The White Panther Party (WPP) of Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan was a radical counterculture group which became a major target for the FBI's counter-intelligence (or "COINTELPRO") program between 1968 and 1971. 1 For a more detailed history of the White Panthers, as well as the Nixon Administration's focus on the group as part of a complex legal strategy to obtain expanded "national security" wiretapping authority, see the author's Ph.D. dissertation: Wiretapping and National Security: Nixon, the Mitchell Doctrine, and the White Panthers, (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms,Incorporated, 1995) [hereafter cited as "Hale, Wiretapping and National Security . . . "]. In October of 1970, the FBI referred to the White Panthers as "potentially the largest and most dangerous of revolutionary organizations in the United States." 2 FBI Memorandum, R.L. Shackelford to C.D. Brennan, October 8, 1970, 62-112678- 125. However, just three years earlier, the group's leaders hosted a "Love-In" on Detroit's Belle Isle, presided over by John Sinclair, whom the Detroit News proclaimed "High Priest of the Detroit hippies." 3 Detroit News, May 2, 1967, 18-A. In recounting the story of how and why the White Panther collective evolved from primarily cultural, avantgardist beginnings into one of the Midwest's influential "political" extremist groups, this essay will address an important (and largely unresolved) historiographical issue: why some segments of the counterculture progressed from strictly non-political ideologies to positions of radical extremism. A case study exemplifying this development, it is hoped, will contribute to an historiographical reassessment of the counterculture, documenting its diversity and complexity.
The White Panther Party grew to become a professedly political organization that was dedicated to the confrontational strategy of "a total assault on the culture by any means necessary." Its formation during the fall of 1968 owed much to both local and national influences. On the local front, Detroit and Michigan State Police surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of left-wing activists reached unprecedented levels in the wake of the Detroit Riots of 1967, as well as in reaction to the popular success of the WPP's "house band," the "MC-5." National influences, especially the allure of the Black Panthers and the Yippies, also played an important role in the politicization of the group. The dynamics of, and interplay between, these (and other) influences are of critical importance because the existing historiography of the 1960s, still dominated by former participants in the various struggles, offers no useful model for explaining the White Panthers' progression toward radical extremism. To cite just one example, former SDS leader Todd Gitlin explains the New Left's step-by-step evolution from "protest" to "resistance" and ultimately "Revolution" as emanating largely from the Movement's impatience and frustration with the continuing Vietnam War. 4 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 229, 380-82. In dramatic contrast, the Vietnam issue was inconsequential to the evolution of the White Panthers; the forces and motivations underlying the group's "radicalization" are to be found elsewhere, as we shall see.
The White Panther story is, in many respects, synonymous with the life of John Alexander Sinclair, one of the Midwest's most influential sixties counterculture leaders. 5 The information concerning John and Leni Sinclair's early lives through the Artists' Workshop period comes primarily from the following sources: John Sinclair, Guitar Army: Street Writings/Prison Writings, (New York; Douglas Book Corporation, 1972), 7-9, 56-58, and 188- 200; The John and Leni Sinclair Papers, Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan [hereafter cited as "JLSP"]; Leni Sinclair personal interview, July 21 and 23, 1992, Detroit, Michigan; Bret Eynon, "John Sinclair: Hipster," unpublished biography, November, 21, 1977, Hunter College, American Social History Project, 9-18, located at the Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, "Contemporary History Project Papers [hereafter cited as "ASHP Interviews"]: John Sinclair," box 1, topical file: John Sinclair [hereafter cited as "ASHP-Sinclair Biography"]; and John Sinclair Interview with Bret Eynon, 1977, ASHP Interviews, box 239-J [hereafter cited as "ASHP-Sinclair Interview"]. Bret Eynon's work with the American Social History Project in Ann Arbor during the late seventies resulted in extremely thorough oral history documentation of the White Panthers (and other Movement participants). I am grateful to him for allowing access to these documents. He was born on October 2, 1941, in the town of Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors. His father was a career employee at the local Buick plant, starting on the assembly line in 1928 and eventually advancing to a mid-level management position; Elise, his mother, was a homemaker. John, his brother David, and sister Kathy enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Davison, a small town located a few miles from Flint. The closest thing to radicalism that John experienced growing up was drinking beer on Friday nights, listening to rock and roll on a "black" Detroit radio station, and occasionally "crashing" all-black rhythm and blues shows in Flint with his friends. He graduated from Davison High with good grades, and attended Albion College, a small Methodist institution in southern Michigan. It was at Albion that he first came into contact with the beatnik culture that would later define his life. Befriending the college's lone hipster, Sinclair became an instant and obsessed devotee of avant-garde jazz (a la John Coltrane) and beatnik poetry (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, etc.). He also discovered marijuana, which had been part of the black urban jazz scene in America since the twenties, before the beatniks introduced it to white culture. Sinclair believed that "weed" heightened his awareness of the world around him, promoted togetherness, and expanded his creativity. It is a credo from which he has never wavered. 6 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 185; ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 44; John Sinclair, "Musical Memoirs," [unpublished article in author's possession] 1991.
After two years at Albion College, Sinclair dropped out and moved back to Flint, where he continued his exploration of black culture in the jazz and blues clubs located in the town's North Side ghetto. Like his beatnik predecessors, Sinclair saw the expressive and communalist culture of urban African Americans as an appealing alternative to the individualistic dominant culture of the post-war United States. Some years later, reflecting upon Norman Mailer's book The White Negro, Sinclair asserted "I was a White Negro in a purer sense. By the time that [book] came out, I was on the streets, I was hangin' in the barbershops, in the pool rooms . . . [I was] doing it." 7 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 18; Norman Mailer, The White Negro, (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1957).
After completing a bachelor's degree at the Flint branch of the University of Michigan in spring 1964, Sinclair moved to Detroit, enrolling in the graduate school of Wayne State University (WSU). His drug connections in Flint, as well as his bohemian sensibilities, led to rapid acceptance in the city's small and exclusive "hipster" community, located near the WSU campus. Here, at beatnik hangouts like the "Red Door Gallery," John first came into contact with jazz musician Charles Moore, poets George Tysh and Allen Van Newkirk, and other hipsters. And through these new connections, Sinclair also met his future wife, Magdalene "Leni" Arndt, a gifted artist/photographer from East Germany who had emigrated to Detroit in 1959 and was also attending WSU.
