"It's Free Because It's Yours" by Dominick Cavallo
Part Five (of five parts).

     
      

The Diggers and the Haight-Ashbury Exit the Stage

Grogan returned to Haight-Ashbury in time for the legendary "Summer of Love" in 1967. Tens of thousands of young people from across the country, many of them barely into their teens, headed for San Francisco that summer. They were lured there by two years of media hype about what they would find there: radical politics at Berkeley, endless supplies of inexpensive hallucinogens, the stirring rhythms of the San Francisco Sound, the collective ecstasy produced in the dance halls and the open sexuality displayed by the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. These attractions, along with San Francisco's reputation for tolerating "deviant" lifestyles—though this tradition had withered considerably by 1967, as city [p. 140] officials and the police came down hard on the hippie hordes—made it the destination of those seeking new experiences, a new life or simply a new day. (A Digger leaflet proclaimed: "Today is the first day of the rest of your life".) Police estimated that a total of 75,000 young people squeezed into a densely packed Haight-Ashbury that summer. The Diggers and other neighborhood activists intensified their efforts to feed and house these American refugees.(124)

In July the Diggers changed their name to the Free City Collective. The new name was a reaction against the "expropriation" and exploitation of the word "Digger" by other radicals and the media. Even Hollywood had heard of the Diggers. Advertising copy for The Love-Ins, a 1967 film about the Haight-Ashbury, warned America that "the hippies and the diggers are here!" In the fall, the Diggers organized their last major parade. They called it "The Death of Hippie." Pallbearers carried a coffin filled with beads, hair, incense and flowers.(125)

It was not a premature farewell. The "Summer of Love" was the beginning of the end of the Haight-Ashbury, both as a bohemian neighborhood and a viable community. The influx of long-haired, runaway teens wasn't the only problem. Two years of Dionysian abandon had undermined, though not quite destroyed, hippie dreams of creating an empyrean urban haven where one might taste both personal freedom and shared ecstasy. As an army of young people and tourists invaded the district in 1967, many of the original Haight-Ashbury hippies fled. Like Grogan, they headed for rural areas, though not to hunt. Hundreds of Haight hippies founded new, mostly short-lived communes in the countryside.(126)

Many of Haight-Ashbury's new residents had neither the intellectual curiosity nor the spiritual ideals of the original hippies. A journalist who visited the neighborhood in 1967 reported that many of the young people who came there in 1965 and 1966 had gone to college and came from upper-middle-class backgrounds. They were the "children of chairman of the boards of the largest corporations, the most successful lawyers, the richest stockbrokers."(127)

Those who came in the spring and summer of 1967 hailed from more diverse backgrounds. They ranged from children of professionals to runaways from abusive or repressive families. The new Haight residents were a motley brew of high school dropouts, religious fanatics, naive "flower children," callous drug dealers, thugs and pimps. Rape and other forms of assault and exploitation greeted young women who ventured into the neighborhood. Some of them were as young as 14. "Rape is as common as bullshit on Haight Street," said the Diggers in 1967. They were accurate on both counts. Venereal disease and vaginitis were epidemic. The murder rate and incidents of physical assault soared. Robbery and burglaries became commonplace. In perhaps the most pointless robbery in the history of the United States, the Diggers' Trip Without a Ticket free store was burglarized!(128)

[p. 141] 

By the end of the summer, heroin, barbiturates and other "body" drugs vied for popularity with consciousness-altering and less-expensive drugs like LSD and marijuana. The profitability of hard drugs led to an outbreak of violent crime. When police arrested a notorious heroin dealer, they found a suede bag in his car. The bag contained the severed arm of a drug dealer who had been murdered. When asked about the bag and its contents, the "stoned" drug dealer told police, "I'm very, very, hazy about that arm."(129)

