The San Francisco Diggers and the Garbage

San Francisco Diggers from diggersorg

The original Diggers first appeared during the 17th-century English Civil War, a time of great social and political instability. In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley, “moved by supernatural illuminations,” organized the Diggers. Winstanley and company also took some influence from Acts 4:32: “The group of believers was one in mind and heart. No one said that any of his belongings was his own, but they all shared with one another everything they had.”

In a more recent manifestation, the Diggers reappeared in 20th-century San Francisco. Challenging modern industrialization, they referred to it as bureaucratic excess, or garbage.

Diggers, Ranters, and Other Brethren of the Free Spirit

Norman Cohn makes note of the original Diggers in the appendix of his book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. He recognizes the 17th-century Diggers as contemporaries of the Ranters, another very interesting group of “spiritual libertines.” The Ranters were associated with the doctrines of the “Brethren of the Free Spirit,” a millennial movement from the Middle Ages. In giving the background of the Ranters’ formation, Cohn references their contemporaries, the Diggers, a fairly interesting group in their own right, and one that would turn up again in history, in a much different time and place.

Cohn writes: “Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away,’ Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state,’ a primitivist Millennium in which private property, class distinctions and human authority would have no place.”

The Diggers Reappear in San Francisco

Fast forward about 300 years, and cross continents to San Francisco, California. We find evidence of the second coming of the Diggers in an electrifying and remarkable collection entitled BAMN (By Any Means Necessary): Outlaw Manifestos & Ephemera 1965-1970. The book’s editors, Peter Stansill and David Zane Mairowitz, recognize the modern Diggers not only as a reincarnation of the original English communal farmers, but also as a part of the major consciousness shift of the times — “the result of a curious international tendency towards parallel thinking which operated throughout the late ’60s” — another period of social and political instability similar to that of the 17th-century Diggers.

The Diggers (including actor Peter Coyote) responded to the 1966 influx of free-thinking young people of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco with a necessary infrastructure: Free City. Established on the simple premise of providing free services to people who needed them, Free City included a Free Health Clinic, a Free Store, Free News, and later, a Free Bank.

san francisco diggers free news about free city

“God is Dead, 10pm to 6am”

The San Francisco Digger manifestos and flyer reprints that appear in BAMN vary quite a bit in content and style (and are rarely attributed to individuals). One, “Ideas About Open Churches,” makes the plea to keep churches open and unlocked 24 hours a day. Manifestos made use of purposely incendiary phrases (“GOD IS DEAD, 10 PM to 6 AM”) and quotes from Malcolm X and Laozi. Another, “Final City, Tap City” (a version of this book can be found here), despite a questionable emphasis on driving automobiles, offers some optimistic advice on working towards a better future:

Our beautiful Planet will germinate, underneath this thin skin of City
the green will come back to crack these sidewalks.
The stinking air will blow away at last, the bays flow clean.[…]
In the meantime, stay healthy, there are hundreds of miles to walk and work.
Keep your mind. […] Learn the berries the nuts the fruit
the small animals and plants. Learn water. […]
AND THERE MUST NOT BE A PLAN! It has always been the plan that did us in.”

“Who’s Going to Collect the Garbage?”

But perhaps the most fantastic, albeit obtuse, poetry of the San Francisco Diggers can be found in “Garbage or Nothing.” It begins with the basic question, “WHO’S GOING TO COLLECT THE GARBAGE?” The manifesto then establishes something of an “abstract” to its body:

“America 1968 so incredibly wealthy that the local spiritual crisis is:
what are we going to do about the garbage,
the economic crisis (is) how to distribute the garbage
the political crisis (is) who’s going to collect the garbage
and why should anyone want the job,
while in the oblivious streets attention has suddenly exploded
into flesh bodies and the various ways of rubbing them together.”

The San Francisco Diggers have a valid concern (“there’s so much GARBAGE,” “Our wilderness is turning sour”), and an equally valid question of what to do with it. The answer that they come up with may fall short of the expectations of traditional environmentalists, but in the meantime, they find some interesting ways to expand the argument. First, they use it to address bureaucracy:

Pomposity suicided and rigidity machines put to work at a furious clip:
all this garbage must be cataloged and filed,
garbage destruction teams trained,
parking lots on the tillable land,
thousands of well-programmed garbage experts
march to work each day to GET IT DOWN ON PAPER,
enormous factories hastily tooled for garbage conversion.”

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

The above passage takes satirical aim at the excessive machinations of society, but the San Francisco Diggers take their look at excess yet one step further:

America a nation so incredibly wealthy in 1968 that all morality is based on EXCESS:
true American career counselors now ask only one question.
‘Do you want to produce garbage or do you want to collect garbage?’
Industrialist or politician?
Fishfarm or junkyard?”

Let’s Take a Hard Look at Garbage

Garbage becomes not just what we throw away; garbage lies everywhere. Because of the way our society runs, things must continually get produced – even unnecessary things – and this cycle produces the excess that results in the cataloging and filing, the organization and labor, and the programming to the point that anything could reasonably be called “garbage.”

As I said, the “solutions” proposed by the San Francisco Diggers might not satisfy, and it may seem absurd for me to analyze obscure hippie poetry from almost fifty years ago, but the astute analysis made by the San Francisco Diggers themselves, and the fact that the situation likely hasn’t gotten better in the last fifty years — or 350 years, for that matter – inspires one to dig up these manifestos and think about what they really mean.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.