The Huntington Beach Surf Riot: A New Perspective

They never found out if it really was a heart attack that felled the pilot of the Piper Archer that slammed directly into the underbelly of the Aeroméxico DC-9. There were no survivors. Fiery wreckage from the collision cascaded onto homes in the quiet Cerritos neighborhood on Labor Day, 1986. Fifteen on the ground died instantly when their homes were engulfed by burning bolts from above.

Twenty miles south, in Huntington Beach, another conflagration consumed that sunny Sunday afternoon. A riot erupted at the Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Contest, injuring 12 as hundreds of youths rampaged. LA Times photographers caught them victoriously raising their fists over an overturned cop car; the image was printed down in the corner of the front page.

It was a deeply weird time to be alive and rioting. Chernobyl. Nuclear winter. Oriental fruit flies. Folding car shades. You could even feel it at the movies: Ruthless People, Armed & Dangerous, Bullies. The skateboard gang-fight opus Thrashin' had the tagline “Hot. Reckless. Totally insane.” Dear Abby asked, in that day's column, “Are tight underpants better than the Pill?” Funny she should ask. Underpants are kind of what started the riot: Some men tried to take off the bathing suits of some women at the surf contest. They were behind the bleachers, away from the action.

Trapped in a lifeguard station, neutered police retreated from the onslaught of jeers and bottles hurled by those youths on their rampage, watching as flares from their annihilated squad cars were used to set their vehicles ablaze. One understandably overheated policeman claimed they were surrounded by “5,000 people. They could have killed us if they wanted to.” (Curiously, a similar incident in 1983—at which youths also tried to remove the bikinis of the unwilling—resulted in a similar riot. Curiouser: Police said they didn't know the fates of the half-nude women whose assaults kicked off the OP riot.)

The black-and-white Times images, blobby and imprecise as they were, failed to convey the full-color violence of the moment. There, sunburned amid the fires, dodging cops swinging clubs, was Nick Waplington, a 16-year-old British photographer with one roll of 25 exposures, carefully snapping away. At Deyermond Art + Books in Santa Monica, Waplington's full-color photographs from that day have finally been exhumed for a month-long exhibition titled “Surf Riot.”

“I was at college in Nottingham, England, studying art, but I spent most of my holidays in Los Angeles as I was a skateboarder and I liked being there,” Waplington recalls. “That day, I had gone to the OP Surf Pro to see the Alba brothers skate the ramp on the beach as much as watch the surfing. I had been farther down the beach by the ramp, and I saw the smoke and went for a look.

“I knew I only had one roll of film,” he adds, “so I was very careful about the shots.”

The action captured in his stunning images is as frenetic as fire itself. In one, a man mugs for the camera in front of a car swallowed up by thick, black smoke; in another enigmatic shot, a man either saves or sacrifices a bright-yellow surfboard, facing a car-borne inferno blackening the sky, just as the Aeroméxico blaze raged in Cerritos. This was rioting for the sheer unbridled fun of it, without agenda or politics, embodying the darker side of youth: sudden, impulsive and hungry for violence simply because it was available. It was a riot that has for 25 years remained forgotten in the even most casual conversations about urban struggle.

“I had the roll of film processed and left it in my room,” Waplington says. “My mother had a habit of just taking my stuff without asking, and I guess she took this film because she was angry I was there. About a year ago, she gave me a box of my stuff back, and the film was amongst it all.”

In addition to the exhibition in Santa Monica, the shots have been collected for a limited-edition book, also titled Surf Riot, on the imprint Little Big Man Books. Plus, limited-edition, fine-art prints of Waplington's photographs are available. It might seem strange to buy a photograph of a riot, but Waplington's images are so vibrant and immediate you can almost feel the acrid smoke from the fires filling your lungs as you take it all in.


This article appeard in print as “Riot Boys: A unique photographic perspective on the 1986 Huntington Beach Surf Riot comes to SoCal.”

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