David Mairowitz Interviews Peter Berg for My 68

Interview Date: October 22, 2007, 11 a.m.
Interview Place: by Phone
Peter Berg (PB) in San Francisco
David Mairowitz (DM) in Berlin
Interview Purpose: Mairowitz’s radio program for German Public Radio, titled My 68.

The two discuss the Haight Ashbury and what was happening there during 67-68. Excerpts of Peter’s answers and the soundtrack of the Digger movie Nowsreal were intercut into the program. Thank you to David Mairowitz for permission to post this interview and an English version of My 68.

Here is the English version of My 68:

Standard editing formats have been used. Brackets are editorial additions; ellipsis signify deleted material. Occasional discussions about questions, which shed light on how the answers were crafted, were retained. The interview is not “text”. It is spoken word. Punctuation was created and varies; graphics were added. Peter Berg listened to this interview, but he didn’t review or edit the transcript.

Interview Transcript

DM:  Who are you? What you basically do in life.

PB:  My name is Peter Berg. I’m Director of Planet Drum Foundation, which is an ecological activist and educational organization, and we promote the idea of bioregions throughout the planet.

DM:  If it’s May 1968, what is going on in the streets of San Francisco? You’re there.

PB: Since late fall in 1967, the police have changed the traffic patterns so that Haight Street is now a one-way street.  They’ve installed yellowish mercury vapor lights that burn all night and they run patrol cars and paddy wagons up and down the street about every half hour.  They’re picking up anyone who looks under age or anyone who they want to pick up to check for identification and because of that they are arresting about 20 people every half hour. 

DM: Why are they doing that? What’s the problem?

PB:  During 1967 the neighborhood of Haight Ashbury essentially seceded from the City of San Francisco. If we had had our own water, sewage, and electricity, we would have been a separate city. It was a little like the taking of the heights of Paris by the Paris Commune in the late 19th Century France.

DM:  What is so special, Peter, about this Haight Ashbury area? What is that whole area? What is that all about? Can you tell me?

PB:  The Haight Ashbury is a neighborhood in San Francisco that was first brought to national attention for being the most highly racially integrated neighborhood, and it was the site in the middle 1960s of the stopping of freeway expansion. (Freeway is the American term for expressways.) One was planned for the middle of this neighborhood and the neighborhood and other organizations in the city rejected it, so it was the stopping of the freeway expansion, traffic expansion, in the city—which by the way… was very advanced; freeways are being taken down in San Francisco now. —But then the stopping of a freeway was a major social protest and…from those two routes, being fertile for social protest and being highly racially integrated, the Haight Asbury became a desirable site for the same trend in population that created North Beach as a beatnik haven in the 50s.

The Haight Ashbury became a haven for alternative lifestyles and rebellious elements in San Francisco. From ’65 through’67 this increased to the point that the neighborhood in terms of population and expansion and governance became its own social political cultural entity and the city simply couldn’t stand it. So the police reacted by trying to stop the social upheaval that was happening there.  

DM:  OK. But I think what interests us mostly, cause that’s really as I always understood it is the kind of starting point of Digger, is what the press ridiculously refers to as “The Summer of Love” … there was a huge run on the City of San Francisco especially in the Haight Ashbury in 1967 and we are in 1968, so what happened there last year.

PB:  Oh, it was the crescendo of the alternative culture rebellion in the United States— throughout the United States and I believe Western industrialized culture. The 1967 period in the Haight Ashbury was a triumph of opposition to war, of putting forth of more human values—values associated with nature, love between human beings, creativity, expression of individuals, and a disavowal of racism, militarism, and oppression that had been associated with industrial culture.

The Diggers took a particular slant on all of that, basing their philosophy on the Diggers in England in the 17th Century who reacted to the enclosure movement, which took land away from agriculturally productive peasants and turned it into massive sheep farming. Taking their name from that group they declared the Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle of the park—an extension of the park that runs through the Haight Ashbury—as being a kind of commons and declared, as the Diggers in England had, that everything should be free and replaced the Protestant ethic of the [English] Diggers with an ethic that one should do one’s own thing. So the motto of the Diggers was, “Everything is free. Do your own thing.” And the goal of the Diggers was to provide free services and free culture that would inculcate those values into the people that were streaming into the Haight Ashbury at the rate of about 100,000 a year.

