Wax On, Wax Off: Surfing, Violence and You (Pt. 2)

I've continued to ask local surfers to share their thoughts and experiences on surfing-related violence in Orange County. Here are some additional thoughts that have come in since yesterday:

  • “Orange County is just as bad as anywhere else. Some 40 year old man tried to drown me at the [Huntington] Pier when I was 16. I dropped in on him and called him a kook, but I was just a kid.”
  • “It seems like there is a link between poverty and violence and we live in a bubble that doesn't tolerate either of them. Our cops pick up homeless people and drive them to other areas to drop them off.”
  • “Malibu is rich but is home to some bad gangs, too. What is different about Malibu and the OC? Maybe it has to do with the business community…I don't know.”

  • “Maybe there is violence but we choose not to emphasize it and the media doesn't really report it.”

Some cool thoughts were also posted since yesterday by readers here at “Wax On, Wax Off.” One person shared that they quit surfing in Huntington years ago because of the tense atmosphere and the presence of “Nazi Surfers” enforcing their own brand of right-wing localism out in the water.

Another surfer told of “cop surfers” enforcing the law in Northern California, handing out tickets and prosecuting violent crimes. Some surfers seem to have the distinct notion that the law somehow doesn't or shouldn't apply out in the water. But as our commenter suggests, most surfers wouldn't be so apt to dismiss people's legal rights if they themselves were assaulted or mugged on dry land. Another commenter shared an awesome video of two guys sharing a wave in dangerous conditions at the Wedge–check out the footage here.

However, many surfers remain unconvinced, posting loads of territorial machismo bullshit in response to these gestures of cooperation.

Flickr user MikeBaird

In 2001, director Darren E. McInerney teamed up with Glenn Hening, founder of the Surfrider Foundation to create a short documentary called The Swell Life. The film explored the phenomenon of surfing violence in California, and included input from just about everyone involved–local cops, politicians, victims and criminals. Focusing on some of Southern California's most localized spots, the filmmakers zoned in on places like Silverstrand Beach, Palos Verdes, and Port Hueneme.
The film might be old, but it addresses the very issues we're talking about. In an attempt to understand the extreme territorialism that often accompanies the sport, Glenn Hening explains that getting a good wave is “pure ecstacy.” The thrill, he says, is easily compared to “a shot of heroine or a hit off a crack pipe. Once you get a really good one, you want another one.” The addictive nature of surfing is something that any amateur has experienced. Combined with a big population and limited resources, the addiction quickly escalates to competition. Hening describes some surfers as “Junkies…they're out there for a fix…It's natural, open sea…but some surfers, they treat it like it's a crack house.”

But this problem extends way beyond the adrenaline junkie meat head looking for his fix out in the water. Scarily enough, the problem often encompasses entire communities in a sort of hicked-out haze of hatred and prejudice. In the documentary, then-Palos Verdes police chief Tim Browne goes so far as to defend the violent attitudes and life-threatening crimes of local surfers, describing the rock throwing and beatings in his hometown as “incidents provoked by outsiders.” He seems to suggest that outsiders should know the rules and stay away. “People don't like outsiders here in general,” he says, “there's a sense of ownership that's really connected to their feeling about it.”

But we all know that nobody owns the surf. The idea that a cop would be dumb enough to circumvent the law like that is downright scary. The persistent filmmakers got Brian Billbray, former U.S. Republican Congressman, to weigh in: “an us and them mentality…judging people by perceptions of ignorance…basically denying an individual his constitutional rights based on the fact that he's not in our group.” And I thought we were past all that!

For many, surfing represents ideals of peace, harmony with nature and a generally laid-back attitude. For some, surfing even exists as a direct outgrowth of the peace-and-love-filled cultural environment of the 1960s, when the sport really began to explode onto the mainstream. Granted, surfing has come a long way and its identity has been transformed in many ways since its early days. But do these ideals have to be sacrificed?

Some say no. As one local surfer told me, “it's becoming cool to be chill and peaceful.” Surfrider Foundation founder Glenn Hening says that violence and localism are “not what surfing was about when it started in the early 1960s…not what it should be about in the next millennium.”

Nonetheless, even the most laid back surfers know there is a case to be made that outsiders, and most of all beginners, can bring with them their own degree of danger and conflict. Major fights and even small riots have broken out in Orange County between inlanders looking for trouble and locals trying to mind their own business. In The Swell Life, one victim of a savage beating even expresses his understanding of “the sentiment of wanting to protect your local resources.” When conditions are dangerous, dropping in on people and a general lack of etiquette can be forms of assault that are just as dangerous as beating someone up in the parking lot, if not worse. And let's face it, in an increasingly eco-conscious culture in an already green-leaning part of the country, the audacious inlander who litters his Sparks can or flicks his cigarette butt into the sand is asking for trouble.

But even a few of the most violent surfers, like the ones quoted in the 2001 documentary, seem to have changed their tune. Darren “Zorba” Cruz, who was once rumored to surf with razor blades on his board (an accusation that he denies today), says in the film, “you can make your point without being physical and territorial and hurting people's property.”
The point of view of the experts, ranging from politicians to industry leaders to formerly violent locals, seems consistent with that sentiment. Don't be the guy who ruins surfing for everybody else. Don't be the guy who needs a cop present at all times because he can't control his temper. Waves can be shared. People can get along. As Glenn Hening says, “The worst locals are really really fucked up people… here they are hanging their whole personality on 'my wave, this is my wave'…it's like in Lord of the Rings–'my precious'…”

I highly recommend the documentary The Swell Life, which runs on Fuel TV every now and then. It's available on iTunes, too. Even though it's a short film, it's probably the most thorough, comprehensive look at localism and violence that you'll find out there. You can read all about the making of the film here. The November 2009 issue of Surfer Mag also has a good article about localism. And please, continue to share your thoughts and stories with us.

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