The Campaign for Collier Park, the Riot and the Aftermath

by on March 28, 2021 · 0 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

1955 – Looking north over Collier Park, not too long before Nimitz Blvd went in. Door of Hope in left background. Collier Junior High is across canyon from Door of Hope. The bluff on the west side of the wash is still recognizable. Credit to OB Historical Society.

Today, March 28, is the 50th anniversary of the infamous Collier Park Riot – and the OB Rag continues our celebration and commemoration of the event. (On Friday, we covered the basics, and on Saturday we recounted how DC Collier’s landgrant gift to “the children” of the peninsula became “the incredible shrinking park” and how Collier is considered the “true founder” of Ocean Beach.)

Today, we discuss the actual day itself, half a century ago, the campaign and build-up to the day, its aftermath and significance for Ocean Beach in 2021.

And this is part of our continuing efforts to ensure that the Ocean Beach of the 21st century has not forsaken its very own history that helped to make the village what it is today. It’s definitely part of the story of our celebrated iconoclastic corner of the hippie counter- culture, a seaside town that has consciously and consistently set itself apart from mainstream San Diego.

Collier Park, bordered by Greene, Soto, and Nimitz Blvd. In right foreground is the Native Plant Garden. Top center is the Community Garden.

The Campaign for Collier Park

As the city continued its efforts to carve up the remaining portions of the 60-acre gift for parks by DC Collier, it had its eyes on the western section. And in the infinite wisdom of the city’s planning and property departments, it was decided the land would be sold off for apartment development. In the meantime, the land was vacant and unkempt.

Meanwhile, when word spread the city was planning to sell the land, opposition to the sale grew rapidly in Ocean Beach. In May 1970 the OB Town Council passed a resolution to pressure the city council to re-dedicate the land as park. By December of that year, the brand-new upstart of an “underground newspaper”, the OB Rag, had taken up the issue of saving the land for a park. One staff member had been involved in the People’s Park struggle up at UC Berkeley and another had attended the take-over of “Chicano Park” on April 20, 1970, when the Barrio Logan community physically occupied a vacant piece of Cal-Trans land, turning it into a park.

Coincidentally or not, the OB Rag‘s “office” on Etiwanda Street was only a block or so away from the vacant lots. The unfenced property included the boarded-up two story building — the old Door of Hope – a home for unmarried young women – that had been closed for years. The old home was protected by a line of pine and eucalyptus trees, and stood at the top of a slight hill that dominated the area. Every mimeographed issue of the Rag had articles about the pending sale and efforts to “Save Collier Park.”

In mid-January of 1971, the activist group, OB Ecology Action, jumped into the fray. It was led by Tom Bailey, the Ferris’ – a professional couple who lived on Worden, and David Diehl, a young lawyer. OB Ecology Action was fresh off its victory against the jetty the previous summer and was incensed at the pending land sale. As the campaign to save Collier Park grew, activists wanted both the remaining west and east portions developed for parks. Then the Peninsula YMCA and the Point Loma Garden Club climbed on the park wagon.

At the January 21, 1971, meeting of the Ocean Beach Town Council’s Board of Directors, director Ray Perine, got up and declared if any apartments were built in Collier West, “the town will rise up” and force their removal.  Yet, there wasn’t consensus throughout the community – and not all Point Loma and OB residents were working for the combined land to be park sites.

In early February, 1971, it became evident that an organization called Peninsulans, Inc., was attempting to sabotage the movement for a Collier West park. Peninsulas, Inc., or simply Pen. Inc., was a business and realty advisory group to the city council, headed up by Helen Fane. Pen. Inc. was trying to intimidate and threaten OB Ecology Action and the Point Loma Garden Club to withdraw their support for the western side. As president, Fane, squashed any discussions of Collier Park at Pen. Inc. meetings.

On February 18, the OB Town Council passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on any sales by the city on portions of Collier West. Tensions were rising. In early March, the city property department recommended to the city manager that the City sell or lease the western side. In response, the Ocean Beach Recreation Board voted on March 10 to recommend that both sides of the Collier land be designated as park.

Anti-Vietnam war rally at the beach – Ocean Beach People’s Peace Treaty, 3/28/71.

Three days later, on March 13th, an all-night vigil was held in Collier West by residents, trying to bring more public attention to the pending sale or lease. Under intense community pressure, the City of San Diego’s Park and Recreation Board on March 17th voted to retain both sections as natural park land. Finally, the issue went before the City Council. The Council ordered the City Manager to make a recommendation, who in turn, ordered the Recreation Department to do a study. The issue was to return to the Council in early April.