DM:  So there is actually a sort of social crisis going on in the sense that you’ve got all these young kids who descended on the city and there’s no where for a lot of them to stay, a lot of them are going hungry, there’s a drug problem and so on. What are the Diggers doing about this?

PB:  Well, I think the way you’re stating it is the way the establishment stated it.

DM:  OK. Contradict me.

PB:  We saw them as refugees from mainstream America. That mainstream America (and by the way a lot of these people were from other countries as well) was breaking down, that it was not fulfilling the dreams, aspirations or hopes of the younger generation. Instead of peace, love, joy, productivity, creativity, they were being offered war, death, a money economy, a life of servitude in jobs rather than the promise of fulfilling their hearts and their spirits. So they flocked to the place where they thought that could be done.

DM:  And what is the response then of a group like Digger to their needs?  What are the concrete things going on? What is Digger? And we’ll go back to what Digger is in a minute, but what I’m asking is, “What are the concrete things that are being done about this?”

PB:  The foundation of the Diggers was in a radical theater group that was called the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It still exists in San Francisco and it’s associated with Left Radical politics and causes. But approximately 35 or 40 of the members of the Mime Troupe at that time defected from doing the free theater in the park that we had been doing and began seeing the population in the Haight Ashbury as an audience for a new formulation of social political ideals that we thought were an adequate response to oppressive American society at that time. So “Do your Own Thing. Everything is Free” took the form of providing free food, free shelter, free cultural events and a opportunity to join in and participate with this kind of lifestyle which we called “Life Acting”.

So the root basis is theater and if you want me to answer, “ What did we give the people?” We gave them participation in a life theater of acting out a political cultural social ideal, and they did that. They did it willingly and joyfully. Our events in the park had up to 10,000 people. And I designed events for the street that involved the participation of at least 5,000 people in the middle of Haight Street.

DM:  And can you tell me a little bit more about things like the Free Store and the idea, even though this may be a myth, the idea of money being handed out on the streets and the whole notion of free?

PB:  Well, all of that was and is, obviously, symbolic.

The Free Store was the epitome of a theater, a participatory theater. First of all you tell someone it’s a store and that everything in it is free. All right. And then the name of it was Trip Without a Ticket. It meant you should indulge in a journey that won’t cost you anything. Within the store there were goods. The goods were provided by neighbors and people that had surplus. And every morning we would find a pile of goods on the sidewalk outside the store, open it [the store], ask volunteers to put it on the shelves, and these up to a 100,000 people that were in the streets of  the Haight Ashbury would come streaming in to find clothes, toys, objects.

I think the first LED digital clock I ever saw was given to the free store …We made jewelry out of printed circuits from computers. We did the first tie-dying in the Haight Ashbury… in the Free Store. …Nobody would wear the white shirts that were being donated to us by people that didn’t want to work in offices any more, so we decided to tie-dye them to make them useful. And people learned how to dye them. So there’s the whole ideology is right there. Everything is Free, Do Your Own thing. Participate and create something expressive and join and expand this idea.

DM: What about the old myth, maybe it’s the truth, you can tell me now, that a lot of these free goods as they used to say in England, “Fell off the back of a truck.”

PB: Very few of them. Most of it was donated. Even the free food that we served in the park was either yesterday’s produce from the main central wholesale] market that the vendors were going to throw away anyway, or onions and potatoes and field crops that we went out and gleaned in large trucks and brought back into the city. Digger Stew was the staple food we served and it was essentially a vegetable stew made in a milk can, gallons of it at a time, heated from the outside from the bottom by a fire and we just put in whatever vegetables we’d gotten that day.

DM: And what about —you know…believe it or not after 40 years, I still have, and it’s the only thing that I ever keep with me wherever I go—I still have the original poster, 1% Free.

