Riot Erupts at Huntington Beach Surf Contest : Hundreds of Youths Stone Police, Burn Cars in Violent Rampage
Hundreds of youths went on a rampage in Huntington Beach on Sunday afternoon, pelting police officers with rocks and bottles, storming a large lifeguard station and overturning and burning police vehicles.
Police said at least 12 people were injured, including five Huntington Beach officers and one Orange County sheriff’s deputy. Thirteen people were arrested but scores of youths who threw bottles at officers or took part in the destruction escaped in the confusion.
The disturbance broke out about 2 p.m. behind bleachers being used for the final day of the Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships, which drew a crowd estimated at 100,000 people.
Witnesses said the melee had no direct connection to the surfing contest but instead was triggered by two or more men behind the bleachers immediately south of the Huntington Beach Pier who were trying to take off the bathing suits of two young women.
“We’ve got a riot and we’re making arrests,” Huntington Beach Lt. Jack Reinholtz said shortly after the melee began. He said it was the worst disturbance to occur in Huntington Beach since a 1969 Easter weekend riot.
When officers went to the aid of the women, said one Huntington Beach officer who was involved, they were met by a hail of rocks and bottles. He said his group of about 10 officers was surrounded by “about 5,000 people. They could have killed us if they wanted to.”
Those who were injured, including the six law enforcement officers, reportedly were hit by thrown objects or struck by people in the rampaging crowd. Most of the injuries consisted of sprains and head cuts.
No tear gas was used, and the only gunshot was a warning shot fired by a lifeguard.
Many eyewitnesses, including a Huntington Beach city councilman who was trapped in an observation tower during the riot, said police acted with restraint. But many young people who were at the crowded beach charged that police indiscriminantly clubbed anyone in sight as they tried to clear the area.
As night fell in Huntington Beach, helmeted officers from several jurisdictions continued to patrol the Pacific Coast Highway and nearby streets, clearing bystanders from the area. The city’s famous pier, which normally is jammed on Labor Day weekend evenings, was eerily deserted, with police cars sealing off the entrance. Pedestrians were allowed to walk in the Main Street area, but police quickly broke up any groups that formed. Parts of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway were littered with trash and broken glass that stemmed from the riot. As the trouble began Sunday afternoon, “I heard someone behind the bleachers yelling, ‘Take it off, take it off,’ ” said Mark Bauserman, 22, a student at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Bauserman, who was taking photos at the event, said police came to the bleacher area to try to help the two young women.
“It started off with only about 50 people surrounding the police,” said Bauserman. “But more and more came, I don’t know how many, but it seemed that everybody on the beach stopped watching the surfing contest and came to watch what was going on with the police.”
Police Take Refuge in Building
Retreating under a barrage of rocks and bottles, officers took refuge in the two-story Vincent G. Moorhouse Lifeguard Headquarters, an administration and maintenance building about a half mile down the beach. Thousands of persons, many of them continuing to throw bottles at the police, followed.
The huge crowd surrounded the building and began jeering at the police and lifeguards inside, according to witnesses and officers. Some of the rioters then broke apart an aluminum fence railing and used parts of it to shatter windows in five police vehicles parked outside the lifeguard headquarters.
After breaking windows and headlights of the police cars, the rioters turned the vehicles over and set them on fire. An eyewitness said that some rioters found safety flares in the police cars and used those to start the fires.
As the cars were burning, the mob then began trying to enter the lifeguard building, police and witnesses said. The officers and lifeguards inside decided to evacuate, taking several injured people with them.
But the chief of lifeguards, Marine Safety Lt. Bill Richardson, 42, decided to remain in the building. “I was worried what would happen to the money and equipment inside,” he later told a reporter. “There was too much in this building just to give it up to them.”
The rioters outside the lifeguard building broke windows and gained entry to the downstairs garage and storage area. They carried off a number of bicycles, life-saving equipment and even private clothes of the lifeguards, police said.
Richardson, who was upstairs alone on the second floor of the building, armed himself with a 9-mm handgun and started walking down the stairs to face the looters. He said he fired one warning shot into the garage ceiling. “They (the looters) took off like it was the 100-yard dash,” Richardson said.
The crowd continued to surround the outside of the building, with Richardson alone inside. He was rescued about 45 minutes later when Huntington Beach police, together with reinforcements from the Sheriff’s Department and several Orange County cities, marched down from Pacific Coast Highway. Most of the officers were wearing riot gear, and several had long clubs that they swung at people in the crowd.
“I was just sitting on my bike (on the sidewalk near the besieged building) when the cops came running up,” said Richard Lopez, 17, of Gardena. “One of them hit me.”
Many other young people claimed that police hit them without provocation during the move to clear the area around the lifeguard building, and later during a sweep to clear everyone from the beach and pier.
But many witnesses, including Huntington Beach Councilman Don MacAllister, said that the officers acted with restraint during the entire two-hour melee.
‘Nothing But Pride’
MacAllister was a guest of honor at the surfing contest, and he was in a special observation tower used by judges and computer technicians. “I have nothing but pride for the way the police acted,” he said. “I was trapped up there, and I could see the police as they were surrounded below us.”
A spectator, Terry O’Brien, 54, of Los Angeles said, “I was brought into the lifeguard building when I was injured by a bottle. There were some other injured people inside. A police officer stood by the door with a .45. The people outside at that point were trashing the (police) vehicles. I thought the police were very restrained.”
One officer said he personally arrested a 17-year-old youth who had hurled a bottle at him from 20 feet away. The officer said he saw the same youth break a bottle over the head of a police dog name Caesar.
For a time, officers closed northbound lanes on the Pacific Coast Highway through Huntington Beach. And southbound traffic on Beach Boulevard was stopped at Atlanta Avenue in Huntington Beach, preventing vehicles from driving to the coast.
By late afternoon, officers in riot gear from Huntington Beach, the Sheriff’s Department, Stanton, Seal Beach and Westminster, as well as state park rangers, were on patrol along Pacific Coast Highway and along Main Street in downtown Huntington Beach.
MacAllister and another city councilman, Peter Green, both said Sunday night that the City Council will thoroughly air the beach riot during a council meeting Tuesday night. “I imagine there will be some people pressuring us now to end the surfing contests,” said MacAllister. “But I would hate to see that happen. I was there, and I can tell you that the people who started this weren’t there to watch the surfing competition. The final events were going on, and those interested in surfing were watching that.”
Council Urged to Ban Competition
In 1983, a bikini contest that was an offshoot of the Op Pro Surfing competition triggered a much smaller melee at the Huntington Beach pier. That disturbance broke out when spectators tried to pull down bikinis of the contestants. Police moved in and closed down the beach. There were six arrests but no injuries, and no clashes between the crowd and the arresting officers.
Nonetheless, the disturbance prompted many residents to urge the Huntington Beach City Council to end the competition.
The organizer of the world surfing tour said the riot clouded the future of the event in Southern California.
“It’s more than disappointing; it’s terribly depressing,” said Ian Cairns, executive director of the Assn. of Surfing Professionals, which governs the world tour. “It’s going to make everyone take a long hard look at what we’re doing.
Cairns said he did not want the tour to be associated with an area that has demonstrated a potential for such dangerous disruptions.
“Maybe L.A. can’t handle it,” he said.
Times staff writers Sarah Smith, Nancy Wride and Kristina Lindgren contributed to this story.