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International Socialism, Summer 2001


Mike Davis

Wild streets: American Graffiti versus the Cold War


From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


‘It is time,’ Dr Fred Schwartz urged residents of the nation’s most patriotic city, ‘to lay aside secondary and unimportant issues ... Americans must renounce complacency, ignorance and greed, and dedicate themselves to hurling the gauntlet of freedom into the face of godless Communism.’ The expatriate Australian physician, executive director of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, was in San Diego to open the biggest session yet of his School for Anti-Communists. More than 1,100 enthusiastic local anti-subversives were registered to hear Schwartz and his co-star, famed FBI counterspy Herbert (‘I Led Three Lives’) Philbrick, explain why ‘the free world is losing the battle with the Reds’. In five days of workshops and expert testimony Schwartz promised to unravel the arcane secrets of Communism’s appalling success: ‘To think like a Communist you’ve got to develop a mind like a corkscrew. You’ll never do it without an understanding of dialectical materialism.’ [1]

If, 1,000 years from now, archaeologists from another planet wanted to understand the culture of ancient Cold War America, the perfect stratigraphic section in time and space might be San Diego, California, in late August 1960, on the eve of Schwartz’s anti-Communist revival. No other major city had so exclusively capitalised its future on what President Eisenhower (in a rare moment of apprehension) had recently described as the ‘military-industrial complex’. Seen from the top of the El Cortez Hotel, the city’s only skyscraper, the martial landscape was overwhelming, even sublime – a gorgeous blue sky streaked with navy and Marine jets; a perfect harbour crowded with massive grey flattops, a waterfront lined for miles with military storage depots, boot camps and bomber assembly lines, and, on a mesa in the far distance, a vast complex where General Dynamics was building the first Atlas missile. San Diego reciprocated this defence bonanza with a civic cargo cult that extolled the Marines, the Pacific Fleet and ICBMs. Decades earlier the city fathers had chased Emma Goldman and the Wobblies out of town with the warning that nothing even remotely smacking of un-Americanism would ever be tolerated in San Diego. With the ultra-conservative San Diego Union (an official sponsor of Schwartz’s Anti-Communist School) as its watchdog, the city’s intolerance of dissent was legendary. In short this capital of the Cold War was the least likely place in America to be the scene of one of the first major youth riots of the 1960s.

Internal combustion or Red conspiracy?

While black students in the summer of 1960 were boldly assailing Southern segregation with heroic lunch counter sit-ins, white kids in San Diego were preoccupied by the seemingly trivial question of whether or not they could continue to burn rubber on a local drag strip. On Friday night, 19 August, youthful patrons at San Diego’s most popular drive-in restaurants received handbills along with their burgers and cherry cokes. The leaflet invited ‘all drag racing fans’ to a ‘mass protest meeting’ the next evening at the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and Cherokee Street. Two weeks previously, following an accident that injured three bystanders, the navy had shut down the last drag strip in San Diego County – an old auxiliary runway known as Hourglass Field where formally illegal weekend competitions under the adult auspices of the San Diego Timing Association (the parent body of 22 hotrod clubs) had been tolerated since the closure of the association’s original drag strip on Paradise Mesa in 1959. The navy’s action delighted the conservative triumvirate of Police Chief Jansen, Mayor Dail and Supervisor Gibson, who had long denounced drag racing, sanctioned or not, as a stimulant to ‘recklessness and disorder’. (Under Jansen’s orders the police had been conducting an intensive crackdown on street racing and illegal ‘speed’ equipment since the beginning of the year.) Conversely, local car clubs like the Vi-Counts and Roman Chariots, which had been co-operating with police efforts to suppress dangerous street racing in exchange for being able to run dragsters at Hourglass Field, were infuriated by what was, in effect, the criminalisation of the sport. ‘If we don’t get [a new] strip,’ some of the Vi-Counts warned, ‘cars will start dragging in the street.’ [2]

Indeed – when the San Diego police despatchers began frantically calling in reinforcements at 1 a.m. Sunday morning (21 August) – an estimated 3,000 teenagers and young adults had blocked off a long section of El Cajon Boulevard (the city’s major east-west thoroughfare) and were cheering on racers in a miscellany of vintage hotrods and customised family sedans. ‘The cars, of all models and shapes,’ reported the Union, ‘raced two abreast for about three blocks down El Cajon Boulevard. Thousands of spectators lined the sidewalk and centre island, leaving almost no room for cars to pass.’ It took police, wielding batons, lobbing teargas and driving their patrol cars onto the sidewalks, almost three hours to disperse the crowd. [3]

