Healing circle. Linda says she recently found the son she gave up 33 years ago. “We’re getting to know each other. He confessed he always imagined his parents were hippies. I tell him stories to assure him we were.”
For ten years, 1974-1984, I lived in Ocean Beach, a surfer, hippie, radical enclave that despite explosive growth along the coast remains largely unaltered. With a 1950s palm-lined main street (Newport Avenue) leading to a hot surfing beach and fishing pier, salt-rusted cars loaded with organic groceries, bougainvillea-covered cottages, eroding cliffs, and sea stacks of nesting pelicans, OB is a square mile of Southern California time warp. Its lack of big hotels, dot-com mansions, condos, and corporate chain stores is no historic fluke, however. Rather it’s the result of a long, sometimes violent 30-year struggle that’s helped define OB as a center of opposition in a boomtown border city.
OB protest of SDG&E at corner of Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs. “No Way, We Won’t Pay,” some 50 local demonstrators are chanting for three of the four local TV news cameras.
So it’s not surprising that for a week last August over a hundred old activists (about half from out of state) came together in OB for a reunion: to take stock, catch waves, party, and reflect on what it meant to be a radical then and what our youthful values might mean today.
The author, 1975. For ten years, 1974-1984, I lived in Ocean Beach, a surfer, hippie, radical enclave.
Sunday, Day One: George and Jack (who initiated the reunion online) have rented a yellow shack at the foot of Cape May Avenue. Not only will this function as beach-shower central, it’s also rife with resonance as the 5100 block of Cape May was once home to more than 20 antiwar and community activists and the target of extensive FBI surveillance (according to thousands of pages released under the Freedom of Information Act).
The author today. Kip, one of today’s planning-board members, says, “We appreciate the heart, spirit, and vibe of the old-timers....” Suddenly I feel like a historic relic.
They’ve spruced the shack up with a Che poster, Green OB window display (the “O” contains a peace sign and fist), candles, patchouli oil, Mexican beer...
At the first night’s bonfire I run into Shari and Rick, whom I haven’t seen since Nixon and ’Nam. LaRue’s husband Phil goes off about San Diego’s sewage problems and how the city is ruining its beaches (and being sued by the EPA for not having secondary treatment). “How come they spend millions on a baseball stadium, but the thing that attracts everybody here they don’t give a damn about?” he wonders. The following week hundreds of members of the Surfrider Foundation will hold their annual paddle-out for clean water around the OB Pier. OB’s still-rambunctious spirit is also reflected in the more than 200 people who turn out for a Community Planning Board meeting to oppose Exxon’s application for a permit to build a gas station at the corner of Voltaire and Sunset Cliffs. This lot is the same one where Winchell’s Donuts wanted to build a franchise back in 1978. A combination of public protest and the firebombing of several of their other outlets got them to relocate outside OB. “You’d have been lucky to have a Winchell’s,” frustrated company officials told local residents at the time. “This is the filthiest beach town we’ve ever seen.”
Monday: After bodysurfing I pick up a machaca burrito at Roberto’s drive-thru (across from OB People’s Food Co-Op) and head to Yellow Shack. George’s two teenage girls from Boston are visiting with their mom, who’s dropped them off for the day. Dona pulls up in her SUV with a surfboard on top. She’s cut her hair short and highlighted it purple; otherwise she still has the same buff good looks and radiant smile she did in the ’70s. I knew her when she’d married Bob (who later became Roberta). Her daughters Sunshine (now Susan) and Melody are all grown up, she tells me.
Sierra, short, blonde, and still a bubbly feminist/spiritualist, arrives in a VW camper with her 22-year-old son Scott. Sierra’s now a third-grade teacher in Santa Cruz, recently toured Cuba, and has organized a healing circle for this evening. Let’s fast-forward to Bonnie’s backyard that evening. A circle of 25 has formed behind a middle-class house on the hill.
Sierra has laid out an animal-skin carpet on the grass, along with bells, incense, and other gimcracks. She notes that “we’re taking Native American tradition to share and continue the process of community, and remembering our lost ones...” A cardboard sign lists 20 OB residents who’ve died — drug overdose and police gunfire, among other causes.
We go around the circle. Bev talks about her mother’s recent death and having to leave OB after living 25 years in the same rental house (affordability has become the big issue for today’s OB).