During that fall, John and Leni and their friends and acquaintances began discussing the possibility of starting an organization of area poets, musicians, and other artists, with the immediate goal of providing a meeting place outside of the WSU campus. A "document of self- determination" was drawn up, which among other things preached the virtues of not succumbing to the dominant "square" culture. Soon afterward, the "Artists' Workshop" was established on the ground floor of a two-story house on the corner of John Lodge and Warren Avenue. Every Sunday, the Workshop held an open house, with poetry readings, jazz performances, exhibitions of photographs and original art, and screenings of avant-garde films. Sinclair and Charles Moore performed together in an experimental jazz quartet, known as the "DC-4," and Leni began experimenting with photography and film-making. 8 Leni Sinclair's enormous collection of photographs documents the evolution of Detroit's beatnik and counterculture community during the sixties. These materials are available for research and commercial use. Leni can be contacted as follows: P.O. Box 32929, Detroit, MI 48232; email@example.com.
Over the next two years, the Artists' Workshop flourished. The organizational skills of the group's leadership were immediately evident. The Artists' Workshop Press developed into an alternative publishing house, eventually producing first books by John Sinclair, George Tysh, Bill Hutton, J.D. Whitney, Ron Caplan, and John Kay. 9 Internationally-known author and National Public Radio commentator Andre Codrescu frequented the Artists' Workshop as a student at WSU in the mid-sixties. Members of the collective also published some of the first underground newspapers in the Midwest, including Guerrilla, a journal whose masthead read "A Newspaper of Cultural Revolution." Sinclair's activities were the most prolific of all; in addition to attending graduate school, he managed several area houses (sub-letting rooms to artists and micro-entrepreneurs), wrote jazz reviews for Downbeat, JAZZ, and other national music magazines, and wrote and published three books of poems: This is Our Music; Fire Music: A Record; and Meditations: A Suite for John Coltrane. 10 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 56-58, 188-91; Leni Sinclair personal interview, July 21, 1992, Detroit, Michigan.
The ideology of the Detroit hip community reflected a voluntary isolation from, and utter contempt for, the outside society. As John recalls: "Jazz, it's all we did. We used to sit around and smoke dope . . .You didn't want to go out too much, because, you know, people were a drag.
They might see you. [Laughs]. You weren't a pleasant sight to them. There weren't too many places you wanted to go . . . . Besides, this was what was happening." In its commitment to creating a totally new cultural existence, the Artists' Workshop exhibited elitist tendencies; flyers advertising their events were distributed only to those who "looked hip." 11 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 6-7. The idea of turning on the masses of American youth to a cultural revolt -- the White Panther credo -- was antithetical to the group's analysis.
While isolating itself from the dominant culture in Detroit, the Artists' Workshop interacted regularly with other bohemian/hip communities on the two coasts. Attending the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, Sinclair met Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Charles Olson, and others -- an experience which led him to conclude that the Artists' Workshop was as hip as many of the other beatnik "scenes" in the country. And, by hosting numerous poets and avant-garde performers who toured the Midwest, the Artists' Workshop acquired hip credentials. 12 Leni Sinclair personal interview, July 21, 1992, Detroit, Michigan; Sinclair, Guitar Army, 191-92.
The spectacle of increasing numbers of beatniks congregating near WSU soon caught the attention of Detroit's police, who had a long history of aversion to nonconformity. 13 In a city that was 35 percent black, only 5 percent of police were African-American. Two-thirds of the police were from blue-collar families. Training in the handling of modern urban problems was lacking, and the end result was very poor police-community relations. See the following: Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1975), 105, 186-87; Peter K. Eisinger, The Politics of Displacement: Racial and Ethnic Transition in Three American Cities, (New York: Academic Press, 1980) 57; James A. Geschwender, Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 18, 25, 58- 64; and Sidney Fine, Violence in the Model City: The Cavanagh Administration, Race Relations, and the Detroit Riot of 1967, (Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. Of Michigan Press, 1989), 95. Frank Donner finds that, from the thirties onward, Detroit had one of the nation's most repressive police forces. The Detroit "Red Squad," or "Special Investigative Bureau" (SIB), was created in 1930, ostensibly to "work on the Bolshevik and Communistic activities in the city." This special unit quickly evolved into an abusive surveillance machine, monitoring all shades of political activity under the guise of hunting "radicals." A long-term ally for the SIB appeared in 1950, with the establishment of the "Security Investigation Squad" (SIS), a Michigan State Police counter- subversive unit, whose primary objective was discouraging employers from hiring suspected radicals. The two Red Squads established a close collaborative relationship, characterized by unprecedented information sharing and joint intelligence operations. 14 Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 53-58, 290-95. By the mid-1970s, when the full scope of their activities was first made public in a landmark Michigan court case, the Red Squads had amassed dossiers on more than 1.5 million citizens. 15 Benkert, et. al. v. Michigan State Police et. al., No. 74-023-934-AZ (Wayne County Circuit Court, Michigan). The John and Leni Sinclair "Red Squad Files" [hereafter cited as "Sinclair Red Squad Files"], obtained via the case's "disbursement program" (and graciously made available to the author), contain hundreds of pages of documents spanning the years 1964 through 1974. See Detroit Free Press Magazine, November 4, 1990, 8-10, 16-21; and Detroit Free Press, September 14, 1990, 20.