Veteran cops, accustomed to teenage deference, were shocked by the crowd’s angry defiance. One contingent of about 100 stubbornly held their ground on a gas station parking lot, answering teargas and police charges with volleys of ‘soft drink bottles, glasses and rocks’, slightly injuring two officers. ‘Uniforms of several others were torn, and guns were stolen from some. Patrolman M. Addington was struck on the head with a rock, and Patrolman W. Pfahler suffered leg burns from a teargas grenade. Sergeant J. Helmick was saved by fellow officers after a group of rioters attempted to overturn his patrol car.’ [4] The Los Angeles Examiner, melodramatising the danger, quoted a ‘terrified homeowner’: ‘They were like wild dogs, racing up and down the street at high speed and gunning their motors. I don’t own a gun, but I armed myself with a knife and just hoped that no one would try to break into my house.’ [5]

Eventually 116 ‘demonstrators’, including 36 juveniles, were hauled away in paddywagons. The adults were booked on suspicion of rioting, refusal to disperse and conspiracy, and then interrogated by homicide detectives. Police Chief Jansen reassured the city council that as soon as the ‘ringleaders of the conspiracy’ were identified, they would be charged with felonies. The names and addresses of the young adult arrestees, punctually published in Monday’s San Diego Union, revealed that the hard core of the crowd, at least, came from the city’s most typical blue collar neighbourhoods and suburbs. The largest contingent, not surprisingly, was from the tough, car-crazy town of El Cajon in the east county – also a major centre of biker subculture. Another group may have been affiliated with the popular East San Diego car club, the Unholys. Others were from equally working class Linda Vista, Lakeside, Spring Valley, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach. A dozen young Marines and sailors gave only fleet addresses. Only one defendant had a Spanish surname, and there was a striking absence of outlaw street racers from upscale areas like Point Loma or La Jolla where daddy controlled the keys to the T-Bird. [6]

Yet the El Cajon Boulevard Riot, as it became officially known, electrified teenagers of all classes, if not of all races. (I can personally testify that amongst my crowd of El Cajon 14 to 15 year olds this was unanimously the ‘bitchinest’ event of our lifetimes and the older rioters – with their ducktails and James Dean insoucience – were our Homeric heroes.) San Diego braced for the unknown. On Monday night, after one councilman had warned that the kids were ‘trying to run the town’, police reserves were called up and issued with riot sticks and teargas. Instead of a single mob they found themselves playing ‘motorised tag’ with long convoys of protesters who alternately slowed down and speeded up, but never exceeded the speed limit. [7] Their unofficial anthem was the Ventures’ thrilling punched to the floorboard instrumental Walk, Don’t Run. [8] Many of the cars displayed hand lettered signs: ‘Wipe out teargas’ and ‘We want a drag strip.’ In addition to El Cajon Boulevard, where several hundred hotrodders taunted authorities in a tense confrontation at a popular drive-in, police and highway patrol struggled to keep up with the large contingents cruising Clairemont, Linda Vista and Pacific Beach. In El Cajon, where chief Joseph O’Connor had vowed that ‘we will resist mob rule down to the last man’, the police blocked Main Street and ticketed protesters for real or spurious ‘equipment violations’. Meanwhile, San Diego Police, aided by the shore patrol, impounded cars and arrested more than 100 juveniles and adults – many of them, it seems, for the sole purpose of interrogation about supposed ringleaders. [9]

On Wednesday Herbert Sturdyvin, a 20 year old printer, was charged with conspiracy for having printed the ‘riot flyers’, and warrants were issued for two other reputed instigators. But the clearly headless protests continued to annoy police with nightly convoys (centred around what police described as the ‘East San Diego trouble spot’) and, later, with a furtive attempt, defeated by the navy and highway patrol, to stage nocturnal drag races at Hourglass Field. As arrests (more than 200 by Friday) and impoundments sapped energy from the movement, chief Jansen voiced apprehension that local teenage disobedience was only a prelude to a full scale ‘invasion of hotrod gangs’ from Los Angeles. All through the weekend of 27–28 August, the San Diego police, again aided by the navy, mobilised for the arrival of the Los Angeles hordes – a menace, it was clear by Monday, that only existed in Jansen’s fervid imagination. [10]

