. It certainly was OB’s most violent day.

The riot occurred when San Diego police attacked a peaceful gathering of hundreds of young OBceans and students who had gathered at a site in northeast OB – on what was to become Collier Park – as part of an anti-Vietnam war protest and a ‘clean-up the park’ project.

Collier? D. Charles Collier is the true “father of Ocean Beach” – and as one of his many contributions to the community over a hundred years ago, he donated a huge chunk of land to “the children of San Diego” – part of which became Collier Park and another part later Bill Cleator Park.

And this event nearly 5 decades ago – still has significance for the community and denizens of the village of Ocean Beach.

March 28, 1971

The OB Rag has probably published a piece about the Collier Park Riot every March 28th for the last 10 years or so. We do so to inform each new generation of OBceans and remind each past generation of OBceans about this famous – some say “infamous” – day in OB’s history – and we do this as a repository of a collective community memory bank. Somebody needs to keep track of all the stuff that comes down over the years and decades (like the OB Historical Society and other OB historians).

On that Spring day hundreds of young people and students had gathered at the then-vacant hilltop along Greene Street – it was all part of a 2-part demonstration: the first part was a huge anti-Vietnam war protest down at the beach. The second part included a march up Voltaire to the top of the hill on Greene Street where free food was to be handed out, a local band was setting up to play – and a clean-up of the future park was to occur. It was a protest to show support for the creation of a park – as the City was making moves to sell off all the land for apartment developments.

But all the plans for the event changed when a column of police showed up at the gathering.

Then under the command of Police Chief Ray Hoobler, police back then were known to be very confrontational when dealing with African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, gays, hippies – and anti-war demonstrators.

So when the police showed up in force, there were no negotiations, no discussion; it was an unlawful assembly and had to be dispersed. So, rioting broke out when police – in an unprovoked move – forcefully broke up the assemblage, arresting whoever was slow to move out of the area. But many of the young people who had been chased from the park, turned around and defied the police with a massive fusillade of rocks.

Over the course of the next few hours, 50 people were arrested, a bunch of people were injured, a cop car was engulfed in flames, as the rioting swept down the hill and over a mile to the beach.

Now, this event, as wild and crazy as it was, wasn’t the first time OBceans stood up to city and law enforcement to save a piece of Ocean Beach. There was the famous Jetty Battle of the Summer of 1970.

For more on the story, see these:

D. Charles Collier

Collier – or as he liked to be called – “Col. Collier” – was an early San Diego developer and became the father of Ocean Beach due to his many contributions to making Ocean Beach a true community. Probably one of the most significant things Collier accomplished was to build a successful trolley line out to Ocean Beach from San Diego. It was completed in 1909.

This significant access made it possible to have a community connected to the larger and growing metropolitan area of San Diego. Looking back, we can see Collier’s successful streetcar line was the turning point for Ocean Beach. San Diegans now could live at the beach and work or go downtown. This sped up housing in OB and a year later there were a hundred homes, where just two years earlier, there had been but 18.

Collier opened new housing tracts in OB; he graded and paved streets, brought in utilities, planned Voltaire and West Point Loma streets to be wide access streets. But selling lots and building railway lines weren’t the only things that Collier did in Ocean Beach.  In 1909-10, with his own funds, he had built the very first public school, a two-room school for the community, calling it the Ocean Beach School. (Collier accomplished many other things outside OB as well.)

An OB Rag party commemorating the day in Collier Park, 2011.

Collier Park

One of his most significant acts, as mentioned, was to donate a large tract of land to San Diego and its children. And eventually, what is now Collier Park was developed from it, as was Bill Cleator Park.

But it was a battle. For the City wanted to sell the land off. 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.

And ever since the land was donated by Collier, it has been shrinking.  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.

The Campaign for the Park

Back in 1970 and ’71, grassroots activists in Ocean Beach were plotting on how to save the land as a park. It’s a great success story but – it was a battle. See more of the story here.

The Dust Settles – A Park Is Born

In the aftermath of the riot, in the midst of trials of those arrested, and in the intervening months, others in the community – such as the Point Loma Garden Club – stepped forward to pick up the baton for the park and forced the City to relent.

Finally in the early Seventies, a park was born, and today the “L-shaped” Collier Park still stands as a neighborhood resource, with a grove of towering Eucalyptus trees, at least one giant Torrey Pine, cement picnic tables, a horse-shoe pit, and green lawns for locals and their kids and dogs to romp on.  A city maintenance facility sits quietly by, the OB Garden takes up another corner of the land. And an expansive Native Plant Garden is attached to the Park by a short trail.

Yet, recently, the Park has suffered some neglect: the children’s play equipment has rusted and been removed. Sections of the park don’t appear to be maintained. And one gets the sense that outside of locals, no one really knows that the park exists – which is quite okay with some of those locals.

But the Collier Park Riot and the subsequent development of the site as a real park were harbingers of the coming role that youthful progressives, grassroots activists, and hippie merchants were to play in the community. They set the stage for the Ocean Beach that we know today – celebrated by mainstream media, tourists, local businesses and those who appreciate the quality of life the community now symbolizes.