PB: The two Tong men leaning again the wall?

DM: The two Tong men and so on, could you?

PB: I designed that poster.

DM: Now I would like you, because I know what it is, but people listening won’t know. Could you describe to us the poster and then tell me a little bit about the idea of 1% Free, please.

1-percent-free-blue.gif

PB: The poster is a reproduction of a photo that was done during the first notable earthquake, the ‘06 earthquake in San Francisco, of two Chinese Tong men who were the enforcers for the Chinese gangs [families] in the city.  The two Tong men are leaning against the wall in Chinatown. It’s…large, at least five feet high and three feet plus across.  It’s been spray-painted onto [over] a stencil so that it has a rough bluejean, bluedenium look to it. The faces and the hands of the Tong men were made on a Xerox machine [Gestetner machine] and then cut out and pasted onto the surface so that it has a ghostly three dimensional look. And at the top is the Chinese character for molting or revolution, it’s the symbol for transformation, and at the bottom is the slogan 1% Free. And this was printed onto newsprint, which is the same material that the newspaper is made out of, and [it was] glued with flour paste glue onto banks, freeway stanchions, the outside of the walls of grocery stores throughout the Haight Ashbury and by the way throughout neighborhoods of the city as well. About 150 of them were made and very few of them exist any more in the large size. Several times they’ve been reproduced in a smaller conventional poster size and even as cards, but of the originals there are very few left.

DM: And what does this mean 1% Free?

PB: Well, that’s what everyone would say, and I’m really proud to tell you that just as the word Diggers provoked people to say, “What do you mean? That you understand things? That you dig them? Or are you digging something up? Or whatever.” It was meant to be provocative and it’s taken from the Hells Angels’ shoulder patch on a Hells Angels motorcycle club jacket that said 1%, which meant 1% of motorcycle clubs.  I took 1% and then put Free after it in the spirit of the Diggers to say roughly that only 1% of the population was capable of understanding or behaving in this way at that time.

DM: But wasn’t there also a project for a Free Bank in which that 1% Free played a role?

PB: Well, interestingly it was interpreted by the merchants on Haight Street who sold beads and candles and marijuana paraphernalia and hip clothes. It was interpreted by them to mean that they should give 1% of their money (laughs) to the Diggers. Which I love. That’s the joy of a provocative title. It can evoke all kinds of responses. And after that by the way, one of those bead stores paid the rent on the Free Store—as a way of contributing their 1%. But it wasn’t meant for that. It was just meant as a provocation to the cultural consciousness especially of the psychedelic generation to try to get them to see beyond transcendental meditation into more social, political and long-term human goals.

DM: So the idea of a free bank is a total myth? It’s something that I just either invented or heard or whatever?

PB: We used to ask people, if they wanted to be a digger, just put free in front of some term that interested them. Some activity or some social institution—free food, free store—and one of these people said that he wanted to be a free banker, so whenever people gave us contributions we would give it to him and he would wear money in his hatband and give it to anybody that asked him for it as (a demonstration of this kind ..) as a life-act in this theater of Free. He would simply take the money out of his hatband and hand it to them.

DM: So the Free Bank was actually a guy walking around with money in his hat?

PB: That’s right.

DM: Great.

PB: The same person drove a motorcycle down Haight Street and threw coins out of a bag of money into the street to all the people that were panhandling because you know of course these refugees from America that were showing up in the thousands had no employment, so throwing money to them was a way of supporting them for a little bit longer.

DM: And how different is that in your estimation from for example the famous case of Abby Hoffman and the Yippees throwing dollar bills down from the NY stock exchange? Down below

PB: Well that was an imitation of what we were doing. They derived that kind of activity from what we were doing. I was at the SDS meeting where Abby Hoffman first heard of the Diggers. I was the person that told him about it. We were the Diggers who went to a meeting of SDS that turned out to be their final meeting. Where we told them that they should stop doing what they were doing and start a proactive revolutionary movement that was based on alternative benefits, the benefits of an alternative society rather than protests at the old society. He took it seriously. (Laughs)

DM: OK, yeah. And how would you then, going back to the perspective of ’68 because this is the point of what I’m doing is that things are exploding all over the globe in that particular year and there are so many different movements what’s going on in France, what’s going on in different countries and so on. How would you put Digger in that perspective? What distinguishes Digger from all the rest of the things going on in this year 1968?

