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Why Surfing Localism Violates Our Civil Liberties

Why violent and or aggressive efforts to push people out of your local waves is a threat.

In the middle of the night of August 26, 1942, a group of French police under the orders of the Nazis rounded up a group of Jewish families in Nice.

My father’s family including his Aunt Anna and cousins Bernard and Lisette were among those taken to military barracks. There, according to Bernard’s widow, Dorothy Fall in her book Bernard Fall: Memoirs or a Soldier-Scholar, “They all mingled in the filth and heat for a week.”

My great-uncle Leo, husband to Anna and father of Bernard and Lisette, was later tortured and murdered by the Gestapo in November 1943 while he lay sick in a hospital bed.

The effort of the Nazis to exclude Jews and other groups of people from everyday life in Europe (and then exterminate them) was the ultimate form of localism.

Long-time residents and citizens of France including my own father, were delisted as “locals” or residents and all their rights and in many cases, their lives, were forfeited.

Those images of my father’s family came to mind when in 1980 at the age of 15, I witnessed a shooting in Imperial Beach during a community celebration of a cleanup of the Tijuana Estuary I helped organize and carry out.

While my friend Chris Patterson and I listened to a man and his friend sing and play the guitar outside the old Imperial Beach fire station, two men, members of the Aryan Brotherhood, confronted our group.

“Hey n...., get the hell out of here,” the taller of the two men yelled at the guitar player who was African-American.

“Why don’t you get the hell out of here,” responded the friend of the guitar player.

Without saying anything, the tall man took out a pistol and shot the guitar player’s friend in the mouth.

As someone who had grown up listening to the stories of what had happened to my father’s family at the hands of the Nazis (, witnessing a racist shooting was my worst nightmare come true.

But as a young surfer in the late 1970s and early 1980s in San Diego County, I witnessed similar behavior all the time.

Gangs of self-described surfing “locals” either used violence or intimidation to prevent “non-locals” from using public space. In wealthy enclaves such as Palos Verdes, this behavior was ignored and/or abetted by the local police.

Southern California has a long history of excluding "non-locals" from our beaches. Until recently some residents of Malibu contracted private guards to illegally keep the public from using public beaches. In the 1920s, there was only one beach, Bruce's Beach in Manhattan Beach, in all Los Angeles County open to people of all races.

Unfortunately today, groups of thugs or self-described “locals” still populate the coastline and harass anyone they deem to be a “non-local” often using violence to prevent their fellow Americans from using public space.

According to Larry Herzog, Professor of Urban Planning at SDSU, localism reflects, “The increasing ecology of privatization and socio-economic segmentation in American cities.  We have become a nation of gated communities, and the ‘ecology of fear.’ Surfers - without realizing it... are channeling a preference for personal space, fenced yards or marked territory, and the unfamiliarity with being ‘public,’ or gracious about sharing a public space, like the ocean.”

I asked Kevin Keenan, the Director of the San Diego branch of the ACLU if the act of harassing or intimidating anyone from using public space, in this case the coast and ocean, violates fundamental American civil liberties?

 “In U.S. v. Allen, the 9th Circuit,” wrote Keenan, “held that a band of racist thugs who patrolled a public park and kicked out some people through threats and intimidation based on their race were violating their federal civil rights (a federal crime). In this case the court (18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(2)(B) ruled that, 

Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, by force or threat of force willfully injures, intimidates or interferes with, or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because of his race, color, religion or national origin and because he is or has been participating in or enjoying any benefit, service, privilege, program, facility or activity provided or administered by any State or subdivision thereof, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both;  and if bodily injury results from the acts committed in violation of this section or if such acts include the use, attempted use, or threatened use of a dangerous weapon, explosives, or fire shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

“You could argue that civil rights law protects against chasing people off a beach or wave based on their race, color, religion, or national origin," Keenan said, "but should also extend to other kinds of groups, like where a person resides. Not incidentally, given segregation in our society and other reasons, where a person resides often relates closely to race, color, religion, and national origin.” 

The sad fact is that most surfers don’t practice localism, but most do little if anything to prevent the bullying, violence and thuggery they witness by “locals” on almost a daily basis.

Engaging in localism is different than regulating a lineup. That can be done quietly and requires the type of leadership skills that hothead angry “locals” just don’t have.

I only wish that the true definition of being a surfing local meant that a person was invested in the stewardship and conservation of a surf spot.

Instead of berating those of us who violate their “territory,” angry “locals” should instead take leadership to conserve the beaches, waves and coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife that grant us the good fortune of enjoying the blessings of surfing great waves and immersing ourselves in the ocean.

Imagine a world in which surfers worked together to save our surfing areas instead of screaming and fighting with each other over who has the right to enjoy the coast and ocean.

We would surf more, be happier, and have a greater number of spots to surf.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias. He has lived and surfed in Imperial Beach since 1977.

Mum January 26, 2012 at 09:56 PM
It is sad but the days of any sort of any sort of surfing etiquette are long gone. Combine that with the near death of "polite" society and you are looking at the one of the dynamics that has changed surfing for the (I think) worse. I miss the hippies. They didn't drop in half as much. So I would recommend, 1.Stand and fight; most bully's rely on intimidation. You might be surprised what happens if you see thing through. A lot of the characters raised on the mean streets of coastal north county are all bling, no swing. I f you are unfamiliar with specific techniques, take a class. 2. Seek redress with the authorities. Withdraw, blend in to the background, call the police and have the commitment to point out the offender when they arrive. If they are not going to show up in time then get a license plate number. Either way you are going to have to commit to doing something. It wont happen without you taking some kind of action.
Serge Dedina January 26, 2012 at 11:52 PM
I would not advise anyone to fight at all ever when confronting a beach bully. But it is important to call local law enforcement immediately if you feel threatened or are harassed for any reason. Last year at Windansea I saw a confrontation turn into one person talking about getting a gun. You never know who you are dealing with.
Mum January 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM
As I mentioned in point #2 withdrawl is your safest option. Avoidance is also a good strategy. I personally dont surf any of the main breaks anymore, and have much more fun. Or you could just not surf at all... And you are right, you never know who you are dealing with. And you could get eaten by a white shark. You sound like a nice person but this is what the trolls who live under bridges have always counted on. Victim mentality. Passive people counting on someone or something to take action for them to the point where they are unable to do anything because they dont remember how.
Eric Simpson January 29, 2012 at 07:58 PM
I've personally never seen the behavior mentioned in the article at any Encinitas beach, but then, I'm a bodysurfer and rarely deal directly with the folks in the lineup on the main breaks. Still, I've never witnessed any fights in the water or on the beaches of Encinitas, Cardiff, or Leucadia in my 45 years of beach-going.
Mum January 29, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Its a shame but I have seen it at both Pipes and Seaside. Seaside was last year. Pipes was actually a couple of years ago .Neither went to blows (a good thing). But that was probably because the bully didn't know what to do when the intended victim stood firm. I still occasionally surf those spots for two or three waves then move on.. But like you, I'm just not around those main peaks anymore. Its more fun down the beach and much closer to my cooler.

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