Huntington Beach: 25 years after riots

Archival photo

The Huntington Beach riots over Labor Day in 1986.

The world's biggest surf competition has so far passed without incident this week on the sands of Surf City USA as thousands of locals and out-of-towners descended on southern California's Huntington Beach for the 2011 Nike U.S. Open of Surfing. But such seaside tranquility has not always been the case. This year's installment marks the 25th anniversary of the now-infamous riot on the beach.

On that Labor Day weekend in 1986 during Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships, the aftermath of rioting beach-goers was clear: overturned cop cars on fire, officers in riot gear herding and arresting drunk young men, the shutdown of northbound Pacific Coast Highway and the departure of the Association of Surfing Professional's Executive Director Ian Cairns, who would retire out of disgust.

In news stories printed at that time, it was reported that that rioters broke a metal fence railing and used the pipes to smash windows of five parked police cars. The rioters then overturned the vehicles and set them on fire with flares found inside the cars. As the cars burned, the mob tried to enter the lifeguard building. The officers and lifeguards inside evacuated, taking several injured people with them. has called it "a day that would change pro surfing forever."

Since then, the event has experience a few hiatus years and taken on different sponsors. But it still remains the biggest surf event on the planet, this year drawing hundreds of competitors in several divisions and an estimated half a million beach-goers over the course of its 10-day run.

If spectators notice a visible and reinforced police presence this week, that's a direct result of the 1986 mob violence. Also, city and contest officials agreed to never again hold the event over Labor Day weekend.

For the Huntington Beach Police Department's part, "more planning goes into it," said Lt. Tom Donnelly, who was also working beach patrol during the 1986 riot. "The event's bigger than ever. There's a lot of people on the beach. But so far the event has been well-planned. [As far as law enforcement is concerned,] there's been nothing major, nothing out of the ordinary. We don't try and drive the event, we just react to whatever comes our way."

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