Monday, May 4, 2009
DIGGING THE DIGGERS
You probably know Peter Coyote as an actor, a writer, and a narrator--his warm grainy voice is instantly recognizable in over a hundred documentaries.
What you probably didn't know is that Coyote was one of the founders of the Diggers, an anarchist collective back in the Haight-Ashbury days. The Diggers may have looked like non-conformist freaks (and they were) but under all that hair and get-up they were brilliant community organizers (look it up, Sarah Palin) who provided meals, shelter, health care, and counseling to the throngs of kids who showed up in San Fransisco with flowers in their hair.
The Diggers took their name from the English Diggers (1649–50), a group that opposed private property, and all forms of buying and selling.
"DIGGER, any of a group of agrarian communists who flourished in England in 1649-50 and were led by Gerrard Winstanley (q.v.) and William Everard. In April 1649 about 20 poor men assembled at St. George's Hill, Surrey, and began to cultivate the common land. These Diggers held that the English Civil Wars had been fought against the king and the great landowners; now that Charles I had been executed, land should be made available for the very poor to cultivate. (Food prices had reached record heights in the late 1640s.)"
-- (c) 1994, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
Diggers: Coyote and JP Pickens
The Diggers kept the tradition of those outlaw agrarians alive. Not your typical do-gooder activists, working from the outside in, the Diggers were members of the scene themselves who practiced what they preached. When they set up the Free Store or gave out sandwiches to hungry kids in the park they offered more than just a handout; they were trying to raise consciousness about the possibilities of a society where money didn't matter. Utopian, sure. Dreams were big back then. Mainstreamers may scoff at their naivete or see their work as a failed experiment, but they might point to our rampant materialism and tailspinning economy and say we're closer to a post-capitalist society than we think.
The Diggers were also artists (both "con" and "fine") and they organized free concerts and political art. They created "Happenings," including the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, and Death of Hippie/Birth of Free. Coyote himself was an early member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a group that performed satirical, political comedy, original music, and street theater.
Coyote tells the whole story in his autobiography, "Sleeping Where I Fall" (Counterpoint Press, 1998; buy a copy here). Read some excerpts here. In the interview above, Coyote talks about Emmet Grogan and the Diggers.
Give him a listen. The man has something to say.
The Diggers Archive Home Page.
Peter Coyote's website.