Linda says she recently found the son she gave up 33 years ago. “We’re getting to know each other. He confessed he always imagined his parents were hippies. I tell him stories to assure him we were.”
Big Austin now has long white hair and teaches high school in New York; Little Austin looks like John Belushi with attitude and is about to start law school. One of OB’s Free School graduates, he recalls, “Being in the Free School was the top of the world; adults treated us like human beings. It was great, but some of it was also gross. Like your sexuality—like, get a hotel room, or a curtain at least, I mean, we were impressionable young kids.
“I probably should have married a hippie,” he continues. “My wife’s Catholic and, well, I’ll say it now. She’s pregnant.” His mom Maria, sitting next to him, suddenly has that classic deer-in-the-headlights look. Time for more healing.
Tuesday: George and Jack drive to L.A. for the Democratic convention protests and the premier of the Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie. But the protests look to be anemic, and the water’s 70 degrees with clean, six-foot faces so I opt for the waves. I get crunched in some fine monsters with my ex-Cliff House roommate Charlie and local fireman Pete. CliffHouse, where I lived with Charlie (a local TV cameraman) and Manny (now a legal-malpractice attorney), was a brown clapboard house on an iceplant-covered cliff 60 feet above the Pacific. My last five years in OB I’d commute between Cliff House and reporting on wars in Central America. Cliff House had some of the finest parties in OB, if not America. My photographer friends John and Richard attended several before they were killed in the wars.
Wednesday: The wooden deck at Yellow Shack now includes extra Boogie boards, tables, and shade umbrellas. Inside are cut flowers, cashews, Pacifico beers, wet towels, bottled water, fruit for smoothies, and Roberto’s leftovers in the fridge. The irony is, having saved OB from high-rise hotels, many of these beach shacks now go for half a million and more. Still, OB’s community character remains intact, and much of its gentrification seems to have been for the better. The biker Beach Club is now Winston’s, where a hot Mexican/reggae band is playing, and every Wednesday at 3:00 there’s a farmer’s market on Newport with lots of organic food, llama rides for the kids, Green Party recruiters, and more.
This evening I head to the elementary school auditorium for the first official OB history panel sponsored by, among others (conservatives take note), the California Council for the Humanities. There’s also a library exhibit, a photo display of protests and Free School gatherings, and a video titled Ocean Beach — A Sense of Place.
Frank talks about the 1968 Precise Plan to bulldoze most of OB and build Miami-style high-rises behind a new marina. The Army Corps of Engineers’ attempt to begin construction on the marina jetty led to OB’s first big protests and later the first democratically elected planning board in the U.S.
Bev recalls how “OB was a place I came to from Maine because I wanted a sunny, warm environment with activism. I hitchhiked to California with my 5-year-old daughter [Libby, now 31], walked into the Left Bank [a radical bookstore and craft co-op], and joined up. I still carry that experience with me. You can take the woman out of OB, but you can’t take OB out of this woman.”
Denny, now an assistant school-district administrator — but still with the furry mustache and easy smile — recalls how “32 years ago I lived out of a car, slept on the beach. It was a great town — hippies everywhere. We worked hard and we partied hard with groups like STP: Serve the People, Stop the Pigs. We were incredibly productive young people, challenging the power structure with the backdrop of the antiwar movement.... We went to the county registrar and did property searches and tracked corporations who wanted to develop here and went to city council meetings.... We went door to door to every resident of OB to find out what the community wanted... .We began to organize and protest and give people a sense of power.
“When I left home I told my mom I was going away to get arrested,” recalls Sierra. “If one wanted to make a difference in the community this one square mile was the place to come. The fact you could walk anywhere without a car was powerful in itself. Here there was a resurgence of the women’s movement during the antiwar movement and we redefined our roles.... Selling OB Rags, demonstrating in the streets, taking care of peoples’ children, we were in the middle of history and still had a responsibility to make a difference.”
“OB was always where the enlisted men lived, the officers lived in Coronado,” John continues. An ex-surfer and activist, John is today an intrepid sailor (we were shipwrecked together in Mexico in ’91) and chief financial officer for the county.
“In the 1970s 52 percent of the community was in their 20s,” he recalls. “The cops didn’t like OB, so you had things like a water-balloon fight that ended with the police riot squad making dozens of arrests. Then on February 22,1974, [ex-con] Peter Mahoney shot an officer by the OB pier. Who remembers that day?” Over a third of the crowd raise their hands.