In light of the Detroit police force's historical role as praetorian defender of the status quo, it is not surprising that it utilized many of the same surveillance and intimidation tactics against the Artists' Workshop (and its successor, "Trans-Love Energies") which it had successfully employed against suspected "subversives," since the turn of the century. A favored tactic employed against artists, beatniks, and leftist utopians was Michigan's draconian marijuana statutes, which listed possession of even trace amounts as a felony offense. John Sinclair's first marijuana arrest occurred on October 7, 1964, when he and two friends were "set up" in a Detroit Police sting operation. Given two years probation and a $250 fine, Sinclair continued his work with the Artists' Workshop, refusing to give the incident much thought. However, the bust was an important harbinger of future events: Detroit's Red Squad immediately opened files on him and his associates, and began to take special interest in the beatnik community. 16 Sinclair Red Squad Files. The Detroit Police "set up" involved a friend of Sinclair's from Jackson, Michigan, who had been arrested on drug dealing charges. In return for a reduced prison sentence, the friend-turned-informer arranged to purchase marijuana from Sinclair and a friend, in a sting operation orchestrated by the Detroit Police. See also Sinclair, Guitar Army, 189-90. The following summer, Detective Vahan Kapagian of the Detroit Police Narcotics Bureau infiltrated the Artists' Workshop, an assignment that was facilitated by the group's open invitations to the public for Sunday poetry readings. Dressing in street clothes and calling himself "Eddie," Kapagian repeatedly pestered Sinclair with requests for assistance in locating marijuana. On August 16, 1965, Sinclair finally relented, driving Kapagian to a friend's house for a "score." Upon returning to the Artists' Workshop, a detail of twenty-five officers from the Narcotics Bureau raided the house at 4825 John Lodge, arresting seven people, including John and Leni Sinclair. John was convicted of second offense marijuana possession on February 22, 1966, and later sentenced to six months in the Detroit House of Corrections ("DEHOCO"). Detroit's newspapers portrayed Sinclair as the leader of a WSU campus dope ring. 17 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 19-20; Detroit Free Press, August 18, 1965, 3.
In addition to Sinclair's six month incarceration, the events of 1966 brought considerable change to the Artists' Workshop. The Detroit scene underwent a radical transformation, as a number of core members moved away from the city for a variety of reasons, including fear of the police and a desire to experience San Francisco's emerging hip community. Writing from inside DEHOCO, John advised them against abandoning Detroit: "You have it in your power now to create a vital living situation here in Detroit -- if you have the will and commitment to such a situation . . . we are all going to have to start working with each other and take advantage of what our local possibilities [are]. 18 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 18-19. Upon his release from DEHOCO on August 6, Sinclair immediately began acting on his commitment to local organizing. The fruit of these labors was the eventual creation of "Trans-Love Energies" (TLE), an attempted union of counterculture, student, and other alternative groups in Detroit, named after a line in a song by folk-rock artist Donovan, urging listeners to "Fly Translove Airways, get you there on time" (the song was later popularized in "live" performances by the San Francisco rock troupe The Jefferson Airplane). 19 Donovan's original studio version of "The Fat Angel" appeared on his 1966 album Sunshine Superman (Epic BN-26217). Subsequent "live" cover versions of the song have appeared on Jefferson Airplane compilations, including the 1987 release 2400 Fulton Street (RCA C-214830).
The creation of Trans-Love Energies during the first half of 1967 20 The Artists' Workshop existed for a time within the larger TLE collective. However, by late 1967 the Artists' Workshop closed and the group's energies focused almost exclusively on the TLE organization. owed much to two simultaneously occurring phenomena: the arrival of LSD and the flower children. A sea change had occurred in the WSU community during the six months of Sinclair's imprisonment, as large numbers of "Baby Boom" progeny, now coming of age, congregated in and around the campus.
Many became regulars at the Artists' Workshop. Facilitating the union between older beatniks and younger hippies was LSD-25, which had just arrived in Detroit. For both groups, "acid" ended pessimism concerning the possibility that American society would ever break out of its state of cultural stagnation. As Sinclair explained: "When beatniks started taking acid, it brought us out of the basement . . . . the fringes of society -- and just blew us apart. From being cynical and wanting to isolate yourself forever from the squares . . . . one was suddenly filled with a messianic feeling of love and brotherhood . . . . LSD made you realize that you had ties with the rest of humanity." 21 Ibid., 19-20. Beatnik elitism quickly disappeared, and a plethora of alternative organizations and micro-enterprises sprang up -- essentially creating a new alternative culture, with its own economy outside of mainstream Detroit society.
TLE tried to unify a diverse student/hip community into an umbrella organization, or "tribal council." Co-founders Sinclair and artist Gary Grimshaw attempted to get representatives from all of the area's hip organizations to meet on a regular basis, for the purpose of discussing how better to utilize their talents and services for the benefit of the hundreds of young people converging on the area. Some of the support services provided included free housing, job information services, concerts, transportation in and around Detroit, and a cooperative booking agency for performers and organizations. Although TLE never became the unified model of inter- organizational cooperation originally envisioned, "Trans-Love Energies, Unlimited," the central business unit, became quite successful, organizing local cultural events and hooking up with other hip enclaves across America to bring in well-known artists and performers such as Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead, and the Ed Sanders' "Fugs."
The Trans-Love organization, like most other counterculture collectives, paid much lip service to the egalitarian "no leaders" concept. In theory, the organization was comprised of numerous avant garde and alternative groups, all possessing equal status on the tribal council; each individual was therefore encouraged to be his or her own leader. In reality, the core group within the Artists' Workshop was the driving force behind the TLE collective, due to its energy, organizational abilities, and commitment to making the experiment work. By the same token, Trans-Love Energies' embrace of hierarchical organization and charismatic leadership (namely Sinclair) contrasted dramatically with other elements of the evolving counterculture, such as San Francisco's Digger collective. These differences, viewed by many (then and now) as contradictions, would continue to characterize Sinclair's group through the White Panther period.
They underscore both the diversity of counterculture forms which emerged during the latter half of the 1960s and the continuing danger of stereotyping historical movements too narrowly.
