The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. -- Oscar Wilde
Haight-Ashbury - 1966.
The beats are dead. The Free Speech Movement has collapsed into horn-rimmed irrelevance. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, even the stuggle for Civil Rights seems (to some) to be over. The Vietnam war protests have not yet begun in earnest, but Kesey's bus is loose upon the land.
A colorful crew of dropouts begins feeding people in Golden Gate Park, and publishing "manifestos" with phrases like "do your own thing" and "today is the first day of the rest of your life". Doffing their silly hats to the 17th century English crazies, they call themselves "Diggers".
To understand the Diggers of San Francisco, you really have to start with the end of World War II
, and the beat generation
. You know that story - the end of hidebound
tradition, the mobility, the disillusionment, the growing awareness of Eastern philosophy
, the concrescence
of a bohemian vanguard
in the Bay Area
By the sixties, the writers, artists, musicians, and other eccentrics of that generation had practically become an institution in Berkely and San Francisco. The local culture there was so open to nonsense of that type that it was even able to sustain a mime troupe, known as The Mime Troupe. As ridiculous as it may sound today, the San Francisco Mime Troupe went about their business with intense seriousness. They developed a form that they called guerrilla theatre. With the streets as their stage, the world was their audience, and they did their best to lance the fear and dread all around them with sharp absurdity and theretofore unthinkable shock tactics such as public nudity.
Eventually, their hijinks got them into some trouble with the city, and they found themselves with legal fees to pay. Their business manager, a fellow named Bill Graham, located a run-down ballroom called the Fillmore Auditorium, and invited some local bands like the Fugs and the Jefferson Airplane to play at a benefit for the troupe. This grew into much, much more.
In those days, everything was political - every interest group was a "movement". The swirl around the troupe coalesced into an entity calling itself the Artists Liberation Front, which crashed city hall meetings, created press releases, and began staging "underground" art festivals. They called the events "Free Art Fairs", and they were huge parties, at which the lines between "artists", "performers", and "participants" were very effectively erased. They were a great success, and soon the ALF began talking about selling food and so forth at the fairs, in order to fund themselves. When that notion arose, the former mime Emmett Grogan found his voice, and the Diggers were born.
Emmett Grogan was in some ways like the Richard M. Stallman of his day, but his ideas about what should be free were much more sweeping. To his way of thinking, what should be free in a technological society was, in short, everything. Of course, he was a mime at heart, and a drug-addled one, at that, so his ideas failed to gain the currency that Stallman's enjoy today. Still, for a time, in that place, what the Diggers were doing seemed important, though they had perhaps a bit too much fun in the process.
This was the very beginning of the wave of kids who would soon swamp Haight-Ashbury, and the Diggers provided the core of the communal infrastructure that the hippies (as they came to be known) would rely on in those years. They started out providing free food in the park. They made Digger bread - whole wheat, baked in coffee cans. They started Free Stores, where people brought things they didn't need, or took things that they did. They remained vocally political (and theatrical), and eventually got businesses and rock bands to donate 1% of their proceeds to them. With those monies, they were able to extend their activities as far as Free Clinics, "hostels", and even farms.
Many of the things we associate with hippies - tie-dye, the two-finger peace sign, love beads, be-ins - were Digger innovations, but don't judge them harshly for it. Times were different then.
That world is long gone now. There are no more Free Farms or Be-Ins, but there is still a tiny Virtual Free Store, along with many articles, stories, and the original Digger Papers at http://www.diggers.org. Most of their writings now seem quaint and fuzzy-headed, but how can you argue with the Free City News when it says...
We are all prisoners and none of us will be free until we are all free.