By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published December 5, 2011
The commune liked to put on free concerts in the band shell at Ann Arbor’s West Park on Sunday evenings in the summer.
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Ann Arbor denied them a permit, but Sinclair decided to proceed with the show anyway — a moment he called the “fulcrum” in their transformation into a political group.
“We defied the law,” Sinclair said. “That was a political act. We defied the law. We rented a generator for $8, got 50 cents worth of gas and set up in the pavilion in West Park and we played. Nobody came because we couldn’t advertise it because it was a guerrilla action, but we did it.”
Pun Plamondon, another member of the commune who would later be charged with bombing a CIA office in Ann Arbor, said the Sunday concerts were a tremendous opportunity for the group to spread their message, even though other groups like the Students for a Democratic Society questioned their techniques.
“We were reaching 2,000 people every Sunday, and we’re passing out leaflets, and we’re having speakers speak between the bands and we’re organizing and agitating,” Plamondon said. “If (SDS) printed 150 flyers and handed them out on campus, they thought they were organizing, but we’d say, ‘that ain’t nothin’, man.’ ”
The movement began in earnest when Plamondon showed Sinclair an interview with Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party. In the interview, Newton was calling for a White Panther Party.
Sinclair bought into the idea, and the group — modeled after the Black Panthers and another radical group called the Yippies, which was headed by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman — began to form.
“I felt that we needed a combination of the discipline, organization and ideology of the Black Panther Party, along with the theatrics and the media manipulation of the Yippies,” Plamondon said.
The White Panther Party was founded on a 10-point program modeled after that of the Black Panthers, and the White Panthers’ first point was complete support of the Black Panthers’ platform.
The rest of the manifesto focused on free and total access to common goods such as food, clothes and housing, the elimination of money and the end of war. The statement also advocated for “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets.”
Sinclair “talked a hell of a good game” in terms of advocating for the movement, says American Culture Prof. Bruce Conforth, adding that the White Panthers advocated for what they believed in, but their beliefs were often based on “flights of fancy.”
“But, you know — and I hate to put it in these terms because it tends to trivialize it — but they were still about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll,” Conforth said. “The philosophy was all about sloganism and catch phrases — and they were really good at that.”
Ten years for two joints
After Sinclair was sentenced on July 28, 1969, the movement turned political. The White Panthers began to actively campaign to get Sinclair and other prisoners released.
Though he was incarcerated, Sinclair said he still guided the movement from his prison cell. When he had access to his typewriter, Sinclair would write seven-page, single-spaced letters to other leaders, and he’d get news from his wife Leni and brother David, also leaders of the party, when they came to visit him in prison.
“I had nothing else to do so I was constantly involved in this,” Sinclair said. “Plus, it took me out of my prison surroundings. Mentally, I was somewhere else. I was doing something for myself. I was doing something to advance our political, social and cultural goals. So, I was very, very much involved — both in planning activities and events, and debating strategy and tactics.”
While Sinclair was in jail, the White Panthers — who renamed themselves the Rainbow People’s Party — worked to raise awareness about their leader’s plight.