The Diggers were a radical community-action group of activists and Improvisational actors operating from 1967 to 1968, based in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Their politics sometimes have been categorized as "left-wing"; more accurately, they were "community anarchists" who blended a desire for freedom with a consciousness of the community in which they lived. They were closely associated and shared a number of members with the guerrilla theater group San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Actor Peter Coyote was a founding member of the Diggers.
The Diggers took their name from the original English Diggers (1649–50) who had promulgated a vision of society free from buying, selling, and private property. During the mid- and late 1960s, the San Francisco Diggers organized free music concerts and works of political art, provided free food, medical care, transport, and temporary housing and opened stores that gave away stock. Among their happenings were the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free.
The group was founded by Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, Peter Berg (later director of Planet Drum), and other members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe including Billy Murcott, Roberto La Morticella, and Brooks Bucher.
The group sought to create a mini-society free of money and capitalism. The Diggers provided free food in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in Haight-Ashbury every day at four o'clock, generally feeding over 200 people with a stew from donated meat and vegetables that was served from behind a giant yellow picture frame, called the Free Frame of Reference. On one occasion, at a free concert in the park, people who came for the food were given a two-inch-by-two-inch frame to hang about their necks, called the portable Free Frame of Reference. The Diggers also popularized whole wheat bread with their Digger Bread, baked in coffee cans at the Free Bakery in the basement of Episcopal All Saints Church on 1350 Waller Street. In cooperation with All Saints Church and later via the Haight Ashbury Switchboard at 1830 Fell Street, they arranged free “crashpads” for homeless youth drawn to the Haight-Ashbury area.
They opened numerous Free Stores in Haight-Ashbury, in which all items were free for the taking or giving. The stores offered discarded items that were still in usable condition. The first Free Store, in a six-car garage on Page Street that they found filled with empty frames that they tacked up on the side of the building, was called the Free Frame of Reference and was later superseded by the Trip Without a Ticket on Frederick Street. The stores funding is unclear. The 1% Free poster, showing two Chinese Tong assassins under the Chinese character for revolution, was erroneously thought to be demanding a 1% tithe from merchants; rather the poster was a challenge, implicitly suggesting that 'free' people were the minority, and inciting others to step up. They also opened a Free Medical Clinic, initially by inviting volunteers from the University of California, San Francisco medical school up the hill from the neighborhood.
They threw free parties with music provided by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and other bands. They also staged street such theater events as driving a truck of semi-naked belly dancers through the Financial District, inviting brokers to climb on board and forget their work. On December 17, 1966, the Diggers held a happening called “The Death of Money” in which they dressed in animal masks and carried a large coffin full of fake money down Haight Street, singing “Get out my life, why don’t you babe?” to the tune of Chopin’s “Death March.” This was a precursor to the happening “The Death of Hippie,” staged in October 1967. In “The Death of Hippie,” also staged in the Haight Ashby neighborhood, masked participants carried a coffin with the words "Hippie--Son of Media" on the side. This event was meant to mark the end of the era of Haight-Ashbury. The event was staged such that any media outlet that simply described the happening would unknowingly transmit the Diggers' message that Hippies were a media invention, "creating the condition [they] describe". The Diggers skillfully used this technique for media relations. Their own publications, notably the Digger Papers, are the origin of such phrases as "Do your own thing" and "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." The Diggers fostered and inspired later groups like the Yippies.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Diggers fell not apart but evolved into the larger and more complex Free Family. The Free Food and Medical Clinics were responses to necessary conditions caused by the enormous influx of young people during the heyday of the hippie scene, conditions that the San Francisco government was ignoring: the Diggers' central tenet was authenticity. Running soup kitchens and medical clinics was not the authentic, long-term concern of the Diggers' founders. After passing those institutions on to a local Church and Dr. David Smith to continue, the Diggers moved out of the City, creating various land bases in Forest Knolls, Olema, Covelo, Salmon River, Trinidad, and Black Bear California. In those places they integrated with other groups: The Free Bakery, the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, and the Gypsy Truckers, creating The Free Family. That larger group still exists informally, and many of the Diggers' children and grandchildren remain close and in contact with one another, and many (children included) are still involved with progressive causes.
Various alternative communities like those the Diggers founded were covered in a documentary film made by Will Vinton, who later went on to fame for his ClayMation clay-animation studio in Portland, Oregon, His 1970-ish documentary feature-length film was titled "Gone for A Better Deal," which, so far, has never been released to any video format.
Haight-Ashbury Golden-Gate park poet Ashleigh Brilliant, later known for his series of epigrams on cards and in books called "pot-Shots," has recently released a CD of his songs, parodies of old movie and show tunes about "life in the Haight." The album includes two songs about the Diggers.
- Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers
- Counterculture of the 1960s
- Gift economy
- "Overview: who were (are) the Diggers?". The Digger Archives. Retrieved 2007-06-17.
- "The Chronology of Digger History". The Digger Archives. Retrieved 2007-06-17.
- "Welcome to Planet Drum Foundation". Planet Drum Foundation website. Retrieved October 28, 2010.
- Gail Dolgin; Vicente Franco (2007). American Experience: The Summer of Love. PBS. Retrieved 2007-04-23.
- "The Year of the Hippie". PBS American Experience documentary companion website. Retrieved 2014-03-05.
- "Peter Coyote: Interview by Etan Ben-Ami Mill Valley, California January 12, 1989". The Digger Archives. Retrieved 2014-03-10.
- Coyote, Peter. Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle 1998 ISBN 1-58243-011-X
- Grogan, Emmett. Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps 1990
- Martin, Bradford D. The Theater is in the Street 2004 ISBN 1-55849-458-8
- Perry, Charles. The Haight-Ashbury: A History, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, New York, 1984
- Sinclair, Mick. San Francisco: A Cultural and Literary History Signal Books Limited, Oxford, UK 2004
- Torgoff, Martin. Can't Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000 2004 ISBN 0-7432-3010-8
- The Digger Archives Home Page
- The Free-Fall Chronicles excerpts from Sleeping Where I Fall.
- The Diggers Mystique - San Francisco Chronicle article, 23 January 1967; reproduced in UK Underground paper International Times