Sixties Radicals, Then and Now:
Candid Conversations with Those
Who Shaped the Era
by Ron Chepesiuk
(Date of interview - 1994)
Today Peter Coyote is an established and accomplished actor who has appeared in such box office winners as E.T., Jagged Edge, and Outrageous Fortune. During the sixties, however, Coyote was a radical, a member of the anarchistic Diggers and the Mime Troupe and heavily into the counterculture and drug scene, so heaily into the drug scene, in fact, that he changed his surname from Cohon as a result of a peyote vision.
Born the son of a well-to-do conservative family, Coyote spent much of his childhood in Englewood, New Jersey, and on a family farm in Pennsylvania. But his youth was far from smooth. He constantly got into trouble and was thrown out of several schools. In 1959, Mexican police busted him for possession of ten kilos of marijuana.
Coyote survived that run in with the law and went on to study at Grinnell College in Iowa and then at San Francisco State University during the exciting days of the sixties when the counterculture dominated the San Francisco scene. He became a lead actor with the Mime Troupe and went on national tour, performing in two controversial plays: first, Minstrel Show and then the intense anti-Vietnam War drama L'Amant Militaire.
Burned out by the end of the second tour, Coyote joined the anarchistic Diggers, a far-left group based in the Haight-Ashbury district, which wanted to take the philosophy espoused by the counterculture to its ultimate limit. Coyote subscribed to the Diggers program, which scorned money, provided free medical care, performed radical guerrilla theater, started a free store where goods could be had for the taking, and, despite the group's penchant for anonymity, became one of its most eloquent spokesmen.
But as Coyote later described the Digger experience in an interview in the eighties, "It was twenty-four-hours-a-day improvisatory acting designed to get people out of old ideas. It has the luminescence of a moth, ecstatically beautiful in the present; invisible to history. It released a lot of creative energy, but, unfortunately, a lot of this activity was fueled by a lot of drugs."
So by the early seventies. the frenetic living of the sixties had almost killed the young rebel. He came down with a severe case of hepatitis and barely survived. Meanwhile, Coyote's father had died, leaving his mother heavily in debt. Coyote moved East to help his mother out. After selling the family farm to get her out of debt, Coyote returned to the San Francisco area to live out of his truck and teach acting in the ghetto schools.
In 1975, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Coyote to the California Arts Council, and, for the next eight years, Coyote, as chairman of the group, fostered artistic activity, brought arts to the common man, and radically altered how the arts were funded in the state.
Despite his success in the political arena, Coyote decided he wanted to be a professional actor, even though he was camera shy and approaching 40 years of age. Coyote broke into Hollywood with appearances in a series low-budget films and then appeared to get his break, landing the role of Keys in E.T., one of the biggest grossing movies of all time. Despite appearances in more than 40 feature films and TV films and a reputation as "the thinking woman's sex symbol," Coyote has often been unemployed for long stretches and has even gone to Europe to find film work.
When not making movies, Coyote lives outside San Francisco in picturesque, but secluded, Mill Valley. Coyote's bungalow-style house is small but comfortably furnished and, for reasons that come out during our interview, is named Wild Dog Productions.
Coyote is an intensely private man, but he was open and friendly during the interview, revealing that he decided to talk to me after reading my The Progressive article about the plight of migrant peach workers in South Carolina. Coyote still sees himself as a radical and keeps busy appearing at benefits for groups like the Mime Troupe and working and speaking out on behalf of Native American rights and environmental issues.
Coyote is approaching his mid-5Os in age, but he looks remarkably youthful, with his wavy dark hair and lean features. He wore a conspicuously large gold earring in his left ear and was dressed casually in a plain blue sweat shirt, black jeans, and sneakers.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Coyote is a ball of sinewy but fluid movement. He lights up old-fashioned stogies, makes coffee, eats a spinach salad, and ends up washing dishes during our intense three-hour interview in which he gives blunt, but thoughtful and often unexpected, opinions on a variety of topics.
Recently, Coyote has had plenty of time to reflect, for he reveals that he has not had an acting role for 14 months.
You've been out of work for fourteen months? What have you been doing with yourself?
I do what you do. I'm writing a book.
So you are using your time constructively.
Yes, I was a writer before I was an actor. I went to San Francisco State and got my Master's [in creative writing]. I've stayed a writer, although I do what I have to do to make money. But my first love is writing.
Are you a published author?
Yeah, but I don't write fiction. Two of the chapters from my book have been published in literary quarterlies. Over the years, I've had articles, usually on the subject of contemporary culture, published in different places. I've had an eight thousand-word article published in French Vogue.
What's your book about? Is it an autobiography?
It's not exactly an autobiography. It's called The Free-Fall Chronicles (later renamed Sleeping Where I Fall) and takes a fair look at what I learned during the period from 1965 to 1975, when my life was dedicated to the pursuit of absolute freedom. I want other people to see what can be learned from my experience and what are the costs, for there are costs. Most everything I read about the period has been an apologia. "We were so young, so silly ... blah, blab, blab." Or, "Weren't we all wonderful and romantic?" Both points of view are bullshit.
So what is a point of view that isn't bullshit?
My community was very left-wing, hard-edged, and radical, but we weren't trying to change the culture. We weren't ideological revolutionaries ... Communists or Socialists. We were primarily artists who wanted to create a culture that was based on personal authenticity. It seemed to mc that the capitalist and Communist models of what society should be were both exquisite machines for grinding up human beings and turning them into a citizen or a proletariat or some piece of bullshit I didn't want to be.
How did this disenchantment evolve?
I helped write a play for a radical theater company that won a big prize I thought, "Jesus Christ. I'm writing a play, which is criticizing the middle class, and they are giving me a medal for it. Theater is not really a tool to make social change."
So a bunch of us evolved into the Diggers. We wanted to use our experiences as artists - our improvisation, our sense of imagination - to help us create lives that are beautiful and worth living. We wanted to live our lives as if the revolution was over and we had won. We wanted to set an example for other people to follow and to open the door in the culture that was available for them to walk through.
Let's back up a little. Why did you come to San Francisco? Was it to take creative writing at San Francisco State or was it because of the evolving counterculture?
Oh, no, there was no counterculture evolving in '64 when I came to San Francisco. As a matter of fact, at that time, there wasn't anything remotely like a counterculture in San Francisco. All there was, really, was the beginning of the Psychedelic Shop on Haight-Ashbury.
Were you political by the time you came to San Francisco?
Yes, I was. I was involved in the civil rights movement to some degree when I was young. I went on marches and demonstrated at Grinnell College in Iowa. My family was active, too. My mom was involved with the Urban League, the ACLU, and stuff like that.
Even though I was political, I never saw the connection between political beliefs and living them on a day-to-day basis until I got involved with the Mime Troupe.
What were some of the things you did in the Mime Troupe that got you thinking about the connection?
The Mime Troupe produced free plays in the park, outside where the people actually were. The fact that we did the plays for free was a political statement. We established a different relationship between the arts and the audience. We were all very good artists, and we tried to give a free show that had more elegance and class and finish than one they would have actually paid to see. Of course, we had to eat, so we passed the hat around afterward.
We acted out plays that dealt with things affecting people's lives-rent, taxes, arms control, and other issues of the day - and we talked about them in a very funny way. The plays we presented were written only after long and arduous debate and represented deep thought from a committed point of view that was democratic, egalitarian, and liberal. That was our point of view. We were saying, "Hey, here we are. This is what radicals are really like. This is what we sound like, taste like, smell like, think like. You make up your minds, but someone has got to put the ideas out."
Did people really listen to you?
Sure, they did. The Mime Troupe is famous. We traveled all over the country. People listened to us because we made our arguments with humor. If I give you a straight political rap, I don't know whether I have you or not. But if I sell it to you as a gag and you laugh, I know you've seen my point of view or you wouldn't have gotten the loke. We didn't bludgeon anyone over the head, but we were sharp, hard, and radical. That was why people believed us.
As the sixties progressed, did you get disillusioned with America like a lot of other people?
I am a little cynical, but that doesn't stop me from hoping for the best. Let me recall a fascinating experience I had. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a bunch of us in college were so freaked out by what we thought was going to be the end of the world that we dropped out of classes. We hustled up some money and bought two cars [a '48 Chevy and a '52 Ford] and went to Washington. We cut our hair, wore suits and ties, and picketed the White House on a three-day fast, protesting the resumption of nuclear testing.
[President John F.] Kennedy read about us in the newspaper and invited us into the White House. We were the first group in history to picket the White House and then be invited in. I was asked to be spokesman for the group. We met with McCeorge Bundy.
At that time, I had actually thought those guys had not thought it out. The arrogance of the young, right? [Laughs] Bundy looked like a chameleon. His eyes were the coldest, most analytical I had ever seen in my young life. I changed my mind and said to myself, "This guy knows everything. This guy knows so much more than me that it is ridiculous. Nothing I say is going to change his mind. Neither am I going to affect anything by picketing in the streets and carrying a sign. I've got to do something else." That's when I began to think about culture as opposed to politics.
But it came out during the course of the sixties that the people in power like MeGeorge Bundy didn't know a damn thing, especially when it came to Vietnam.
It's not that they are stupid. They are brilliant actually. But the government of the United States is run for the elite of the United States. All the elite cares about is making sure that the tax structure is in their favor, the factories are running, and they are making a lot of money. I wouldn't mind if the U.S. had an emperor who said this is my country and these are my subjects. I'm going to make it work for everyone. Yes, the rich might get a little less richer, but the poor are going to get a little less poorer, too.
When did you first become aware of Vietnam?
When I was eighteen.
Because of the draft?
Yes, that was about 1957, my senior year in high school. I applied as a conscientious objector and volunteered to be a medic. I went to the draft board and told them that I wasn't going to carry a gun and shoot somebody. I said I wanted to be a medic. They said no.
So what happened?
I stayed in school and went to Grinnell College. I was planning to go on to graduate school to keep my student deferment, but I hated school. I said to myself, "I'm not going to stay in school to hide from the draft. This is bullshit. I told them what my principles were. Fuck 'em! I'll lie to them. If they're not going to let me be a medic, I'll tell them I'm a psychopath or a homosexual. I don't care." But eventually, they classified me as "Y," which meant that I had been psychologically deferred. This was probably 1963 or '64. I'm not good on chronology.
But you were ahead of your time. [Laughs] I read where you got busted for marijuana in Mexico in 1959. What happened there?
I got involved with folk music and would go to folk festivals and play a little guitar. There was always a little grass around. I had known people who had smoked marijuana all their lives, and so I tried it and liked it. I went to Mexico and thought I would bring some back home with me. I was basically an idiot. I threw it under the seat and tried to drive across the border. I just got pulled out of line, and they found it.
But I don't know if I was ahead of my time. I always thought that, when you believe in something, you just got to do it. It's funny how the media has this fucking term activist. Where I grew up, if a man didn't act on his beliefs, he was a hypocrite. Now the media has turned it around. Today, a man who does act out his beliefs is somehow out of the central fold - a little apart. He's not like you and me. That's bullshit! I've always believed in following my beliefs.
Today, if you had twenty kilos of marijuana and were trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S., you would probably get twenty years in jail, given the current hard line on drugs. What's your views on the U.S.'s so-called war on drugs?
It's ridiculous! First of all, there is no human culture on earth that doesn't use something to alter its state of consciousness, whether it's fasting, prayer, music, coffee, nicotine, alcohol, tobacco, hashish, marijuana, mushrooms, peyote, meditation, Yahweh. . . The desire to alter consciousness is universal. Trying to completely stop it is like trying to stop the tides.
So it seems to me that a line should be drawn - the line being those drugs that are the result of chemistry and those that aren't. Why waste your energy fighting drugs like peyote, marijuana, mushrooms, and mescaline? Doing those drugs doesn't make you a criminal.
It's hypocritical. The U.S. government subsidizes tobacco and alcohol, which are worse for a person. I think a hundred years from now, people are going to look at the drug policy we have in place as people today look at the religious beliefs of people who lived during the time of the Inquisition.
Do you think the U.S. will eventually come around to the point of view you have on drugs?
I don't know, but legalizing substances doesn't mean that they can't be regulated. Liquor is legal and is regulated. I, for one, believe drugs should be regulated. I don't believe for one minute that anyone should be able to get any drug anytime he wants. But I do believe the authorities shouldn't prosecute someone who takes drugs that are the equivalent of a cocktail or a cigarette or a cup of coffee. Why fight them? Instead, regulate the hard drugs and treat them as a medical problem, not a legal problem. The legal system is completely fucking clogged with people who only wanted to change their consciousness.
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world for a country not at war, largely because of its hard-line drug policy.
Yes, it costs about $10,000 a year to keep a prisoner in the joint. You can send them to Harvard for less than that. I can't believe it costs that much per person to run clinics and pay for psychiatrists. We have to make a decision as to what kind of culture we want to live in. Do we really want to live in a culture where it's illegal to pursue certain states of mind? What does that do to the rest of us? I'm not saying for one minute that crack isn't a disaster and a danger, but I will say that we have crack in this society because it is condoned.
How is that?
Kids in the black ghettos don't have ships and planes and don't run the borders. They just make up the middlemen who pass it out. We know who has had a hand in bringing the drugs to the ghetto. We know that George Bush was bringing it into the U.S. to get money to fund the Contras.
Yes, it's ironic that while the U.S. government talks tough about drugs, it has had a history of supporting the drug trade. It goes at least back to the CIA's drug trafficking during the Vietnam War.
Yes. Wasn't it funny that, during the Vietnam War, when our allies were opium growers, we had a heroin problem in the U.S.? And guess what!? When our allies in Latin America are coke smugglers, we have a coke problem. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out.
They call me a radical, but I'm not a gangster. I'm not using the U.S. Army to bring illegal substances into the U.S. that're going to ruin the lives of citizens. For what? To fight some ideological figment!
There is lot of shit going on that is just a smoke screen to distribute money. You can say, for instance, what Noam Chomsky says: that the governmental system of the United States is socialism and the Pentagon is the vehicle to distribute funds to the military industrial complex. The Cold War was the philosophical justification to do that.
