The Diggers were a radical community-action group of activists and Street Theatre actors operating from 1966 to 1968, based in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Their politics 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. The Diggers' central tenet was to be "authentic", seeking to create a society free from the dictates of money and capitalism. .
The Diggers were closely associated and shared a number of members with the guerrilla theater group San Francisco Mime Troupe. They were formed out of after-hours Mime Troupe discussions between Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, Peter Berg, and Billy Landout. They fostered and inspired later groups like the Yippies.
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. Some of their happenings included the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free.
The group sought to create a mini-society free of money and capitalism. One of the first Digger activities was the publishing of various broadsides, which were printed by sneaking into the local Students for a Democratic Society office and using their Gestetner printer. The leaflets were eventually called the Digger Papers, and soon morphed into small pamphlets with poetry, psychedelic art, and essays. They often included statements that mocked the prevailing attitude of the counterculture promoted by less radical figures like the Haight-Independent Proprietors (HIP), Timothy Leary, and Richard Alpert. The first paper mocked the acid community, saying "Time to forget because flowers are beautiful and the sun's not yellow, it's chicken!" They rarely included authors' names, though some had pseudonyms like "George Metevsky," a reference to the "Mad Bomber" George Metesky. The Digger Papers originated such phrases as "Do your own thing" and "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
After some HIP members tried to find out who the Diggers were, Grogan and Landout responded with a telegram: "REGARDING INQUIRIES CONCERNED WITH THE IDENTITY AND WHEREABOUTS OF THE DIGGERS; HAPPY TO REPORT THE DIGGERS ARE NOT THAT." The 1% Free poster, showing two Chinese Tong assassins under the Chinese character for revolution, was thought to be demanding a 1% tithe from merchants, but that was not the case. The poster was a challenge, implicitly suggesting that 'free' people were the minority, and inciting others to step up.
They threw free parties with music provided by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and other bands. They also staged street theater events such 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-Ashbury 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 hippie era of Haight-Ashbury. The event was staged so as to make any media outlet that simply described the happening to unintentionally transmit the Diggers' message that Hippies were a media invention. This was called "creating the condition you describe". The Diggers skillfully used this technique for media relations.
The Diggers opened numerous Free Stores in Haight-Ashbury which offered discarded but usable items, free for the taking or giving. The first Free Store was in a six-car garage on Page Street that they found filled with empty picture frames; they tacked these up outside the building and called it the Free Frame of Reference. This was later superseded by the Trip Without a Ticket on Frederick Street. It was unclear how the stores were funded. 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.
The Free Food and Medical Clinics were immediate 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. However, 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 California, including Forest Knolls, Olema, Covelo, Salmon River, Trinidad, and Black Bear Ranch. There 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 in contact with one another, and many are still involved with progressive causes.
The Diggers provided a free food service in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in Haight-Ashbury every day at four o'clock, feeding about 100 people with a stew from donated or stolen meat and vegetables that was served from behind a giant yellow picture frame, called the Free Frame of Reference, which people were required to step through before being served. They also popularized whole wheat bread: their Digger Bread was 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 "crashpad" housing for homeless youth drawn to the Haight-Ashbury area.
Division of Labor
The Diggers' division of labor between men and women has been criticized as sexist, with male members primarily forming ideas while female members were tasked with most of the practical work to realize these ideas. For instance, in providing free food, the men socialized and promoted the events, while the women did most of the collecting, cooking and serving. Decision-making in the organization was controlled by male Diggers, who either came up with or took credit for new ideas, while female Diggers, who provided much of the organization's income via welfare checks and social assistance, were sidelined. This stratification "typifies prefeminist-era radicalism in the sixties."
Various alternative communities like those of the Diggers were covered in a feature-length documentary film by Will Vinton, later known for his ClayMation studio in Portland, Oregon. This early-1970s documentary (1974 according to one source) was titled "Gone for a Better Deal," but it has never been released in any video format.
Haight-Ashbury Golden-Gate park poet Ashleigh Brilliant, later known for his pot-Shots epigrams, has released a CD of his songs and parodies about "life in the Haight," including two songs about the Diggers.
- Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers
- Counterculture of the 1960s
- Gift economy
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