|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
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.