I read where you were in rough shape in the early seventies largely because of your life-style. I believe you had hepatitis. . .
I had it three times. I made a lot of mistakes, but I also learned a lot. Unfortunately, because of my drug use and life-style, I am excluded today from public life. No guy like me can run for President of the U.S.. Yes, I inhaled, I shot up, I sniffed it, I snorted it. I hope Clinton lied when he said he didn't inhale.
That's a sad commentary on American public life to say you hope Clinton lied.
But, really, I hope he lied. I find it much more disturbing if he couldn't figure out how to inhale. Besides, Al Gore admitted he smoked, and it didn't keep him from becoming vice-president.
What are some of the social causes you are involved with today?
I'm involved with the environment.
Just the environment in general or specific issues?
Well, almost any important environmental issue. My feeling is that we got to take care of the planet now because this is the only theater we have. Unfortunately, the indications are that the planet is dying. that the species are dying. . . the salmon, the butterflies, the lizards, the birds. . . They are are losing species faster than we did during the Ice Age.
I want a place where my grandchildren can live without having to buy bottled watter or stay clothed in the sunshine. Being human means you live on a planet that is healthy and has a lot of species. A black panther in a zoo is not a black panther. It's a caged animal. A black panther that gets to act like a black panther is a black panther. People who live in high- rise apartment buildings and go to work in an office all day are not human. Human beings have to be able to walk outdoors and play, hunt, and fish and be able to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. If people can't do that, they are not human beings.
You used the analogy of the black panther in a zoo. Are you involved with animal rights, too? Do you have strong views on that subject?
As a Buddhist, I have compassion for all living things, but animal rights is not a primary concern of mine.
But according to what I've read about you, you are involved in the rights of Native Americans.
That's my other primary concern. I'm one of the advisers to Leonard Peltier, whom I've known for some twenty years. I'm familiar with his case. The history of the relationship of the United States and, to some extent, Canada with Native Americans has been one of genocide. We annihilated them! It's cultural blight on our history that we have to deal with. We are essentially the South Africans of the North American continent, the Afrikaners, as much as we are [like] the Medellin Cartel7 [when we] brought drugs into China in the nineteenth century. That's our karma.
We are living a lie unless we apologize for what we have done to Native Americans and begin to change our policies to help diverse Native American cultures retain some health and integrity.
But haven't there been some encouraging developments as far as Native Americans are concerned? They do seem to be winning a lot of settlement claims.
That's still not the same thing as having a government policy that acknowledges the harm done to Native Americans in the past. The U.S. government has never honored its treaties with Native Americans or acknowledged the sovereignty of Indians, who have never been vanquished or defeated. It's not enough to make cash settlements or give them back some land so they can end up like the Navajos, who have leased their land to oil and gas companies so they can be like rich white people. The U.S. government has to deal with Native Americans as people.
The U.S. says it doesn't have any political prisoners, but do you consider Leonard Peltier a political prisoner?
Definitely. Leonard Peltier is a political prisoner. Geronimo Pratt is a political prisoner. The U.S. has many political prisoners.
What do you think are the chances that Leonard Peltier will ever be set free?
I have to believe they are good, that sometime, somehow - maybe now during Clinton's administration - people will begin to realize that the United States government completely falsified the evidence against this man. The first people they accused of the murder of the FBI agents were found innocent by an all-white jury. Then the prosecution plugged every hole in the first case and went and got everybody else. They falsified the data and committed perjury and acts that compelled the Canadian government to protest to the United Nations.
Why did the Canadian government do that?
The U.S. extradited Leonard from Canada using false affidavits. I've got a copy of the Canadian parliamentary motion protesting that action. Jesus said, "What you do to the least of me, you do to me." What is done to one citizen like Leonard Peltier can happen to any of us, if we happen to be on the wrong side of the line.
Are you in contact with Leonard Peltier?
I talk to him twice a week.
How does he keep on going?
He has two options: either roll over and die or keep going. He's simply not a quitter. Besides, he also has a lot of people on the outside fighting for him.
Is he bitter about the system?
No, I don't see any bitterness in him. I find it amazing how the people that the government classifies as radicals are more disciplined and selfless and have a higher moral purpose and even greater gentility than the people they are fighting against. Go back in history to Sacco and Vanzetti and read what they said. Their belief systems and ethics and morals were so high. Then go look at the Reagan administration. There were five hundred indictments! Five hundred indictments!
The prosecutor who got Leonard jailed called him a thug, but Leonard never referred to the judge as a thug. All he gave at his trial was an impassioned speech about what he did and why.
The Reagan administration may have been the most corrupt in U.S. history.
Yeah, so let's not delude ourselves. They just have the power. That's all. That's the basis on which they claim their righteousness. End of subject!