Diamond Dave Whitaker remembers the first time he stepped foot into San Francisco’s city hall some six decades ago.
“It was 1957, and I was in seventh heaven,” said Whitaker. At 19, he had just hitchhiked to San Francisco from Minnesota. Whitaker describes the half century since as a “long, strange trip.”
“I sat right there, the benches were different then, they had ashtrays because everyone was smoking up a storm.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted to declare February 2 as “Diamond Dave Whitaker” day, recognizing the poet’s contributions to the engagement and empowerment of San Francisco’s communities through his many roles as activist, radio personality, mentor, cultivator of the arts and defender of the poor and those living on the fringes of society.
“Diamond Dave has written spoken word, organized protests and taken direct action in support of the innocent, the downtrodden, the disabled, and all of those who have suffered the unfairness of our social system which is in dire need of change,” said District 11 Supervisor John Avalos.
Whitaker was among the original members of San Francisco’s Community Congress, a citywide conference that drew about 1,000 people when it first convened in 1975 to discuss issues such as housing, health, the arts, the criminal justice system and government change. The group of activists lobbied to bring Proposition T to the ballot in 1976, which replaced the citywide elections system with districts, resulting in the creation of the first Board of Supervisors.
More recently, while serving several terms as the oldest senator of the Associated Student Council at the City College of San Francisco, Whitaker helped organize student opposition to the Accrediting Commission that threatened to revoke the college’s accreditation in 2012 — a battle he is still involved in.
Supervisor London Breed called Whitaker a “ true San Francisco treasure.”
“I guess they thought it was my birthday today,” said Whitaker, glancing up from under his signature bright red, leather balloon hat. One of San Francisco’s last original beat poets, Whitaker turned 78 on November 12.
The city’s recognition came unexpectedly, said Whitaker. Still, he was not — and seemingly never is — at a loss of words. “After all the cutting-edge movements, the occupying and everything else that’s been happening for so long — I suddenly get embraced by the powers that be,” he said. “How funny is that?”
His favorite moment, he said while reflecting on his award, was a group photo with his daughter, Sapphire, alongside supervisors David Campos, John Avalos, and Aaron Peskin — whom he indiscriminately addressed as “brothers.”
In 2005, Whitaker started Poems Under the Dome, an annual event referred to as the mother of all open mics, for which he invites local poets to share their poetry and perform at City Hall.
Whitaker said the vision for what has become San Francisco’s largest open mic poetry event came to him while he was standing at Alamo Square Park and looking at City Hall in all of its “goldness.”
“Avalos really got on it. He’d come down with me and read the first poem — Peskin and Campos were also involved,” remembered Whitaker.
Small and thin, wearing baggy jeans and an old backpack slung half-heartedly over his slight shoulders, the father of nine is the timeless embodiment of San Francisco’s counterculture and will stop anyone on the street to share the “stream of happenings” that runs through his imaginative mind.
“Whitaker has been described as beat before there were beatniks, hip before there were hippies, punk before punk even happened,” said Avalos, noting that most who have crossed paths with Whitaker know one thing to be true — the man is fond of quoting himself.
A piece of advice that Whitaker has kept in his repertoire over the years is to “cast a wide net, and find the common thread.”
For many in his community, Whitaker represents that very thread. He has stories of mentoring Bob Dylan and involvement with the Diggers and the Black Man’s Free Store in the Fillmore.
A master at networking and bent on making the smallest exchanges meaningful, Whitaker answers a simple ‘hello’ with an involved story that has the potential of budding into a poem.
“He’s got the gift of longevity so he gets to know a lot of different people,” said a poet and Mission resident who goes by “Bloodflower.” “One of the principles of Buddhism is to get to know as many people as possible, so I’d say Diamond Dave is a buddhist in that way.”
Mary Jean Robertson, a DJ for KPOO 98.5, an independent radio station that gives a voice to low income communities in the Bay Area where Whitaker was also a host, called him “one of the first rappers before rap was popular.”
“He talks really fast, and he still rhymes,” said Robertson.
“He definitely has the hippie mumble down,” said Mr. Natural, a fellow Beatnik poet who met Whitaker in 1966. “As far as I’m concerned the most important thing he’s done is supporting artists throughout his entire life. He made sure there were spaces for poets to express themselves, and he’s hosted pretty much every event that ever happened.”
Coupling poetry with politics, Whitaker is the long-running host of The Common Thread Collective, a three-hour long open mic radio segment that broadcasts out of the Mission’s Mutiny Radio, at 2781 21st st.
With his show, Whitaker has created a space for local and international artists to engage and connect through music, art and poetry — a creative stronghold in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
“He’s one of the elders in the Mission who’s holding down the fort for the younger generations,” Stephanie Wilson, who regularly has performed on Whitaker’s radio show. ”He’s always showing up for everyone. He comes with his poetry, with his love, he opens his doors and flies halfway across the world to talk to indigenous communities.”
“How’d I do it? I just rolled with the rolling,” said Whitaker. “You make sure you’re not alone. You’re not only speaking for yourself but have a collective of people who support you, who engage in spoken word and music and hopefully intelligent conversations about what’s going on. You’ve got to cast that wide net.”