07.31.13

U.S. Open of Surfing Turns Into Riot

The U.S. Open of Surfing dissolved into vandalism, looting, and groping. Mark Lukach on what it says about surf culture.

In 2006, Los Angeles’ Huntington Beach officially became Surf City, USA. For two years, Huntington had been in a protracted legal battle with Santa Cruz, another California surf town, for official recognition as the US’s epicenter of surf culture. Huntington, with its iconic pier, legacy of contests and surf icons, and streets lined with surf shops, had its day in court and maintained claim to the title. Unfortunately, after a recent surf contest dissolved into rioting this past weekend, it looks like Huntington won the right to represent a particularly commercial, and occasionally ugly, strain in modern surfing.

Every summer, the U.S. Open of Surfing descends on Huntington Beach for a weeklong event of surf contests, skateboarding, and loud music—the epitome of modern surfing. If you want to see surfing at its most beautiful, go someplace remote like Indonesia. If you want to see surfing at its most dangerous, head to Mavericks or Teahupo’o. But if you want to see surfing at its most ugly and mass-consumed, head to the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.

With the music, skatepark, and constant surf heats, it’s more of a festival than it is a contest, one intended to highlight the message that has been marketed to countless kids by the surf industry over the last few decades: rebellion and youth are cool, so come on down to Huntington and get rowdy. The official teaser for the U.S. Open features crowdsurfing, skateboard collisions, giant airs in the water, and a general sense of anarchy. Of course, the billion-dollar image of debauchery and disorder that has made surfing, skateboarding, and punk rock so appealing to its mostly white audience is pretty far from the actual experience. Festivals like the Open still have to be orderly enough for companies like Ralphs and Paul Mitchell to feel safe sponsoring them. That is, unless, the crowd comes up with its own ways to rebel, no matter how pointless.

The event kicked off on July 20, and wrapped up this past weekend. As any fan of surfing could anticipate for Huntington in July, the surf conditions mostly sucked—a far cry from epic. Most surf contests are held over a several-week span, so organizers can work with swell forecasters to make sure that the world’s best surfers compete in the world’s best waves. At the U.S. Open, the schedule is set in stone to accommodate the festival atmosphere, so surfers often paddled out in crappy waves. In the men’s final between Kolohe Andino and Alejo Muniz, there wasn’t a single wave ridden for the last 13 minutes of the 30 minute heat.

Unsurprisingly, the event attracted hordes of spectators. There are no official attendance numbers yet for this summer, but in 2012, an estimated 750,000 showed up for the U.S. Open. That’s a lot of people to sit on the beach to watch marginal waves.

As the surfing died down on Sunday, July 28, a riot broke out in the streets of Huntington. Some local news reports suggest that a fight was the spark of the riot; others suspect that the fighting stemmed from the rioting. Either way, the crowd started tipping over portapotties, tearing down street signs, and even smashing their way into a bike shop and looting.

Burt Etheredge, a store employee of the HB Easyrider Shop, the store that was looted, had this to say to NBC Los Angeles:

“We were all huddled inside the building and we had the lights off because all the people were up here mobbing around, and I was inside and I saw them tearing down the stop sign,” he said. “As soon as that stop sign came down, I knew that stop sign was coming through the window. And sure enough, two seconds later, it did.”

Of course, there is a lot of online footage of the rioting, with more likely to surface in the coming days.

The police were quick to arrive on the scene, and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. By dark, the streets were quiet, and eight arrests were made for charges like disturbing the peace, unlawful assembly, and inciting a riot.

Just as quick were the public condemnations. A few hours after things quieted down, the event organizers issued a statement via Facebook: “We’re extremely disappointed and saddened by the disturbance that occurred up on Main St after the close of the US Open of Surfing. We work tirelessly with City staff, police, fire and other agencies to ensure a safe environment for all. We appreciate the quick response of HBPD and are awaiting further information.”

While the rioting was obviously the low point of the week, it was more a continuation on a theme of grossness than a wild outlier. With sub-par surf conditions, the crowd’s attention turned instead on partying and sex. Teens wrote lewd messages on their own bodies, like “spank me” and “I have crabs,” and there are nauseating photos circulating on the internet of some very public groping in the crowd. Zach Weisberg, the founding editor of The Inertia, a surf culture website, covered the U.S. Open of Surfing. He left before the riots occurred because “Huntington had begun to wear on me. On my soul.”

The video footage of the rioting is amateur and shaky, but in each video you can see that everyone is young, tan, overwhelmingly white, and frankly, pretty bored. If you cram that many scantily-clad people onto a beach in hot weather, things are likely to get ugly at some point. In fact, they have before, back in 1986 when a riot broke out, once again at Huntington Beach during a surf contest. The purported start of the ‘86 riot was a bunch of guys trying to take off girls’ bikinis.

I don’t mean to blame this all of on surfing and surf culture. Drunken mobs are dangerous and unpredictable, whether at a surf contest or an NFL game. There have been far more riots in the streets of LA in response to Lakers championships than there have been for surf contests.

But there’s something strangely fitting about a riot at the U.S. Open of Surfing, especially since there seems to be no apparent reason for it. The kids in the videos look mostly bored. They’ve embraced a culture with deep roots in rebellion, and that still markets itself that way, even as it has become palatable and mainstream enough to win big-company advertising. When a grocery store sponsors a surf contest, you know that surfing has lost some of its edge.

Surfing, skating, punk rock—these were all very antisocial and rebellious at their births, but are now billion dollar industries. Skaters used to ditch school to sneak into backyard pools to skate; this past week, they lined up for their favorite skater’s autograph. In surf movies, with their punk rock soundtracks and countless bikini shots, you don’t watch a heat go without a wave surfed for 13 minutes.

The waves may have been disappointing this weekend and the lines long, but hundreds of thousands of kids showed up at Huntington primed to rage. And with nothing else to rebel against, the crowd raged against boredom and basic decency.