Why We Remember the Collier Park Riot

(From Why the Collier Park Riot in March 1971 Was a Watershed Event for Ocean Beach)

Once the park was finally created, it and the riot that preceded it established a number of bench marks for OB. Call it “inspiration” or call it momentum, grassroots activity in the community took a leap.  Here’s how it all played out:

  • First, the riot and the campaign for the park firmly established ecological and environmental interests and concerns as a major political force in Ocean Beach. Coupled with the Jetty Battle, the riot and its aftermath crystallized  the “green-ness” of OB.  From then on to this day, OB has been known for this strong current of ecological fervor and grounding. Over the next several years, this was translated into a momentous anti-development movement among residents and businesses that led to the “re-writing” of the OB Precise Plan and the destruction of plans for any local “Miami Beach”.
  • Second, the riot affirmed the youth-led progressive grassroots activism as a real, genuine and major force in the community. No longer would the youth be ignored by local merchants or civic organizations.  It wasn’t all about the young, but young people were leaders in every social, cultural, economical and political project born over the next decade. And anti-war and radical politics were accepted and allowed to incubate in this once, sleepy seaside village.  The now firmly-planted emphasis on grass-roots democracy flowered into strong efforts to bring urban planning into the purview of the affected local small property owners, businesses, and residents – even if they were tenants. The OB Planning Board grew directly out of these efforts to rein in the power of the elite and to create “green” urban planning from the bottom up.
  • Third, the riot re-affirmed OB as an ‘anti-authority’ and anti-establishment community, and as the center of hippie culture in San Diego, the anti-pole to a staunchly conservative town that Richard Nixon called his “lucky city.”  Ocean Beach became recognized as the capital of the counter-culture – and it still is even today.  OB became the symbol of a community resisting the mainstream culture and politics, with its conflicting aspects such as its “laid-back” characterization juxtaposed with its “in your face” reputation. Mainstream media loves to laud OB this way, and every now and then, the local press will publish fluff pieces about OB.
  • Fourth, with the Collier Park Riot cementing OB as a beachhead of left-wing and anti-war politics, activists flocked to the community from across the city and from across the nation. Drawn to the potential of the Republican Convention coming to San Diego in 1972, there was an exodus of left-wing young people to San Diego and particularly to OB. In terms of actual numbers, this draw only included a few dozen people, but for a few years they helped staff the new projects and groups, boosting OB’s intellectual reserves and stature.  Even philosophy giant Herbert Marcuse – the icon of the New Left who taught at UCSD – came to OB to give lectures. Many of these individuals who stuck around later became college professors, nurses, doctors, iron workers, teachers, union heads, typesetters, lawyers, prosecutors, journalists, merchant marines, social service administrators,  political consultants – all greatly contributing to the political and social life of the city at large.
  • Finally, the riot and its aftermath provided a shot in the arm to those who jumped into doing progressive projects locally in OB, and who were into building alternative institutions to the moribund mainstream institutions. An OB free school was developed; a legal aid office on Voltaire was opened for awhile; the organic food co-op went from a backyard shack to a storefront on Voltaire; OB Ecology Action became a mainstay in the community for years; and the OB Rag experienced a whole new crop of talented grassroots journalists. Over the next few years, the forerunner to the OB Planning Board formed – the OB Community Planning Group.  A civil rights group – the OB Human Rights Committee – exploded into being over night in response to police harassment – which eventually led to reforms in police practices. A women’s group WAR formed in response to high incidence of rapes in the community.

    Storefront on Voltaire.

  • Activists joined the Town Council; young businesspeople with long hair and hippie roots – the “hip-oisie” – opened stores on or close to Newport and eventually took over the merchants’ organization, ushering in a new era of the Ocean Beach business environment. An organic restaurant – the first in the area – opened for awhile on Newport.  The Left Bank – a two-story building which housed a community bookstore, a crafts store, meeting space, and office for the OB Rag – opened in the structure that once held the original Bank of America (where Starbucks is now).

All of this, the renewed environmental activism, the affirmation and acceptance of progressive politics, the reaffirmation of OB as the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego, and the influx of progressive and radical young activists into OB – produced this resurgence in local political projects and organizations over the next decade. These led to new victories and successes.  Projects and new groups stood on the shoulders of the groups that came before them. The OB Rag was printing 10,000 issues every two weeks, a new Child Care Center opened its doors, teachers from the Free School helped to form the Community School which used resources at OB Elementary.  Several OB businesses collected a “community tax” which was then consensually distributed to new projects.

Over the years since the Collier Park Riot, each new era has added its mark on top of this totempole of community activism. There was the successful crusade against a porn theater; new businesses opened which catered to the young and hip; a renewed anti-development effort in the early Nineties occurred; and the formation of the OB Grassroots Organization (OBGO) during the early years of this century blew fresh life back into OB’s street level activism.

Forty-seven years ago, the youth of Ocean Beach took a stand. In its aftermath, a park was born. And from then, the community witnessed and experienced an era of activism that was ushered in, and combined with the counter-culture nature of OB, created the Ocean Beach that we know today.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

sealintheSelkirks April 1, 2018 at 12:59 pm

Yep, I was there as a 16 year old surfer teen. It reinforced just how much cops were not your friends. Not much has changed in that respect except they’ve now got military war weapons as they still don’t like the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution much…

We did stop the damn thing, and digging that damned berm out those nights sucked! But it was worth it because it would have toasted OB’s surf and some wealthy ‘developer’ would certainly have gotten a Dana Point project in there and wouldn’t that have turned OB into just another polluted backwater SoCal yacht harbor like Newport Beach? Ugh!

History was in the making but we were just mad as hell!

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie April 1, 2018 at 9:38 pm

Seal – thanks so much sharing. Could you share more in an email to me? obragblog@gmail.com

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sealintheSelkirks April 1, 2018 at 1:01 pm

Oops, had two windows up and the other was about the Jetty which this was the answer. I was at both, and the Collier Park saw a lot of people getting beat…so part of my previous post fits right in…

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