Writing the Left Coast: Peter Plate, in conversation with Christian Parenti
San Francisco Police Captain Greg Suhr once claimed that his forces had to rewrite local surveillance laws just so they could keep tabs on the squatter, thief and novelist Peter Plate. The story may or may not be true, but the po-po certainly hate this scrappy, street fight’n, rationally paranoid, writer. Peter Plate is the author of six novels and one book of novellas. His latest books are Angels of Catastrophe, One Foot off the Gutter and Snitch Factory (Seven Stories Press, 2001). We spoke in his small SF apartment.
Parenti (Rail): Here we are in your home. It’s an intense environment. Tell me about where we are.
Plate: This building is a single residential occupancy hotel, better known as an SRO hotel. The type of housing reserved for the lowest income residents of San Francisco. This one happens to be on Market Street. The only people who live in these kinds of neighborhoods are working class people or people with no income whatsoever.
Rail: So we’re in a room that’s 6’ x 13’. It’s Spartan and clean as a prison cell. And it is actually a little bit wider—or maybe not—but it’s missing the bunk beds of a San Quentin cell. They’re long and narrow, like this room.
Plate: They’re 6’ x 9’. This room happens to be 6’ x 13’. SROs often have the spatial configuration of an old penal institution: long halls, little cells; one way in and one way out. When you go to sleep and you hear the screams of people suffering living so close together—as prisoners do. It’s a kind of minimum-security containment.
Rail: Tell us how you got to San Francisco, where you’re from, and all that.
Plate: I was raised in Southern Cal, on AFDC, a now defunct welfare program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Even at that age, dealings with landlords were a constant source of friction, embarrassment and shame. I remember having social workers come over to our apartment in the ghetto in San Bernardino and running their fingers through our cupboards. These were visits required by law—to go through your cupboards, your refrigerator and closets. All you could do was stand there and tolerate it.
Rail: San Bernardino, but your family is from New York City. You were basically a New York City Jew displaced to the biker-infested deserts of Southern California.
Plate: I am part of what I would call the working class Jewish Diaspora of North America. I come from NYC, but I was raised in a right-wing working class town of 100,000 people on the edge of the desert and the mountains, where LA’s smog comes to its final resting. San Bernardino’s major economy until the beginning of the Reagan era was based around Norton Air Force Base, which during the Vietnam era was the number one take-off center for men and munitions going to Vietnam via Okinawa. It was a right-wing military town not only in terms of its ideological frame of reference. Most of my friends’ older brothers were being drafted into Vietnam and when I was growing up they were coming home as heroin addicts.
If you were on welfare in San Bernardino, you didn’t get food stamps. Once a month you got a 50-pound sack of rotting white flour that you had to stand in line for hours for. You’d get the flour and find that it was infested with boll weevils. I’m in high school, I’m anemic, 15 years old, seeing my friends’ brothers coming home as heroin addicts. I decide in a speech class to give a presentation against the war. I did this, and the kids in the class went fucking berserk. I was dragged into my career counselor’s office—he later became a leading politician in the town—he said, “Listen, you’re against the war, aren’t you?” I said yes to his question, and he says, “You want to go to college, don’t you?” And I said yes, and he says: “You know that the only way to get off of welfare is to go to college?” He looks me in the eye and says, “You keep up this antiwar activity and I’ll make sure you never get off welfare, that you never go to college.” And so I didn’t go to college. That was the beginning of my life, the beginning of my feeling of total terror and dislocation about what it felt like to be poor in this country.
Rail: But you also had a very rough childhood, right?
Plate: Yes, my name is essentially just a legal name, Peter Plate. It’s not really my real name in terms of birthright. My mother was pregnant and in order to give me a legal name to put on a birth certificate, she married a local gangster. The police were always coming into our lives. The first time I remember the police in our house was when I was probably two years old. They were breaking into our house.
Rail: After finishing high school, you and one of your buddies, a Native American, took off to the north and eventually ended up in South Dakota, correct?
Plate: I was a drug dealer when I got out of high school. To me, that was the highest aspiration, to have money in my pocket and impress my peers. One of my friends out of high school was a Native American from the Serrano Indian Rancheria in San Bernardino. He went to a Native American school DHQ University, which was located in the lower Sacramento valley. I was dealing drugs in San Bernardino and he comes back and says “Look, you should come up with me to this Indian school,” and I said, “Man, I’m not no Indian, look at me.” He says, “Don’t matter, we’re training agents of social change.” And so, I went to the school. I met a lot of people in the American Indian Movement (AIM) who were veterans of Wounded Knee, some who were under federal indictment for their participation.
Rail: So this is ’75 or’ 76, and you’re 18 or so.
Plate: I stayed at DGU, and from there I went to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and I engaged in consultancy work for the development of curriculum for Native American colleges. The fact was that I could read in English faster than most of the Lakota speaking academics. They looked at me and thought, “Here’s a young white boy who can read books real fast. We’ll tell him what the lies are in the history texts about Indians. He will discern the lies from the facts, tell us, then we will start re-writing the curriculum.” This year I was there, there were 60 murders, bloodshed between the traditionalists and AIM, and the FBI and the federal marshals and the goons who they were supporting. One of the people I met was Anna Mae Aquash, who was murdered in early 1976. Her hands were cut off so as to impede an investigation, and she was found frozen dead in the Badlands of South Dakota.
In South Dakota, if you were white, you only had two choices: either you became the enemy, or a white Indian. I wasn’t going to have either, so I came back to California. I became a tenant union organizer, and co-authored a rent control ordinance in Southern Sonoma County in a town called Cotati.
Rail: Tell us more about the Sonoma County experience with rent control.
Plate: In the late 1970s, Cotati had the highest per capita population of single mothers on welfare in the state. This was first generation rent control legislation, at a particular time in California when reformism was radical—an attack on landlords and real estate speculators. We had a budget of approximately $100, whereas a real estate consortium called the California Housing Council had a budget of $500,000, but we beat their asses right into the ground.
What brought me to San Francisco as a tenant union organizer was the struggle of the International Hotel on Kearny Street. The International Hotel eviction had begun in 1969 and ended in 1977. It was a working class SRO for mostly Filipino seniors, who had been traveling the world and plying their trade as seamen for decades, and who were living as single men here in America while sending money home to their families in the Philippines. The International Hotel finally went down in August of 1977. 5,000 people stood in front of the hotel, and the police from every direction.
Rail: You’ve had a lot of interactions with the law, haven’t you? Right around that time another famous showdown between the people of San Francisco and the state jumped off and you were cast in a starring role, though not necessarily one of your own choosing.
Plate: I was organizing tenants in the Tenderloin, which was one of the poorer neighborhoods of San Francisco. I worked in conjunction with some people on Leavenworth Street, organizing a building owned by an internationally renowned German slumlord named Guenter Kaussen. He was based in Germany, but he owned 50,000 units of rental property throughout Canada, the U.S., and Germany. Due to our work, he committed suicide the next year, because his fraudulent practices were revealed.
These tenant union organizing activities came at the dawn of gentrification in San Francisco, when the class demographics of the town were changing. At this particular time, the Mayor of San Francisco, a Democratic Party politician named George Moscone, was shot and killed in City Hall, along with Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician in the U.S. They were both killed by a former San Francisco policeman named Dan White, who had also been on the Board of Supervisors, but who had quit his job because he thought the town was going over to freaks and fairies. He then wanted his post back. The mayor said no, so Dan White went down to City Hall and shot Moscone, then Milk in cold blood.
Rail: More specifically, he shot the Mayor, then went out of his office, passed by Dianne Feinstein in the hall, then went to Milk’s office and shot him. No one knows what Feinstein said to him.
Plate: Dan White was put on trial for murder. He was then convicted of the two counts, but sentenced to only seven years and eight months. Where I come from in Southern California, I had homeboys who went to prison for a decade and more just for burglary.
I remember being at The Strand Theater on Market Street at 5:30 P.M., on May 21st, 1979. I was watching the documentary Hearts and Minds, about the Vietnam War. The movie ended, and I went out into the lobby. Someone rushed in off the street and said, “Dan White’s been convicted.” And I said, “Well, what did he get?” And they said, “He got seven years and eight months.” I remember all my homeboys doing hard time for crimes against property because they were fucking hungry. A bunch of us rushed up Market Street, and we were met by a crowd of five to six to seven thousand people coming down from Castro District. They were marching on City Hall.
The crowd coming from Market and Castro was basically white middle class gay males. But when the word was spreading through the Tenderloin about what was happening, angry drag queens and leather queens living in the SROs started looting and fighting and destroying everything in sight. The crowd then had what I’d call a political problem. The police were starting to mass on Van Ness. The more politically conservative part of the crowd said, “Let us be non-violent, let’s not provoke the police.” A large part of the throng sat down in front of City Hall, holding hands. That’s when the police charged in, beating people bloody and senseless.
The queens and the poor people from the Tenderloin then started to fight in earnest. Eleven police cars went up in flames. The State Building, the Federal Building and banks up and down Market Street were totally smashed. One image that I’ll never forget was a federal police car doing donuts in a circle, surrounded by a huge crowd of queens hurling bricks at it. The faces of the two federal cops in the front seat of the car were frozen in horror as they kept doing tighter and tighter donuts.
At midnight I went to the Federal Building with a couple of bricks in my jacket. I went up to the glass doors, seeing these two black federal cops in jackboots. I hurled the bricks right into their faces. The next thing I knew I was jerked off my feet by two San Francisco undercover cops and choked into unconsciousness. I was dragged to the substation located on Ellis Street, and brought into the anteroom of the holding cell. There were dozens of teargas and bloodstained cops in full riot gear. They took one look at me and said, “Let’s kill the faggot. Kill the faggot, now.”
A minute later, a guy comes in. His jaw had been broken by the arresting officers. It was dangling at an angle from his mouth, and he was screaming in pain. Three cops came in and beat him senseless with their nightsticks.
I was taken down to the central station at 850 Bryant Street and thrown into the main holding cell, a big, fly-splattered, bloodstained, whitewashed pen. And then it was the same thing all over again. The county sheriffs knew why I had been arrested, and they said, “We’re going to kill you, faggot. You’re going to die here tonight.”
Rail: It’s important to keep in mind that both Moscone and Milk were both products of the struggle against urban renewal, which was wiping out neighborhood after neighborhood. The first was South of Market, which was, much like the I-Hotel, basically white and Filipino, single, Merchant Marine and longshoremen guys. The Western Addition, an African-American neighborhood near City Hall, had fought off its own extinction. So the presence of these liberal, even progressive, politicians was considered a victory for the left. And their assassination was very much seen as a counterattack led by the forces of order and capital, yet another kind of response. Tell us what you were charged with.
Plate: Assault and battery on a cop. Assault with a deadly weapon on a cop. Incitement to riot. And burning police cars. I was then kept in a strip cell for two days and was being interrogated at irregular intervals by the San Francisco Police Department, who kept trying to get me to confess. I refused to talk to them. I remember lawyers coming in, people just dying to represent me. It was a phantasmagoria of characters in the strip cell, lawyers and cops all trying to get me to talk. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t slept; I had blood on me. I was stinking of tear gas.
Rail: How many cars did they say you had burned?
Plate: They identified with me with several police cars, but could not nail me specifically with any one of these cars. One car went up in flames right in front of City Hall. Then eleven more went up across the way in front of the State Building. The only other person who was charged with burning a police car out of a crowd of approximately 8,000 was a 19-year-old kid named Billy Budd. That was his true name. We went on trial, and through the next year.
Rail: So this is significant because this was the SFPD’s shit that got destroyed. It was one thing to go after City Hall, but these were the cops’ toys, so they really wanted blood.
