The Diggers Take The Stage
IT STARTED IN THE WANING DAYS of October 1966. Leaflets containing
provocative, often bizarre messages were placed on building walls and
storefronts in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. They were posted by
a group calling themselves "The Diggers." No one in the city had heard
of them. Most of the broadsides were distributed in Haight-Ashbury, the
birthplace of the hippie counterculture. But hundreds of the mimeographed
postings were handed out to pedestrians throughout the city, including the
downtown financial district. Some leaflets announced events, like one that
offered free food to all comers every afternoon at Golden Gate Park's Panhandle,
an elegant strip of lawn and trees on Ashbury Street. (See Leaflet below.)
Good Hot Stew
Bring A Bowl and Spoon to
The Panhandle at Ashbury Street
4 pm 4 pm 4 pm 4 pm
Free Food EVERYDAY Free Food
It's Free Because It's Yours!
[End of leaflet.]
Digger broadsides targeted the mind as well as the stomach. Most of them had
an anarchistic edge. "There must not be a Plan. We have always been
defeated by our Plan," said one. Another message warned: "Watch out
for cats who want to play The System's games, 'cause you can't beat The System
at its own games." Still another proclaimed: "Autonomy is Power! I
mean you've got to make up your own mind." One leaflet, a distant echo of
Thomas Jefferson's observation that the dead were "not even things,"
exhorted the young to "wipe out the old—simply wipe it out." A
message with the title "Money Is An Unnecessary Evil" offered amnesty
to those who had it. "As part of the city's campaign to stem the causes of
violence the San Francisco Diggers announce a 30 day period beginning now during
which all responsible citizens are asked to turn in their money. No questions
will be asked."(2)
Some Digger bulletins were subtle and insightful, others crude and scatological.
They blended the machismo that pervaded the counterculture with the
intelligence, street savvy and wicked humor of their authors. Hundreds of
pedestrians throughout the city were handed this epistle about the threat long
hair on young males posed to "straight" Americans:
Are the mothers of America avatars of Delilah? Those preferring clippers to
tresses have reacted with the sort of righteous indignation one could expect if
their own balls had been threatened. The shorn men are jealous because they
think you're getting laid more. They're right, but they must also realize it's
your whole way of being and not just the hair or else they'd be home nights
pulling at their hair instead of their dicks. Yeah, it's jealousy baby. Don't
get bugged—just be beautiful and long may it wave!(3)
In response to a suggestion by Haight-Ashbury merchants that neighborhood
residents invite policemen to dinner as a way of easing tensions [p. 99] between hippies
and city authorities, the Diggers peppered the district with this poem:
Take a cop to dinner.
Racketeers take cops to dinner with payoffs.
Pimps cake cops to dinner with free tricks.
Dealers take cops to dinner with free highs.
Unions and Corporations take cops to dinner with post-retirement jobs.
Schools and Professional Clubs take cops to dinner with free tickets to
athletic events and social affairs.
The Catholic Church takes cops to dinner by exempting them from religious
The Justice Department takes cops to dinner with laws giving them the right
to do almost anything.
The Defense Department takes cops to dinner by releasing them from military
Establishment newspapers take cops to dinner by propagating the image of the
friendly, uncorrupt, neighborhood policeman.
Places of entertainment take cops to dinner with free booze and admission to
[p. 100] Merchants take cops to dinner with discounts and gifts.
Neighborhood Committees and Social Organizations take cops to dinner with
free discussions offering discriminating insights into hipsterism, black
militancy and the drug culture.
Cops take cops to dinner by granting each other immunity to prosecution for
misdemeanors and anything else they can get away with.
Cops take themselves to dinner by inciting riots.
And so, if you own anything or you don't, take a cop to dinner this week and
feed his power to judge, persecute and brutalize the streets of your city.(4)
Throughout the fall of 1966 the Diggers engineered street
"happenings" in Haight-Ashbury. Many were bizarre, even by the
standards of that hippie haven. One of them led to the arrest of five Diggers,
and the incident made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Two Diggers brought a huge wooden frame, twelve feet square and painted in
bright yellow, to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. They called it
a "Frame of Reference." Dozens of yellow three-inch replicas of the
"Frame" were handed to passersby; the small frames were hung on straps
so they could be worn around the neck. People were urged by the Diggers to look
through the small squares so they could experience the event through their own
"frames of reference." Two giant puppets appeared. Each was about
eight feet high and manipulated by two men. The puppets, along with the rest of
the Diggers, invited scores of pedestrians to participate in a "play"
called "Fool on the Street." The Diggers organized people in polygons
and had them crisscross the streets in opposite directions. The purpose of the
play was to block automobile traffic as a protest against the pollution created
by American technology.
