By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published December 5, 2011
It was past 3 a.m. — more than eight hours after the show started — by the time John Lennon and Yoko Ono took the stage at Crisler Arena wearing matching magenta T-shirts and leather jackets.
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A wary crowd of 15,000 erupted for the two ’60s heroes as a haze of marijuana smoke hung over the arena floor. Lennon’s appearance was the capstone of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally — a mega concert to benefit jailed left-wing activist John Sinclair, one of the founders of the White Panther Party.
“We came here not only to help John and to spotlight what’s going on, but also to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it, and we can do something,” Lennon told the audience. “OK, so flower power didn’t work, so what? We start again.”
In July 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to 9.5 to 10 years in prison for selling two joints to an undercover narcotics officer. The Freedom Rally, held on Dec. 10, 1971 — 40 years ago this Saturday — was the culmination of more than two years of efforts to free Sinclair.
In an interview while sipping coffee at the Starbucks on East Liberty Street last Saturday, Sinclair said the Ann Arbor rally wasn’t an isolated event.
“Every week there was something somewhere, and sometimes there were fairly big ones,” he said. “But this one, for December 10, 1971, was scheduled to be as big as we could make it.”
An astonishing mix of activists and artists gathered in Ann Arbor that Friday night to put pressure on the Michigan Supreme Court to finally release Sinclair. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, activist Jerry Rubin and the poet Allen Ginsberg all spoke, while Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Teegarden & Van Winkle and Phil Ochs performed.
Sinclair himself even spoke from prison — via phone — to the rally.
Still, Lennon was the headliner.
“(Lennon) just put it over the top,” Sinclair said. “All the tickets sold out in three minutes. It was the fastest selling ticket in Michigan pop music history, and that just put the focus on my case and the issue.”
The Ann Arbor performance was Lennon’s first since The Beatles broke up the previous year. Lennon was only on stage for about 15 minutes, playing three songs including one called “John Sinclair” he wrote specifically for the occasion.
“Won’t you care for John Sinclair? / In the stir for breathing air,” Lennon sang, as Ono stood to his right playing a bongo. “Let him be / set him free / let him be like you and me. / They gave him ten for two.”
And that Monday, Dec. 13, Sinclair was set free.
The Hill Street Commune
Sinclair was a major player in Detroit in his early years, managing the politically active band MC5, contributing to several underground publications and creating the Detroit Artists Workshop. But after the 1967 riots, police began to crack down on citizens, and in May 1968, Sinclair decided to make the move to liberal Ann Arbor.
Sinclair and his friends settled into large houses at the corner of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue, creating for themselves a hippie commune that totaled about 35 people.
When they first got to Ann Arbor, Sinclair said the hippies stuck out from University students.
“The rest of Ann Arbor was pretty much students with short hair, student garb — squares,” Sinclair said. “We were like sore thumbs walking among the students. Students didn’t like hippie chicks because they didn’t have brassieres on and stuff like that. They didn’t shave under their arms and (the students) thought they were scum. They would verbally attack them on the street. It wasn’t very pleasant.”
It was on Hill Street where Sinclair began to mobilize politically. The commune liked to put on free concerts in the band shell at Ann Arbor’s West Park on Sunday evenings in the summer.
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. Hoffman even interrupted The Who’s performance at Woodstock, stealing the microphone from Pete Townshend to talk about Sinclair.
David Fenton, who worked as the publisher of the group’s newspaper, the Ann Arbor Sun, and now runs an international communications firm, said Sinclair taught him everything he knows about PR.
“I learned it all doing that work,” Fenton said. “Sinclair used to write me long, detailed, handwritten, yellow legal pad letters from prison about how to organize media coverage about how to get him out of jail. He was a genius at this stuff.”
But come December 1971, a rally was planned to coincide with a bill that was making its way through the Michigan Legislature. The bill would change the state’s drug laws by delisting marijuana as a narcotic, have a maximum 90-day sentence for use and only up to one year for possession of the drug.
Sinclair said they wanted to ensure the Legislature voted on the bill before adjourning for the Christmas holiday.
“We (had) to do something to make it impossible for the legislature to go home for Christmas without voting,” Sinclair said of the bill. “If they say no, they say no, but we wanted to at least make them vote.”
A rally to free John Sinclair to be held in Ann Arbor was planned for Dec. 10, and it was shaping up to be like any of the countless other events that were held on Sinclair’s behalf over the previous two-and-a-half years.
Then, on the night of Dec. 5, the event’s organizers got a phone call. It was Lennon.
“I just want to say we’re coming along to the John Sinclair bust fund rally to say hello,” Lennon said on the phone, according to a Dec. 6, 1971 press release issued by the organizers. “I won’t be bringing a band or nothing like that, because I’m only here as a tourist, but I’ll probably fetch me guitar, as I know we have a song that we wrote for John.”