Hundreds of police swarmed the area following the shooting, blocking streets, holding people at gunpoint, and firing over 120 rounds in a confined cluster of beach shacks before securing Mahoney’s arrest.
“While not supporting what Mahoney did [wounding the officer], the community was outraged by the police overreaction,” John says. “That incident led to the formation of the OB Human Rights Committee with people of all ages coming together, and through alliances with the black and Latino community we were able to get Police Chief [Ray] Hoobler fired in 1975. A young woman named Debbie then became chair of the HRC till a surfer named Tim walked into our meeting one day and said, ‘Hey, Debbie. When did you get out of the police academy?’ Turns out she was wired.”
After the panel George and I have drinks with Shari and Rick at Pacific Shores, a dark, seashell-scalloped old timers’ bar that still sells well drinks for two bucks. We talk about protests we organized, FBI and police informants we knew, and the communal houses we shared. That was in 1972, but our friendship seems like an unbroken thread continuing on this warm night 28 years later. The one change I note in Pac Shores is the stuffed marlin with the party hat no longer hangs near the door. Sometime in the 1980s two drunks grabbed it from the wall and ran off down Newport Avenue.
Thursday: People gather for a walking history tour of OB. Scheduled for 1:00 p.m., it starts at 1:45, OB time. We tour Free School sites starting with the alley garage that was their first classroom. “Everyone rode bikes to school,” says Big Austin. “At the end of the first year some kids complained we hadn’t taught them how to read. ‘But we have books and teachers and everything you need if you want to learn,’ I explained. ‘No,’ the kids pointed out. ‘We want to go to the beach. You have to make us learn how to read.’ So that’s when I began to understand how sometimes they needed us to direct them.”
We walk past 5155 Muir, which is about to be torn down. The house still has one of the 9 millimeter bullet holes from a January 6,1972, attack by the right-wing Secret Army Organization. Aimed at activist professor Peter Bohmer, the gunfire wounded his friend Paula Tharp, hitting her in the elbow.
According to court testimony, the drive-by shooter, George Hoover, then gave the gun to the car’s driver, Howard Berry Godfrey, who along with being co-commander of the SAO was also the FBI informant providing the SAO with cash and target lists. Godfrey passed the gun to his FBI control agent, who hid it under his couch for six months.
According to later court testimony, at the time President Richard Nixon was planning to hold his 1972 convention in San Diego, and the FBI and local police feared hundreds of thousands of protesters would descend on the city. OB was an organizing center. After the Republicans decided to move their convention to Miami and a number of SAO members were arrested (for bombing a porno theater), it came out that White House plumber G. Gordon Liddy had made contact with the terrorists to suggest kidnapping antiwar leaders from OB and dumping their bodies across the border in Mexico. Years later Liddy admitted promoting the kidnapping but denied he’d ever suggested assassinating us.
Thursday evening there’s a Free School reunion potluck at Dempsey’s, a beachfront restaurant It’s a casual event under blue-green umbrellas. People share old photos. Those wide lapels and cowboy boots (and hats) really didn’t look that silly, I think. Certainly nothing wrong with those minis and tight bellbottoms on our hippie, feminist comrades. Somebody hands around an old “US out of OB” bumper sticker. Cold beers are served. Later people party some more at Yellow Shack. I talk to Peter, now teaching at Evergreen College in Washington state. All four of his kids, aged 11 to 30, have come down to the reunion with him.
Friday: Lots of beach and water time. In the evening it’s back to the elementary school (that the cops used as a detention center during their weekend pot sweeps). Tonight’s confab is called “OB Then & Now: Freaks, Uppity Women, and Politicos” and draws some 125 people in a sartorial mix of Aloha shirts, reunion T-shirts, shorts, floral skirts, denim, khakis, and Zories (flip-flops). Bob and Alice are hosting the event, which includes folksingers, poets, and people from alternative institutions that have either flourished or died in OB’s sandy soil.
Alice recalls when the Community School started working out of OB Elementary and some of the administrators were not sure how to feel when Denny and Alan brought a circus to visit and were riding around the playground on an elephant.
Judi talks about how OB People’s food store grew from a $450-a-day co-op in 1971 to a $4.5 million-a-year operation today. It now has 62 employees and 6000 members and will soon begin groundbreaking on a new building (with new surf mural) that will double its size.
