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t 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 wear-
ing matching magenta T-shirts and
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 appear-
ance 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 Free-
dom Rally, held on Dec. 10, 1971 - 40 years
ago this Saturday - was the culmination of
more than two years of efforts to free Sin-
In an interview while sipping coffee at the
Starbucks on East Liberty Street last Satur-
day, Sinclair said the Ann Arbor rally wasn't
an isolated event.
"Every week there was something some-
where, 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 art-
ists 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, activ-
ist Jerry Rubin and the poet Allen Ginsberg
all spoke, while Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger,
Teegarden & Van Winkle and Phil Ochs per-
Sinclair himself even spoke from prison -
via phone - to the rally.
Still, Lennon was the headliner.
"(Lennon) just put it over the top," Sin-
clair 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
T HE H IL L ST RE E T
COMM U NE
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 peo-
When they first got to Ann Arbor, Sinclair
said the hippies stuck out from University
"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. Stu-
dents 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 Sin-
clair decided to proceed with the show any-
way - 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
coudhn't advertise it because it was a guer-
rilla 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 oppor-
tunity for the group to spread their message,
even though other groups like the Students
for a Democratic Society questioned their
"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 fly-
ers 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 Yip-
pies, 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 theat-
rics and the media manipulation of the Yip-
pies," 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
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 cul-
ture 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."
E YEA R 0 OR
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 con-
stantly 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
David Fenton, who worked as the publish-
er of the group's newspaper, the Ann Arbor
Sun, and now runs an international com-
munications firm, said Sinclair taught him
everything he knows about PR.
"I learned it all doing that work," Fen-
ton 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 Leg-
islature. The bill would change the state's
drug laws by delisting marijuana as a nar-
cotic, have a maximum 90-day sentence for
use and only up to one year for possession of
Sinclair said they wanted to ensure the
Legislature voted on the bill before adjourn-
ing 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 count-
less other events that were held on Sinclair's
behalf over the previous two-and-a-half
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, accord-
ing 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
Rubin, the Yippie leader, was friends with
Lennon and had convinced him to take up
"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 happen-
ing, what was really cool - and so that was
Despite his interest in Sinclair's case,
Lennon also probably had his own personal
motivations for coming to the rally, accord-
ing 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 altru-
istic 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 dis-
cussed 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
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 prepa-
rations into high gear. They had only a mat-
ter 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