Plate: The FBI was involved and they kept interrogating other defendants, trying to get them to snitch out. One year into the trial, the city had spent already $750,000 on pre-trial motions. I think it was the first or second of June 1980, I went to the courtroom and I realize that Billy Budd wasn’t with us. The judge was very subdued, our lawyers were subdued, even the prosecution was subdued. Judge Roy Wonder said that Billy Budd’s charges were being dropped. I thought to myself, the first moment of hope that I’ve had in thirteen months. Billy Budd, who was charged with burning police cars with me, his charges were being dropped. I felt this spurt of hope in my heart, like there was a possible way out. The judge then announced that Billy Budd had committed suicide. I stood up on my feet and I started screaming. The bailiff ordered me to sit down and be quiet. I flipped him off and walked out of that courtroom. A nineteen-year old kid had killed himself because the legal pressure we were under was so fucking heavy.
For the next year and a half, the prosecution whittled away every other member of the core group of defendants until it was me and another guy. The only thing that saved me was that one of my arresting officers, a notorious cowboy in the SFPD , was on the witness stand. He was asked whether I, the perpetrator, was either right-handed or left-handed. He smugly said that I was right-handed. I remember catching his eye as I was scrawling on a piece of paper with my left hand. I’m left-handed. I can’t do anything with my right hand. I remember seeing the bastard’s mouth just drop.
They couldn’t let me go, and I was convicted on broken down charges. I was put on probation for a number of years. I walked out of court and back to my SRO on Market. I heard the radio of a car passing by me with the windows rolled down. It was a cold gray day, in December of 1981. I heard my name wafting from the radio: “Peter Plate was just convicted of burning a police car, as a result of his participation in the Dan White riots of 1979.”
After this point, I went through a very difficult period of time. I was living in SROs, just bouncing from one place to another. The gay community had disavowed the riot. The leftist community never stood up for us, either. I began to feel a tremendous sense of class hatred along ideological lines. I hated the right wing for doing what they did to me, and for taking the life of Billy Budd, and I hated the leftists for not having the courage to stand up at our back.
I went through a reconfiguration in my mind. The right was against me. The left was against me. I began to read Frantz Fanon. I became integrated with an organization called Squatters Anonymous. I joined as the fight against gentrification in San Francisco in the early 1980s was heating up. Squatters Anonymous dedicated itself to one thing: getting women and children off of the streets. For the first time, I saw homeless people in armies all over San Francisco, particularly along Market street and in the Tenderloin, where I was always hanging out.
Most of the squatters had no precedent, even though there have been previous generations of squatters in San Francisco, organizations like the White Panther Party, a white working class organization that took its precepts from the Black Panther Party of Oakland.
Squatters Anonymous kept fucking up, losing building after building. One night in early March of 1983 we tried to break open the Empress Hotel in Tenderloin, using bolt cutters and crowbars. It was pouring rain, and these landlords from across the street came after us with baseball bats. The squatters I was with dropped the tools and ran off. I remembered thinking: you don’t do things like that. You don’t drop your weapons and run. Something was terribly wrong. I walked home to my SRO and started to cry, thinking this was insane, that after what I’d been through my whole life, I was now involved with this kind of dysfunction.
Rail: So this is around 1983–84?
Plate: Yes, and this is when I started to figure out that I wanted to be a writer.
Rail: Have you always been a big reader? Had that been your solace through these events?
Plate: My family had a 19th century reverence for education and the written word. For me, it was the only way out of poverty. The public library was the only democratic place for me to meet with ideas from other parts of the world, with people who wrote those ideas.
In 1983 I decided to write my life onto paper. I got out of SRO and into an apartment on San Carlos Street in the Mission. Owner move-in evictions were beginning, and I was evicted. Having no money, and no place to go, I went to an abandoned building on Folsom Street. I broke in, made it habitable, and cultivated it like a farmer tending arable soil. It became my home for the next seven years. I taught myself how to write from scratch, inside a house that nobody wanted.
Rail: So what were the first things you wrote about?
Plate: I wrote stories about where I came from in San Bernardino, about conflicts with the police, and what I’d been through in South Dakota.
