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


The Diggers Take The Stage

[p. 98]

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.)

[Leaflet reproduced:]
      Free Food                              Good Hot Stew
   Ripe Tomatoes                              Fresh Fruit
                  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!
                                          the diggers.(1)
[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 duties.
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 obligation.
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 shows.
[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 the "establishment."(8) 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 [p. 103] 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.

[p. 104] 

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.

The Digger Archives is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Cite As: The Digger Archives (www.diggers.org) / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / All other uses must receive permission. Contact: curator at diggers dot org.