PB:  Well, first of all not all the Diggers were aware of what was happening all over the world.  I was aware of it and I identified with Situationists in France and the Provos in the Netherlands and with the Commune people in Germany at the time and I saw a thread of continuity running through what we were doing because essentially this was a perpetuation of the Anarchist philosophy of the 17th and 18th Century that has never died and continues and we were all exercising different forms of it. It’s a completely legitimate view of human freedom.  It was, at the time of its inception in the 17th Century, anarchism was considered to be on the same par as democracy. Really a question of where the ideals of freedom would go. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who dates from that period, is a founder of contemporary anarchism and he put anarchism and human freedom together with the way nature operates with ecology which is very contemporary. You know our tradition is very contemporary but it has roots that are firm roots in that same soil.

DM: Those are the connections.

PB: Yes, those are the connections.

DM: What are, in your point of view, what is it about Digger that was unique?

PB: I think…the absolute individualism of it.  The American political spirit contains an individualistic streak that extends to expression and creativity in many many different ways. Americans tend to feel more free about what kinds of things they’re capable of doing and…to what activities they might apply. This is my own observation and someone might feel that I’m wrong in this, but I think that Digger is by saying ,”Everything is Free, Do Your Own Thing”… an expression of this individualist, the importance of the individual in the social… manifestation. In other words that individual happiness and freedom was a paramount goal of a social formulation.

DM: But…couldn’t you say the same thing about a lot of anarchist groups? I’m still, maybe I’m just insisting too much, but I’m still looking for that, because I was always very very impressed by Digger and I, you know, what I’m looking for here is that one particular thing that sets Digger apart from all the other Anarchist Movements that one can think of.

PB: When the ideology really falls back on the individual, I think that’s what makes it different. That when you say, “Put free in front of anything, that you choose to manifest” and someone says, “Oh, OK, I’m going to be the Free Taxi Driver, I’m going to be the Free Banker, I’m going to be the Free Parachutist. I’m going to be the Free Actor.” (chuckles) The ideology there is not, “What should we all do in common and in lock step?”  But the ideology is really, “What should we all do that will result in a burst of fireworks?—will burst out in ways that we don’t know yet. The unpredictability of that kind of individual application of an ideology, I think that’s what’s distinct about the Diggers.

DM: … at the same time as Digger is happening in San Francisco on the other side [of the U.S.] you’ve got the Mutherfuckers in new York and what to you, if you had to say what the difference would be between Digger and Mutherfucker what would you come up with?

PB: Well, these days the terms that are used are the difference between protest and proactive. We were creative theater people. We delighted in creating beautiful, sensual, expressive, participatory, revelatory events. We (guffaw) believe that if you trip somebody out, if you gave them a fantasy fulfillment, or if they were able to feel empowered to fulfill fantasies that were positive and socially beneficent that that was much more important than throwing a hand grenade at somebody that you disagreed with.

DM: And did the Mutherfuckers do that?

PB: Well, we had an event in San Francisco, I designed the event, it was called The End of the War.  It was done in late ’67, and we took over a theater and we had a free theater performance and we invited people to come and do the kinds of things they would do if the war was over. The poster for that, by the way, had Lyndon Johnson with his arms around Ho Chi Min and both of them waving the other one’s flag and it said, The End of the War. So some people performed nude dances.  Some people carried around boughs of trees as a sort of a sculptural theater presentation. The Mutherfuckers idea of what to do was to put up a table with different kinds of ammunition. So they put up a card table that had 38 bullets, AK 47 bullets (laughs), whatever—just various kinds of bullets and different kinds of Molotov cocktails.

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DM: What were they trying to do. What were they trying to say there?