In retrospect, perhaps the most telling sign of the decline of the Haight-Ashbury and the counterculture was the arrival late in 1967 of Charles Manson, recently paroled from prison. Two years later Manson embarked on the most infamous murder spree of the decade. The son of a Cincinnati prostitute, Manson met some of the young people who became his acolytes and accomplices in murder during his stay in Haight-Ashbury. He also experienced his first LSD trip there. The counterculture's "anything goes" toleration made it easy for anyone, including psychotics, to join up. His drug experiences fortified Manson's ambition to become a rock-and-roll singer-songwriter. One of his compositions was titled "The Ego Is a Too-Much Thing."(130)

The Diggers, or Free City Collective, continued to exist into 1968, although with far less fanfare and notoriety, and substantially diminished creativity. During their halcyon days in 1966 and 1967, Digger pageants, free food, free stores and free services invested the counterculture with moral concreteness. It provided moral substance to a hippie "love" ethic that often amounted to little more than self-absorption, hedonism and solipsistic trances masquerading as "self-exploration." Of course, the Diggers were radical individualists as well. Years later, Coyote called them "social safe-crackers, sand-papering our nervous systems and searching for the right combinations that would spring the doors and let everyone out of the box."(131) Yet they tried to integrate personal autonomy with a sense of civic responsibility. But the Diggers were no more successful than other radical groups of the sixties in harmonizing individual liberty and community.

Unlike most other sixties radicals, however, the Diggers, actors who had performed historical plays during their days with the Mime Troupe, possessed a sense of history as an unfolding drama. They knew that what had evolved in the San Francisco area since the early sixties was a celebration of American freedom deeply at odds with the way most Americans preferred to live their lives. The turmoil that ensued implied that the country might be at a crossroads. Down one road was the freedom associated with the West, down the other was the desire for security linked to the East: movement and adventure versus settlement and fear of the unpredictable. The Diggers sensed that with nowhere left to go, with no physical "West" of freedom remaining to explore, Americans might finally be compelled to confront what they had wrought. In 1967 they [p. 142] distributed a leaflet that had an apocalyptic edge. "Always before, there was somewhere to go. . . . Man has always moved westerly, now is piling up on the Pacific Cliffs, and Japan is flooding back on us. It is all One. At last."(132)

Ken Kesey, whose explorations of social frontiers anticipated the Diggers' life-acts, would have understood the historical significance of this broadside. In 1964, on the bus loaded with LSD headed east, he called the Merry Pranksters the "unsettlers of 1964, moving backwards across the Great Plains. . . . All of these things," said Kesey, "have a mythic story."(133)

Sometime early in 1970, when the hippie dream was all but over, the Brooklyn native Ernmett Grogan gave up on the West. The most famous Digger decided to go back to the East. He had "done all he ever could in California with its people, at least for 'Free!' anyway."

The west had become his home, and he pushed it as far as it could take him without dying. . . . He decided to head back to where it all began, when he was supposed to have been a boy. He decided to return to New York and Brooklyn, and he was going to walk all the way because he wanted to listen carefully to whatever sounds America was making. Everything he ever heard about America was true.(134)

He was going to walk to New York. As usual, Grogan opted for the grandeur and literary lilt of myth rather than the flatness and accuracy of fact. An avid reader of Beat literature, Grogan may have been familiar with a passage in Kerouac's On the Road. During a respite from their frenetic excursions back and forth across the country in a car, Dean Moriarty suggested to Sal Paradise that they walk to New York from San Francisco. "Let's walk to New York. . . . And as we do let's take stock of everything along the way."(135) Or as Grogan suggested, freedom was the experience of taking to the road and listening carefully to "whatever sounds America was making." For it was all "true." Whether on foot or behind the wheel, the road guaranteed there was always something new to discover or experience in America. Always some other place to go. And start over.