As TLE underwent expansion, its core membership changed. John's brother David signed on, having passed up a full football scholarship at Dartmouth. Two additional 1967 arrivals who would later assume leadership positions in the White Panthers were "Pun" Plamondon and Genie Parker. Lawrence Robert "Pun" Plamondon was born in Traverse City, Michigan, the illegitimate son of a "half-breed Ottawa [Indian] and a long-distance operator." He was adopted as an infant by upper middle-class foster parents, who were well respected in Traverse City. Despite his comfortable upbringing and excellent academic potential, Pun exhibited a rebellious streak from an early age. At sixteen he ran away from home, hitchhiking across the country, and eventually working with migrant farm workers in California. He moved to Detroit in 1967, was introduced to the Artists' Workshop/TLE, befriended Sinclair, and joined the group just in time to take his first LSD trip at the "Love-In" on April 30th (discussed below). With TLE he found an appropriate outlet for his enormous energy and increasing social consciousness. He and Sinclair soon became close friends; eventually Pun assumed a leadership position in the organization. 22 Kathleen Stocking, "A Personal Remembrance: Ann Arbor's Famous Radicals, Then and Now," Monthly Detroit, vol. 5, (February, 1992), 78 [hereafter cited as "Stocking, A Personal Remembrance . . ."]. Genie Parker, the daughter of an Army colonel with Vietnam combat experience, arrived at the TLE house shortly after the "Love-in." An "army brat" who had been raised in Texas, Georgia, and New Jersey, her attraction to the Sinclairs was immediate, and she moved in with the group her first day in Detroit. Within a few months, she and Pun became inseparable, and the two of them gradually became well known in radical circles throughout the country. 23 Genie Parker Interview with Bret Eynon, 1977, ASHP Interviews, box 239-J [hereafter cited as "ASHP-Genie Plamondon Interview"].
Two of Trans-Love Energies' most significant modes of cultural expression were the underground press and the rock band "MC-5." By early 1967, Sinclair was writing regular columns for the Fifth Estate, while also contributing to the sporadically-published Warren-Forest Sun, the "official" TLE newspaper. He and Fifth Estate editor Peter Werbe participated in a dialogue with alternative press editors from across the country, which would eventually spawn the "Underground Press Syndicate," a national system of alternative news acquisition and distribution, run primarily by college-age people. As a result of these connections, the Fifth Estate's coverage of the emerging New Left, Black Power, and counterculture movements became extensive.
The union of the MC-5 and Trans-Love Energies in mid-1967 contributed to major changes for the collective, including the rapid acquisition of mass youth appeal. Sinclair's association with MC-5 members Rob Tyner, Fred Smith, Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson, and Michael Davis began in 1966, when the band first utilized a TLE house for free rehearsal space.
At the time, only Tyner and Davis were out of high school. Over the next two years, the quintet would develop and perfect a unique, hard-driving rock and roll sound, widely credited with influencing (some say pioneering) later "punk" and "heavy metal" rock genres. 24 Goldmine, April 17, 1992, 16-22; Rolling Stone, no. 25, January 4, 1969, 7; see also no. 632, June 11, 1992, 35-36.
The MC-5 began as a collaboration between Kramer and Smith, two junior high school students from the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park. Things began to happen for the guitarists after Kramer hooked up with vocalist Rob Tyner, two years his senior. A devotee of avant-garde jazz and beat culture, Tyner had only recently "discovered" the potentialities of rock and roll. After adding drummer Dennis Thompson (who was the newspaper delivery boy in Kramer's neighborhood) and bass player Michael Davis (Tyner's friend) to their line-up, the group settled upon the name "MC-5," which Tyner, its author, believed sounded like an industrial serial number for a race car engine; only later did he realize the name could also stand for the "Motor City 5." Playing at local clubs and high school dances, the group gradually created a high energy electric sound, which reflected the combination of rock, R & B, and experimental jazz influences. One unique feature of their sound, its deafening loudness, was made possible by the acquisition of a $3000, state-of-the-art, Vox public address and amplification system. The group's experimentation with the new system resulted in the regular use of "feedback" in their performances, as well as several trademark Tyner stage antics, such as plunging a microphone into a loud-speaker for effect. By mid-1967, the MC-5 had built a substantial local following and cut its first 45 RPM single. 25 Wayne Kramer Interview, published in the online magazine Addicted To Noise (ATN), Issue 1.02, Parts I-IV, February, 1995, URL address: http://www.addict.com/issues/1.02; [hereafter cited as "Kramer ATN Interview"]; Goldmine, April 17, 1992, 16-22.
The marriage between the MC-5 and Trans-Love Energies was rooted in the many social and cultural changes occurring in Detroit, circa 1967. A strict jazz aficionado only a year before, Sinclair rediscovered rock music via the younger hip crowd, and rapidly recognized its potential for attracting youth to the TLE banner. The MC-5 saw in him an older, experienced artist with undisputable hip credentials. Thus, when Sinclair offered to manage the group, they accepted immediately. An additional contributing factor to the band's rapid acceptance was the opening of the "Grande Ballroom," a large Detroit rock club modeled after the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Russ Gibb, the club's "hip capitalist" owner, hired the MC-5 as the "house band," which guaranteed the group weekly exposure headlining for the top British and American touring acts of the day. Soon, the entire TLE commune became part of the act, providing psychedelic light shows, outstanding psychedelic concert posters and handbills by Gary Grimshaw, and even master of ceremonies duties from "Brother" J.C. Crawford. From this platform, Trans-Love Energies would recruit hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of followers. 26 Kramer ATN Interview.
The peak of this optimistic period for Sinclair and his group came on April 30, 1967, when they staged a "Love-in" at the large metropolitan park on Belle Isle, on the Detroit River. Influenced by San Francisco's "Human Be-In" the previous January, as well as the trend of similar counterculture celebrations happening in hip enclaves across the country, Trans-Love Energies promoted the event as a gathering of "peace and love," where hippies and straights could come together to celebrate a new vision of society. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press gave the Love-In significant coverage, and on the day of the event several thousand "freeks" were in attendance, smoking marijuana, dropping LSD, singing, chanting, and enjoying themselves with minimal disturbances. Although the police were out in significant numbers, they kept a low profile until dusk, when the arrest of a motorcyclist encouraged taunting and rock-throwing. The result was a full-scale riot, with numerous arrests, ostensibly for "damaging police vehicles." The resulting press coverage was almost unanimously on the side of the police, portraying Sinclair and TLE as mindless hedonists, more interested in picking a fight with police than with "peace and love." 27 Detroit News, May 1, 1967, A-1; see also May 2, 1967, 18-A.
