The Big Interrupt

A prickly conversation with Cactus Pete


Image as Metaphor: It’s probably best that we don’t have Scary Guy’s photo.

I have no interest in associating myself with those who think of themselves as the so-called norm,” says Peter Tscherneff, absently examining a slightly withered cactus he’s been working to keep alive. “Because they, the ‘normal’ people, are in so many ways the ones who are actually out of touch with their true selves. Whenever I point this out, it’s those people who get upset. The so-called normal people don’t like me all that much.”

That, as they say, is an understatement.

Peter Alexander Tscherneff is arguably one of the most unpopular people in the North Bay–though most of the people who feel that way don’t even know his name. His face, however, is enough to start phones ringing and security guards scrambling whenever Tscherneff appears at the door or onstage, as happened last May at SRJC’s Day Under the Oaks when he strode onto the little outdoor stage to deliver one of his infamous speeches and was arrested.

To most folks–especially those who’ve encountered Tscherneff at city council meetings, farmers markets, concerts, outdoor festivals, graduations, protests and random public forums–he is known as “the Interrupter.” Others, those who’ve taken the time to read his flyers filled with politically charged, rhyming poetry and festooned with photos and the ever-present reproductions of “Peanuts” characters, or have gone so far as to actually engage him in one-on-one conversation, know him to be charming, smart, articulate, funny–even somewhat likable. To those who’ve tried to sort out his dense, convoluted tirades and broadsides, he is the Vegan Guy, the General Strike Guy, the Free Leonard Peltier Guy, the Antiwar Guy, the Government Mind-Control Guy.

And to those who’ve listened to or read his dense, disturbing, multipage manifestos on child abduction and Satanism–in which Tscherneff claims to be an escapee from a military brainwashing experiment that once, under the direction of Joseph Mengele in disguise as an East Bay psychiatrist, programmed him to kidnap children and deliver them to the Bohemian Grove for ritual sacrifice at the hands of people like George Bush Sr.–he’s the Scary Guy.

Ask Tscherneff to describe himself, and he has his own list of descriptive nicknames: Sonoma County’s Manure-Disturbing Poet Provocateur, Tree Hugging Animal “Rites” Activist and sometimes merely Cactus Pete, the latter referring to his 10-years of growing cactuses on the small plot of land in Northern Petaluma where he has agreed to be interviewed this morning.

“It’d be cool just to stay here taking care of my plants, maybe write three or four hours a day,” says Tscherneff, who describes his residence status as “basically homeless.” Given the time, he says he’d love to write a series of children’s books called The Adventures of Pedro the Purple Turtle. But despite the hopes and dreams of those in the community who wish Tscherneff would stay on his cactus patch tending his yuccas, Cactus Pete isn’t planning to take a break anytime soon. “I have too much work to do,” he says.

That “work” frequently lands him in jail. He’s still wending his way through the courts following the May incident at the JC and another in Berkeley where he was arrested during a UC tree sitters’ rally. One has to wonder, with so much public dislike and legal trouble resulting from such actions, why does the guy keep doing it? Tscherneff has a complex, and characteristically rambling, explanation.

 “Why do I do what I do?” he asks. “(A) Because it is given to me to do it; (b) because no one else is doing it; and (c) I take very seriously the lessons of Gandhi and King. I take very seriously the true walk of the radical carpenter Jeshua, who was a vegetarian, by the way. I take very seriously the pain I sense and feel all around us. I would say that I’ve been given this task by the creator, and I am spiritually instructed to do as I do, and that in accordance to a lot of teachings from a lot of religions people are also instructed to do certain things, and I find most people disregard these things or are confused.

“When the simplest thing the Carpenter talked about was our involvement in mammon or the choice between serving mammon or serving the living God. And mammon is greed, and that’s the god this nation has been under. And the animal-flesh industry is based on greed, torture and murder, pure and simple.”

Asked, finally, if he himself thinks he’s crazy, Tscherneff laughs.

“Look around at the world,” he says. “Look at the people going to church as they pass by the homeless, obediently paying taxes to allow George to maintain his own insanity, judging the veterans, people who put their lives on the line and are now on the streets, spiritually broken. To me, that’s crazy.

“As for myself,” he says, “Let’s just say I prefer the term ‘spiritually enhanced.'”

Sonoma County Library