City leaders, however, were loathe to concede the obviously spontaneous and local context of teenage protest. Councilman Chester Schnieder was scoffed at by colleagues and county supervisors when he suggested that officials should work with car clubs and the Junior Chamber of Commerce to restore the safety valve of a legal drag strip. [11] The majority preferred to attribute the week’s disturbances to a dark constellation of conspiracies – including Southern sit-ins, San Francisco student demonstrations, and the previous month’s riot at the Newport Jazz Festival – whose ultimate origin was the Politburo in Moscow. ‘This type of incident’, chief Jansen explained, ‘coupled with the jazz riots on the East Coast and the recent San Francisco riot provides Pravda with propaganda material to support their claims that this country is a lawless nation.’ Similarly, the Union, in an editorial tirade against ‘anarchy’, found that ‘the sit-down strike, the lynch mob, the violence on picket lines, and the student riots all have a family relationship with what happened on El Cajon Boulevard’. [12]

To underscore the deep, possibly satanic forces at work, the Union printed its Drag Strip Riot – This Cannot Be Tolerated editorial in tandem with an article by syndicated anti-subversive George Sokolsky headlined Communists Aiming At US Youth As Target. ‘Just as at another period,’ Sokolsky explained, ‘the Communist Party of the United States devoted itself to infiltrating the Negro population, so, for 1960, the program is youth. The Communist Party, which went underground during the early years of the Cold War and peaceful competitive coexistence, is now coming out into the open again.’ [13] Meanwhile, at the Union-sponsored Anti-Communist School, speaker after speaker expanded upon this equation between Communist resurgence and teenage contempt for authority. Schwartz showed footage of the recent student demonstrations against House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco, identifying what he claimed were Communist instigators in the crowd. W. Cleon Skousen, former assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and author of the best-selling The Naked Communist, excoriated the schools for teaching such ‘dangerous ideas’ as ‘free world trade, disarmament and Russian peaceful coexistence’. A Navy chaplain meanwhile warned that, ‘if the nation goes to war, 50 percent of the 17 year olds won’t go with us’, and, explicitly referring to the young sailors and Marines arrested the previous weekend, ‘those that do come through into the service cause plenty of trouble’. Philbrick finally explained that the current epidemic of delinquency was directly attributable to a Red Chinese plot to flood the country with drugs and pornography. [14] The next day, in a packed meeting on measures to tighten the city’s already draconian anti-obscentity ordinance, the city council gravely discussed a paperback entitled High School Sex Club, which reputedly ‘gave detailed instructions on how to start such a club’. [15]

Gidget goes to the riot

Kremlin-endorsed hotrodders and Maoist high school sex clubs? If the hallucinations of the high Cold War period seem utterly bizarre today, their official espousal nonetheless had the tonic effect of discrediting knee-jerk ideology amongst those who had been so nonsensically branded as dupes and subversives. By asserting a conspiratorial affinity between hotrods, Negro rights, sexual freedom and radical dissent, Chief Jansen and Fred Schwartz unwittingly planted a tiny seed of the later 1960s. Incipient anti-authoritarianism, moreover, was deepened by the stepped-up police harassment of teenage motorists and party-goers in the weeks after the riot. Yet any larger meaning to the San Diego events was difficult to sustain after the non-event of the Los Angeles hotrod ‘invasion’. As fall semester came and went, the police kept a tight lid on streets and drive-ins, and San Diego teenagers, seethe as they might against relentless curfews and traffic stops, seemingly fell back into line.

Then, in the spring of 1961, Southern California suddenly erupted from the valleys to the beaches in angry generational conflict. There were 11 so called ‘teen riots’ in six months – three of them, including Griffith Park in May, Zuma Beach in June and Alhambra in October, involved thousands of youth. If largely forgotten today, at the time these confrontations generated worldwide headlines and national controversy. Despite the disparate sociological and geographical characteristics of the individual events, civic and law enforcement leaders conflated them as a single sustained outburst, an unprecedented insurrection against adult authority. And, following the causal chain back to El Cajon Boulevard the summer before, some of the country’s leading anti-Communists once again discerned a conspiratorial pattern in youthful defiance. As Los Angeles’ acting chief of police warned the nation, ‘The eruption of violence and disorder directed at society’s symbols of authority could be more devastating to America’s hopes for the future than rockets and the 100-megaton bomb.’ [16]