The Belle Isle experience had a profound impact upon the later development of Trans-Love Energies. The hippie philosophy of getting high, creating alternative institutions, and waiting for the capitalist machine to rust away was proving to be an inadequate analysis. Sinclair later admitted: "[We had] a simplistic picture of what the 'revolution' was all about . . . . we said that all you had to do was 'tune in, turn on, and drop out,' as if that would solve all the problems of humankind . . . and what we didn't understand, spaced out as we were behind all that acid, was that the machine was determined to keep things the way they were . . . by this time there was a full-scale suppression campaign underway." 28 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 25-27. Sinclair struggled with the realization that the localpolice were responding to cultural revolt with political repression. Gradually, over the course of the next year, he came to the conclusion that the counterculture forms espoused and lived by Trans-Love Energies were actually political statements. In response, TLE's activities focused on educating youth regarding both the positive, liberating aspects of the new cultural forms, and also their potential risks. Sinclair began appearing at area colleges, high schools, and other youth gatherings, urging people to join in a "total assault on the culture" -- a William S. Burroughs phrase from the early sixties, popularized by New York poet/artist (and future Yippie) Ed Sanders. 29 Ed Sanders Telephone Interview with Author, May 10, 1998. The collective also stepped up distribution of its newspapers and other propaganda at MC-5 concerts, warning of police surveillance and hassles. Still another initiative involved assisting high school students with publishing alternative newspapers, activity which again earned Sinclair a hostile press response. 30 Detroit News, April 27, 1967, 17-C.
Although TLE was still a long way from advocating militant action against police and "the state," the group nonetheless delighted in taunting police and other symbols of authority with anti- establishment (often tongue-in-cheek) writing in its newspapers, "street theater" actions in public, and inflammatory rhetoric at MC-5 concerts. And in a city like Detroit, where racial tensions were always high and police rarely appreciated humor perpetuated by hippies at their expense, Trans-Love Energies' actions heightened police interest in the group. The end result was increasingly severe reprisals.
John Sinclair's third marijuana arrest occurred on January 24, 1967, when a force of thirty-four law enforcement officers, representing local, state, and federal agencies, raided the group's commune (still officially known as the Artists' Workshop), arresting fifty-six persons. The raid was the culmination of a four-month-long sting operation, once again facilitated by the wily (and newly bearded) Detective Vahan Kapagian, who infiltrated the organization posing as "Louie" the hip candle maker. Assisting him was fellow Narcotics Detective Jane Mumford, who faithfully wore mini-skirts in her portrayal of "Peg" the counterculture "chick." As helpful and friendly as "Louie" and "Peg" were, they remained unable to purchase any marijuana for several months. The police were ultimately forced to move with little hard evidence: two minor pot purchases from WSU students only peripherally associated with the Artists' Workshop and Sinclair's "gift" of two marijuana "joints" to officer Mumford shortly before Christmas, 1966. 31 Sinclair Red Squad Files, Detroit Police Department, Detective Division, Narcotics Bureau, Arrest Report, January 27, 1967; Leni Sinclair personal interview with author, July 23, 1992, Detroit, Michigan.
The impact of Sinclair's third arrest would be delayed for two and a half years, as his attorneys, Sheldon Otis and Justin "Chuck" Ravitz, skillfully fought the constitutionality of the state's marijuana statutes. Sinclair remained free to lead Trans-Love Energies through the most turbulent years of the 1960s. 32 It was also during this period that John and Leni, who had lived together since 1965, decided to get married. At the time, Leni was pregnant with Sunny, their first child.
A significant turning point in the history of Detroit was the bloody rioting of July 24-31, 1967, the worst in America's history. Following the riots, the attitudes of Detroit police moved farther to the right, reflecting the growing siege mentality prevalent among many of the city's whites. During the winter and spring of 1968, the situation became unbearable for Trans-Love Energies. Sinclair summarized his feelings during the period: "Nothing was happening but the police. They had everything covered, and if you moved after dark you were snatched up and taken to jail without bail. If you stayed inside they came in after you, kicking down the doors and ransacking everything in sight . . . . Detroit was Police City, baby, and you never forgot it -- not for a minute." 33 ASHP-Sinclair Biography, 48. The last straw came in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, when Detroit's police, fearing another major riot, established a "protective curfew" in the city after dark. Since Sinclair's group earned most of its operating funds producing MC-5 concerts and related events, which usually took place during the evenings, the curfew threatened their very livelihood. Therefore, in May, 1968, TLE relocated some forty-five miles to the west, to the college town of Ann Arbor.
The new Trans-Love Energies commune consisted of twenty-eight people, including three children and the MC-5 members. 34 Eve Silberman, "The Hill Street Radicals," Ann Arbor Observer, May, 1991, 45-53. Together they occupied two old houses at 1510 and 1520 Hill Street, on the outskirts of the University of Michigan (UM) campus. Two new members of note were 19 year-old Ken Kelley, a UM student from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and Milton "Skip" Taube, a Detroit native who first attended UM in 1965 and had since become closely associated with SDS. Kelley edited one of the campus' first underground newspapers, the Argus, and immediately recognized in Sinclair a kindred spirit. Taube had recently become disillusioned with the split in the local SDS organization. Two of his closest friends, Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton, led the new SDS splinter group "Jesse James Gang," which would later evolve into the Weather Underground. 35 Ken Kelley Interview with Bret Eynon, 1977, Hunter College, NY, American Social History Project, 3, located at the Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, ASHP Interviews, box 239-J; Milton "Skip" Taube Interview with Bret Eynon, 1977, Hunter College, NY, American Social History Project, 14, located at the Michigan Historical Collections, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, ASHP Interviews, box 239-J.
Trans-Love Energies' immediate focus was music, which had recently become a local source of conflict. During the winter of 1968, the Ann Arbor City Council had passed an ordinance banning amplified music from city parks. When Sinclair decided to hold an MC-5 concert in defiance of the law, the small Ann Arbor Police force threatened to arrest all involved.
Sinclair did not back down. Thanks to press coverage from the Michigan Daily, the campus community got involved. Two weeks later the City Council relented, granting TLE permission to hold a series of free concerts at Gallup Park, on the outskirts of town. 36 ASHP-Sinclair Biography, 48-49. This was a big turning point for the group. Trans-Love Energies had stood up to the police and other "authority figures" and won. In Sinclair's view, the incident demonstrated conclusively the potential power of organized youth revolt. Henceforth, TLE's members pursued a recruitment strategy characterized by arrogant, militant posturing toward authority figures and flaunting (in print and on stage) the fact that they were "getting away with it."
Freed from the stifling, repressive atmosphere of urban Detroit and fortified by its success in the Ann Arbor free concert struggle, Trans-Love Energies initiated a "total assault on the culture" throughout the summer. The spearhead of its attack was the MC-5, which, thanks to Sinclair's managerial prowess, became a regionally-successful touring group. Each MC-5 concert was a multi-media event, with psychedelic lights, rear-screen projection, plus the spiritual rantings of "Brother" J.C. Crawford. The supercharged electric music of the MC-5 was punctuated by Sinclair's radical speeches, urging youth to pursue personal freedom to the utmost extremes. The MC-5's shows successfully fused two very new countercultural forms: alternative, electric rock and roll music and a rhetoric of youth culture liberation. Ken Kelley's recollections of his first MC-5 concert provide insight into the energy and excitement surrounding the band:
I'll never forget the first time I saw the MC5 perform that hot June night in 1968 at the Grande Ballroom . . . . The ozone scent of anticipation quickened my pulse as Rob Tyner jumped to center stage and shouted 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!,' the opening rant into The 5's anthemic underground hit song. As Tyner squirmed and sang, behind him were two sparkle-sequined guitarists [Fred 'Sonic' Smith and Wayne Kramer] who traded-off lead in a fervid fusillade of fiery notes . . . . When Fred played solo on his trademark-tune, 'Rocket Reducer No. 62', you knew why he got his name 'Sonic' -- the only word that packed enough 'G-force' . . . . He leaped up and down . . . in swirling orgiastic gyrations of musical frenzy . . . . When Fred played, sex itself exploded on stage. 37 Ken Kelley Interview, published in the online magazine Addicted To Noise (ATN), Issue 1.02, Page 2, February, 1995, URL address: http://www.addict.com/issues/1.02/Features/MC5/Kick_Out_The_Jams/index.html[.]
Stephen Stills' anti-establishment lyrics from the previous year -- "There's something happening here; What it is ain't exactly clear" 38 Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" (a hit single), appeared on their 1967 debut album: Buffalo Springfield (Atco SD-33-200-A). -- seem equally appropriate for the unprecedented countercultural amalgamation which Trans-Love Energies and the MC-5 were forging in America's heartland during the year of the barricades.
TLE's political economy was far removed from that of most other hippie collectives. Earnings from MC-5 shows financed the entire Trans-Love operation, including two communes, several dozen core members, and a very active propaganda machine. This uniqueness reflected the history and evolution of the group; from the first days of the Artists' Workshop, Sinclair had juggled such seemingly contradictory tasks as organizing free "Love-Ins" and being responsible for collecting rent from tenants in several buildings he managed. And in much the same manner, the Trans-Love commune in Ann Arbor booked most MC-5 "gigs" for pay, while also playing many free concerts and benefits. Sinclair defended the group's political economy by asserting that the MC-5 was a true "people's band," which played as many benefits and free shows as possible. He added that the funds acquired from paid shows were used primarily "to spread the word that there was another way of doing things . . . to bring the new world order into being." 39 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 307-308.
The MC-5's growing popularity did not escape the attention of the local Ann Arbor Police, the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, or the Michigan State Police. Throughout the summer, an increasing number of what Sinclair called "creep scenes" occurred, in which police presence at MC-5 shows led to arrests, near-arrests, and an intimidating "cat and mouse" surveillance and evasion game. Sinclair's biweekly Fifth Estate articles, titled "Rock and Roll Dope," chronicled both the MC-5's growing popularity and what Sinclair believed to be an escalating counterattack from the forces of the conservative establishment. The police response included marijuana busts in the parking lots, pressure on club owners (in response to the MC-5's desecration of American flags and frequent use of profanity on-stage), and a steadily increasing presence. On several occasions, the police turned off the electricity at clubs to prevent the band from playing; in one bizarre incident, the MC-5 was issued a ticket for being "a noisy band." In June, TLE leaders Gary Grimshaw and "Pun" Plamondon were charged by Traverse City Police with marijuana possession and sale in their community the previous March, an incident which sent Grimshaw fleeing to another state and resulted in the imprisonment of Plamondon (a $20,000 bond, far in excess of the group's resources, kept him in jail for three months awaiting trial). The unpredictability and insanity of the summer of 1968 peaked on July 23, when Sinclair and MC-5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith were arrested by Oakland County Sheriffs in Leonard, Michigan and charged with "assault and battery on a police officer." While in prison, the Oakland County authorities cut off most of Sinclair's long hair. Three days later, the MC 5 were arrested by Ann Arbor Police, and charged with "disturbing the peace" for playing at a free concert in West Park. 40 ASHP-Sinclair Biography, 50-51; Sinclair, Guitar Army, 73-95.
The harassment by law enforcement officials was undoubtedly motivated by several factors, including their repulsion at the sight of long-haired hippies using drugs, mutilating the nation's flag in public, and in the process influencing other young people to imitate their counterculture lifestyle. As had been the case in Detroit, police in the hinterlands of Michigan were ill prepared to face resistance and blatant anti-police hatred from rebellious, white, middle- class youth. However, the police overreaction was also influenced by TLE's provocations on stage and in the pages of the Fifth Estate and the Sun. Seeking to (in the terminology of the times) "expose the repressive nature of the mother-country system," Sinclair and MC-5 lead vocalist Rob Tyner regularly informed crowds of hyped-up youth about the various police (and club owner) hassles they were facing. Audience reaction often bordered on riot. In addition, Sinclair baited the police in article after article of the Fifth Estate. He realized that the newspaper was now required reading for many local police officers, as part of their intelligence gathering. The following passage is typical of Sinclair's invective that summer:
We matched our magic against the pigs' brute tactics and it worked -- any respect any of the people there might have had for 'law and order' as represented by the Ann Arbor police just disappeared, and their futile tricks were exposed to the light. All this bullshit was totally unnecessary -- we just wanted to do our thing and let the people do their thing with us, but the police just won't let that happen without trying to stomp us out one way or the other . . . . People are getting hip to all of the old people's lies and perversions, and they aren't going to stand for it much longer. We sure aren't. 41 Ibid., 86.
