The Colorful History of the Rowdies, Radicals and Ruffians of Ocean Beach

by on August 15, 2018 · 10 comments

in Ocean Beach

OB Longbranch-riot-LaborDay68

Labor Day 1968 on Long Branch Avenue.

The following is based partially on a post originally published May 15, 2015

By Frank Gormlie

Downtown Ocean Beach during these times on any summer day or night is extraordinarily packed with people, as locals and visitors mingle on the beach, on the Greens, and in the numerous noisy restaurants and pubs that line the commercial streets.

OB’s reputation as being San Diego’s “laid-back” beach community precedes it as tourists flock to our liberal seaside village of tolerance, peace and hipness all in search of being part of it – even for just a moment – in their search for happiness.

Little do they know there actually is a rough and sordid underbelly to OB’s traditions and history.

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

This rough underbelly includes the stories of the different brands of rowdiness, radicals and ruffians within Ocean Beach over the years -all of whom give rise to the view that OB is indeed a colorful and diverse community with quite an interesting, not-oft spoken history, with some of it downright nasty and ugly – while other parts are enlightening.

Now, we’re not talking about the real ruffians who create scandals and mischief in OB, like the slum lords who own hundreds of units, Michael Mills comes to mind, or other land and property speculators, like pretty-boy Billy Carlson or like the now-defunct Peninsulans, Inc. – who tried to ruin OB by turning it into a mini-Miami Beach back in the late 1960s. Nor are we speaking about those out-of-down investors who thought they could build mini-empires of short term vacation rentals. Nor are we discussing vicious, random acts of arson and vandalism, such as the recent Spring 2018 spat of fires.

No, we’re talking about characters and locals from 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. So here are some stories of these characters.

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 (covered in a separate post). Ruth’s book can be found on the “OB Shelf” at the Ocean Beach Library.

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 more recent characters and locals, some of who gave 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.

Labor Day 1968 on Long Branch. Police here are attempting to quell the crowd with a noise machine.

Beach 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. Here are some examples:

Youth vs Cops: Rowdiness came out in full bloom a number of times down at the beach 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, 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.

Closeted Gay Businessmen’s Network: A number of businesses in OB were owned by closeted gay men –  back in the day when society forced gays and lesbians to hide their sexual identities – and they formed an unofficial network. Plus OB had one of the few “openly” gay clubs.

“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” – several years ago.


The Jetty Battle, summer of 1970

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

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 overdoses (this author knows 2 OB people who succumbed to overdoses) 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.


OB Jetty battle, summer 1970

The 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 Radicals: With the Vietnam war, came anti-war activists and radical 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 radicals 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.

Geriatric Surf Club member at OB Holiday Parade, circa 2000

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.

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.

Geriatric Surf Club Precision Marching Surfboard Drill Team and Gidget Patrol– Where else but in OB would there be a marching group like this, poking fun at surfing, themselves and everybody else. They were a favorite mainstay at every Christmas and Holiday Parade down Newport.

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

OB – Home of Guerilla Art Projects – From the Peace Sign on Bird shit rock to the OB Mermaid, OB has been home to a myriad bunch of underground artists who grace the neighborhood with their work. Much of their guerilla art work remains un-noticed or un-mentioned …………

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

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucy's_Fur_Coat August 15, 2018 at 6:18 pm

You quote ” OB’s few gay bars or clubs.”
What were their names?

By the way does anybody know how the bartender old Joe from the Arizona Cafe
is doing, very nice guy.


Jon Carr August 16, 2018 at 3:18 pm

Last I saw Joe he was working at the Cat Lounge. But that was at least 5 or 6 years ago, and I haven’t been in there since.

What I really wanted to comment on though was your username. Thanks for reminding me about one of the best live rock bands to ever come out of San Diego! I’m totally gonna rock out to LFC on the way home from work. They need another reunion show.


Roderick T. Long November 29, 2020 at 11:07 pm

Anyone remember a bookstore — or a store that sold books, anyway — called “The Wizard of OB,” from when I first lived there (early-to-mid-1970s)?


Frank Gormlie November 30, 2020 at 7:56 pm

Yeah, but that’s about it. You know what they say – ‘if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.’


Roderick T Long July 11, 2022 at 11:20 pm

Just found a reference to it on the last page of this:


marc johnson September 6, 2019 at 6:29 am

Don’t forget about spaceman of OB.


Frank Gormlie September 6, 2019 at 11:28 am

I won’t – I have 3 of his paintings.


Robert O. October 11, 2019 at 12:14 pm

A good book to read about the OB War Zone is “There Goes the Neighborhood”.


Dean October 11, 2019 at 9:36 pm

You forgot about the OBTz….but thats ok….. never liked publicity anyway…..


Brian G Walker November 22, 2019 at 2:00 pm

I have been an O.B. visitor, then resident, then visitor since the late 50s. As a kid, my family would come to the Silver Spray and rent the last 2 units on the point. I started surfing at 6 right where the pier is today. I’ve fished off the wall at the old pool or the jetty. In those years Spaceman would gather his flock and walk up and down the beach. I remember in 8th grade walking on the new pier with a can of Welches grape juice in a brown paper bag trying to get the police to bust me….kids. We watched the Navy guys come out onto the cliffs and watch the drug deals go down. The vacation, eating at Nati’s and Hoddads…the little place that had 10 cent rolled tacos…out on the pier or eating the fish we caught off the pier.
I remember the surfer gang mentality. Surfers used to be very territorial. I would get bullied all the time. I remember a guy cutting out and tossing his board my way. This was pre-leash days but I caught and carried his board to the beach. I was on my last wave anyway. He was pissed. He chased me down and shoved me. I told him his board was float in the rip. The next day he did the same thing but this time he put a big ding in my board. I got his board and carried it in. I tossed it on to Newport, walked up the hill to the Spray. I look back on that now knowing maturity was lacking by both of us.
In the 80s O.B was home. It was a great place for a triathlete to live and train.
O.B. will always be a special place. It has changed…some good some bad but you sit on the beach and watch the waves…all good.


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