The first explosion occurred – according to subversive schedule? – on 1 May. Although national news was dominated by the huge ‘Splash Day’ riot in Galveston, Texas, where 800 youth were arrested, Los Angeles County sheriffs had to mount an amphibious landing to save the island resort of Avalon from its own teenage hordes. The city’s third annual ‘Buccaneer Ball’ celebration was disrupted by hundreds of rowdy high school and college students who ‘littered streets with beer cans and wine bottles, climbed over cars, trampled flower planters, ripped fire hoses and extinguishers from hotel walls and sprayed corridors’. Panicky local authorities called in deputies from the mainland who eventually arrested 57 of the ‘mob’. [17] The next weekend in Long Beach, in a fracas variously described in the local press as a ‘riot’ or ‘near riot’, 400 youths, ‘all in bathing suits, swarmed out of the Bayshore Recreation Area ... they halted cars on Bayshore Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, tussled with drivers, yanked out ignition keys and flung water-filled balloons’. When the police arrived, they too were jeered and bombarded with water balloons. Later, in sentencing one of the participants, a flustered municipal judge complained, ‘I wish we had a whipping post. The youth of this country has absolutely no respect for authority. I just don’t understand it.’ [18]

The more significant Memorial Day (30 May) riot in Griffith Park was a direct, if unplanned, challenge by black youth to de facto segregation in Los Angeles public spaces. Although after the event the local Hearst paper, the Examiner, would sermonise that ‘there is no segregation in the use of public facilities ... [and] there is no Negro group of comparable size anywhere in the world, including the continent of Africa, which has available and unopposed the opportunities of the half million coloured citizens of this region’, this was nonsense. [19] Faced with a radical shortage of parks and recreational facilities in south central Los Angeles, black residents, like Chicanos from the equally ghettoised Eastside, were systematically harassed by police when they attempted to freely enjoy Los Angeles’s famed outdoor amenities. Only a small portion of the county beaches, for example, were integrated, and older folk recalled with bitterness how black residents had been burnt out of their homes by the Ku Klux Klan in several beach communities during the 1920s. Likewise Griffith Park, the city’s largest public space, had an ugly history of racial exclusion which black youth had recently begun to challenge.

A major focus of contestation was the park’s famed merry go round – a natural magnet to teenagers of all races. Blaming ‘the publicity coming out of the South in connection with the Freedom Rides’, Los Angeles police chief William Parker would later insinuate a black conspiracy to take over the merry go round area. ‘We have been aware’, he told the press, ‘of a potential problem ... for some time ... [because] that part of the park has been pre-empted by Negroes for the last year.’ [20] On Memorial Day there was palpable tension as blacks arrived to find the LAPD deployed throughout the park. The riot erupted around 4 p.m. when the carousel operator accused a teenager of boarding without paying. When the youth denied the allegation and refused to leave, he was wrestled to the ground by white police officers with billy clubs. The sight of the youth being violently pulled off the merry go round enraged the several thousand black picnickers in the vicinity. A teenage crowd followed the officers, surrounded the squad car and demanded the release of the prisoner. When he bolted from the car, all hell broke loose. One officer opened fire. The crowd replied with bottles. Five police were injured and forced to seek refuge in a park office. As LAPD reinforcements arrived with their sirens screaming, black teenagers shouted back, ‘This is not Alabama.’ [21]

There were many cameras in the park that afternoon and images of the Griffith Park melee were soon reproduced around the world by the wire services. Aftermath of “Freedom Rides”? was the caption that accompanied a sensational photograph in US News & World Report of hundreds of black youth rushing a policeman as he manhandled the original arrestee. [22] There was a brief premonition in the media that as the freedom movement came northward into those ghettos of ‘incomparable opportunity’ (sic), non-violence might be left behind. Indeed Griffith Park symbolised the emergence of an audacious ‘new breed’, as James Brown would call them, ready to fight the police, if need be, to claim their civil rights. It was the first skirmish on the road to the Watts Rebellion four years later.