The defiantly "political" tone of Sinclair's writing was intentional, and demonstrated the continuing evolution of his ideology. He theorized that "our culture itself represented a political threat to the established order, and that any action which has a political consequence is finally a political action." 42 Ibid., 74. However, Sinclair also recognized that the typical MC-5 fan was largely uneducated as to the nuances of political versus cultural revolt, and generally despised "politics" of the conventional and/or New Left variety. Therefore, TLE began using its growing popularity to educate young people regarding the politics of their new culture and movement.
National events, such as the expansion and convergence of the New Left, Black Power, anti-war, and counterculture revolts into a single "Movement" for radical social change, also played a role in the increasing politicization of Trans-Love Energies. By virtue of their national underground newspaper connections, as well as their extensive touring with the MC-5, Sinclair and his cadre were better informed than more isolated counterculture groups about the Movement's increasing resistance to the establishment. Detroit's Fifth Estate, along with the Ann Arbor-based TLE papers Sun and Argus, gave extensive coverage to Black Panther shoot-outs with police, campus revolts, and the increasing numbers of street battles between police and "freeks" which were happening across the country. The importance of this process cannot be overstated, as members of Detroit's hip community would now begin relating the events in their lives (such as drug usage/acceptance, alternative institution building, and deteriorating police relations) with similar developments in other hip communities across the U.S. The national "underground" media network, a first-of-its-kind phenomenon, would become a catalyst for the future merging of radical movements.
Trans-Love Energies' previous interaction with counterculture enclaves on the east and west coasts also provided a platform for increasing national awareness. By 1968, Sinclair had befriended fellow avant-garde artist/poets Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg, and through them had met Youth International Party ("Yippie") activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. The "street theatre" antics of the New York Yippies had much in common with the MC-5's shocking stage antics. Therefore, when Ed Sanders invited Sinclair and the MC-5 to perform at the Yippies' "Festival of Life" in Chicago in late August, they accepted without hesitation. Sinclair recalled the band's Sunday, August 25th performance -- and the disturbance it provoked:
As it turned out, we were the only ones in the country who showed up to play . . . The Fugs [Sanders' band] wouldn't even come . . . . They were terrified! . . . [the Yippies] didn't have a stage. They didn't have a permit. They didn't have power . . . . So we set up on the grass. We plugged into a hot dog stand. . . . We played one set on the grass, just like in Ann Arbor at the free concerts . . . [and then] Abbie Hoffman decides that this is the time to start the shit. He had this big flat bed wagon that was going to be used for the stage, but they wouldn't let him bring it in. So he decides, 'Fuck it, I'm going to bring it in.' He knows that this is going to provoke a confrontation . . . . He started to bring this wagon through and that attracted thousands of people. Then he comes up and takes the mike between sets and starts ranting and raving. . . . The police were already starting to advance on the park . . . . So I just got my equipment men and started to take down the equipment and pack it in the van . . . . The police were getting closer and closer . . . . When we pulled out, the police were swarming all over the area, and that's when the shit really started. We just drove straight back [to Ann Arbor]. 43 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 41-42.
Sinclair came away from the Chicago debacle convinced of two things. First, the police responded vastly out of proportion to any real threat posed by the gathering of "freeks," New Leftists, anti-war activists, Black Power supporters, and others. For Sinclair, this meant that the Movement -- including the counterculture -- would have to get politically organized for self- defense purposes or face repression by law enforcement agencies. Secondly, after experiencing the Yippies' less than prolific organizational skills, Sinclair became convinced that Trans-Love Energies possessed the requisite organization, experience, and popular following to present a viable model for politicizing the youth culture on a national scale. The creation of the "White Panther Party" as the political wing of TLE, formally announced on November 1, 1968, represented the culmination of these "lessons."
The selection of the name "White Panthers," which demonstrated a close identification with the Black Panthers, might appear as something of a contradiction, considering TLE's mostly white membership and sparse record of attention to black causes in Detroit. However, Sinclair never strayed from his close identification with black culture (especially its music), and the Artists' Workshop had been a multi-racial organization. Most TLE members envied and respected the Black Panthers' armed self-defense strategy and disciplined organizational model. Yet, the most influential Black Panther advocate within the collective was Pun Plamondon, who spent the summer in a jail cell in Traverse City reading works by or about Black Panther leaders Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. At this time, the Black Panthers were actively seeking alliances with "white mother country radicals" in the New Left, counterculture, and peace movements. For Plamondon, the Black Panthers' call for white allies, essentially white Black Panthers, was a revelation. Upon his return to Ann Arbor in September, he lobbied Sinclair to form a white support group for the Black Panthers. 44 Sinclair had also been deeply moved by a 1968 Huey Newton interview, in which the Black Panther leader mentioned that whites should support the BPP by organizing their own revolutionary cadres. Genie Plamondon recalls that, on John's recommendation, she took this newspaper article to Pun in prison. See ASHP-Genie Plamondon Interview, 9; and ASHP- Sinclair Biography, 57. The timing of Plamondon's request, just after Sinclair had returned from the "stomp scene" in Chicago, was crucial: the Black Panthers appeared to have just the sort of national model of political organization which TLE was seeking. In addition, the title "White Panthers" gave the group instant radical credentials and, they hoped, credibility as a "vanguard" white revolutionary organization.
At first, the WPP was little more than a paper construct. The organization's "Ten Point Program" displayed a Yippie-esque mixture of counterculture themes and "fantasy politics." The platform included such things as: full endorsement of the Black Panther Party's 10-point program and platform; a "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets"; free food, clothes, housing, drugs, music, bodies, and medical care; and freedom from "phony 'leaders' -- everyone must be a leader -- freedom means free every one." 45 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 105. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the early White Panther slogans is something that few people outside the Movement, most importantly the police and FBI, realized. In fact, the WPP was originally conceived as "an arm of the Youth International Party." The naming of a "Central Committee" demonstrated Sinclair's penchant for Yippie-inspired theatrics, with positions such as "Minister of Religion" and "Minister of Demolition." 46 Ibid., 101.