Rail: These were short stories?
Plate: Vignettes. In the bohemian subculture in the Mission District, there was a Xerox revolution. Zine culture was big – anybody who had access to a Xerox machine, and who could write, could put together a zine, and sell it on the street or give it away for practically nothing. But I thought Xerox was bullshit. I wanted to produce offset press books, to make perfect-bound books and then give away the material. The idea of exchanging ideas without mediation, or monetary transaction, seemed necessary to subvert the whole notion of illiteracy in this country.
I was living in an abandoned building, learning how to print, typeset, and bind books – learning every aspect of professional book production. I gave away thousands and thousands of perfect-bound books, each approximately 60 pages of prose. Because my feeling was this: poor people ain’t got shit, and the only way they can have anything is if they have a free circulation of goods and ideas.
Rail: So tell us about your first recognition as a writer. You’re passing these things out, then eventually start touring with punk bands, doing spoken word and all that.
Plate: Recognition in San Francisco was almost nil. I felt like I was being treated really badly in all bookstores, because I wanted to give away books. San Francisco, even with its mythic reputation as a home for radical literature, didn’t give a damn about authentic homegrown expression. So I started touring with punk rock bands, and I went to England and was picked up by Edinburgh University Press.
Rail: When was that?
Plate: 1990. First was a book of three novellas entitled Black Wheel of Anger. One novella was about Joaquin Murrieta, a 19th century Gold Rush-era outlaw. One was about Tom Mooney, a union organizer and friend of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman here in San Francisco in 1916, and the other was about my trial after the Dan White riots. The first novel I wrote for them was about the Attica State Prison riot of 1971. It was based on Sam Melville, a white working class left-wing radical out of NYC, who was thrown into Attica State Prison in 1970, and who became one of the leaders of the uprising there. I identified with him. He was Russian Jewish, working class, totally dysfunctional, having to reinvent himself in a solitary confinement cell at Attica. It again reminded me how important Frantz Fanon’s writing was. I wanted to discuss Sam Melville in novelized, fiction form.
Rail: Talk more about Fanon, and why his writings resonate with you.
Plate: I come from a background where I don’t even know who my father is. I pretty much spent my whole life on welfare. My idea of self is identified with absence and loss, and the constant presence of social workers, probation officers and policemen. The idea that I belong anywhere in society is gone. The streets with the people who have nothing is where I belong. I don’t have a name or a family I can call my own. I was a case study from Frantz Fanon, only for one exception: my white skin. I was part of a white working class culture that didn’t exist anymore, a culture that had led the San Francisco general strikes in 1934, a culture of struggle that had fought in Chicago in the 1870s and 1880s for the 8-hour day.
Rail: What about Fanon’s theory of the “healing effects of revolutionary violence,” and the necessity for the “native” to kill the settler, so as to kill the internalized racism, that there has to be an externalization of violence, not in a personal form, but in a revolutionary form, for one to extinguish and kill internalized forms of oppression. You used to carry around a pistol in a brown paper bag, as if it were your lunch, right? You were living on the edge.
Plate: During the early days of my trial after the Dan White riot, I carried a loaded .38 revolver in a brown paper bag because I thought the police were going to kill me. The thing of it is, I realized that I had only two choices in a society that had rejected me from birth: either murder of suicide, or both. I’m the only male member of a very tiny family who has not done hard time.
But by the time I was 19—having experienced the suicide of my grandfather and so much police violence in my house, and having seen what social workers had done to my pride, breaking me down until I was worth nothing. I felt that I had a choice to follow my family legacy or to push that rage outward. And I recall saying to myself, better to homicide than to suicide.
Rail: Hell Yeah! Luckily, you’ve since channeled that libido, that life-force, not into destruction, not into Thanatos, but into Eros through writing and creating as opposed to destroying either yourself or other people. So let’s talk more about writing. How does it maintain mental health?