Yet while chief Parker was still fuming over ‘Negro hoodlums’, Gidget and 25,000 of her beach blanket friends were pelting sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen with sand-packed beer cans. The weekend after the Griffith Park battle, Los Angeles’ most popular rock and roll station invited listeners to a ‘grunion derby’ at Zuma Beach, near Malibu. KRLA expected about 2,000 to arrive on Saturday night – ‘instead 25,000, a conservative estimate, showed up’. [23] County Parks and Recreation officials prevented the sponsors from erecting a planned dance floor and bandstand, so the huge crowd was left to organise its own amusements. At midnight, the official beach closing time, sheriffs ordered the revellers to leave. The response was a fierce fusillade of beer cans and bottles. Fifty additional patrol cars had to be called in before the crowd dispersed. [24] Although KRLA disputed the hair raising accounts of mayhem and near rape promulgated by county officials, the general perception was that the deputies had narrowly prevented ‘an uncontrolled riot of frightening proportions’. ‘Only by great good fortune,’ claimed the Los Angeles Examiner, ‘the fracas did not result in fatalities.’ [25]

By any measure it was a busy night for the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department. Some of the deputies speeding towards Zuma Beach were diverted instead to quell a second ‘riot’ in the blue collar San Gabriel Valley suburb of Rosemead. Several hundred teenagers – perhaps inflamed by radio reports about the Zuma melee – had gathered at the corner of Garvey and River Avenues and were reportedly stoning passing cars. Sheriffs arrested 47 juveniles on charges of rioting, battery and curfew violation. Meanwhile police in the south east industrial suburb of Bell were breaking up a street fight involving some 300 teenagers outside a wedding reception. [26] Sheriff Peter Pitchess was at a loss to identify a root cause for these white riots. He could only observe that defiance of authority ‘had moved beyond the point where blame can be placed solely on juveniles or adults, minority or majority groups’. [27]

The next weekend (11 June) several deputies were slightly injured when they came to the aid of San Gabriel police attempting to enforce an archaic law against Sunday dancing at a local wedding celebration. Fifty officers battled with more than 300 teenagers and young adults outside a rented hall in Del Mar Avenue. At one point a policeman fired a warning shot in the air. Several of the rioters were charged with ‘lynching’ after they rescued a 17 year old from police custody. [28] As temperatures of all kinds soared in July, the Los Angeles Times, conflating traditional street gangs and car clubs, worried that mobile teenage hoodlums now owned the streets. [29] In response Sheriff Pitchess announced that his elite Special Enforcement Detail would be deployed to help regular deputies stringently enforce 10 p.m. juvenile curfew ordinances throughout Los Angeles County. Local police departments followed suit in a massive regional crackdown on drive-ins, cruising strips, beach parking lots, and other nocturnal nodes of teenage culture. [30]

The law enforcement mobilisation seemed to work. After the lurid headlines of the early summer, Southern California survived without commotion a notorious Labour Day weekend that was celebrated across the east with fire hoses, police dogs and teargas. As headlines screamed Youth Mobs Riot In Five States; Hundreds Jailed, high school and college students ended the summer with major riots in Clermont (Indiana), Lake George (New York), Wildwood (New Jersey), Ocean City (Maryland), Falmouth and Hyannis (Massachusetts), and Hampton Beach (New Hampshire). [31] But the Los Angeles area remained quiet ... for a few days.

’A deliberate Communist pattern’

The second weekend in September, as usual for the summer’s finale, was a scorcher in Los Angeles and the largest crowds of the season packed the beaches to escape the 100 degree-plus temperatures in the valleys. Six thousand fans were lucky enough to have tickets to hear Ray Charles perform at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday evening. The blind rhythm and blues genius was at the height of an extraordinary ‘crossover’ popularity that brought huge racially mixed audiences together everywhere outside the South. His latest tour, however, had been plagued by logistical snafus and disputes with local authorities. A week earlier police had turned firehoses on 1,000 angry fans in Portland after Charles’s plane had been grounded in Seattle. The crowd, in turn, wrecked the Palais Royale Ballroom, and smashed car and office windows in the downtown area – the first riot in the city’s history. [32]

The Hollywood Bowl concert began without a hitch under the vigilant eye of LAPD music critics. As the tempo increased, hundreds of teenagers – black, white and Latino – found the beat irresistible. ‘Some of the screaming youngsters’, the Examiner reported the next day, ‘organised a dance group and put on an impromptu performance of what the police said were objectionable dances, including the popular “Jungle Bunny”.’ Whether the dancing was too ‘dirty’, too inter-racial, or both, the police decided to stop the concert. The lights were turned on, and when the ‘screaming gyrating fans’ protested, reserves were summoned from the LAPD’s Hollywood division. The ensuing ‘teen riot’, spilling out into the parking lot and adjacent Griffith Park, involved an estimated 500 to 600 members of the audience; ten were arrested. [33]

Three weeks later the suburban west end of the San Gabriel Valley (just east of downtown Los Angeles) exploded in teen violence that severely taxed the combined resources of the sheriff’s department, the highway patrol and 12 local police departments. The proximate cause was a football game, but other anxieties may have been involved. A column by Pasadena Star-News writer Russ Leadabrand suggests the weird, fearful, even apocalyptic atmosphere in many valley homes during October 1961:

The telephones at the Pasadena Civil Defence headquarters have been busy during these last few weeks – since the latest Berlin crisis and the resultant increase in the chance of nuclear war. The calls come from members of the general public who are concerned now more than ever before about the possibility of awful, sudden, searing death. The people of Pasadena seek the answer to one main question. Should they build a home bomb shelter?

