Diggers: The People Who Lived Without Money (At Least, for a While)

Chuck Banner | January 21st, 2017
walkerart.org
walkerart.org

The 1960s was a revolutionary time in many ways. Culturally and politically, a lot was happening, from the apex of the Civil Rights Movement and the dawn of the Women’s Rights Movement to the long Vietnam War. One of the most notorious element of 60s history was the hippie counterculture, with its emphasis on dropping out of traditional society, its craving for individualism, and ethos of “if it feels good, do it.” Many people know a little about hippie culture, like so-called “love-ins” and perhaps its most iconic event of all, Woodstock. But the counterculture wasn’t always just the “peace and love” philosophy; sometimes it went beyond that. One relatively small group, known as the Diggers, took the anti-materialism of the counterculture movement to a whole new level: they sought to create a mini-society that was completely devoid of any currency – everything was free, from food to medical care to entertainment.

The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco was the epicenter of hippie culture in swinging San Francisco. Throughout the mid to late 60s, its streets were filled with free spirits who had come from all over the country and even the world to experience the hippie lifestyle. The Diggers were actors, first and foremost, but referred to themselves as “life actors” – that is, their stage was the streets of San Francisco. They hosted events known as happenings, all of which supported their ideal of establishing a Free City where capitalism did not exist. The most well-known of the Diggers’ happenings was one they called “The Death of Money,” in which participants wore animal masks and marched down the street carrying a coffin full of fake money.

Of course the group’s symbolism also had some concrete action behind it: the Diggers established Free Stores that were essentially secondhand shops in which every item was free. They were also known for distributing free food every day in Golden Gate Park, mostly soup that was made from donated or stolen meat and vegetables. The Diggers’ free medical clinic was in operation for a short time, which they managed by persuading medical students from the nearby University of California at San Francisco to donate their time. Unsurprisingly, the Diggers’ attempt at a free society did not last very long. They eventually abandoned their food bank and medical clinic, passing them on to a local church and a doctor (respectively) who would keep them running. They spread out from the city to various small towns in California and coalesced with other groups with roots in the counterculture, establishing “Free Families;” some of the Diggers and their families still live in these informal groups today.

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