How much longer will surf culture remain in thrall of its most despicable element? How much longer will the global surf community continue to simper and tiptoe around the assorted goons who pollute the world’s lineups in the name of localism? This love affair of a culture with its posturing malcontents would seem almost tragic if it were not so patently ridiculous. The frivolity of it all was laid bare last week with a lawsuit filed against people who have apparently spent years intimidating those who would dare surf LA county’s Lunada Bay without performing whatever tree-house initiation they no-doubt require in order to paddle out and sit near the peak.
The class action lawsuit alleges that members of a group calling itself (apparently with a straight face), the “Lunada Bay Boys” have spent years harassing people they don’t know who come to surf “their” wave. This harassment includes intimidation, vandalism, the sexual intimidation of women, flat-out violence, and that favorite weapon of schoolyard bullies everywhere: rock throwing. They even have their own club house, presumably with a strict “no girls allowed” policy and a secret password to get in the door.
I grew up thinking that the ever-present threat of violence that hangs like a miasma over many lineups was normal. Until I was in my mid-twenties it was like the muzak in a department store – so seemingly integral to the experience that it simply fades into the background. How easily we are all inured to such despicable behavior.
It only takes a modicum of distance to see that there is nothing necessary about violence and intimidation when it comes to the practice of a simple hobby upon which nothing depends but the enjoyment of the participants.
Yet, somehow, this culture of fun has spawned an underclass of miscreants trapped in a terminal adolescence – individuals with such a deluded grasp on reality that they have fashioned themselves the guardians and secret police of a tidal Neverland where there is only one game and all the rules are made up as you go along to ensure that you always win. In all other parts of life people who scream and cry and hit you when you ignore their arbitrary rules are called “children.” In surfing, they’re called “locals” and, somehow, they’re afforded respect.
Localism has held surf culture in its sway since in the 1950s when Mickey Dora began to whine about the crowds at Malibu even as he hawked his surfboards to the masses, posed for board short ads and worked as a stuntman on mass-market Hollywood movies. No matter the facts, surfers adopted Dora’s paranoid fantasy of invasion by the masses, and, together with the surf media, constructed layer after romantic layer of myth around the figure of the heroic local battling the tide of “mainstream culture” trying to co-opt and sell-out his beloved pastime. There is no question that Miki Dora was one of the best small-to-medium wave surfers of his time, perhaps of any time, and there is equally no question that he was a two-bit con whose world view only reached as far as his farcically bloated ego. It has taken equal shortsightedness by subsequent generations of surfers to maintain Dora’s aura as the “dark prophet” of surfing, as if his pseudo-intellectual ramblings had any meaning deeper than self-aggrandizement.
Far from rebelling, Dora, and indeed anyone who adopted the persona of the “local” in Post-War America, was taking part in his own small way in the dominant coastal trend of the time – property privatization. The trickle, then flood of Americans to the coastlines of the United States starting in the ’50s set off a gold rush of land acquisition that continues to this day. In a climate of rapid land enclosure, localism was and is, a de-facto privatization of a tiny, and otherwise useless bit of territory by men without the capital or the power to actually purchase or properly annex said property. Don’t look for heroism, selflessness or altruism here. Their intentions have remained the same since the great diamond entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes muttered his eternal lament:
The world is nearly all parcelled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.
If not the stars, then what about the waves? Even someone as predatory as Rhodes – whose diamond empire became a driving force of Apartheid – created certain types of value for others through his land holdings. Diamonds adorned jewelry and were used in industrial cutting and drilling. He paid taxes and employed workers (though not, it should be remembered, at particularly fair rates).
What is unique about the surfing ‘local’ is that he is completely parasitic; his ‘stewardship’ offers no wider benefits to the surf culture as a whole and actively detracts from the fun of others. He takes for himself and gives nothing back except the empty promise of an illusory threat held in check.