Leadabrand interviewed local civil defence (CD) director Ted Smith, who warned readers that they should be in their backyards digging for family survival in face of the holocaust that ‘could happen now more easily than ever before’. ‘One frightening thing,’ however, ‘stands in the way of effective recovery from an attack’:

Smith is chillingly frank about this. It is sabotage. Smith is convinced that there are Russian agents in the Pasadena area who are not only actively engaged in trying to wreck CD, but who would, in the event of attack, try to scuttle recovery programmes. [34]

While some of their parents, on the advice of Leadabrand and Smith, were shopping for geiger counters, hundreds of carloads of teenagers were converging as they always did after Friday night football games (in this case 7 October) on their favourite Valley Boulevard drive-ins. Around midnight insults were exchanged between the gloating victors (Monrovia High) and badly humiliated losers (Alhambra High), and the ensuing scuffle quickly grew into a ‘whirlwind of fistfights that spread over a five block area’, blocking traffic for four miles, east and west, along Valley Boulevard. From its mobile transmitter a local radio station broadcast a vivid blow by blow account of the donnybrook, which police claimed ‘drew hundreds of others to the scene, all of them itching to join in the brawling’. While attempting to arrest a powerfully built youth whom they accused of ‘mob raising’, Alhambra police were themselves overwhelmed and roughed up. ‘They were pushing and shoving,’ reported the watch commander, ‘attempting to grab guns from officers’ holsters, jerking off their hats, jumping on their backs and trying to knock them to the ground.’ Alhambra’s desperate ‘999’ (code for riot) appeal was answered by more than 100 police and sheriffs from other jurisdictions. They blockaded access to Valley Boulevard and ordered the estimated 1,000 to 1,200 rioters – including Chicano as well as white youth – to disperse. The common response was, ‘Go to hell.’ After an hour of further melee 31 young adults and 60 juveniles were in custody. It was officially characterised as ‘one of the worst examples of civil disobedience’ in Los Angeles County since the 1943 ‘Zoot suit’ riots. [35]

It was followed by further weekends of teen-police clashes in Los Angeles’ suburban valleys. On the evening of 14 October, Monrovia and Arcadia police dispersed a ‘mob of more than 100 teenagers ... some armed with clubs’ in the parking lot of Santa Anita racetrack. The next weekend a posse of sheriffs and highway patrol in South El Monte ‘broke up an incipient teenage riot ... with the arrest of 16 armed suspects. The youths carried spike-studded baseball bats, wire flails, brass knuckles and nail toothed chains.’ They were charged with ‘rout’ – ’behaviour leading to riot’. Finally, on 17 November, the chain reaction of teen riots culminated on the football field at Monroe High School in Van Nuys when a crowd of 300 youths fought with school guards and the LAPD. [36]

As Southern California youth recaptured national headlines, local politicos and pundits were both dumbfounded and furious. ‘These are not childish incidents,’ Los Angeles’s Mayor Yorty told the press, ‘but serious revolts against the law.’ He conceded, however, that ‘I don’t know where the failure lies, whether in the schools, at home, or where’. [37] The Los Angeles Times saw a ‘frightening picture’ in the rising arc of teenage defiance from Griffith Park to Alhambra. It warned that ‘mob violence and attacks on policemen threaten to grow into full scale terror’ and hinted that there might be an underlying co-ordination to the outbursts (‘a favourite weapon of the “cop fighters” in this city is a nail-studded plank’). [38] The Examiner claimed that ‘demagogic and subversive elements welcome these disturbances as a means of promoting public support for their own ambitions’, and published an interview with a leading police official under the bizarre headline, [Teen] Violence As Bad As H-Bomb. Finally, a local columnist confidently assured his readers that behind such ‘apparently unexplainable instances of mob action against the police’ as the Alhambra riot, the ‘FBI sees a deliberate Communist pattern of attack’. [39]

