Digging for the Diggers: An Excavation that Comes at No Cost

By Erick Lyle

“How could such a people be so invisible to history? I don’t think there are any traces of the Diggers left except in some experiments that have taken off, and no one can trace them back to us.” —Actor and former Digger, Peter Coyote

Perhaps no idea from the 1960s counterculture has continued to have such a powerful hold on the imagination of the radical Left up until today as the San Francisco Diggers’ idea of “Free.” The Diggers merged art and politics into everyday life, practicing mutual aid and guerrilla theater in tactics that have inspired movements like Food Not Bombs and Reclaim the Streets, as well as ongoing happenings like Critical Mass. Their utopian vision of a money-free economy, acted out in their legendary food giveaways and Free Stores, has been a North Star for anarchists ever since. But were the Diggers living out a serious, viable alternative to capitalism, or were they just a hippie art project? In the fall of 2008, as the worldwide economy went into total collapse, I went looking for the surviving Diggers themselves to look back at their efforts and to find traces of their movement in the world today.

The Diggers operated for a brief but explosive two-year period starting in 1966 in the Haight District of San Francisco, and much of their activity went undocumented at the time. So the search for the Diggers is in some ways a literary search. The legend of the Diggers and their quest for Free comes down to us today in Ringolevio (reissued by New York Review of Books Classics, 2008), the classic criminal memoir of self-mythologizing Digger founder Emmett Grogan. In Grogan’s book, the Diggers dress not like barefoot hippies, but like bikers, riding Harleys and hanging out with Hell’s Angels. They rob the rich to give to the poor and they outwit the cops, all while living by a morally pure outlaw code. The Diggers were also artists. Their freely distributed anonymous papers, posters and handbills – by Grogan’s account – represented the true conscience of the streets.

Not surprisingly, Grogan’s grandiose and factually dubious account of the Diggers at times strains belief. Was Grogan really a Park Ave. jewel thief and Italian film star before heading west to San Francisco? Peter Coyote says today, “I love Emmett. I wouldn’t take much of his book as a source text but he gets the flavor of the times.”

Grogan’s writing infuses the bare facts of the Diggers’ existence with the romantic glow of outlaw myth. It is, of course, a known fact that the Diggers served free food in Panhandle Park to hundreds of people for nearly two years. But in Grogan’s account, these quotidian feedings that were the Diggers’ first actions were also something more: an inspired bit of criminal revenge following the September 1966 shooting and killing of an unarmed black teen by a white cop in Hunter’s Point. After riots broke out across the city, Grogan writes that he watched the National Guard parade down Fillmore St. from his roof with childhood friend, Billy Murcott, and the two former Brooklyn-street hoods and incipient Diggers hatched a new kind of criminal caper.

With a plan of action that still serves as the blueprint for Food Not Bombs chapters across the world to this day, the two went to the produce district and begged up discarded vegetables from produce vendors for soup. They passed out fliers on Haight St. announcing free food every day at 4 p.m. in Panhandle Park. “It’s free because it’s yours!” proclaimed the flier – perhaps the birth of the concept of Free. By the end of the week, they were feeding hundreds of people a day, and the daily feedings went on for nearly two years. This may have been the Diggers’ greatest accomplishment, but in Ringolevio, Grogan clearly relishes more describing how he would steal meat for the soup from butcher shops in the Mission District every morning after they begged up the free vegetables.

Similarly, Grogan adds to the myth of the Diggers’ Free Stores. While I had always imagined the Free Store as probably being a somewhat outsized version of the disorganized and often neglected punk-house free box, Grogan wrote that the true purpose of the Free Store was to serve not only as a place to get free stuff, but also as a place where deserting members of the U.S. military could come and quickly acquire a whole new wardrobe and a fake I.D.

Grogan was found dead by heroin overdose in 1978 on the last stop of the F train at Coney Island in Brooklyn. His death has added to the inscrutability of Digger myth. Yet, whatever the true facts, Grogan’s larger than life portrayal of himself and of the Diggers is fitting for a group of actors whose origins were in theater.

