The Surf This Time

Charlie don’t surf
Charlie don’t surf
Courtney Hamilton

It's nearly the Fourth of July, and the row of Main Street houses leading to downtown Huntington Beach are flamboyantly patriotic. Several porches are obscured by a pastiche of American-flag bunting. "Hometown Hero" banners hang from streetlights, highlighting residents who have served in the military. Homes are manicured, with nary a leaf out of place in their well-maintained gardens.

A few streets over, a surfer strips off his wet suit in front of a resident's yard. With a ripped body, tribal tattoos and a constant sneer, he glares at everyone who drives by. A group of teenagers shouting inanities block the stairway to a business on Main Street. One teenager spits at the feet of passersby. A guy wearing a Metal Mulisha T-shirt catcalls as I walk by.

Two competing narratives play out in the streets of downtown Huntington Beach: wholesome, all-American surf city and alcohol-saturated, bro-dominated assholery. That tension has defined the downtown area for decades, erupting into riots that come like holiday traditions, followed by the city's equally traditional, reactionary effort to clean up the beach.

In 1986, the first of Huntington Beach's riots jarred the OP Pro Surf Contest, predecessor of today's U.S. Open of Surfing. Footage shows thousands of half-naked bodies running amok on the beach, plumes of black smoke from burning police cars behind them. Purported to have begun after a few women flashed event-goers and some guys became grabby, the beach quickly became a war zone. The city responded by ceasing alcohol sales at the event, ramping up security, moving it from Labor Day weekend and using more "cautious" marketing.

Upcoming Events

A slew of July 4 riots in the '90s further solidified Huntington Beach's raucous image. In 1993, police arrested 40 people for setting furniture aflame in the middle of the street, and 1994 saw similar bedlam. Police deployed a then record-high 225 city police officers and 26 sheriff's deputies the night of July 4, 1995. The riots still came that year, along with the murder of a 21-year-old resident.

Every year, H.B. residents blamed the riots on a lack of manpower and enforcement, drugs and alcohol, youth culture—or all of the above. Every year, police promised to come down harder on the rioting. On July 4, 1996, those efforts became draconian. After loosely interpreting an old ordinance that defined "public" as including residents' yards without fences, officers targeted bros drinking outside their homes, racking up 500 arrests.

Apart from general downtown debauchery and a street brawl with a lead pipe in 2008, few incidents were reported between the late '90s and 2013. The relative calm was enough that the Huntington Beach Independent declared the "riots long gone" in 2008. That optimism was halted by the 2013 U.S. Open riots.

Smart-phone footage plastered across social media lead to the arrest of 20 people after the July 28 turmoil. The riot cost the city more than $30,000, including officer overtime pay, special equipment to clean overturned portable toilets and repairs to vandalized stores.

The city created a Downtown Task Force in response. Its September 2013 meeting was overtaken by residents complaining the downtown crowd was once again destroying the moral fiber of Huntington Beach. According to the meeting minutes, one resident "expressed concern that the U.S. Open activities affect his neighborhood and referenced inappropriate behaviors, including drugs and sexual activity occurring in his yard, [and] extremely confrontational behavior by trespassers." Another resident "stated that she has made more than 50 calls to HBPD over the years due to a variety of issues. She wrote a letter that was published in The Orange County Register and has spoken with staff regarding the U.S. Open but was previously told it was being scaled back and did not believe it was."

Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy explains the scaling down as "minimizing distractions."

Mayor Pro-Tem Joe Shaw says the task force will make downtown "more resident-focused" and "family-friendly." In discussing the massive scaling back of this year's U.S. Open, Shaw echoes sentiments from previous riots: "It was overblown and became too large for the police to enforce. . . . We've let things get too big."

When determining what to change for this year's event, Shaw says of U.S. Open sponsor Vans, "We're real good partners and agreed right away. There may be rumors, but I didn't sense any tension."

Vans' Doug Palladini (Vice President, General Manager, Americas) claims he was "disappointed" to remove the live music portion from the U.S. Open, though it's something he says Shaw doesn't "think anyone will notice."

Post-riot changes to the U.S. Open mirror the post-riot changes in Huntington Beach's past, although Handy disputes this. "We have millions of people come through Huntington Beach every year," Handy says. "There have been a couple of disturbances in the past, but they are isolated problems. It was only two or three times." (Actually, at least seven "disturbances" have occurred in the past 30 years.)

According to Shaw, the city has capped the number of liquor stores in downtown at 42 and requires new restaurants wanting a liquor license to close at 10 p.m. After trying and failing to shut down beach rave "Wet Electric" in September 2013, the city signed an agreement with the state to communicate monthly about events hosted on their respective beaches.

Revisiting the draconian days of 1996, the city installed several more cameras throughout the downtown area and recently hired 15 more police officers. A new "downtown ambassador" program will launch at this year's U.S. Open and continue afterward, Handy says. Private security guards have been trained to provide directions and city information and will serve downtown as a cross between Walmart greeters and bouncers.

Will the restrictions on alcohol impact local businesses? That's unclear, as most businesses I approached declined to comment on a changing Huntington Beach.

If the city can't clean up its act through enforcement and manpower tactics, it has a backup plan: throw money at it. Pacific City, a planned $135 million shopping center near the pier, will be an upscale boutique, eatery mall and housing development that beckons to the hip, young and affluent—the "family-friendly" crowd Huntington Beach seeks to attract.

We'll see what the bros have to say about that.

Stronger than Jack Daniel’s
Courtney Hamilton

Upcoming Events

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >