Established in 1980 the Ché Café in San Diego, California, is one of the most prominent DIY spaces in American hardcore punk history. Ever since then the space has been working as a workers co-operative, antiauthoritarian social center, cheap vegan café (the name also stands for Cheap Healthy Eats) and a live music venue. The Ché is located on the University of California, San Diego campus in La Jolla. Zack de la Rocha of Inside Out/Rage Against The Machine fame describes the Ché Café as “A place that is not only a great venue, but a source of inspiration and community building for any artist, student, or worker that has entered its doors.”
Unfortunately Ché is under constant threat of eviction and in an act of international solidarity I’ve contacted Cameron, Miranda and Danel, who are doing a DIY documentary on self-managed spaces in the USA with their main focus on Ché Café.
Three people are doing a documentary about a collectively runned DIY space known as the Ché Café in San Diego, CA. Who are you and what’s the story that you would like to tell us with this documentary?
We are Miranda, Daniel and Cameron. All three of us are collective members at a radical DIY space near Los Angeles known as Bridgetown DIY. We have all three been previously involved in projects relating to anti-authoritarian politics, music and art. Miranda is a documentarian by trade, Daniel is a photographer and student who often shoots shows and Cameron is student of Sociology who produces zines and is part of a currently active band called La Bella.
The film focuses on three spaces located across Southern California: The Ché Café, Bridgetown DIY and Blood Orange Infoshop. In making this documentary, we hope to not only shed light on the music, art and culture that these spaces help to create for their communities, but also to expose the processes, conflicts and compromises that are involved with building and working in spaces that rely on non-hierarchical organizing models.
Much of the film focuses upon an escalating tension between The Ché Café and the University of California San Diego.
Ché Café was an important part of radical culture not only as a DIY music venue but also as an antiauthoritarian political space and much more. Can you elaborate on the activities happening there and why do you think such a space can be so important for building a youth culture of creativity and resistance?
The Ché has always acted as a bastion for radical thought and praxis in Southern California. Since it began, it has been operated by an open, consensus driven collective. It has played host not only to droves of politically motivated bands, but also as a center for anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, queer, student and pro-immigrant organizing.
There have been a number of notable radical projects that the Ché collective has been involved in over the last three decades; the ones that stand out to us include: BURN!, a very early online directory for international radical resources developed in the late 90’s – this project was so controversial that University Administration at one point attempted to bring terrorism charges against Ché collective members by invoking the Patriot Act (they failed).
Another even earlier project that the Ché collective was central in helping organize was the student South African Apartheid divestment movement that took place on the University of California campuses during the 1980’s.
Finally, a more recent project that Ché Collective members have helped to facilitate has to do with assisting immigrants. Because the Ché is situated in San Diego, it is less than 35 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico. In the recent past, racist and xenophobic vigilantes have driven to along the border wall at night and attempted shine their car’s headlights on undocumented migrants crossing the border – in an attempt to scare them off while calling the border patrol to arrest and deport them. In response to this, Ché Collective members, along with community organizers created a project wherein volunteers stand along parts of the border wall at night, holding large mirrors – so that when the vigilantes attempt to shine their lights on the border, the light is reflected back, blinding them.
Spaces like the Ché are crucial for marginalized and vulnerable youth to find each other and develop relationships, while also learning how to struggle together for a better world. This space and the resources that it provides, has also served as a means to insert radical political dialogue into otherwise apolitical music and art events. This is especially true for the United States where radical political spaces are often hard to come by, especially those that combine music and art with politics.
The venue is located on the campus of the University of California San Diego, can you go a little bit further on the tension between the University’s authorities and the participants in Ché Café? What kind of actions did the students take during the years and what about the community support they received?
To understand the history of the tension between the Ché Café Collective and UCSD, one must go back to the inception of the University itself. UCSD was one of the last University of California* campuses to be built, with construction finished in 1960. In the wake of the massive social upheavals in the late 1960’s, students in California and across the U.S. became more interested in self organizing. In 1966 a small horseshoe shaped building, which was formerly part of a military barracks, was transferred to the UCSD campus and converted into a full service café and student center. In 1979 the University Administration made a decision to transform the café, then known as the ‘Coffee Hut’, into a faculty lounge. This angered the students who utilized the building, prompting them to seize control of the facility and subsequently force the University to permanently cede control of the space to the students.
*(UC or University of California refers to the California state public university system, it includes 10 campuses across the state)
This singular act can be understood as the impetus for the University’s grudge against what would become the Ché Café – in essence, they hated the fact that students were able to forcibly seize control of a building and use it for their own interests.
In 1980, the ‘Coffee Hut’ underwent renovations (paid for by students and community members). When the renovations were complete, the space officially re-named itself the ‘Cheap Healthy Eats’ or ‘C.H.E.’ Café, the acronym in its name being a nod to the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara who had been killed by the CIA in Bolivia.
From 1980 on, the Ché Café began serving inexpensive vegan meals to students and community members – while also hosting a variety of music events. In the late 80’s, with the rise of hardcore, the Ché became a lightning rod for both touring and local punk/hardcore acts. By the mid-to-late 1990’s, the space had begun to be recognized as a breeding ground for screamo and emo acts.
Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the University made several attempts to shut the space down, using a variety of excuses including: “fighting between participants,” “unsafe structure,” and “campus security being unwelcome.” In a few instances, the University went so far as to attempt to lock the Collective out of their space. One story in particular, which is re-told in the documentary by those who participated in it nearly 25 years ago, involves students bursting through the doors of the Ché, to catch the police and University administrators by surprise, and then occupying the space and forcing them to leave. As recently as the year 2000, however, the Ché Collective has been forced to resort to the use of direct action tactics such as blockades, lockdowns and occupations to ensure the continued existence of the space.
In the most recent iteration of the struggle between the University and the Ché Collective, the University seems to have become a bit more intelligent in their efforts to oust the Collective. Rather than directly confronting them, University Administrators have employed extremely complicated bureaucratic maneuvering and backroom deals in an attempt to appear “legitimate” in their destruction of the Collective. There is a wide range of community support, from non-students who go to shows at the space to alumni who once participated in the Ché Collective, to various artists and radicals from the San Diego area. In response to the most recent aggression by the University, the Ché and its supporters have used tactics of escalation in an attempt to win the struggle. They began by voicing their concern at various student government meetings, they then circulated a petition (which now has over 14,000 signatures), after that they began marching on campus to directly confront administrators, next they filed a lawsuit (which the collective unfortunately lost), which brings us to present day and the collective’s preparation for more direct action tactics.
For more on the history of the Ché and its struggle, you can follow this link for a visual representation of their history: http://goo.gl/6y7iHO
How many people are involved in running the venue and what kind of group dynamics do they maintain? How do they make decisions and who can participate in the collective? Since it’s a café are there any profits and where does the money go?
This is a somewhat difficult question, as we are not directly involved with the decision making process of the Ché Collective ourselves (though our collective and theirs often share information, resources and techniques).
From what we know about the Ché Collective however, is that they are a consensus driven collective which allows open participation from anybody and everybody. There is a core-collective of 5-10 individuals who handle necessary tasks like cooking, cleaning, paying bills etc.
The Café side of the space acts to feed members of touring bands first and foremost, with any profits from food purchased by show-goers either being used for maintenance of the Ché facility or for other resources. No Ché Collective member makes any sort of profit from the activities of the Collective. All profits created by the Collective are either recycled into projects or given to touring bands.
How do they maintain Ché Café as a safer space? What kind of policy do they have to prevent any kind of abusive behaviour and violence on the basis of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.? What is Ché Café’s policy on drugs and alcohol?
The Ché Collective maintains its safer space policy as a core component of its ideology and identity. The Collective acts to try to ensure its safer space policy by vetting artists for racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, etc. content. The space also attempts to foster an atmosphere where collective members and showgoers hold one another accountable for their actions.
The Ché is a drug and alcohol free space – the only music venue on the UCSD campus with a sober space policy in place.
Can you elaborate on the legacy of Ché Café to the DIY music scene (90’s and 00’s hardcore punk, screamo, emo, etc.)? What are some of the greatest things happening there in terms of bands playing and unforgettable shows?
The Ché’s history is extraordinarily rich with bands who have graced its small 0.4m stage. All one needs to do is take a quick look at the Ché’s wikipedia page to find a short list of great bands who have played the space.
The Ché is known for being especially important in helping to support San Diego bands who would go on to help shape the sound of emo and screamo in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Bands like Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot, The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower and Swing Kids all called the Ché home at one point or another.
Unfortunately, because we are so young (24, 20, and 22 respectively) we can’t tell you first hand accounts about experiences at the Ché from that period of time. During the course of our research for this project though, we uncovered some amazing flyers for shows that had happened back then. One flier in particular referenced a show on the 4th of July (U.S. independence day) that SLEEP and a number of other bands played. Luckily, it appears that this show was captured on tape and can be viewed, along with a ton of other show footage from the Ché, at archive.org and youtube. Below are links to some of our favorite footage that we’ve dug up.
SLEEP @ Ché – July 4th, 1992
The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower @ Ché – January 1, 2003
Against Me! @ Ché – July 20, 2002
What about your favorite shows in the last few years?
My favorite show has to have been ‘For the Fucking Kids Fest’, which was thrown in 2014, shortly after the Ché received the most recent notice that the University was moving to evict them. FTFKF was an all day fest that was held both inside the Ché and on its outside patio. It was billed as possibly one of the last shows that the Ché could guarantee would happen, so lots of kids showed up. There were also multiple workshops, including a ‘know your rights’ seminar to prepare people who were intent on engaging in direct action to save the Ché.
Walking through the crowd, you could hear people talking about how the Ché had changed their lives in one way or another – on more than one occasion I overheard somebody say that the Ché had actually saved their life. Also present were former Collective members who had helped out at the Ché as far back as the early 80’s – hearing their stories about the different ways that they had struggled and won against the University was pretty awe inspiring. Below I’ll link to a video of a local band called ‘Grim Luck’ playing on the Ché stage at FTFKF, hopefully it can serve as just a small taste of the energy from that day. (skip to 3:46 in the video for a really funny and fun blink-182 cover).
How did you finance your movie and is it going to be available for free on the internet? How can people help you about spreading the word about the movie and support Ché Café?
This documentary was almost entirely funded out of our own pockets – with a small amount of funding raised with the help of our collective. We spent as little money as possible. Much like a DIY touring band, we relied on the hospitality of others to feed us and allow us sleep on their floors when we traveled to conduct interviews.
You can help spread the word about the documentary by checking out our website and following the blog if you are a tumblr user. www.takingspacedocumentary.com
If you are in Southern California – we encourage you to get involved with the Ché Collective by attending meetings. If you are not from this area and want to support, you can call or email University Administrator Juan Gonzalez and demand that the Ché Collective stay in its space.
Here is his contact information:
What is the future of Ché Café and the projects that you’ve been involved in?
The Ché Café will continue to fight to maintain its space, using whatever tactics are available to it.
The documentary, Taking Space, will be finished by late April of this year – we hope to have it online for viewing soon after that.
Thank you for your time. Anything else to add?
Thank you for your interest and solidarity. We can only hold on to these spaces if we fight for them – together.