The core members who would found the Diggers met as part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The Mime Troupe was then, as now, known for bringing political theater directly to the people in plays performed in public parks. In 1965, the group director R.G. Davis had a showdown with SF Parks and Recreation Commission when the Troupe was denied a permit to perform in Lafayette Square Park on grounds of “obscenity.” Davis and company went ahead with the illegal performance and were busted. The troupe’s victory in their subsequent trial would establish the right for artists to perform freely in San Francisco parks.

Peter Berg – called “The Hun” in Grogan’s book – was writing and directing for the Mime Troupe at that time. Berg, a founding Digger, would later be credited with coining the term guerilla theater. He told me, “The Mime Troupe was not just radical activist theater; the Mime Troupe was the place for new art of that period to become public. The benefit for the bust in the park was the birth of guerilla theater.”

The point of the Diggers was to eliminate the separation between art and daily life. Life itself could be theater. Famously, the Diggers would even make theater out of serving food. In the park, an enormous wooden picture frame painted gold was placed between two oaks – the so-called “Free Frame of Reference.” Eager hippies would have to pass through the frame to the other side in order to receive their food – a symbolic crossing over to a different way of life based not on money but instead on cooperation and participation. When eaters tried to donate money to the Diggers, they would burn the dollar bills right in front of them.

On Halloween, just weeks after its first feeding, the group, led by Berg, carried out its first street theater action to reclaim the streets of the Haight. The Free Frame of Reference was brought to the corner of Haight and Ashbury where two nine-foot-tall puppets operated by Diggers took turns arguing about “the ins and outs of being on either side of the Frame of Reference.” According to Ringolevio, five hundred people were soon blocking the intersection and watching the show. When the cops tried to break it up, no one moved, so, incredibly and to the great amusement of the crowd, the cops turned to the puppets and told them they were obstructing traffic. When the cops finally tried to arrest the puppets, guerilla theater was born.

Perhaps the most successful synthesis of art, life and a utopian dream of life without money was the Digger Free Store started by Peter Berg. The Free Store was a storefront full of items that were free for the taking. Berg says, “The store was called the Trip Without a Ticket. The name invited you to think about getting things for nothing.”

Peter Coyote remembers, “In the Free Store, we had T.V. sets, clothing…even skis. We simply began to collect the detritus of mid-twentieth century civilization. It’s the money that is scarce, not the stuff, and once you see that, it empowers you. Our feeling was that if the technology existed to build a T.V. for everyone, then it was money that created scarcity. Money was a herding pen to shepherd you into work. We wanted to short-circuit that relationship.”

Though the group existed at the height of the era of protest against the Vietnam War, this determination to act out a vision of a different set them apart from the anti-war protester of the day. The Diggers acted on what they were for, rather than what they were against.

The Diggers did not march. Yet, the Diggers’ example of community self-determination and mutual aid was extremely influential to the politics of the era. In his book This Side of Glory, the chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, David Hilliard, credits the Diggers’ feedings as the inspiration for the famed Black Panther free breakfast programs.

Besides the daily feedings, the Diggers organized legal aid and healthcare for the massive influx of teen runaways that came to the Haight for 1967’s mainstream media spectacle, the Summer of Love. Their efforts to find hip doctors who would offer free care to the hippies helped lead to the formation of what is today the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. Soon, such self-organization to meet basic needs was the norm in Left activism.

The 1969 campaign to Free Los Siete De La Raza in San Francisco was based not just on awareness about their trial, but also on a free breakfast program, a free newspaper, free legal services for Latino immigrants and free healthcare programs in the Mission District that the campaign modeled after Black Panther programs. In 1969, Native American activists began a 19-month occupation of the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and self-organized ways to feed and care for the occupiers.

In October 1967, after the Death of Hippie and the Summer of Love hype, the Diggers gave away the last thing they owned: their name. Eric Noble of the indispensable Digger online archive, Diggers.org, writes, “The name ‘Diggers’ had become so widely used that it was like a ripple wave in a pond.” The group was reborn as Free City Collective. Efforts were made to branch out to all neighborhoods in San Francisco, distributing food not in the streets but to communal houses citywide.

