A (Brief) History of Ocean Beach Grassroots Activism

by on July 25, 2012

in Activism, Culture, Government, Politics

Scene from the famous Labor Day “Riot” of 1968; this is Long Branch Avenue. Police had ordered everyone off the streets, so they took to the rooftops.

This was originally published at the OB Rag

This is an outline of the history – the modern history – of OB grassroots activism – which began in the late Sixties with the development and growth of the hippie sub-culture, the counter-culture.

By 1967, Ocean Beach had become the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego. OB was the San Diego equivalent of that fabled and iconic San Francisco neighborhood that had become synonymous with “hippie-ism”. If you were a hippie or a hippie-wannabe during this time somewhere in San Diego, you ended up in OB.

Of course, other factors contributed to the incubation in Ocean Beach of a community sympathetic and supportive of the new emerging counter-counter: before there were long-haired hippies in OB, there were long-haired surfers – as this community had been a center of surf-culture for years by time OB had morphed into a hippie haven. And, more in general, OB had been a classic southern California beach-college town, where students and young people made up a huge proportion of the residents. There were no colleges right in OB, but there were plenty close by. Cal-Western (now Nazarene) was just up the hill in Point Loma. Plus OB was a bedroom community for USD – also not too far away, but especially for San Diego State, and Mesa, City, UCSD.

Along with young sailors and other younger working-class people – predominately white – youth had become a sizable segment of the citizens of the neighborhood. And when the youth sub-culture developed during the Sixties in music, art, styles, drugs of choice, clothing, hair-cuts or lack of, language and politics, OB was right there, on the cutting-edge.

Now, the counter-culture did not grow in a vacuum. Something was driving it – something that swept through the sea of young people becoming more and more disenchanted and disengaged from the mainstream culture and politics. Part of it was a response to the war in Vietnam and the draft, part of it was a reaction to the up-tightness, ugly materialism, hypocrisy and violence of everyday life in America, to the racism embedded in society, to the more and more obvious subjection and second-class role of women …

It was also the music – the Golden Era of Rock and Roll had ushered in a certain new wave of exhilarating and liberating sounds. And attitudes toward traditions were rocked – old ways fell by the wayside, as the youth culture took on more and more efforts to shock the screwed up sensibilities of the mainstream. For instance, during the war period of Vietnam, the wearing of military-style clothing by young people became fashionable. People wore military jackets not only to look cool but to mock the militarization of America.

Marijuana was part of it. Use by local teenagers of the intoxicating weed changed abruptly between the years 1966 and 1967. For example, it was rumored in my Point Loma High School class of 1966 that perhaps a handful of kids smoked grass. But by a year later, it was the thing to do – “everyone” smoked it.

So, all this was happening in Ocean Beach. Young people would gather during hot days at the beach and there would be clashes with the police, such as the famous Labor Day “Riot” of 1968. There were a number of these apolitical skirmishes between cops and kids around the beach.

Yet, it wasn’t like hippies were openly accepted. Merchants didn’t like them; landlords didn’t like them – and police didn’t like them. If you were a young male with longhair in OB, you could not walk or drive across the community at night without being stopped by the police. All this would change, but it took time.

Out of all this turmoil and fun, came OB’s very first underground newspaper, the Liberator. It made fun of cops and was supportive of pot-smoking hippies.

The Seventies

The first grassroots group to emerge from this coastal neighborhood was the OB Ecology Action, an environmentally-aware group that pulled actions and protests around development. It was one of the main networks that worked to block the jetty that the City of San Diego and Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build in north OB.

In the summer of 1970, the people of OB stopped the jetty through a combination of civil disobedience and legal actions. From little-old-ladies to young surfer dudes, the community was united against the effort to build a long, eco-destructive jetty – some saw it as a preview to a marina and the wholesale destruction of west OB. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that civil-disobedience doesn’t work. It does work – sometimes – and it worked here in OB during the summer of 1970. The jetty was stopped, and its rump can be seen today down at the ocean’s edge.

Soon after the jetty battle, the original OB Rag – originally called the OB People’s Rag – an alternative community newspaper was born – first published in September 1970. It lasted for six years and today’s online version continues its tradition of grassroots citizen journalism.

The jetty that was stopped was just one part of the establishment’s attempts to change Ocean Beach. There was a more whole-scale effort to remove all the shacks and old houses west of Abbott Street in what was then the OB Precise Plan. The plans were laid bare – for all to see – the elite wanted to replace this old housing with hotels, motels, nightclubs, and highrise. Folks in OB responded. A group called the OB Planning Organization and then later the OB Community Planning Group formed to deal with the emerging urban planning crisis hitting the community in the early Seventies.