It worked. When the police arrived to untangle the knot of pedestrians and
stalled cars, a cop inadvertently created a memorable moment in the history of
the Haight-Ashbury. "We warn you," he addressed one of the puppets,
"that if you don't remove yourselves from the area you'll be arrested for
blocking a public thoroughfare." The puppet responded with a question:
"Who is the public?" "I couldn't care less; I'll take you
in," shot back the officer. "I declare myself public," said a
Digger's voice from behind the puppet. "The streets are public—the streets
are free. "(5)
In addition to their street happenings, the Diggers opened a "free"
store on Page Street called the Free Frame Of Reference. The store stocked
clothing, furniture and other goods. All of the items were free.
"Customers" could take whatever they wished, in any quantity they
desired. Indeed, if a customer wished, he could empty the entire store. The only
rule in the store was etched [p. 101] on a sign not far from a box containing cash and
labeled "Free Money." It read, "No Stealing."(6)
Within weeks of their first mimeographed broadsides and street
"plays," the Diggers became the most celebrated and influential voice
within San Francisco's hip community, although few in the city knew their
identities. Anonymity was the group's first principal. "Free means not
copping credit," read one of their leaflets.(7)
The Diggers believed love and commitment should be given without strings
attached, including the hope for fame or fortune. Nor did they wish to become
media celebrities, thereby risking what they called "co-optation" by
Their instant notoriety within San Francisco, which quickly spread to
"hip" communities in the rest of the country, made people curious
about who the Diggers were. In response to queries about their identities a
Digger sent a letter to a local underground newspaper. "Regarding inquiries
concerned with the identity and whereabouts of the Diggers, we are happy to
report that the Diggers are not that." The letter was signed "George
Metevsky."(9) (It was the misspelled name of George Metesky, the so-called Mad Bomber who
terrorized New York City in the fifties, and was a sort of folk hero to those
Diggers who came from the New York area.)
Most of the Diggers, in fact, were actors who worked for the San Francisco
Mime Troupe. The Mime Troupe was an alternative theater company that presented
plays for free in an abandoned church in the Mission District and in the city's
parks (a hat was passed through the audience at the end of a show). The Mime
Troupe had a varied repertoire, ranging from Shakespeare to Beckett, but
specialized in the ribald, class-conscious medium of sixteenth-century commedia
dell'arte. Perhaps those members of the Mime Troupe who at one point or another
called themselves "Diggers" stumbled upon the name when performing in
a play from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries—the original Diggers were
mid-seventeenth-century English agrarian radicals.(10)
Although the Diggers of San Francisco were short lived, lasting barely two
years, their impact upon the style and substance of counterculture protest
during the second half of the decade was significant. As a historian recently
noted, the Diggers were the "high priests of the counterculture."(11)
Their iconoclastic broadsides, free services, community events and guerrilla
theater street happenings were emulated by cultural radicals later in the
decade. As their caper of the Fool on the Street demonstrates, the Diggers
believed that consciousness could be jarred and moral "frames of
reference" altered by staging theatrical confrontations between symbols of
freedom and authority. This had a seminal influence on the media-oriented style
of protest created in the late sixties by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. When
Hoffman began his career of protest in New York City's East Village in the mid
sixties he called himself a Digger. This chagrined [p. 102] the original Diggers, who saw
Hoffman as little more than a media-obsessed publicity hound. And when Hoffman,
Rubin and the satirist Paul Krassner created the far more famous Yippies in 1968
they used the Diggers as their model. More important, the Diggers distilled the
chaotic urges of the counterculture during its early days in San Francisco. They
brought a sort of intellectual cohesion to the embryonic hippie impulses to seek
new identities, new experiences and new lives.(12)
But the significance of the Diggers goes beyond their impact on the
counterculture, within or beyond the Haight-Ashbury. Nor does it rest on their
criticisms of American society. Their views more or less mirrored those of other
sixties rebels, even though the Diggers disparaged most forms of political and
cultural radicalism. They called the New Left self-righteous and
"puritanical," and dismissed Timothy Leary's psychedelic drug culture
as naive and devoid of moral direction.(13)
The Diggers are important for understanding the counterculture because of the
method they used to protest American limitations on American freedom: theater
and acting. The Diggers used theatrical formats, especially the self-conscious
acts of performance and improvisation, as metaphors for personal freedom and as
practical means of enacting that freedom.