In August 1968, the former Diggers asserted their new vision with the publication of The Digger Papers, featuring Peter Berg’s guerilla theater manifesto, “The Trip Without a Ticket,” and Emmett Grogan’s call to arms, “The Post-Competitive, Comparative Game of a Free City.”

And there, my literary search comes to a dead end. The Diggers had vanished, “like ripples in a pond.” Eric Noble on Diggers.org writes simply, “The glaring onslaught of media attention drove the movement underground again.”

As the worldwide economy started to collapse in late 2008 and as institutions like schools and hospitals began to be decimated by budget cuts, I was haunted by the vision of a lost Free City. Had a money-free barter economy existed between several thousand people in the Bay Area as recently as 35 years ago and then simply disappeared? More to the point, had the time come again for the Digger model of community self-determination? Was it time for People’s Clinics and Free Schools again? Could communities come together to meet their basic needs without money? Was a barter economy possible? Was Free City a plan or just a dream?

The former Diggers I talked to were skeptical of the economic viability of their own efforts. “I always felt the Diggers were a heightened art project and never a serious economic alternative,” says Coyote today. “The Diggers were just trying to expose how society works: you can be a consumer or a producer. The most remote knowledge of interdependency tells you that nothing is really ‘free.’”

Judy Goldhaft, today co-director with Peter Berg of the ecology awareness group Planet Drum, sees the Diggers’ efforts not as an alternative to capitalism, but instead as a byproduct of its waste. “At the time, the surplus of the larger society was unbelievable. When we opened the Free Store, people left us clothes and appliances, but also cars, land. All you had to do was think of something and it would show up.”

In Ringolevio, however, Grogan insists that the Diggers were no art project. Of the free feedings in the park, Grogan wrote, “Free Food every day in the park was a popular act, but [the Diggers] didn’t intend it solely as a symbol. No, they were hungry and so were a lot of others, and they were going to keep the Free Food going every day, in spite of everything and for nothing.”

Another Digger veteran I talked to, Vicki Pollack, agreed: “To me it wasn’t just an art project; it was a way of life. I did believe we were saving the world.”

For Pollack, the Diggers pointed toward a way in which society could be constructively reorganized. “Having lived communally, I know that if you put 20 people together who want to work, you’ll find everyone wants to do different things. That’s the way the world works. In the Diggers, everybody had different roles but they chose them. The world could be like that.”

Coyote hopes the Digger idea will have more reliance in a post-economic collapse world: “I think there’s a potential positive side to this economic collapse. So what could come out of this is barter, trade networks, more homemade stuff, which I look forward to.”

The Diggers’ influence on the counterculture was so great that in some ways, by the time I was getting into punk rock and activism, their ideas had become the underground’s infrastructure; a foundation ever present but as taken for granted as highways or bridges or the system that brings water to our faucets.

When I first started doing a zine about stealing, living for free and illegal art in the streets, those ideas were already in the air and part of punk rock. When I traveled the country in bands, every punk house had a free box – a direct descendent of the Free Store – but I could not yet chart the lineage from the ethics of bands like Crass and the politics of the Dead Kennedys back to the Diggers. When the cops shut down all the Mission punk clubs in the late ‘90s, I started booking illegal generator shows on Mission St. without any knowledge of the Diggers’ free concerts in the Haight. I had become vaguely aware of the Diggers’ exploits by the time I was involved in the 949 Market squat, probably the most realized version of an autonomous utopia I have ever been involved with.

In 2001, I was one of a large group of artists and activists who transformed an abandoned pool hall at 949 Market St. in downtown San Francisco into an illegally squatted art gallery, performance space, punk venue, community space and free breakfast program for three glorious free months. For most of us involved, the squat forever altered our conception of the possibilities of art and politics and of how the borders between them can disappear. It wasn’t until I read Ringolevio, at last, several years later that I felt the shock of recognition across time and space. In the squat we had been trying to build something we didn’t even have words for – something that did not exist yet. Yet, we had also been unwittingly following in the well-worn footsteps of the Diggers who came before on the trail of the same vision of Free.

So where are the traces of the Diggers today?

