Excerpted from “A Free Frame of Reference,” Ralph J. Gleason‘s “On the Town” column for the January 23, 1967 San Francisco Chronicle. The unnamed Digger spokesperson quoted at length is probably Emmett Grogan.
Two guitar cases stood against the wall of the front room at 520 Frederick street, headquarters of the Diggers. A thin young man in a blue peajacket sat on the floor in the corner softly strumming another guitar.
In the store-front window a TV set sans case, screen to the street, its naked electronics towards the room. Several youths squatted and lay in the window watching it from the inside while a handful stood on the street and looked at it from the out outside. In the back room, a rock ‘n roll station came through low but clear on a radio and in a corner, near two men munching from loaves of bread and sipping soup, another man played a recorder.
The Diggers, the monks of Haight-Ashbury, were getting ready for a meeting. Actually, it was billed as a meeting “for everyone who thinks he’s a Digger,” since looseness is the essence of the Digger group.
The Diggers (the name comes from the group who, in early Cromwellian England, took over the fields and till them, giving surplus food away) have been in existence since the week of the San Francisco Riots. Every day they give away food in the Panhandle at Oak and Ashbury. “Take it, it’s yours,” they say and they feed any and all who show.
Starting from that (the Diggers were born when the Ashbury merchants put signs in their window on the riot weekend telling everyone to get off the streets and go home), the Diggers have expanded into the 520 Frederick clubhouse, a garage and a multitude of plans.
“The Diggers represent the gap between radical political thought and psychedelia,” a spokesman said (“Don’t print my name. Sometimes I speak for the Diggers, sometimes others do.”) “We just live the culture of poverty.
“We just do it. If we need more food, we get it. We’re getting a bus, we’ll run it as a free bus on Haight Street. We’re going to get sewing machines, six of them, in the basement so the girls can make clothes. HOW we do it, that’s where the magic comes in.
“This place, this ‘Free Frame of Reference,’ is for you,” he said to a group who had just come in.”Do what you want in this room. Paint, play music, put your photographs on the wall. Do your thing. But when you leave at night, it goes with you. This room is changed every day.
“And keep it clean,” he added. “The bum syndrome is over. I’m not a bum. You’re not a bum. That went with Keroauc. We have cooks in the kitchen from 9 to 9. If cooking’s your thing, ok, but don’t hassle the cook. We’re starting classes in dance, in music theory, in juggling here. We’ll have poetry readings, too. Ginsberg was just here for three hours chanting. If we need more food, we’ll get more food.
“We believe in the power of autonomy,” he said to me. “The power of standing on the street corner just because you want to.
“The liberals talk about it. We do it. You have to get totally out of the system. We see the futility of either entering or protesting the system.
“When the warm weather comes, we’ll live in the Park. Like Indians. We’ll have rock bands in the Panhandle at night and the Avalon and the Fillmore Ballrooms will have to come out here. Art is free. Let’s keep art free…let’s MAKE art free!”
In the corner a young man with a guitar case looked up. “I came here from New York because I heard of the Diggers,” he said. “I’ve been here four days. What do I do?”
“Come around tomorrow morning and help us put in the new stove,” someone said.
Where do they come from? All over. Where do they get their food? People donate it, like the woman from Texas who sent five jars of marmalade “for the Diggers.”
“We’re at the Panhandle at 4 every day. Come on by,” the Digger spokesman said, “and eat. It’s yours.”