Why Surfing Localism Violates our Civil Liberties

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 (my mother survived the German Blitz as a child in London), 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.”

“Aggressive localism..reflects more the weakening of class and racial boundaries..along with increasing density and diversity,”said Edward Sojoa, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Studies at UCLA. “Nearly everyone feels their space is being invaded. In defense, they re-territorialize, buy guns and guard dogs, defend their turf, buy advanced security systems, move into gated and armed guarded communities, and hang out signs that tresspassers will be shot.”

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 Kevin, “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). 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, 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.


  1. Excellent post!


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