50 Summers Ago, the People of Ocean Beach Stopped the Jetty

by on September 15, 2020 · 4 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

The Jetty is Stopped

Fifty summers ago, the residents of Ocean Beach halted the construction of a jetty the City and the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build-  next to what is now known as Dog Beach.

Ostensibly, the project, according to city officials, was to protect OB from flooding from the San Diego River Channel, to prevent the loss of sand from the beach area, and to stop the spread of sand into the Mission Bay entrance.

But, the community didn’t buy it. Many locals viewed the jetty as a prelude to an attempt by the City and developer interests to create a marina and a high-rise resort district at Ocean Beach’s waterfront. Opposition to the jetty was wide-spread, from surfers to elderly retired grandmothers, from young professionals and local businesspeople to the long-hairs.

Carol Bowers, a local OB historian, would write years later about the jetty action in her column in The Beacon. In her piece from July 6, 2000, she recounted how the original plan for the jetty was to have it extend 1,570 feet into the ocean with a curve at its end. But, one local resident recalls, the jetty was to curve south-west toward the pier. Even without the curved end, the pier and the jetty would converge, because they were angled toward each other. This is what alarmed many local surfers. It wasn’t just about losing surf at North OB. Almost all of the surf at Ocean Beach would be impacted.

Then City Manager Walter Hahn had arranged the project through the Army Corps of Engineers, who had signed a contract with a local construction company to build the jetty at a cost to the city of $565,000. Construction was to begin July 1, 1970. Bowers continued:

“Whoa!” said the surfers. It sounded to them as though their favorite surfing area was going to be ruined. And a group called the Ocean Beach Ecology Action Committee feared the impact on local marine life could be disastrous. Protesters began meeting every day at the construction site as a huge crane dropped boulders onto the beach.

Work was stopped temporarily, and on July 14, Ocean Beach residents, including Tom Bailey, the president of the Ecology group, met with the City Council and Army Engineers officials to ask that a thorough environmental impact study be made.

“There has been nothing presented yet to justify any change in City Council action which is based on recommendations from the Corps of Army Engineers, ” then the City Councilmember who represented Ocean Beach, Sam Loftin, claimed.

July 1970: construction begins on the jetty at north beach in OB.

The City proceeded with the work, although the one concession it made was that the deep end of the jetty would not curve. Ecology Action picked up the gauntlet, and the very next day filed for and was granted a docket at a City Council meeting, scheduled for July 21, 1970. However, during a closed-door committee meeting of City officials, OB residents’ spot on the council agenda was quietly dropped.

At a huge rally of 400 OB residents on July 16th, a series of speakers gave the crowd updates. Tom Bailey of Ecology Action spoke, as did a scientist from Scripps Oceanography, as did David Diehl, a young lawyer heading up the legal committee for Ecology Action. The bad news  – delivered by Dick Nolan, then a candidate for the 78th Assembly District – was the back-room meeting that removed OB from the Council agenda. This really pissed people off. Diehl then informed everyone that his committee would be filing suit to force the City to reinstate the group’s appearance before the Council and request an injunction against the Army Engineers to stop work. Diehl maintained that the private meeting of city officials violated the Ralph W. Brown Act. Bowers described what happened next:

By this time, the protest group was getting pretty worked up. Some started swarming over the crane; others threw rocks and bottles. Seventy-five police officers were called in, forty-five of them forming a skirmish line to drive the protesters out of the area. Police Lt. Gerald Sturm got on the bullhorn, warning that the gathering constituted an “unlawful assembly.” The crowd dispersed, saying they would be back in the morning. Police said they would also be on hand at 6 a.m.

An eye-witness and OBcean, years later, wrote about the tactics employed by the protesters:

The Army Corps needed to drop the boulders deep into the sand, so they maintained a deep hole at the head of the jetty. The hole slowly migrated Westward as the jetty grew longer. It was surrounded on three sides by high berms of sand, and the hole was deep enough to reach the water level. It was like a large version of a child’s sandcastle. For thousands of years children in OB have dug holes in the sand down to the water level, and then built a sand castle wall to protect it from the ocean. The result is always the same. The high tide breaches the wall, and then the hole fills in with sand. Eventually the beach returns to its original slope.

I’m not sure who, but some activist got the bright idea to use this child’s play tactic against the mighty Army Corps of Engineers. At night people dug in shifts to make a trench through the Western berm so the high tide could rush in and mess up the hole. It was dangerous work with people digging feverishly in the semi darkness. My offer to help was politely refused, because I’d been drinking. Each morning the Army Corps would have to repair the berm and dig out the hole. It was about noon before they could start dropping more boulders. The child’s tactic to mess with the Man’s sandcastle didn’t stop the jetty, but it was an excellent delaying tactic. It slowed the growth of the jetty to half speed, and gave the attorneys more time to do their job.