Eric Noble, who has compiled all of the Diggers written history into the thorough Web site Doggers.org, told me that he got a copy of the Digger Papers when it came out, and he hitchhiked across the country to San Francisco shortly thereafter with the copy in his back pocket. Noble maintains that the place that the Diggers’ idea of Free has had the most influence in the world today is in the structure of the Internet. San Francisco programmers exposed to Diggers’ ideas in counterculture tech scenes were the people responsible at its formation for the idea that the Internet has to be free. Today, one might realistically conclude that the Diggers’ idea of Free has been co-opted by the mega corporations like Google and Yahoo that have persuaded us that all art and writing and music should be freely distributed so that these companies themselves can make enormous profits. Yet, the money-free economy and art happenings of early Burning Man that would later spring from the unique Bay Area cultural fusion of cyber connectivity and Digger idea of Free reflected the utopian spirit of the early days of the Internet.

Berg and Goldhaft formed the ecology awareness group Planet Drum in 1973 as a reaction to the first U.N. Environment Conference in 1972. Planet Drum today is involved in efforts to create green and sustainable cities, but Berg says the group was an outgrowth of the Diggers. “In the course of getting there, there was a caravan of Diggers from West Coast to the East Coast – kind of a reverse wagon train of homemade trucks. Our point of origin was Black Bear Ranch, but other people were at San Geronimo Valley, or Olema, or other rural places. The radical ecology movement became a network in that period. During that trip across the country we collected names and contacts of other communal groups and we kept them in touch to receive the first Planet Drum publications. There was no charge. It was very much an anarchist outgrowth, but an eco anarchist growth.”

Vicki Pollack today runs the Children’s Book Project in San Francisco, a non-profit run on a concept that most closely resembles the Digger Free Store. The project is simply a warehouse on Napoleon St. where anyone can come and take whatever children’s books they want, free of charge.

Food Not Bombs is the political group that is the most direct descendent of the Diggers. They adopted both the Diggers’ tactic of using the daily serving of food as a way to establish community and the Diggers’ street theater tactics. When Food Not Bombs in San Francisco was under attack from police in the early 1990s for serving food without a permit, it was the widely distributed photos of SFPD “arresting” boxes of bagels that perhaps more than anything spread the idea of Food Not Bombs to activists around the world. The group’s ability to get the cops to act out the absurdity of their own position was classic guerilla theater.

Critical Mass, another movement that caught fire in the early 1990s, similarly relied on theater. Since it is legal to ride a bike in the street, what would happen if everyone rode their bike in the street at t he same time? Comedy – and heavy-handed police absurdity – ensues!

The Diggers’ battles with what they called the Hip Establishment, and their stance that actual underground youth should have control over underground youth culture, have had a tremendous influence on the DIY culture that is strong to this day. The editor of the punk bible Maximum RocknRoll, Tim Yohannon, was himself a 1960s holdover, and his magazine’s watchdog role over bands who sold out to major labels and shady corporate promoters extended, for better or worse, the Diggers’ non-profit vision of rock and roll indefinitely into the future. The international network of bands and promoters and travelers who book shows for each other for free and the idea that a punk show should cost $5 until the end of time can both be traced back to the Diggers.

In short, today the Diggers are everywhere and nowhere. While the influence of Free has been tremendous, many of the true facts surrounding the Diggers remain frustratingly unverifiable. Did the heroic Diggers of Ringolevio really exist, or was it just Emmett Grogan’s junkie nod-out dream? Did a network of three hundred communes across San Francisco really exist, or was it just a twinkle in Irving Rosenthal’s eye? On the trail of Free, I dug and dug like a radical archaeologist, hoping to bring proof of the existence of the lost Free City back to the surface as inspiration to those struggling today. Instead, I found depressing accounts that the utopian free network failed because no one could give up fancy cheese.

The Free Stores and feedings had really happened, yet, the Diggers themselves claimed it was all just art. Perhaps none of the Digger myth had existed in the way I’d always dreamed it. Perhaps the reality is that the myth is all we have – but it is in this ongoing search that Free exists. While the Diggers themselves have disappeared, their idea of Free has remained as an irreducible element at the core of countless other radical experiments.

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