This was not all in a vacuum. At the time, the Vietnam war was still raging. And protests against the war were raging across the country and in San Diego. The latest evolution of the peace movement then was into something called “the People’s Peace Treaty”, a nation-wide campaign to have Americans sign our own peace treaty with the Vietnamese as a way to counter the war. A handful of the local leadership of the Peace Treaty lived in Ocean Beach and somebody thought it would be great if there could be a combined demonstration joining the two issue: the Peace Treaty and the save the park campaign. Plans were made to have an anti-war rally at the beach, then a march up to the park, where free food was to be distributed, music provided by a local band, and everyone was supposed to then lend a hand and clean up the park area of debris – old asphalt, glass, and the junk of decades of abandonment.

The march up Voltaire to Collier Park from the beach, 3/28/71. Motorcycle officers patrol on the edge of the protest.

March 28 arrived. Activists had been organizing for the event for weeks. As a forecast of subsequent events, the day started off when Rag staffers tried to hang a banner about the rally – to be held at the beach – along a southern fence of the city utility yard adjacent to the open space. Two motorcycle police officers showed up and grabbed the banner.

Hours later, on the grassy area next to what’s now the Dog Beach parking lot, hundreds of people gathered for the event. An ad hoc group of locals performed a guerrilla theater skit written by Jackie Tinbergen about U.S. imperialism and intervention in Vietnam. She then gave an amazing speech that linked up the militarism that created the war with the authoritarianism and elitism that was forcing parkland to be sold for profit. After more speakers and some songs, the crowd got up off the grass, and then marched very peacefully up the sidewalks of Voltaire Street to the park. It was about a mile from the beach to the intersection of Soto and Greene Streets. As the hundreds of people filtered into the park, the free food line and a rock band were setting up.

Without warning, a platoon of San Diego Police officers arrived in force, forming a skirmish line at the top of the hill. Organizers were told that it was an illegal assembly because the streets were being blocked by the demonstrators. The streets were then cleared. The lead officer. Lt. Crow, then picked up on his bullhorn and announced that it was in an illegal assembly, and ordered the crowd to disperse within 30 seconds. The crowd stood there, stunned. Hundreds were silent. Suddenly, three quart-sized beer bottles came flying out from the rear of the crowd, and smashed on the asphalt in front of the police.

With batons at the ready, police charge crowd, March 28, 1971.

Lt. Crow gave the order to charge. The skirmish line of uniformed officers charged toward the demonstrators, swinging their billy clubs. It was chaos. Hundreds scattered in all directions but one.

Most of the crowd fell back down the hill in the direction of the beach, all the while, pelting the officers with rocks. It was a full-fledged police-community riot and skirmishes between cops and residents and young people became a crazy dance that sashayed all the way down to the beach. At least one cop car was burned, fifty people arrested – some right out of their front yards; one officer was seriously injured, as were scores of young people – including one man found unconscious on the grass in front of the Fire Station on Voltaire.

The riot was on a weekend. That Wednesday, a picket line circulated in front of the OB police store front on Newport, protesting the police attack.

April 4, 1971: Weekend following the riot: people return to the park and do the clean up that was scheduled before the police attack. Ms. Estes stands to the right in the background with hands on hips.

On the following Sunday – April 4th, a week after the riot, several hundred people returned to the vacant land with shovels, picks, wheelbarrows, flowers and plants and finally cleared the park of debris and started a park.

Over the months, as trials of those arrested wound through the courts, as rumors that the City was going to sell the west portion persisted, the dust from this dust-up eventually settled down, but not before more suspicious maneuvering by the City. The Rag reported later, ten months after the riot (Vol. 2, No.5):

After the demonstration/riot the city dispelled any talk of sales or leases and OB was flooded with rumors that our government had finally come to the conclusion that Collier West should be a park. Part of its fence was taken down and children began to play on the land.

In August 1971, four months after it was due, the city manager made his report. The only advice given was for the eastern side to be designated a park site. Collier West was noticeably absent in any recommendation. The city council designated Collier East as a park – the future site of Cleator Park. Collier West remained in limbo, in a ‘hold’. No plans for a western park were made. In fact sometime around November of 1971 the sale of Collier West again nearly became a reality. The details of this are known to only a select few. 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.

But eventually, the City did – and built a park. A huge grassy lawn was put in. Donated playground equipment – since eroded and removed – was installed. And to this day the park exists, in northeast OB, a block north of Voltaire and bordered by Soto and Greene Streets – next to the Community Garden, and adjacent to the Point Loma Native Plant Garden.

Yet, half a century later, we can see that 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.

OBceans returned to the park on April 4 for the clean up. OB Ragster Kenny Eason is seen in the left foreground.


Backside (Page 2) of the OB Rag “Riot Special.” (Click on image.)


















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