Whatever the causes of the teen riot epidemic, the Examiner was certain that the only cure was for the police to take off their kid gloves. The voice of citizen Hearst applauded Sheriff Pitchess for ordering his deputies in the wake of the Alhambra riot ‘to carry truncheons in addition to their side arms, and use them whenever necessary’. It also commended a superior court judge for sentencing two of the Griffith Park defendants to a year in prison: ‘It is time to meet force with force, and pleas for tenderness on the pretext of youth or sex with judicial sternness.’ In the past, liberal and minority complaints about police brutality had only tied the hands of law enforcement. ‘The police were induced to adopt an attitude of mousy meekness that often proved an invitation to disrespect, contempt of the law and finally armed resistance as exemplified by the riots at Zuma Beach and Griffith Park.’ [40]

Revising the 1960s

In Southern California the wild summers of 1960 and 1961 were a prelude to a series of famous youth insurrections: the Watts riot of 1965, the so called ‘hippie riots’ on Sunset Strip between 1966 and 1970, and the Eastside high school ‘blow-outs’ of 1968–1969. Although the street racing mania subsided considerably by 1964, adolescent challenges to police control of the night and street became elaborately institutionalised in the renowned ‘cruising’ subcultures of Van Nuys Boulevard (white valley kids), the Sunset Strip (‘hippies’), Whittier Boulevard (Chicano Eastsiders), and, much later, Crenshaw Boulevard (black kids). Yet in what sense did early 1960s teenage insubordination directly nurture or condition the politicised outbursts after 1964? And to what extent did these racially segmented youth rebellions share any common ethos or sensibility?

The most dramatic genealogy is the spiralling progression of protest and consciousness that links the Griffith Park riot of Memorial Day 1961 to the Los Angeles (Watts) riot of August 1965. An extraordinary story remains to be told. Frustrated with their inability to integrate or access the larger city, black youth in Los Angeles and elsewhere began to fight spontaneously for substantive control over community space – a thrust that would later become enshrined in the Black Panther Party’s programme for ‘self determination’. Although historians are at last producing fine accounts of the ordinary heroes and grassroots activism of the Southern civil rights movement, we still know little about the generational cultural revolution in Northern black communities, or the patterns of defiance that link coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s to the near-revolutionary uprisings of the later 1960s. The real engine room of the 1960s – both politically and culturally – was not the college campus but the urban ghetto, and the transformation of young transplanted Southerners into a militant ‘new breed’ was the decisive event.

The social trajectory of the white riots, and their possible contribution to the later appeal of the new left, is of course far less clear. Indeed most historians of the 1960s ignore the wave of teen unrest at the beginning of the decade which created so much anxiety amongst police chiefs and professional anti-Communists. The few who do acknowledge a premonitory upheaval typically focus on the Newport Jazz riot of 1959 or evoke ‘affluent adolescents’ who ‘flirted with the harmless part of the culture of delinquency’. But the hotrod and beach riots in Southern California for the most part involved a far different social stratum of youth than Ivy League college kids at Newport or the typical spring break crowd of yesterday and today. The published addresses of arrestees confirm the contemporary perception that the teenagers and young adults who fought the police on El Cajon Boulevard in 1960 or Valley Boulevard in 1961 were from working class neighbourhoods and suburbs. Likewise the riotous crowd at Zuma Beach was most likely dominated by kids from monotonous San Fernando Valley subdivisions and flatland LA neighbourhoods, not by Malibu movie spawn.

My own recollection of the time was of almost unbearable, claustrophobic tension between the perception of teenage lands of Cockaigne and the reality of growing up blue collar. My friends and I were mesmerised by beatniks, surfers, easy riders and other free spirits who seemed to live an endless summer of libidinal adventure without the constraints of after-school jobs, the draft, and pre-programmed futures in the same ruts as our fathers and mothers. The foretaste of utopia on high school Friday nights made prospective lifetimes of punching Monday morning time clocks even less endurable. We seethed in jealousy against everyone who lived at a beach, spent their nights in a coffee house, or went to an elite university. Todd Gitlin is correct to assert that the ‘marketplace sold adolescent society its banners’, but not all who were seduced by the vision could participate in it. [41] With the mirage of unattainable cornucopia in the distance, it became all the more urgent to wrest as much freedom, exhilaration and sheer mileage from the night as possible.