Sierra asks other women from the International Women’s Day group to join her in front of the room. T en of them wrap their arms around each other as she holds up the cover of an old OB Rag showing a larger band of them marching down the pier back in ’78. “The women’s movement had a lot of supportive men here in OB,” she recalls.
Dona reminds me that I shared my apartment with the first OB child-care center. I remember how they helped pay my rent in exchange for use of the living room four nights a week, also how I’d have to scrape the Play-Doh out of the shag carpet.
Denny recounts how “The Green OB” was printed in a special issue of the OB Rag. “We distributed 8000 of them free to every house in OB. This was during the Precise Plan to rezone OB for superblocks of hotels and condos.... Later, on May 4,1976, we had a vote for the community’s first democratic planning board, and it was fast and furious, and there was a developer slate and our slate, and we swept it — including Rich, who ran as a socialist.”
Peter gets up, all curly white hair now, though he still has the same fiery style of oratory. “I was part of the New Left. We felt we had to make youth communities like OB into liberated areas while also challenging war and racism and overseas oppression.... We did guerrilla theater and marched to a piece of land that was going to be converted from park land, and the police came, and a few rocks were thrown, and it became a major riot but also saved Collier Park.” He pauses. “We saw the need for a three-pronged approach to organize: alternatives, resistance, and popular education. I think that’s still relevant today because the world and America is more unequal today than when I left here in 1975.”
Half a dozen OB Free School “kids” now stand up. “It really shaped our lives, and we’ll spread the word of peace and freedom the rest of our days,” promises Tricia, whom I last knew as a 12-year-old juvenile delinquent.
Bob tells us we were also going to be addressed by the local advocate for hemp legalization, but the guy hasn’t shown up. That gets a laugh.
Kip, one of today’s planning-board members, says, “We appreciate the heart, spirit, and vibe of the old-timers....” Suddenly I feel like a historic relic.
Toward the end of the evening, Roz Strauss, a 75-year-old woman facing eviction, steps forward. She’s wearing a peasant skirt, gypsy blouse, and bandanna around her forehead. “OB is a part of me, and I’m a part of OB, and I’m going to live and die as part of it, come hell or high water.” She gives us a double-clenched fist salute.
Saturday: In the morning I manage to get up on a long-board for a couple of rides. At noon George, Jack, Sierra, and I drive over to the OB Grassroots protest. The newly formed group is rallying against utility deregulation that’s led to a doubling of SDG&E bills. The empty lot at Voltaire and Sunset has been transformed into a scraggly park with cactus, desert plants, and benches.
“No Way, We Won’t Pay,” some 50 local demonstrators (and a bunch of reunionists) are chanting for three of the four local TV news cameras and a reporter from the Union-Tribune. Carol, Charlie’s sister, tells me her utility bill went from $43 to $99 a month this summer, “and that’s without heat.”
Frank gets on the megaphone. “We need to represent elders and students and tenants and the small home-owners and business people here in OB.... We have to keep this a human place to live.”
Worried about the winter to come, people begin burning their utility bills over a 55-gallon drum. Frank promises future protests, including a human chain, if anyone attempts to evict Roz Strauss.
After getting organic health sandwiches at Peoples (the line at Roberto’s being too long), we wander over to the Green Store, where Kip’s wife Colleen is presiding. Green Party fliers and eco books are sold here, even a dog-eared copy of mine (The War Against the Greens). Colleen thanks us (old geezers) for making it easier for her and her husband to live here the last 20 years.
I head back to the beach for the candlelit dinner at Java Joe’s. I drive there with Carol and Jeff’s 14-year-old son CJ, who asks me how long I’ve been body-surfing and tells me he’s seen me catching some good rides this week. I feel flattered to be noticed by a teen surfer.
At the restaurant there are place settings of sand, candles, and shells. Aloha shirts and tropical-print shifts and tanned legs have stayed shapely from years of biking, hiking, surfing, and swimming. Californians may get skin cancer, but they don’t get flabby. Our old timers’ music includes Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (the outlaw myth dies hard). Dona’s here with Giles, her loving Brit husband whose business trips to Hawaii give her a regular opportunity to surf Diamond Head. I collect the questionnaires I’ve passed out. Paul, another Free School graduate, shows up with his wife, kids, and a green OB tattoo on his forearm. George will also get a tattoo, as will Laura and Jack. Ace Tattoos now dubs the green OB “The Right-On OB” (to distinguish it from their regular line of seagull-crested OB tattoos). I settle for the reunion T-shirt.