PB: The Mutherfucker idea was that if the war was over. The energy that was being spent fighting the Vietnamese would be spent, militarily, fighting the American government. Our view was that if the war was over and the energy that was being spent fighting the Vietnamese was converted to another form it would be creativity and transformation of American society.

DM: OK. What about, what about the idea as somebody said, maybe it’s total bullshit from your point of view, but the Diggers were communists with a small “c?”

PB: Well, Anarchism has always had an element of interdependence about it—interdependence and mutualism. Interdependence and mutualism are the kinds of forces that are so easily observed in nature. That, by the way, that is one of the reasons why, whenever people ask me, “ Whatever happened to spirit of the 60s?”  I say, “It became the ecology movement.”  Because that interdependence and mutualism is so evident in the way that different organisms relate to each other—the roles that they have relative to each other. So I think interdependence and mutualism exist whether you enact them or not. If you enact them you facilitate it and you stop destruction.  If you don’t enact mutualism and interdependence then you cause biological, biospheric and human destruction.

DM: Do you think, Peter, that Digger, the whole notion of Digger, ultimately changed anything?

PB: Well, first of all the opportunity to participate in the creation of a modern form of the Anarchist tradition was and is for me an extraordinary opportunity, so the Diggers don’t have to do anything more than what they’ve already done. In terms of what they represent now, I know that young people are very interested in how to live a life that’s more fulfilling, more creative. In France, of course, it takes the form of a shorter work week. When two women from Paris came and wanted to make a film about the Diggers some years ago, five years ago, I was very helpful to them because they introduced themselves as wanting to provide a rationale to people who would work less. And even in Canada today there’s a group called the Work Less Party, so, yeah, the Diggers’ “Everything is Free, Do your own thing.”  is wonderfully applicable to the idea of people finding a fulfillment in human creativity and expression rather than in roboticly carrying out the ends of some work regime.

DM: OK. Peter, one… last thing and then I think we’ve got everything we need. I just, I’m going to put some words that you know into your head and just… I’m going to ask you to repeat them, so I don’t have to have them in my mouth in the thing, so when you answer please use the expression.  What … did the slogan mean to you, “Today is the first Day in the Rest of Your Life”?

PB: The first time I heard the phrase, “Today is the first Day in the Rest of Your Life” it came out of the mouth of the American beat poet Gregory Corso, and it was in conversation.  When he said it, I realized that he had taken a simple revelation and made it almost into…a credo and the credo was, “you are constantly beginning again” and that’s not in the tragic sense of Sisyphus rolling the rock up on the mountain again and again, but it’s real in the sense that Life Opportunity Consciousness and Perception are constantly changing and that that is a spirit to ally with rather than to feel it’s working against you. So “Today is the first Day in the Rest of Your Life” is the bright opportunity of starting over again if one needs to or one should or one does inevitably anyway. Starting over again to recreate the world around them. And I’ve always seen it as that.

DM: Why did it turn up on that poster on the day of the assassination of Martin Luther King?

PB: Oh, because with the assassination of Martin Luther King it was the turning point, we saw it as the turning point in popular consciousness. The final absolute proof that American Society had to be changed, if a proponent of peaceful transformation would be killed violently then it was so obvious, it had to be obvious to everyone, that the ideals of the assassinated person should prevail in the end. So…the poster actually said “Good-bye Brother Martin, Today is the first Day in the Rest of Your Life” It was addressed to everyone who was still alive.

DM: And I still have it too. (laughs) Ok. I want to ask you…a personal question….As you were talking I was thinking of my old friend Ronnie Davis. Is he still with us, or?

PB: He’s still alive.

DM: Yeah and is he still in San Francisco?

PB: He’s still in San Francisco.

DM: OK. Well if you ever see him, give him my best. …I’m also I’m looking for a good mutherfucker to be sort of your counterpart. I mean have you got anybody you could recommend? That you can think of?

PB:  Well, an individual who is a source for that kind of information is the Digger Folk archivist in San Francisco, whose name is Eric Noble.

DM: Uh huh.