I am claiming, in other words, that the white teen riots of the early 1960s were largely driven by the hidden injuries of class colliding with an overweening ideology of affluence – an affluence, that is, that we reinterpreted with the help of beatniks and surfers as the possibility of free time and space beyond the programme of Fordist society. This reinterpretation was a radical seed, made all the more compelling by nuclear showdowns and Cold War apocalypticism. This quest for freedom, however inarticulate and inchoate, gave a dignity and historical purpose to our small rebellions, and, in conflict with the suburban police state, generated a powerful revulsion against arbitrary authority. Indeed anti-authoritarianism, trending towards a new romanticism of revolt and disobedience, was the vital cultural substrate of the 1960s. And it was inevitable that the most courageous and intransigent anti-authoritarians – black ghetto youth – would become potent models for everyone else.

In the end the paranoid belief of Fred Schwartz and Chief Parker that white youth rebellion was somehow instigated by sit-ins and ‘Freedom Rides’ proved to be a self fulfilling prophecy. For example, in the long struggle against curfews and crowd control on the Sunset Strip in the late 1960s (parodied in teen exploitation film Riot on the Sunset Strip), white youth increasingly were persuaded that their resistance to a violent sheriff’s department was a second front to the battle being waged by the Black Panther Party in south central Los Angeles. The culminating showdown between thousands of white kids and the sheriffs in 1969 was mobilised by a psychedelic leaflet demanding, ‘Free the Strip! Free Huey!’ The battle over the urban night had joined forces with the revolution.


1. San Diego Union, 24 August 1960.

2. Ibid., 20 August 1960.

3. Ibid., 22 August 1960.

4. Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1960.

5. Los Angeles Examiner, 22 August 1960.

6. San Diego Union, 22 August 1960.

7. Ibid., 23 August 1960.

8. The top five hit parade in San Diego during the riot weekend: (1) It’s Now or Never (Elvis); (2) Walk, Don’t Run (Ventures); (3) Twist (Chubby Checker); (4) Itsy, Bitsy, Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (Bryan Hyland) and (5) Only the Lonely (Roy Orbison). San Diego Union, 20 August 1960.

9. San Diego Union, 22 and 23 August 1960.

10. Ibid., 24, 28 and 29 August 1960, and Los Angeles Examiner, 24 August 1960.

11. Ibid., 24 August 1960.

12. Ibid., 23 and 24 August 1960.

13. Ibid., 23 August 1960.

14. Ibid., 25 and 26 August 1960.

15. Ibid., 26 August 1960.

16. Los Angeles Examiner, 15 October 1961.

17. Los Angeles Times, 2 May 1961.

18. Los Angeles Examiner, 8 and 9 May 1961.

19. Ibid., editorial, 1 June 1961.

20. Ibid., news story, 1 June 1961.

21. Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1961. The embattled police were able to make only three arrests, but took vengeance by charging two of the defendants with ‘attempted murder’ and ‘lynching’. Charges were later reduced to felony assault, and the two were sentenced to a year in jail. Los Angeles Examiner, 31 May, 2 June and 25 October 1961.

22. 12 June 1961.

23. Los Angeles Examiner, 5 June 1961.

24. Ibid., and Los Angeles Times, 5 June 1961.

25. Los Angeles Examiner, 10 and 11 June 1961.

26. Los Angeles Times, 5 June 1961.

27. Los Angeles Examiner, 11 June 1961.

28. Ibid., and Los Angeles Times, 12 June 1961.

29. Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1961.

30. Ibid., 16 July 1961.

31. Los Angeles Examiner, 5 September 1961.

32. Los Angeles Times, 5 September 1961.

33. Ibid., 11 September 1961.

34. Pasadena Star-News, 12 October 1961.

35. Ibid., Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Examiner, 7 and 8 October 1961. Los Angeles Examiner, 15 October 1961.

36. Los Angeles Examiner, 15 and 27 October 1961, 17 November 1961.

37. Ibid., 12 October 1961.

38. Los Angeles Times, 16 October 1961.

39. Los Angeles Examiner, 12 October 1961. Pasadena Star-News, 11 October 1961.

40. Los Angeles Examiner, 29 October 1961.

41. T Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York 1987), pp. 26–29. This is a brilliant memoir (impersonating a synoptic history) of Gitlin’s political cohorts, the SDS ‘old guard’ who came from affluent, progressive families and attended elite universities. A former valedictorian of the famous Bronx High School of Science who boasts that he played hookey only once, Gitlin is hardly predisposed to understand the relationships between delinquency, anti-authoritarianism and revolt in the larger youth culture.

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Last updated on 11.6.2012