In search of the California anarchists with the noted actor
by Edward Waintrop 

In 1966-1967, in contrast to the San Francisco hippies, the Diggers were revolutionaries.  They vanished from the city when they believed there was nothing more to be accomplished, established communes in the country, and took a new road toward radical environmentalism.

Thirty years later, the Diggers still haven’t abandoned their American Dream.

Mill Valley – one day in late October:
Peter Coyote sits down to lunch in a small Mill Valley Mexican restaurant minutes from his house north of San Francisco Bay. Thin, handsome, animated, not looking his fast-approaching 60 years of age, the film actor, (Pedro Almovadar’s Kika, Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon,) remembers the ‘60s in San Francisco’s hippie neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury. He also reminisces about the Mime Troupe, the revolutionary theatre company where his acting career began 35 years ago.

“Each of our performances was a frontal attack on the mainstream culture and its fashionable and nonpolitical theatrical shows. When they accepted me into the troupe, I was ecstatic. I believed I was beginning my career with the best, the most audacious.”

Coyote also remembers the Diggers, the most radical group on the West Coast, born of the Mime Troupe and with whom he was very close: a group of militant actor-anarchists, very active during the psychedelic era, who then vanished at the end of 1967 like so much smoke. Coyote knows what became of them; in fact, he was still friends with them in the ‘80s, when they reappeared with a new political point of view, still firmly convinced that social change was possible.

In Coyote’s memoirs, "Sleeping Where I Fall", he begins by describing his own beginnings: his family whom he characterizes as “very far to the Left.” His mother Ruth, a Russian Jew, had seen her cousin thrown out of the American public school system in the ‘50s for being a communist and she had since then remained a rebel against the system; his father, Morris Cohon, originally from Uzbekistan, was a banker but counted among his friends the founders of the Monthly Review, a socialist periodical. Several months before his death in 1971, he says to Peter, who at the time was living in a radical commune in California: “Capitalism is dying, boy. It's dying of its own internal contradictions. You think that the revolution's gonna take five years. It's gonna take fifty!"

Despite the closeness of their political beliefs, Peter and his father don't have an idyllic relationship. A former college wrestling champion, Morris Cohon wants his eldest son to be a competitor. He gives him wrestling lessons, from which Peter always emerges defeated. The actor observes today, “A man who teaches his son that he can never win creates in the boy a world of terror and violence.” Unwilling to engage in the competitive spirit, he writes, “My pleasures became solitary ones: reading, writing, observing people and animals, and first and foremost, daydreaming."(1)

In 1964, Peter Cohon/Coyote leaves the East coast for San Francisco. He wants to become a writer. Instead, he joins the Mime Troupe. He’s not yet 24 years old. He’s fascinated by Ron Davis, the troupe’s founder, whose ambitions are to transform contemporary theater - which he finds merely innocuous and decorative - by abolishing the line between the stage and the audience; and to transform political art, by denouncing the racism of the government and the police, American policy in Vietnam, and the repression of the black power movement. The Mime Troupe’s approach to these weighty objectives is to present light-hearted but blustery performances, inspired by the Commedia dell’arte, in the streets, the parks, and the public squares. Of course, all done with enough provocation to earn the comedians and Davis himself frequent trips to the police station.

In the Mime Troupe, Peter meets Emmett Grogan, a young New Yorker who had known, via burglaries undertaken in the name of pro-IRA militancy, an adventurous adolescence, the story of which he will eventually tell in Ringolevio. The actor recounts, “Emmett was my brother; he’s the one who did my ear-piercings in ‘68.” He’s also the one with whom Peter shot up heroin. “Emmett was a guy that was hard to understand - egotistical and charismatic, vulnerable and charming. A sort of Robin Hood, even if, contrary to what he wrote in his book, he was not the architect of the Haight-Ashbury revolution.”
In the troupe, Cohon also gets to know Peter Berg, alias The Hun, “Of the entire group, the most eccentric, the most radical, and without a doubt, the most brilliant.”… He joins many discussions organized by Berg. “Each of these contained advice on how to disrupt the status quo," he says. Faced with Davis, the Marxist, he sees himself as the libertarian of the group. “The Hun and Davis were two guys who were intelligent, revolutionary, and committed. But the troupe just wasn’t big enough for the both of them.” When dissidents Berg, Grogan, and others left Davis, they founded their own group: the Diggers.

Psychedelic celebrations:
The “Diggers” name comes from British history, from a 17th century commune where peasants farmed the property and then appropriated it. Cromwell had destroyed this little group of hardy agrarian reformers who intended "to observe the Law of righteous action, endeavoring to shut out of the Creation, the cursed thing, called Particular propriety, which is the cause of all wars, bloodshed, crime and enslaving Laws, that hold the people under miserie."