Out of this crisis grew the OB Planning Board – the very first democratically-elected neighborhood planning body in the history of San Diego and the State of California. It still exists today – and they deal monthly with issues that affect OB. Often the future of the community is decided at their meetings. And OBceans need to stand up and support the Planning Board. It meets twice a month at the OB Rec Center.

Another battle that was won was over saving Collier Park – a little-known neighborhood park in northeast OB. The City wanted to sell it off and allow apartments to be built at the site. But people in OB literally rebelled and fought to ensure that this green acre given “to the children of San Diego” by local turn-of-the-century developer DC Collier survived.

I mentioned that police didn’t like hippies. It was true. Back then, the police in San Diego used what was called the Field Interrogation, the “F-I”. They could walk up to you and without reasonable or probable cause – ask you to produce some identification. And the cops would target young people that looked suspicious – you know, that looked like a hippie. And of course, if drugs were found during this unlawful stop, then of course you would be arrested.

This and other types of harassment and abuse at the hands of law enforcement forced the creation of another OB grassroots group, the OB Human Rights Committee. This was around 1974. This group did help in a great deal to successfully get rid of the police use of FI’s – they were determined to be illegal and the tactic was abolished.

Another group that was formed during this period was WAR – Women Against Rape – founded by young women activists in OB. Even if a guy was a hippie and had long-hair, he could still be a sexist-pig. Women would be walking along the streets of OB and be accosted by men and harassed and abused. Some times there were rapes. So WAR formed in response to this sexually degeneration, to give support to abused sisters, and worked to educate people about sexist ways.

National Issues: the Vietnam War, the Farmworkers, and the Environment

It wasn’t only local issues that generated activism in OB during those days. The war in Vietnam was a huge issue. OB was one of the centers of San Diego’s opposition to the conflicts in Southeast Asia. Many leaders of the local anti-war movement lived in OB. There was a very large anti-war rally and march in OB against the war in the Spring of 1971 that led in part to the infamous Collier Park Riot. When then-President Nixon began his bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, protesters lit garbage cans along Newport Avenue on fire. There were protests against the local Bank of America on Newport as they were seen as a large corporation instigating and benefiting from the war. The war was a constant within the pages of the OB Rag.

Also, there was local support for the Farmworkers’ grape and lettuce boycotts. People with signs urging customers not to buy those products would stand outside Safeway – now Apple Tree Market. And later OB became a center of the impeach Nixon movement.

And OB has always been a center for ecology and environmental awareness. The first Earth Day was held in April of 1970, and OBceans were very involved. The environment was obviously not just a local issue. There was an attitudinal shift in how people perceived “nature” or “the outdoors”, and this was also enlivened by the counter-culture, the “back-to-nature” movement, the whole earth catalog thing.

Alternative Institutions

Importantly, alongside these grassroots organizations centered on key issues – like the Community Planning Group, the Human Rights Committee, the OB Rag, WAR, there were other forms of activism. There was a whole wave of Ocean Beach alternative institutions being created and sustained – alternatives to mainstream, the establishment way – that grew up.

Chief among these was what became People’s Food Store, today one of OB’s largest employers. It started as a backyard co-op – literally in a shack in someone’s backyard; people would come by, write down their order of rice, beans, fruit, whatever – leave money; then the organizers would go out to local farms and make the buys. People then would return and pick up their food. This started as a response to the need for organic food as an alternative to all the processed and chemicalized corporate foods that nearly had a monopoly on our foods back then.

People’s is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary next month. So, when you walk through the doors of People’s today, know that it began in the heydays of the Seventies as one of the most popular of alternative institutions that OBceans created.

Also, in response to strong perceptions that public education was failing – this was, again, in the early Seventies, locals started the OB Free School – where teachers and local students met in classrooms that included the outside world. There was also an alternative restaurant of sorts – a vegetarian restaurant that opened on Newport. Plus, down the street, a craft store, book store, meeting hall and office for the OB Rag opened up in the old Bank of America building – now Starbucks – and it was called the Left Bank. The BofA had been the right-wing bank, so this was the left-wing bank.

And here’s an interesting development. People’s Food Store, the Left Bank, and the veggie restaurant all combined to add to what was called “the community tax”. Each place would contribute 1% of their profits to this fund, and an elected committee would then decide where to grant monies to; for instance, one month a small grant to WAR, another grant to some other community group.

All activism comes in waves – and by the late Seventies, much of OB’s grassroots activism had simmered down and disappeared. With the end of the draft and then the end of the Vietnam War by the mid-Seventies, the anti-war movement ceased to exist.

Part 2: We’ll look at the Eighties, Nineties and OB activism this century.

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