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The Diggers are back

By Christine Hall

ESP Magazine, Vol. 12, No. 40, May 17-23, 2000

     
[Christine Hall sent an email requesting permission to use a photograph from the web site, and later wrote back telling me she had published her article about the Diggers. Turns out that Christine is an online columnist for ESP Magazine and has a weekly column. Her article here joins a long chain of writings about the Diggers that stretches back to those first articles in the Berkeley Barb after the appearance of Free Food in the Panhandle in 1966. —en]
Back in 1969, when I was hanging out on the corner of St. Marks Place and Second Avenue in the East Village of New York, I heard stories about a group called the Diggers that had existed in the Haight in the early days of hippiedom. Even though the group had only ceased to exist a year earlier, already they had become a counterculture mythology that was shrouded in mystery. They fed the street kids, engaged in street theater and invented the free store, which became a mainstay in hippie communities in the late '60s. Many believed that the whole movement of heads and freaks that grew on the streets of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district was a direct result of the actions taken by the mostly anonymous Diggers.

By late summer in 1968, the Diggers were gone and the hippie street culture that had flourished through "the summer of love" a year earlier was already in a sharp decline. Hard drugs like speed, heroin and barbiturates moved into neighborhoods like the Haight, pushing the real heads off the street and into urban communes. But the memory of the Diggers lived on, and such countercultural icons as free clinics, the free music movement, the free speech movement and free love continued to pay homage to a group that only existed for two and a half short years.

They took their name from a movement that existed in England over 350 years ago, started by mystic Gerrard Winstanley who believed that God manifested directly in everyone, making knowledge through the scriptures secondhand. Since all are equal in Godliness, he opined, no one should oppress, tyrannize or reduce others to poverty. He further believed that penal, corporal and capital punishment should be abolished. Private property, he said, tempted the poor to steal, then killed them for doing it, therefore the Earth should be held in common by all and the bounty of the planet shared according to need.

Needless to say, when he and his followers tried to put their beliefs into practice by growing food and building houses on common land, they were soon quashed by a ruling class that had everything to gain from maintaining the status quo.

Which wasn't much unlike the San Francisco Diggers, who also believed that personal property is a trap from which we must escape. Unlike their 17th century counterparts, however, these neo-Diggers were able to greet official opposition with grace and humor. For example, early on the Diggers started serving food to the street kids in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, an event that quickly began drawing sizable crowds for obvious reasons. As you might expect, the folks at the San Francisco health department quickly took note of this and sent a couple of agents to the scene, who demanded to see a health permit and threatened to shut the gathering down.

Thinking quickly, the Digger "leaders" on the scene explained that this was merely a family outing that required no official permits. The street kids in attendance caught on to what was happening and all agreed with this assessment, explaining that they were all brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles in a huge extended family that were having a picnic. The health department officials left, probably scratching their heads as they did.

According to accounts from the era, such Digger events as free food in the park and their numerous free stores were successful because they were offered in the spirit of simple sharing, without any "I'm giving you charity" vibes attached. Because of their underlying philosophy, this was easy for them to pull off. Since they didn't believe in money and thought that all cash was tainted by evil, they made no distinction between those who had pocket change, or a bank account, and those who didn't. If anything, the street kids represented an idea worthy of aspiration, since they were relatively pure and untainted by the corrupting influence of property.

For all practical purposes, the Diggers ceased to exist in June of 1968 and the Haight, as well as hippiedom in general, was never the same after that. The "hip capitalists," like Bill Graham, took over. The drug dealers took over. All sorts of groups with "politically correct" rhetoric took over. There was no one left, other than a few meek voices, to proclaim the simplicity of sharing and love. The counterculture may have continued to exist well into the 1970s, but it was not the same without the Diggers to keep reminding us that "love is all there is."

But now, the impossible has happened. The Diggers are back, courtesy of the information superhighway. They have a web presence at www.diggers.org. On this site is posted all of their long-lost writings from the '60s, all of their history, and remembrances of important Digger events. It's not all retro either. There's a virtual free store and a bulletin board to foster community. In an era when many think that neo-fascism is masquerading as liberalism, this is a welcome sign.

 
 

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