Crowded surf spots have grown no less crowded in the last 50 years, dangerous spots no more accessible, and the most fiercely protected spots remain just that – fiercely protected for the privileged use of a handful of the most hateful little bottom feeders in surfing’s large and varied community of avid participants.
So why did it take a lawsuit for this to really hit the collective conscience?
Simple. The mainstream surf media once again failed to shine a light into its darkest corner until it was done for them by others. Since then, both the surf pubs and the mainstream media have roundly condemned the men behind years of violence and intimidation, but one gets the sense that they’re missing the larger point. Most outlets bizarrely focused on the novelty of a “gang” made up of guys who are, according to that die-hard source of hard reporting, The Independent, “white and affluent”. You know, because all gang members are black or Latino.
The story has nothing to do with race or tax bracket. The story is that a group of men have spent years intimidating, vandalizing and hurting people who just want to surf and almost no one in a position to do anything about it has lifted a finger. Why weren’t these degenerates shamed out of existence by the larger surf community in California 10 years ago?
One reason is that stories that paint any aspect of surfing in even the most wan light of negativity simply can’t be sold to publications for an amount of money that is worth the hassle you go through to report on them. Trust me, I’ve tried.
But the bigger problem is cultural. Namely, the many of those working in surf media vacillate between fear and sympathy for locals. As industry insiders – or more often wannabe-insiders who must survive on the scraps thrown to them by big clothing companies and star surfers – many have adopted (even if they won’t admit it now) the same deluded, “us-and-them” mentality that Dora made famous and the Lunada Bay lynch mob has honed into its driving ethos. In this world-view, the local is cast as the enforcer of order and protector of a society in threat. He is the only thing standing between the little fantasy land of “real surfers” and outright anarchy in the lineup brought on by the faceless hordes of “kooks” and people “from the valley” who are overunning the coast. Crucially, no one in the media would ever actually behave like a “local” themselves, but they are certainly content to snuggle into the folds of the curtain of fear that more vicious people bring to the lineup – always provided they are on the right side of it.
The fear I speak of is the kind of reality-defining, adolescent fear born of the belief that your job and even physical well-being depends on the goodwill of people who are stronger than you are. It’s particularly acute for anyone who must put their name to writing and be held accountable for it later. You would be surprised how long memories can be. When it comes to more tightly knit surf communities, the danger of speaking out against abuse is far more present, and it’s one of the driving factors behind the continued support of some of the North Shore’s most despicable men. Ironically, by elevating the status of these types of bullies, the media helps ensure that the scene in Hawaii remains dominated by petty thugs who dress up the savage pursuit of their own narrow interests with doing what is “good for the community.”
Of course, it’s not good for the community. The arbitrary use of violence is antithetical to the very idea of a modern community based on equality and mutual respect.
This, I suppose, is the point where someone makes the argument that “the world doesn’t work like that, and mutual respect won’t get you waves at ____________ wave. Which is true. But if you can’t paddle out and catch a wave at your chosen surf spot, without first smacking half the lineup, or threatening to, you have no business surfing there. It doesn’t matter if it’s Pipeline or San Onofre. This is perhaps harsh but it is the only free and fair way to approach access to highly ephemeral natural resources. Alternately, everyone could just share a bit more, but I suppose any suggestion that we should be less greedy a little too quixotic.
When I was a child, I saw violence against my fellow man in the soft focus glow of romance and adventure. To the immature mind, violence promises to erase life’s vagaries with decisive moments of victory and defeat, win and loss, black and white. But after more than 30 years of witnessing and occasionally being involved with violence, I have come to understand it for what it is: the final bastion of men with nothing left to lose – men so terrorized and warped by modern life that the only real joy left to them is inflicting terror on others. So-called “locals” aren’t surfers, not in the sense of people who have developed a life-defining love of one of the ocean’s more beautiful phenomenon. They are sadists who have found an outlet in the shabbiest and most cowardly expressions of surf culture. It is long past time to purge surfing of them and all that they stand for.