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Ten for Two: Forty years ago, one man's imprisonment would forever change Ann Arbor

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published December 5, 2011

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.