The afternoon protest led the Channel 7 news, Frank tells me. Rich shows up. The former socialist planning board member is now an emergency room nurse but otherwise appears unchanged. Phil is still harping about San Diego’s water quality. “Sometimes you can smell it turning bad. I’m oil antibiotics right now.” After my week of continuous bodysurfing he’s starting to make me nervous.
Bev thanks us for making the reunion better than she’d hoped and introduces Tom Cat Courtney—“The B.B. King of San Diego,” a black blues singer and guitarist who worked a regular gig in OB for over 25 years and still draws crowds. After the buffet dinner some of us start drifting off to Pac Shores and later to hear the reggae band at Winston’s.
Sunday: Next day at Robb Field there’s the People’s food store picnic with several hundred people and drummers and singers and thanks given over the PA to the activists of yore. I talk to Miriam, who used to work at the Beach Area Free Clinic and is now a doc in S.F. fighting for single-payer health care. Later at the final fire ring on the beach we do marshmallows. Asked by an admiring older couple what she worked on, Lisa says, “I wasn’t an activist, I just went to all the parties.”
“They also served who only partied at Cliff House,” I assure her.
“I didn’t just party at Cliff House,” she reminds me.
Monday: When I drop my rental car off downtown, the woman behind the counter notices my reunion T-shirt and starts talking about how she and her husband used to live and surf in OB. She calls the guy who parks the cars, a middle-aged Chicano who grins hugely at the shirt and tells me he lived in Ocean Beach in the ’60s. “Which riots were you at?” he asks.
Fifty surveys, which Charlie and I drew up, were passed out to various OB Reunionists. Just under half of them were returned. Among the 17 questions:
Briefly define the OB experience.
Do you still have the same politics you had when you lived here?
When was the last protest demonstration you attended, and what was the cause?
Do the men and women in your household share the chores?
If you have children and they were to practice the same sexual and drug behaviors you did in OB, how would you respond and what would you tell them?
Below are some sample responses.
Briefly define the OB experience.
“Raw, primitive, utopian, chaotic, groovy, tense, sensual, liberating, frightening.”
“Small and intense radical/counter-cultural community set against a background dominated by large, ragingly conservative forces.”
“Freedom of expression and association. Alternatively, sex, drugs, and rock & roll on the beach.”
“So nice to live in an actual neighborhood.”
“Peace, love, and Smash the State.”
Do you still have the same politics?
“Basically, yes. It’s all a matter of degree.”
“No, I have mellowed. Armed revolution seems a bit too simplistic to me now.” “Sort of. Not very political but there when you need me. Getting involved again now.”
“No. I wore my politics on my sleeve then. I talked about being a ‘communist.’ I saw things as black and white. Today I am more private. I have more ambivalence about (at least some) political positions. I am more tolerant of differing viewpoints. I still dislike and distrust mainstream politics.”
When was the last protest demonstration you attended?
“Critical Mass (bicycle rally). Not exactly a protest per se but a positive demonstration of community often hounded by the police.”
“Supported teachers on picket line.”
“Strike organizing. This question makes me feel a little guilty.”
“This past spring. Save Carmel Valley (environment).”
“Why are you asking me this? Do you work for the FBI or something?”
Do the men and women in your household share the chores?
“Yes. Man: dishes, laundry, general cleaning, yard work. Woman: cooking, shopping, arranging delivery of newspaper, bottled water, bill paying.”
“Contribute fairly evenly. We are both slobs and detest housework.”
“My ten-year-old son? Are you kidding?”
If you have children and they were to practice the same sexual and drug behaviors you did...
“With great alarm and little tolerance.”
“As to sex. No problem, if consensual and with mutual respect. Have fun but be safe. It is part of life, hopefully throughout life. As to drugs, I did nearly everything and survived unscathed but some friends did not... Drugs are not of interest to my daughters.”
“In reality my children rebelled against me and are very conservative about sex & drugs. This, however, does not make me feel proud. It only made it easier to get them through their teens.”
“I recommend less use of drugs.”
“Be careful. Take care of yourself.”