The Statement

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Advertise with us »

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

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.”