The criminal gang who took control of a California surf haven

Photo: Noah Smith

Photo: Noah Smith

It’s a beautiful winter day at Lunada Bay: a near deserted cove, crisp California sunshine, azure ocean, waves rhythmically breaking at the point, as if nature were extending an invitation to surf. But when my friend and I clambered down the rocky path, boards in hand, the gathering of surfers already there were less welcoming. 

“Wrong place guys.” “You shouldn't fucking come down here. Stay away from this area.” “Just leave. Just go. Go surf somewhere else.” “We'll burn you every single wave.” “The reason there's a lot of space. Its because we keep it like [this]. We fucking hassle people.”

“Why?” I asked. 

“It’s fucked, dude. People think we’re a bunch of assholes, but you know what? We want to keep it like this so we can go somewhere where it’s fucking sacred.”

On it went -- a tirade of threats and warnings to leave, along with demands to stay out of the water and never come back. Deciding the risk of broken teeth wasn’t worth it, Noah and I retreated back up the bluffs. Where, just in case we hadn’t got the message, someone had smeared our car with eggs and used surf wax to scratch “kooks” (slang for amateurs) on the windows. 

The Bay Boys clearly felt it was their realm. What they didn’t know was that we were recording the exchanges.

And so ended our encounter with surfing localism, the term for aggressive territorialism in which surfers keep certain beaches for themselves by intimidating outsiders with vandalism, violence and threats of violence. Popular culture associates surfing with a laid-back vibe: a fellowship of the waves, communing with nature; But this is not the case at Lunada Bay, which sits at the base of cliffs on the Palos Verdes peninsula, just south of Los Angeles.

The so-called “Bay Boys”, a gang of self-professed locals, menaced outsiders for decades and built an illegal shelter-cum-party spot comprising cemented stone walls, a patio, bench and fire pit, with a wooden canopy. In addition to tire slashing and assaults on the water, outsiders risked having rocks and clods of earth dropped on them from the bluffs -- attacks allegedly coordinated by radios and group text messages.

Photo: Noah Smith

Photo: Noah Smith

Despite the gang's moniker, members are mainly middle-aged men. Most are white and reportedly wealthy, which may be why the city of Palos Verdes Estates, also white and wealthy, turned a blind eye to the intimidation. Too many outsiders could spoil the idyll. The Los Angeles Times lamented this in an editorial in 1991, noting that if “black or Chicano kids tried to stake out a stretch of beach as ‘ours,’ the authorities would dub them a gang and be down on them in a flash. So what makes the surfers at Lunada Bay any different?”

As the Los Angeles correspondent for The Guardian, this seemed a question still worth answering in January 2015. So my video colleague Noah and I turned up there one Sunday morning, hauling boards and wetsuits, to see if we could enjoy some waves in peace.

The fort was a monument to the Bay Boys’ warped sense of entitlement and local authorities’ complicity...

There is no proper path and the cove, once you're down there, feels cut off from the world above. The Bay Boys we encountered clearly felt it was their realm. What they didn't know was that we were recording the exchanges.

The resulting video, Surfer Turf Wars in California, which Noah edited, went viral, along with its accompanying article. It was satisfying to see bullies exposed, but I assumed that was the end of it. The internet foamed onto new topics, the story seemingly forgotten.

But the story set in motion a sequence of events which will soon see the Lunada Bay Boys’ illegal shelter demolished. Various media outlets, including TV networks, turned up at Palos Verdes to investigate the entitled surfer bros. Outsider surfers hired lawyers and filed a class action lawsuit, claiming the Bay Boys violated the California Coastal Act by blocking public access to the beach and by assaulting beachgoers. One plaintiff, Diana Milena Reed, said she was sexually harassed and doused with beer.

The suit also alleged that someone who tried to organise a Martin Luther King Day event was confronted in the water by a Bay Boy in blackface and an Afro wig who said: “You don’t pay enough taxes to be here.” The suit asked a federal judge to ban the Bay Boys from congregating at the cove and to order local authorities to investigate and prosecute their alleged crimes.

The California Coastal Commission, a powerful state body, then ordered Palos Verdes Estates to either bring to code the illegal shelter – referred to as a fort - or demolish it. Ignoring opposition from some residents who defended the Bay Boys as a club, city council unanimously chose demolition. In September, the Palos Verdes Estates planning commission approved a permit to raze the structure and return the beach to its natural state. The jackhammers are expected by December.

Photo: Noah Smith

Photo: Noah Smith

The fort was a monument to the Bay Boys' warped sense of entitlement and local authorities' complicity, an LA Times editorial declared in July. “Its removal will send an important message, finally, that this kind of territoriality is not only unacceptable, it's antithetical to the California Coastal Act, which ensures the public’s access to the ocean. This right has been impeded in Lunada Bay for too long, aided by local authorities who looked the other way or brushed off reports of violence and harassment by local surfers.”

The editorial – self-aggrandisement spoiler alert – credited the Guardian video with getting the ball rolling.

So there it is: after two decades of reporting wars and human rights abuses in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East, I finally do some journalism that has a demonstrable impact, that delivers an overdue comeuppance, that sets wheels of justice in motion-  and it's about man-child surfers and their home-made shelter.

Well, so be it. LA is home now and I'm invested in it. I'm looking forward to returning to Lunada Bay on demolition day with a surfboard under my arm and telling the Bay Boys their reign is over. Or, in language they will understand: “It's fucked, dude.”