30 years can go by in a blink of an eye. I was 15 years old in 1986 and was as big of a surf fan as any kid growing up on a Southern California Beach and I was excited to see one of summertime’s biggest beach events: The OP Pro at Huntington Beach Pier. The contest was one of California’s only chances to watch the world’s best surfers up close and personal as they competed in one of the only televised surfing contests in the country. What used to be a small surf contest over the years, turned into a massive circus that piggy-backed on the popularity of the event and it was all about to come to a head.
Besides the contest site and bleachers full of surf fans, there was a large skate ramp, volleyball courts and a bikini contest that attracted other people to the beach who could care less about surfing. This was soon to be the recipe for disaster. As the sun rose on Aug. 31, 1986 two major events were about to happen; One was an airplane crash over Cerritos California that killed 83 people on board and the the other was going to be riot the size of which hadn’t been seen since the Watts riots of 1965.
It all started when some drunk inland bullies started to harass women, trying to take off their bikini tops at the now-outdated bikini contest. Some boyfriends were not to happy about it and soon fights broke out. As the police were not close by, the lifeguards were called as they were directly behind the contest site. The crowd quickly turned on the lifeguards and trucks were quickly overturned and set on fire. As the Lifeguards retreated to their main tower, all the while being chased by a raucous crowd, the lifeguard Captain told his men to abandon the building while he stayed behind. Looking out the window, Bill Richardson soon saw the police arrive, but by then it was too late. Police cars were being overturned and set on fire as he heard the mob chant “One more, one more!”
Glass bottles were being thrown into the crowd and at any person of authority. It was mayhem as the black smoke filled the air and the news copters circled overhead. On the beach, the pro surfers feared for their lives but the contest organizers didn’t want to upset the crowd any more that it already was, so they sent the surfers back into the water to finish the contest.
Inside the lifeguard compound Richardson grabbed his 9mm handgun and prepared to protect himself as the rioters were banging on the building and burning lifeguard trucks directly outside his door. As the mayhem and violence continued to escalate, some rioters used metal rods to beat people in the crowd and even police officers. Soon almost a dozen vehicles had been tipped over and burned including Jeeps, ATV,s Trucks and Police cruisers. Now the rioters turned their anger to the lifeguard headquarters.
As Bill Richardson stood inside, getting reports from other lifeguards on the pier, he soon found the rioters had broken the doors and were looting the building. The looters threw flares into the lifeguard headquarters, trying to burn it down. It was then that Richardson told the crowd to leave as they approached him. That’s when he fired his gun sending them fleeing.
While the riot lasted just over an hour, it had a lasting impact on all California beaches including alcohol bans, glass bottle bans and a dozen or more rules that now are commonplace for any and all California beaches. While the event still remains, bigger than ever might I add, the presence of police and hired security is seen and felt at all times.