Peter Cohon doesn’t follow the dissidents leaving the Mime Troupe. “I wasn’t a purist like the Diggers,” he explains between bites of his burrito. But he continues to pay close attention to what his friends are doing, spends many nights with them deep in discussion, protests as they do against the killing of black militants by the FBI or against the Vietnam War, and gets involved in the Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic celebrations. He describes this era brilliantly in his book. In San Francisco-become-hippie capital, where hundreds of penniless youth arrive en mass thinking they’ll find peace, harmony and LSD, the Diggers stand out.

Not content to merely denounce American society, its egotism, and the role of money; they equally mock all aspects of a counterculture which defines itself with the slogan “peace and love”, lampooning those who take advantage of the situation, the small Haight Ashbury businesses that make money off the backs of the new arrivals. The Diggers publish controversial leaflets and post them everywhere. But above all, they deal with everyday life; feeding the runaways who have no money, organizing the distribution of free stew in the streets under the slogan “Free Food for a Free Life”. And every morning, they get up and start all over again, repeating these heroic acts day after day.

They also organize free stores. And to promote their ideas, they produce shows. For some of these shows, they call on still relatively unknown rock musicians: The Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, or Jefferson Airplane. For other shows, they feature themselves. They present The Invisible Circus in a neighborhood church. This show, with its strong sexual content, causes a huge outcry in the local newspapers. Another time, they parade giant puppets on Haight Street to celebrate the death of money (a little prematurely, it turns out). Coyote likes the Diggers’ provocative style. He describes their battles with civic officials like the Mayor of San Francisco, as well as with self-proclaimed revolutionary organizations - they invite themselves to meetings of the fledgling New Left and to the student unions, and then heckle their leaders.

The Diggers’ ferment attracts the sympathies of others. The poet/novelist Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America; Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel) enjoys taking part in their activities. They have other allies in the Black Panther Party, an Afro-American radical organization with its roots across the bay in San Francisco; with them, they open a free store known as The Black Man's Free Store.

Occasionally, they call on the Hells Angels to help them with their shows or food distribution, despite the fact that this Harley Davidson motorcycle club doesn’t generally approve of revolutionary acts. It’s apparent that the Diggers and the Hells Angels are mutually fascinated with the freedom and style of the other. At the end of 1967, the Haight Ashbury’s ambiance changes. The ravages of hard drugs have taken their toll. Grogan and Coyote themselves both fall victim. The Vietnam anti-war movement becomes more hard-core, the police crackdowns as well. Repression befalls the Black Panthers.

On July 4, 1967, the Diggers, who don’t see themselves making theater of armed resistance, change their name - they become the “Free Family”, and in the succeeding months, they disappear, hitting the road. Some of them move to the country. Peter Cohon follows them and changes his name. “In 1962, while on peyote, I had a dream in which I saw myself as a coyote. Seven years later, I went off into the desert with my Shoshone friend, Rolling Thunder. I thought about it and decided to become Peter Coyote. Now, it’s been 31 years, and I’ve been Coyote longer than I was Cohon.”

The Diggers diaspora extends north from San Francisco to several farming communes. But between shouting matches about who does the dishes, the lack of money, the personality conflicts, and the dissention caused by sexual intrigue and jealousy, rural communal life is difficult. Nonetheless, some of them succeed because of strong organization, their convictions, and the help of friends; for example, the “Black Bear Ranch", located in a remote corner of Northern California, where a new political and ecological outlook is developed. Coyote tells of a trip he took with Berg, who will become the theoretician for a new ecology, to visit Beat poet Gary Snyder at a commune established on the banks of the Yuba River. There, they find folks who try to understand and respect the fauna and flora that surround them, and who fight against mining, the wholesale logging of too many trees, and senseless construction practices.

New ecology:
Since the late‘70s, Peter Coyote has worked as a professional actor in the heart of the industry’s mainstream. “My daughter was growing up and I owed her a good education.” He’s filmed in Hollywood with Steven Spielberg (E.T.) and Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich), in Madrid with Pedro Almodavar, in Paris with Roman Polanski. But he still considers himself a member of the Diggers family. For example, he voted like them for Ralph Nader in the November 6 election. “Democrats are only interested in liberals when it comes to getting our votes - and we are going to deny them those votes.”

In the last pages of "Sleeping Where I Fall", he reflects on his past. A good number of his friends from the ‘60s are dead; Grogan of an overdose in 1978, Brautigan commits suicide in 1984. Others succumb to cancer, or are shot. Others have even become narcs. And then there are those who have become radical environmentalists and continue to want to change America and the world; Peter Berg in San Francisco - “He no longer speaks to me, but we do cross paths at funerals and weddings”; and Nina Balhausen, Jane Lapiner, Freeman House and David Simpson, who have all moved to the banks of the Mattole River in California.

[Kindly translated by Rosie McGee of Portland, Oregon]


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]