At the two year anniversary of the Jetty battle, the OB Rag published a recounting (OB Rag, Vol 2, No. 12, Mid-June 1972), entitled “How the People of OB defeated Powerful enemies”:

Peaceful Protest

During the nights, after the workmen finished their jobs, hundreds of people brought shovels and tools and began to fill in the hole that the Corps [Army Corps of Engineers] had dug during the day. It was hard back-breaking work, but everyone joined in. It was like one of those Chinese documentaries you see where thousands of workers descend on a site armed with picks and shovels and create a dam or a road or a bridge.

They had tractors, the people had spirit. The work continued all night till dawn, but the next day the tractors undid all the labor and excavated more. The following night people assembled in greater numbers to fill the hole again. But in the morning, this time, it was different. About 100 persons were on hand when the workmen arrived. When they did, the people rushed over the rope barriers and climbed onto the tractor, covering every square inch of it.

The A.C E.., frustrated and astounded left immediately and soon police were called in. The police informed the demonstrators that they were trespassing and ordered them to leave. A dozen or so riot-equipped officers advanced when no move was made and proceeded to shove people off the tractor.

By this time, the media had gotten wind of the whole controversy and was there complete with cameras and recorders.

A local organizer, Paxton “Packey” Warner, according to the OB Rag article, made a statement to the press, and soon after was arrested by police on trumped up burglary charges — charges dropped later but only after he had been confined in jail. “… it was evident that police simply wanted to intimidate leaders and try to stifle the growing protest.” The Rag article from 1972 continued:

Violence

The next night, as 600 persons gathered for a protest at the beach, an attack was made on the heavily-guarded tractor. As a group of youths got the attention of the guards by throwing rocks at them, two guerrillas armed with firebombs crept up to the tractor from the opposite side. The first one missed, but the second smashed against the side and erupted in a brilliant blaze. The people gave a loud cheer as the guerrillas escaped to the safety of the crowd. Now the people became more belligerent. The dig-ins had failed, the city council would take no action, and the construction went on. …

When police units arrived, they were chased away by large groups of rock-throwing protesters. When a large force of police did show up, the people slowly dispersed.

But that was only the beginning. The very next night the real battle began. The police evidently decided that they were going to crack down. As a large party/ protest was underway on the beach, 40 riot police suddenly appeared, marching through the parking lot. They declared an unlawful Assembly and demanded that the crowd leave. The people refused. The police advanced. The crowd retreated to the north beach lawn where the police made a club-swinging attack. People responded with bottles and obscenities (hardly a match). In the confusion, sporadic street fighting continued, but most people fled shortly afterwards. Twenty-eight persons were arrested and lots of police cars had windows missing. It was the most violent confrontation in OB since the Easter Riots.

The local eye-witness recalled what happened:

It should be noted that it was the Army Corps that armed the activists with rocks to throw. The small granitic rocks were brought in by the truckload, and used to grout the gaps in the boulders along the top of the jetty. This gave the crane and dump trucks a surface to move along as the jetty progressed. The jetty road also provided quick access for police cars that were staged at Robb Field. Unfortunately for the Army Corps the rocks were a dangerous weapon in the hands of frustrated people.

I was there the first day that rocks started flying. The crane was only hit a few times before the operators fled. Some rocks were thrown in their direction as they ran away, but I don’t think they were hit by any. Then a large volley of rocks rained down on the crane. There was a brief silence, and then people rushed toward the crane. I was the first person to climb into the metal jaws that formed a large bucket. Two friends of mine soon followed, and one of them lit up a victory cigarette. It was very invigorating, but the victory was short-lived. The police suddenly appeared on top of the North berm. They must have come down the back way from Robb Field. They stood shoulder to shoulder and held their billy clubs held at chest level with both hands. A wall of helmets, hardwood and black leather.

Then that wall started moving slowly toward us. It felt like something from one of the Planet of the Apes movies that were popular at that time. Only we were the half-naked humans, and we were about to be thumped by the gorilla army. We retreated across the South berm, and that’s where the police stopped their advance. They were later replaced by a rope barricade, and the boulders started dropping once again. It was another sucessful delay, but now we had a boudary line that the activists had to stay behind.

I was in the parking lot the night of the big riot, but only as a spectator driving through it. My friend Paul had picked me up that evening in his grandmother’s Cadillac, and we headed down to North OB. We detoured into Robb Field to do a pork census. We were shocked at what we saw. We drove through a gauntlet of cop cars parked on both sides of a long and narrow parking lot. We counted over eighty police cars. Some with four cops inside each car. Amazingly we got through without being stopped, and headed down to the beach to warn our friends.

The melee had already begun when we arrived in the North OB parking lot. The police must have come down the jetty road. It was surreal. We drove through the infamous OB jetty riot in a Cadillac with “Alices Restaurant” playing on the radio. We crawled along at five miles per hour, and stopped frequently to allow the rioters and cops to pass by. Some of them bouncing off the car. We were almost home free when we spotted a checkpoint near the Brighton Avenue end of the parking lot. We had to eat two ashtrays full of roaches in a big hurry…. two very large Cadillac ashtrays. Three cars away from the checkpoint, and my friend Paul informed us that he still had a half a can of weed under the steering wheel cap. A felony at that time. I turned off the Arlo Guthrie, and then we had brief but intense talk with Officer Opie at the checkpoint. He shined his ten pound flashlight on each one of us, and asked if anyone was bleeding. We said no, and he waved us by. We were fortunate. Many others were not.