PB: Do you know Eric?

DM: No I don’t. …

PB: David, Eric is not eager to share information with media in general.

DM: Uh huh.

PB: He persists in the same suspicion I have … You should identify yourself as the author of Radical Soap Opera. …and By any Means Necessary and also tell him you were referred by me. …

DM: OK

PB: It’s not his specialty but I think he knows the general territory.

DM: Uh huh.

PB: The first one you’d want to get a hold of course is Ben Morrea.

DM: I know.

PB: Where or what’s happened to Ben I really don’t know.

DM: I saw an interview with him a few years ago somebody had done. He seems quite willing to talk. But he’s somewhere out in the West, you know, and I don’t know how to get to him, but I can try and find out. Well, I think that’s about it Peter, for the moment. If I need anything more we’ll be in touch. I’m really pleased and I

PB: You know we left out something from 1968 that I’m disappointed about.

DM: Do it. Do it right now, we’ve still got plenty of time.

PB: In 1968 at the beginning of the year, we saw that with the repression of the Haight Ashbury by the police, which was intensive, that our reaction should be to take the Digger spirit and put it in other neighborhoods of the City and on City Hall steps.  So we occupied City Hall steps starting in the Spring Equinox. That would have been March, mid-March, through the Summer Solstice which was June, mid-June. We occupied City Hall steps every day [at noon] reading poems, making proclamations, giving away free food, bathing in the city fountain. It was a fixture and it was called Free City.

So in 1968 the Diggers effectively changed their focus of activity and changed their name, instead of the Diggers they became the Free City Collective and did events throughout the City and other neighborhoods, rock concerts, free food events, but occupied City Hall steps every day. That was our defiant response to what the City had done.  That was our ’68. The Digger style for the ’68 period was Free City and the occupation of City Hall steps.

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City Hall Steps Photos: © Chuck Gould, all rights reserved

DM: This is absolutely wonderful that you should bring that up because I actually have a film of that which I found. Ah..

PB: It’s called Nowsreal.

DM: That’s right.

PB: That’s my film. I made that film as a record of who we were and what we did.

DM: Well, if you made that film, it’s also very good news, because if I use a piece of it, you probably get some royalties from it. (laughs)

PB: The two people. The cameraman is Kelly Hart (spells the name)

DM: Yeah.

PB: And the director is Peter Berg.

DM: It’s funny because I didn’t see that on the film, but in any case..

PB: No! That’s because we were anonymous.

DM: That’s great! OK, OK It’s good to know because if I use it, they will surely ask me who needs to get paid for that, and now I know. (laughs)

PB: You know you should mention somewhere—I think you should mention it rather than me, because it would be a little hard for me to contrive the opportunity right now—that everything the Diggers did was anonymous and the reason for anonymity was to impress people with this notion of interdependence and mutuality and also, by the way David, it was a very good cover for the police trying to track us down.

DM: OK. Well,

PB: You might mention it. You might say that these things aren’t authored, they don’t have credits. The 1% Free poster doesn’t say Peter Berg on it. Nowsreal doesn’t say Peter Berg on it. The Free Store, the Trip Without a Ticket Manifesto didn’t say Peter Berg on it. And that was the reason.

DM: Well, you just said it, and you said it better than I could. But in any case the way I’m probably going to present this is as a kind of inter-reaction of things like that.

PB: Good.

DM: So that really great. Well, Peter, it’s time. I’ve only got the studio for a few more weeks..

PB: I understand. You’re in charge of a tremendous legacy David that I hope you

DM: I know it

PB: I wish you the best of luck with it.

DM: I’ll definitely let you know what it’s going to be, and send you the script.

PB: I hope this turned out well.

DM: It did.

PB: Could you send me a tape?

DM: I will ultimately although you must realize it’s going to be in German. And there (Peter laughs) will be somebody voice-overing you ultimately.

PB: OK.

DM: But I will leave you as much free space as I possibly can.

PB: Good luck, David.

DM: All right, take care. Thanks very much, Peter, Bye.

PB: Good-by.

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