Rubin, the Yippie leader, was friends with Lennon and had convinced him to take up Sinclair’s cause.
“Jerry Rubin became close friends with John and Yoko when they lived in New York and wanted to get into the things that were going on, were of the moment,” Sinclair said. “They wanted to do whatever was happening, what was really cool — and so that was us.”
Despite his interest in Sinclair’s case, Lennon also probably had his own personal motivations for coming to the rally, according to Conforth. Lennon was in the process of planning a potential American tour with the Plastic Ono Band, and the Ann Arbor concert would be a good way to ease back into playing live shows.
“These were times when people served their self-interests quite frequently, and Lennon I don’t think did it for purely altruistic reasons,” Conforth said. “He didn’t do it just because of John Sinclair; he did it because it would serve him well. In addition, it would do something for (Sinclair).”
After the rally, Sinclair and Lennon discussed holding similar events at venues around the country, following President Richard Nixon as he campaigned for re-election. The tour would have culminated with a free, three-day festival in San Diego — the proposed site of the 1972 Republican National Convention.
The proposed tour never happened because of Lennon’s on-going immigration troubles when the U.S. tried to deport him.
Still, in the days leading up to the Ann Arbor event, organizers kicked their preparations into high gear. They had only a matter of days to prepare for what was quickly becoming a much larger event than they had initially planned, Fenton said.
“It was like God was coming to Ann Arbor,” Fenton said. “It was amazing. I remember announcing it on the radio, and people were so excited.”
The night before the rally, the Legislature passed the revised marijuana policy, drastically reducing the penalties for use, possession and sale of the drug. And — finally — three days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair to be released from prison.
“I was an opponent, I had to take a few licks on the way to winning the fight,” Sinclair said, when asked if he felt like he had been a victim of the state’s marijuana laws. “If I had to have done 10 years, I would’ve been a victim.
“But then John Lennon got me out, and I won. Not too many people can say that."
It’s impossible to say, though, what the ultimate effect the Freedom Rally had on the Supreme Court’s Decision to release Sinclair, Conforth said.
“I think there was enough public sentiment growing without the concert that he, in all likelihood, would’ve been released anyway because people were increasingly seeing it as a bum rap,” Conforth said.
Fenton added that Sinclair’s sentence could’ve been shorter, but he insisted on fighting the government’s classification of marijuana as an addictive narcotic.
“John could’ve gotten out of jail a lot earlier, and could’ve avoided many, many, many months of abuse in prison, and harrowing periods of solitary confinement, but … he wouldn’t compromise,” Fenton said.
And the court went even further. In March 1972, it ruled Michigan’s marijuana laws unconstitutional, and since the revised law that was passed the previous December didn’t go into effect until April 1, open consumption of marijuana was legal in Michigan for about three weeks that spring.
Sinclair said he led events around Ann Arbor where people openly smoked weed, adding that the party also started its own church.
“Marijuana and psychedelic drugs were our sacraments,” Sinclair said. “So, we were having open church services where we were sharing the sacraments at the altar and all this kind of stuff.”
Then, on April 1, when the new law took effect, the first Hash Bash was held on the Diag “to let them know that we’d still be smoking even though they were putting this law back in,” Sinclair said.
40 years later
Today, Ann Arbor is a much different city than it was when Sinclair and the White Panthers called it home, as luxury high-rise apartment buildings continue to sprout up around campus, and franchised coffee shops and drugstores fill up State Street and South University Avenue.
“In hindsight, people like to remember things as having more importance than they actually did because it’s what gives our lives meaning,” Conforth said. “A lot of what happened back then was due to happenstance, due to political manipulations. You know, we may never know in all sorts of ways, not just with Sinclair, but in all sorts of ways.”
Still, Sinclair and the White Panthers have left an indelible impact on Ann Arbor. Hash Bash still takes place every April, and the People’s Food Co-op in Kerrytown, which the residents of Hill Street established, still exists.
Beyond that, graying hippies still happily share stories of their exploits during the era and talk about the night the former Beatle came to Ann Arbor.
Now 70 years old, Sinclair says he still smokes at least two joints each day. He says he sees parallels between his political advocacy in the 1960s and '70s and the Occupy Wall Street movement that is reinvigorating the left today.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, but man, it’s exhilarating to see other people, young people, find this out,” Sinclair said. “It took them a long time, but on Sept. 17, 2011, they said, ‘Wait a minute, this has gone too far.’ Now I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m kind of exhilarated.”
He continued, “It’s picking up from 40 years ago and starting to go to the next step.”