Whatever his means of transport, Grogan made it back to Brooklyn. In 1978 he died from an overdose of heroin. His body was found in a New York City subway car. On the Coney Island line.(136)

Conclusion: The Legacy of the Diggers and Counterculture

Measuring the long-term impact of the counterculture is not easy. Some historians and critics believe the hippie movement liberalized American culture [p. 143] (whether or not they view this as beneficial depends on their political and moral values). Counterculture attitudes toward sexuality, drugs and work challenged the supposedly work-obsessed, sexually repressed ways of mainstream America. Conservatives bemoan these changes, which they believe led to a crisis of values and the ensuing culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Others view the hip movement of the sixties as heralding a sea change in lifestyles. It shamelessly displayed and ultimately institutionalized the hedonism at the heart of twentieth-century consumer culture.(137)

The vast majority of Americans in the sixties rejected the counterculture as a way of life, but over time both they and the marketplace selectively absorbed some of its wares and values. In one form or another, rock-and-roll, new age therapies, sexual liberation and self-fulfillment as a way of life seeped from the counterculture into the mainstream. The suppliers and buyers of instant gratification transformed a leisurely stroll through a festive Haight Street in the sixties to an endless shamble though [should be through] a bland shopping-mall culture in the nineties. And the hippies' attempt to explore their sexuality—however questionable their means—was transmuted over time into, among other things, a pseudoerotic obsession with sexuality.

All of these views have some validity because, during and since the sixties, there were so many motives for becoming hip and so many ways of expressing hipness. Many hippies seriously searched for secular enlightenment or spiritual salvation amid the fads, flowers, flashbacks and fleshpots of the counterculture. There were others who, so to speak, let their hair down only on weekends. It was fun. And there were still others, like those who joined Charles Manson's "family" of killers, the forlorn, hopelessly insecure souls desperately seeking meaning, any meaning, in their lives. Unable to devise one of their own, they looked to "gurus," benign or otherwise, to do it for them. Gurus were easy to find: the counterculture oozed exploitative, charismatic figures of one sort or another.

Easily lost sight of in this jumble of conflicting styles, motivations and interpretations was the concrete moral challenge to the established American order posed by the Diggers and others like them in the counterculture. The Diggers did more than champion anarchy, though they would have agreed with Emerson that a "man contains all that is needful to his government within himself."(138) And they were more than directors of some rousing plays in which primitive acts of American freedom were performed, though Grogan's hunt, like any serious play, was for real.

More than anything else, and more than most in the sixties, the Diggers intuitively grasped an abiding irony of the American experience: Americans either condone or acquiesce to near anarchy in their economic behavior but generally retreat from it in other areas of their lives. Or, for that matter, in other people's lives.

[p. 144] 

The most significant, culturally approved displays of improvised freedom in the United States occur within its largely unrestricted economic marketplace. The fruits of liberty aren't harvested in some wilderness of the free soul but on the Wall Street of bulging stock portfolios. "Free" enterprise—the "performance" of buying and selling—is the only "play" in which Americans can pretty much "act" as they please. Beyond the economic realm, there is a traditional and ongoing obsession with controlling spontaneous or idiosyncratic behavior, especially in matters of sex, drugs, dress, unpopular beliefs and general comportment. Thus an American can do as he pleases with his material possessions, but is not free to legally marry someone of the same sex. The accumulation and disposal of private property is one's own business; the enactment of one's private life may or may not be. After all, Americans implicitly ask themselves, how much anarchy can a society tolerate while still remaining viable?

Grogan, Coyote, Berg, other Diggers and serious hippies did more than challenge this equation. They reversed it. For a brief interlude they turned their little piece of America on its head. They substituted a free life for free enterprise. Their versions of self-reliance and of becoming self-made had nothing to do with work, careers, economic competition, possessions or status seeking.

At the same time, "It's free because it's yours" was not a call for socialism. Political ideologies and the hierarchies and organizational structures they require were anathema to the form of individualism advertised in the Diggers' most famous slogan. Rather, it was a call to explore an interior New World, a twentieth-century summons to stake a claim to a mythological American freedom lodged somewhere within the wilderness of the self. It was improvised, unalloyed "movement": away from modern economic striving, hierarchy and social control, and toward a lost, perhaps imaginary, unexplored frontier where one might create infinitely plural personal identities and social territories.

"It's free because it's yours." It was as un-American as any mythic American phrase could be.

[Top]
     
 
 

Creative Commons License
The Digger Archives is published under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Cite As: The Digger Archives (www.diggers.org) / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0