Diggers referred to their street plays as "life-acts." These
included the free stores, the daily free food service (where the
"customers" had to pass through the large "frame of
reference" to get the food), and the various street happenings they
organized. Digger life-acts were plays in which the most radical implications of
American liberty were "performed."(14)
Digger radicalism was based on an intuition. They never made it explicit, but it
pervaded their ideas and behavior. American freedom, particularly the right of
the individual to alter and refashion his identity, was an improvisation, like
the Digger style of theater. The self-reliant individualism at the heart of the
American version of personal freedom was based on the unspoken assumption that
the individual's identity was malleable. It could be improvised, altered at
will. In theatrical terms, it was an "act." American individualism,
indeed the very idea of being American, was an improvised act of self-creation.
"Acting" American and making yourself up as you went along were
essentially the same things. History and scripts were irrelevant to both.
Creating an identity in America was a process through which the individual
presented (that is, staged) an invented self (or role) to his public (the
audience). And the play could be endlessly restaged.
From the Diggers point of view, the idea that the individual could be
self-made, become the product-in-process of his autonomous right to be what he
wished, implied a performance. And if he was a conscious life-actor, he became
the independent director of his own play. He could change scripts, roles and
identities as he saw fit.
This had radical implications. Whether expressed in secular or religious
terms, the American idea that one could be "born again" or become
self-made presumed the malleability and mutability of individual identity. This
was implicit in one of the grand American myths: personal identity was a willed
invention rather than a fixed condition determined by an individual's family or
personal history. Indeed, the Diggers viewed American culture as a stage upon
which neither the "props" nor the scripts were permanent. An American
life could be a consciously performed series of improvised roles. The only
permanent lines in the script of American culture were the rights of individuals
to create themselves and the continent's expansive stage upon which that freedom
was enacted. For the Diggers, history, whether personal or collective, implied
old roles for old plays. If an American wished to be free of the past, he simply
needed to "act" that way.
The Diggers represented the values and dynamics of cultural radicalism in
their purest, most articulate and explicit forms. They provided a (more or less)
coherent rationale for the tendencies of counterculture youth to explore
unchartered regions of the mind and to experiment with new forms of social
relationships. Along with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, this included the
hippie traits of trying on new costumes or adopting new names as ways of
experimenting with novel identities. It meant "acting out" in front of
others—"doing your own thing," as they said in the sixties—through
self-revealing, public displays of normally private desires and fantasies. The
star of Digger theater was the individual's pristine freedom and autonomy,
unleashed from social controls. The antagonist of their life-acts, frequently
portrayed with brutally stark condescension, was the cult of security, and the
staid, settled personal life it incarnated.
This chapter describes the Diggers' performance of American freedom and their
role in defining the cultural radicalism that was forged in San Francisco during
the mid sixties, before it spread to the rest of the country. It also shows how
their performance was linked to, and in one dramatic instance inadvertently
reenacted, pre-twentieth-century literary myths about the wilderness origins of
American identity, freedom and "manhood."
The Diggers were an act that combined the antics of Marx Brothers and Dead
End Kids films of the thirties and forties with the tactics of shock and
surprise employed by New York's "Mad Bomber" in the fifties. Theirs
was a performance by determined, articulate, radical actors whose purpose was to
kick away the modern props of an undemocratic, bureaucratic, materialistic
culture. They offered a primitive alternative, informed by mythic visions of
pristine American freedom, to the sterile roles and the repetitive, uninspiring
scripts of a settled, hierarchical twentieth-century society.
The Diggers designed many of the counterculture's props. But they did not
build the stage. The hunger for enhanced personal freedom was percolating among
young people in the San Francisco Bay Area before the Diggers took the stage in
the fall of 1966. It began in the early sixties, with student political activism
at Berkeley and experiments with hallucinogenic drugs by the novelist Ken Kesey
and his band of proto-hippies called the Merry Pranksters. An outline of these
events, and why San Francisco provided a congenial environment for their
development, is the necessary setting for describing the history of the Diggers.