San Francisco Diggers

San Francisco Diggers

San Francisco Diggers

In a capitalistic culture, the idea of giving away what you provide is the opposite of what you are all about. When Woodstock Ventures announced that the festival would be free, it was not as incomprehensible as some observers may have thought.  Providing free services was a view that many had had and continued to have.

San Francisco Diggers
Shown above is the “1% Free” poster that first appeared as wall sized posters in the winter of 1968 and became a Digger trademark for the last cycle of street events. Various interpretations of the poster’s cryptic symbology evolved. One interpretation which gained a certain infamy/popularity was that merchants and rock bands were expected to contribute 1% of their receipts to the Free City Bank to fund various activities such as the Free Food Distribution system.

Billy Bragg‘s 1987 cover o f “The World Turned Upside Down”  written in 1975 by Leon Rosselson.

Lyrics below.

San Francisco Diggers

Deep  Roots

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, … but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another”   Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1660)

Wherever a powerful elite exist, we will often find coexisting the idea of “leveling the field” so that all members of a society have an equal chance. The American Constitution contains that idea in its phrase, “to form a more perfect union.” 

Capitalism is based on private ownership. Those who have, have. Those who have not can work for those who have. The relationship can be an equitable one as long as the haves provide safe working conditions and a fare wage.

San Francisco Diggers

British Civil Wars

In Britain, during the 1640s, forces composed of those who supported Parliament (the “people”) fought forces composed of those who supported  King Charles (the monarchy). Charles was beheaded in January 1649 and England became a republic. His son, Charles II, became the king of a much weakened monarchy.

San Francisco Diggers

True Levellers

During the war, the Levellers were a faction supporting the a republican and democratic side, but more radical in their demands such as popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance.

The name “leveller” was used by their opponents in an attempt to associate the members with an earlier movement that actually leveled hedges that separated lands to open up the land to more people.

San Francisco Diggers

British Diggers

An even more radical branch of the Levellers emerged in April 1649 known as the True Levellers or Diggers. Gerrard Winstanley  and William Everard led this faction.  Their view was that the civil wars had been fought against the king and the great landowners and that with Charles’s execution, land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate.

San Francisco Diggers

San Francisco Diggers

The San Francisco Diggers began in August 1966 as a spinoff of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Billy Murcott had moved to San Francisco from New York and joined longtime friend Emmett Grogan and playwright Peter Berg to collaborate on various undertakings including the founding of the Diggers. [see Chronology for a much expanded Digger timeline]

The Diggers site describe themselves  as “…one of the legendary groups in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, one of the world-wide epicenters of the Sixties Counterculture which fundamentally changed American and world culture. “

They evolved out of the counter-cultural fabric already woven into San Francisco’s culture.  The group used street theater, art happenings, and in October 1966, began to distribute free food. Members went to the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market and asked for whatever the sellers weren’t going to sell. Their first kitchens were their own apartments.

In 1967, new Digger Walt Reynolds started the first Free Bakery  using equipment in the kitchen of the All Saints Church that its pastor, Fr. Leon Harris, had donated.  Reynolds insisted on using whole grain wheat flour, which slowly helped spur the general spread of whole grain foods far beyond San Francisco.

Necessity being the mother of inventing, the lack of baking equipment led him to use tin coffee cans. And so, Digger Bread was born.

The Diggers created a free medical clinic.

San Francisco Diggers


R.G. Davis had created the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It’s mission was “…to create and produce theater that presents a working-class analysis of the events that shape our society, that exposes social and economic injustice, that demands revolutionary change on behalf of working people, and to present this analysis before the broadest possible audience with artistry and humor.”

The Diggers followed suit with street performances, eg, Trip Without A Ticket., the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free.

San Francisco Diggers


Ariel, Sam, Peter. This was taken at Olema. Ariel was not yet two. I was about 29. (Peter Coyote)

Actor Peter Coyote was a member of the Diggers. He said, “The Diggers didn’t stand for anything, but they were about personal authenticity and taking responsibility for your own visions.

Co-founder Peter BergThe Diggers have several goals. One was the immediate one: to simply act out free. Put free in front of any word you could think of–a free phone box, free lunch, free district attorney, free judge, free policeman, free boy, free girl, whatever–especially free love. Love being the word that had been foisted on Haight-Ashbery. And the long term goal was to create a bomb, a situation in which the people who were refugees from American culture at the time…would be able to re-see exchanges between each other.”

Like much of the idealism of the 60s, the Diggers activities gradually lessened and their operations ceased. Their operations ceased, but the philosophy of leveling the field continues.

San Francisco Diggers

The World Turned Upside Down

In 1649
To St. George’s Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people’s will

They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed
Reclaiming what was theirs

“We come in peace,” they said
“To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste grounds grow

This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain

By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell

We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor men starve

We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords

We are free men
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now

From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers’ claim

Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on

You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share

All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down

San Francisco Diggers

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