OB historian Bowers explained how the issue was resolved:

The tension was broken on July 23 when the Corps of Army Engineers came up with a new survey, which showed that storm protection would be afforded if the jetty were left at the 500-foot size already completed. The engineers and the City Council made a joint announcement that further construction would be halted.

Not so coincidentally, the same day the San Diego Union ran an article about a lawsuit against the city filed by … the Committee to Save Ocean Beach and the Ocean Beach Ecology Action Committee.

Locals then have always assumed the two were connected – the decision to end construction and the lawsuit alleging a governmental violation of the Brown Act. In the end, with the jetty stopped, the community could count it as a victory, and activists had learned some valuable lessons – how different tactics can be successfully employed simultaneously – such as direct action and legal suits.

It wasn’t until March 9, 1971, that the City Council formally passed a resolution prohibiting the extension of the jetty. (OB Rag, March 1971). A survey of OB residents in the Spring of 1971 found that 71% had opposed the jetty construction. One out of every five interviewed reported that they were actually involved in stopping the jetty. The survey, conducted by progressive college professors from State and Grossmont College, polled 741 residents of northwest Ocean Beach. (OB Rag, Sept 25 – Oct 9, 1971, Vol.2, No.2.)

Today, the rump of that jetty still stands at the water’s edge and next to Dog Beach as a monument to a community’s successful fight against city hall.

 

 

 

 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar bobo September 15, 2020 at 10:44 am

A lesson to those who oppose BLM and African Americans’ right to protest. If Obecans are entitled a right to stop a jetty, then minorities have a right to demand equal treatment under the law.

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Avatar Doug Blackwood: September 15, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Indeed, it was a great day: when the stub jetty was stopped! After surfing North Beach, I saw a number of peeps climbing on the machinery, & join ed them. The will of the people triumphed, and the powers that be were defeated. During that wave of unity; I met David Diehl, he put in a lot of work. Later on he represented me successfully, in a civil matter. In the 90’s, when the OB boardwalk was proposed, we started the “Ocean Beach Preservation League” (OBPL) with an OB transplant: Mark Miller. A sewage outfall off the “Dog Beach Jetty” was also defeated!
Protest is a big part of “American History” tradition. Power to the People!

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Avatar Doug Blackwood September 16, 2020 at 7:55 pm

Right on bobo!

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sealintheSelkirks sealintheSelkirks September 25, 2020 at 11:05 am

I was 15 that summer and had a REAL good throwing arm. I should have been a baseball pitcher but I was a surfer rat instead, and I was hanging at my granny K’s place as my stepmom and dad were in the middle of an ugly divorce in MB. I spent a lot more time in OB not being in the middle of it. I absolutely cannot guarantee I didn’t hit any of the workers with a rock because I tended to hit what I was throwing at, or cop windshields, whatever. A hunk of granite going 80mph makes an impression, ya know, and that freaking crane was an easy target! Just had to find the right weight pieces to huck…and there were literally tons of it to pick through.

My grandpa K was a maintenance guy at the apartment building they managed, and I brought his short-handled square gardening shovel to dig with. Easy to carry on my bike. Digging that berm sucked, the sand would shift and I’d fall down; hell, everybody was slipping and sliding chucking sand in the dark but there was laughing going on anyway… It was guerrilla war against bad people as far as we were concerned. I did manage to lose that shovel one night somehow. Grandpa was a bit pissed about that but he didn’t want to see that damn jetty get built, either, so I didn’t really get in trouble over it.

My dad had made me cut my hair off that summer in retaliation for getting kicked out of Mission Bay High School summer classes transitioning from PB Jr High to 10th grade where ended up starting 10th at La Jolla High that I lasted to Christmas Break before being asked to “not return”, and I looked really clean-cut and being young-faced I guess I didn’t have that college boy ‘rioter’ look the cops were looking for as I didn’t have much problem going back and forth through the cop lines as long as I shifted place each time. I carried canteens of water (didn’t have plastic water bottles back then) under my Pendleton. Had to outsmart the ENEMY, ya know? I have exactly one picture of me that summer taken by my granny in front of the apartment building in my red Birdwell Beach Britches holding my new Dewey Weber kick-nosed 6’8″ roundtail. I didn’t much look like a THUG I guess…

Sure are a lot of memories this story brings up. Been a long time since I heard anyone say “half a can of weed” by the way…

And now there’s the destruction of the 30 foot height limit staring the beach communities in the face that the same government mentalities want to shove down throats. How does one chuck rocks and dig out berms of sand to stop THAT?

sealintheSelkirks

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