Peter Coyote

Apostle of grooviness explores the politics of fear

By David Templeton

THERE’S A TRAUMA of fear that has suddenly descended on the United States,” says Peter Coyote. “A fear we’ve been feeling ever since the terrorist attacks. But I don’t think it’s about what people think it’s about.”

With the mention of Sept. 11, the actor-author-activist’s raspy voice takes on a passionate tone.

“The only thing that’s changed is that Americans now realize the ways in which we’ve always been vulnerable,” Coyote says. “Americans, previous to this, were allowed to believe they weren’t vulnerable, and I think the fear we’re feeling really is the fear that the ruling class, the political class, has been attending to other business, other than the protection of American lives.”

Peter Coyote–once dubbed an “apostle of grooviness,” by the Village Voice–can pack more words and ideas into a 20-minute chat than most politicians.

That should come as no surprise. Anyone who has read Coyote’s 1997 memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall (Counterpoint; $14), knows that politics–radically progressive politics–are a big part of Coyote’s personal history.

Of course, Coyote is most famous for his 50-plus movie roles, including E.T.’s sympathetic scientist, the sinister sexual predator in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon, the double-talking bureaucrat in Sphere, and the love-struck defense attorney in Sissy Spacek’s Midwives.

But politics came first.

Peter Coyote–originally named Peter Cohon, he adopted the canine surname after a powerful peyote trip in which he experienced being transformed into a free-roaming coyote–was an early member of that counter-cultural shit-disturbance known as the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

In the ’60s and ’70s, he was a certified revolutionary, first working among the Diggers, a band of Haight-Ashbury anarchists that prophesied the end of capitalism and gave away free food and clothes. He then started a commune with some free spirits from the loose-knit Free Family movement.

Even when Coyote was post-hippy, his political roots continued to show. After the last of the communes disintegrated, he ended up being appointed by then Gov. Jerry Brown to head California’s Council of the Arts, which managed to appropriate $13 million for the promotion of the arts and art education. Today, as a full-fledged movie and television star, the Emmy Award-winning Coyote–now a practicing Buddhist–routinely cashes in his famous-guy chips for opportunities to shift the spotlight toward progressive issues.

The North Bay will get an enlightening earful of Coyote’s oratory when he brings the politics of the personal to Santa Rosa Junior College on Monday, Oct. 22, for a free noontime lecture titled “Living Resistance.”

“I’m not really sure what ‘Living Resistance’ means,” Coyote admits with a laugh. “I didn’t pick that title, and I don’t really like it because it suggests taking a defensive action, a rear-guard action. It means that somebody else has initiated the activities that you are in a position of responding to. It doesn’t allow you a lot of impetus to go out and start things on your own.”

That objection aside, Coyote says he’s looking forward to the talk, made all the more important by current circumstances.

“I’ll try to fill an hour with my philosophy of citizenship,” he says. “I’ll try and give a coherent philosophy of what I’m all about, and what being a citizen means.”

A word of warning: To Coyote, citizenship means something besides hanging a flag over your door and having a real hankering to spend American dollars so we can “rid the world of evil.”

(Coyote admits, by the way, that he does not have a flag flying from his house: he says he doesn’t want his patriotic support of rescue workers being misinterpreted as “some jingoistic demand for war.”)

“A citizen,” says Coyote, “is a person who is engaged in the daily life of his locality, his state, and his nation. A citizen is someone who takes the premises of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights seriously. A citizen is a person who takes a watchdog action over the government, which has become, more or less, the handmaiden of the corporate sector.”

Coyote is quick to say that there’s nothing inherently bad about corporations. “But when the corporate sector influences the civic sector by controlling the political process, that’s a very dangerous state of affairs,” he says, “because there’s nothing in the corporate charter that says they must look after the best interests of the people.”

As an example, Coyote points to the terrorist attacks themselves. He describes in detail the safety precautions–reinforced doors, state-of-the-art security measures–that might have prevented the hijackings from occurring. The alarming part, Coyote insists, is that such dramatic (and expensive) measures, initially recommended by Congress to the airline industry after the Lockerbie and Pan Am 103 disasters, were never put into law.

“[That’s] because the airline industry lobbied Congress,” Coyote explains, “and our elected representatives, Democrats and Republicans, colluded in softening those laws.”

All of this, Coyote says, is not as alarming as what those elected officials have done since Sept. 11.

“Suddenly,” he says, “our attorney general is passing all sorts of laws, under the guise of combating terrorism–laws that will allow him to eavesdrop on every American, laws that will give him enhanced political powers.

“Well, if suddenly these laws are necessary to protect us, then how were we being protected heretofore?” he asks. “Does this mean the entire political class has never given thought to the possibility of terrorist attacks in the United States?

“Well, if so, they’re morons–and the people are rightfully afraid. And if these elected officials did think about it, and they misled the people, then they are duplicitous–and the people are rightfully afraid.”

So, whatever “Living Resistance” turns out to mean, Coyote’s discussion will be powered in part by his concerns about the aftermath of Sept. 11 in our country.

“It will certainly have an influence on whatever I say,” he agrees. “Unless we look at this stuff, we are going to keep perpetuating the same dilemmas . . . over and over and over again.”

Peter Coyote speaks on Monday, Oct. 22, at 12:15 p.m. at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Admission is free, but parking is $2. For details, call 707/527-4372.

From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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