Plate: It’s the only hope I have ever had. I was raised as an abused kid. Being in working class culture is the internalization of violence. The only way I could survive the Thanatos syndrome was to reinvent myself, to create a landscape of imagination where nobody could hurt me. I could then create a revolution within my psyche that absolutely no one could take away from me. That is the purpose of writing for me: to invent a place for myself in the world.
Rail: Now what about the literary world, and your experience with the business side of it? It’s a rough row to hoe, banging away at a keyboard.
Plate: The culture of illiteracy in this country is the biggest obstacle any writer faces. I know more and more people who admit that they don’t read anymore. They don’t even have excuses for it. And as far as I’m concerned, if you’re not reading, how can you form critical inquiry as to the conditions of the society you’re living in on a day-to-day basis? Less and less people are reading, which means they’re losing more and more control of their own perception of life.
Being a writer in this country is a high-risk adventure. You have to spend an inordinate period of time alone in isolation, in order to create. I was arguing with someone the other day, and they were saying that I was lucky to have a publisher or an agent. I thought to myself, what a shitty thing to say. I bit my tongue and said, “No, it’s not luck. Luck has nothing to do with it. It’s by dint of perseverance that one becomes published or gets an agent to help you become published.”
To be a writer in this country is to move mountains with your fingertips. To purport the politics of imagination is nothing short of a miracle. Writers are pioneers of the interior.
Rail: So why fiction? Your life and your politics would seem to lend themselves to being a journalist or a non-fiction writer. You read a lot of history, and a lot of your fiction is very historical in orientation. And even your last two books seem very sociological, even geographical, in their studies of this neighborhood, the Mission. So what’s the place of fiction in all this?
Plate: I have a novel coming out in a few months called, One Foot off the Gutter, which is the name of an Irish-American children’s game that was played here in the Mission between World Wars I and II. The story is about homeless policemen versus squatters, fighting for control of an abandoned building because both have no place to live. The policemen who work in this town can’t afford to live here. Now I can’t create a non-fiction setting where there are homeless cops living out of a squad car. Through fiction, I can deconstruct social reality and give it my own twist. I can create a world more dystopic than the one I’m living in, or more utopian. To address social reality is not enough. I want to change reality itself.
Rail: Tell us about your interactions with the whole publishing industry—the interviews, the radio shows, the hustle of selling the book. You just came back from a book tour, you were on the biggest public radio show in Northern California, Forum, you were reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Do you feel that when you’re pushing your book, there’s a critical engagement with it, or do you feel like you’re just moving product?
Plate: I use a term called praxis, which is the marriage of theory and practice. My struggles in this society have forced me to test my own authenticity. I know where I stand because of my history, and because of my practice as a writer, coming out of abandoned buildings and the SROs in San Francisco. I know exactly what I have to say, when I have to say it, and how to say it.
Rail: Cool, but I find the whole process of dealing the publishing infrastructure kind of alienating. These are supposed to be the moments when there’s a critical dialogue occurring when you go on the radio, when your book gets reviewed, when you go to bookstores. It’s very hard for me at least to feel that’s what actually happening. It’s like this simulacrum of a critical dialogue, where you’re just hoping to get good press so the book gets out there and people buy the product. Part of the reason stems from the illiteracy you were referring to earlier. I have no faith in most of the reviewers, no faith in most of the talk show hosts or in the infrastructure—so all I’m looking for is stripped-down exposure. It’s a horrible feeling, but you don’t feel that way?
Plate: All the time, but when I stand up and start to talk, I know who I am. I’ve been tested by odds that are unbearable, but somehow I am still on my feet. It is again the marriage of theory and practice—I have been tested to my limits, physically, cognitively and emotionally. Writers take chances in terms of isolation; we take chances in the organization of ideas.
It isn’t even a question of moral integrity—our nervous systems being engaged. When you asked the question, my first thought was that we were guerrillas in the mountains at the beginning of a long war. We don’t know whether we’ll survive, but we have no choice but to move forwards with faith in our ideas. We move forwards, like the barefoot guerrillas who have guns but no bullets, who are starving, and yet know that below them are the cities.
Rail: So, it’s on to the cities?