Another feature of the early WPP which paralleled the Yippie model was its attempt to co-opt the straight (commercial) media. Just as the Yippies had attracted international press coverage for the Chicago Festival of Life, so too did Sinclair hope to recruit America's youth with both conventional and alternative media coverage of the WPP, generated by its own propaganda machine. "We can work within those old forms, infusing them with our new content and using them to carry out our work," he asserted. 47 Ibid., 116. Sinclair had also learned from the Yippies that there was a direct relationship between the level of sensationalism in the press/media message and the degree of coverage. Early White Panther press releases and propaganda were intentionally overstated: "If you make it outrageous enough," Plamondon later recalled, "the networks will pick it up." 48 Quoted in Silberman, "The Hill Street Radicals," 49.
All propaganda and wishful thinking aside, the White Panthers did possess one potential "ticket" to national visibility that fall: the MC-5. On September 26, 1968, Elektra Records signed the band to record a "live" album at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. Elektra's young publicity director, Danny Fields, apparently recognized the potential commercial value of youth in revolt. The MC-5's debut album, "Kick Out The Jams," as well as a 45-rpm single (same title, with B-side "The Motor City is Burning") were released in early 1969, and immediately entered the Billboard Hot 100. The album went to number 20 on the Billboard charts; the single to number 82. 49 Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Artists and Singles, 1955-1978, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc., 1979), 277; Goldmine, April 17, 1992, 16-22. Rolling Stone put lead vocalist Rob Tyner on its January 4, 1969, cover. Few at the time realized the significance of radical counterculture musical expressionism achieving popular acceptance.
For Sinclair, a national recording contract with Elektra, complete with $50,000 advance, represented neither a "sell out," nor a surrender to capitalist commodification of "the people's music." In his 1972 book Guitar Army, he provided an ideological justification for the action, focusing upon two key aspects of Trans-Love's "total assault on the culture" thesis. First Sinclair stressed that successful revolutions require the participation of the masses. He hypothesized that in order to reach the maximum number of pre-revolutionary youth the WPP should use as many of the "old establishment forms" as possible, including the media, radio stations, and of course record companies. Secondly, Sinclair believed that by disguising itself as a "simple economic force" like a rock band, the MC-5 could work parasitically from within the capitalist recording industry to challenge its dominance of national music distribution; he added " .
. . we're determined to change the structure of . . . the pop music scene -- and the people whose lives it shapes, as we pass through it on our way to building a whole new structure on our own." 50 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 125. Finally, Sinclair predicted that once the MC-5's record was released and gained national acceptance, the WPP, working with other radical groups and "people's bands" across the country, could establish an alternative recording and distribution system to rival, and eventually replace, the existing capitalist structure.
The details surrounding the MC-5's contract with Elektra would seem to support Sinclair's position that the WPP was in fact "putting something over on the old people," rather than selling out. The most obvious evidence for this are Sinclair's liner notes on the album, which boldly state: "The MC-5 is the revolution . . . . The music will make you strong . . . and there is no way it can be stopped now . . . [so] Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" Equally significant, Elektra allowed the album to originally be released with an uncensored version of "Kick Out The Jams," complete with Tyner's use of profanity. Thus, while Elektra's primary motivation was undoubtedly record sales, i.e. an attempted commodification of the new counterculture music, by conceding to Sinclair's demands that the White Panthers' core philosophies be included in the record, the company became a willing accomplice in disseminating the WPP gospel to a national audience. And when one considers that the precise parameters of the relationship between record companies and hip rock bands were not yet established in 1968, it is therefore not unreasonable to ask "who commodified who?"
The first year of the WPP coincided with Richard Nixon's election to the presidency and an increasing atmosphere of confrontation nationwide. The FBI initiated a COINTELPRO (nationwide secret counter-intelligence initiative) specifically designed to disrupt and destroy the New Left and affiliated groups. In 1969, came the fragmentation of SDS and the first incident of National Guardsmen shooting unarmed hippies and students during the "People's Park" riots at the University of California, Berkeley. Other campus confrontations paralyzed universities across the country. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a favored speaker on the college circuit, claimed that the police and National Guard were gassing and beating so many students "its like they're manufacturing violent radicals by the milliard." 51 Michael Schumacher, Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), 541. Todd Gitlin accurately summed up the atmosphere of mounting social disorder:
In the year after August 1968, it was as if both official power and movement counterpower, equally and passionately, were committed to stoking up 'two, three, many Chicagos,' each believing that the final showdown of good and evil, order and chaos, was looming . . . . The once-solid core of American life -- the cement of loyalty that people tender to institutions, certifying that the current order is going to last and deserves to -- this loyalty, in select sectors, was decomposing . . . underneath [it all] grew a sublime faith that the old sturdy-seeming ways [of the ancien regime] might be paper-mache and that the right trumpet blast -- the correct analysis, the current line, the correct tactics -- might bring them crashing down. 52 Gitlin, The Sixties, 342-45.
Nixon did not disguise his intent to utilize the full force of the nation's police, military, and intelligence establishments to smash all shades of dissent, including the counterculture. What is more, his Administration's willingness to define the enemy with ever-wider strokes of the brush empowered and emboldened the praetorian forces of authority. In this environment, the mere act of advocating "revolution" was looked upon by police and the FBI as tantamount to committing a violent, treasonous act.
The worsening relationship between police and the Movement in southeast Michigan paralleled the national trends. The cops might have acted with greater restraint if radical rhetoric and posturing had been all they were up against. However, memories of the riots of 1967 lingered and, in fall 1968, a wave of bombings took place, targeting unmanned police cars and other symbols of the establishment, including a clandestine CIA recruiting office in Ann Arbor. The individual responsible for much of the destruction was "hippie-turned-mad bomber" David Valler, whose philosophy had evolved from LSD to TNT over the course of a few months. 53 For press coverage of the Valler bombings in 1968, see Detroit News, September 2, 1- A; September 10, 1-A; September 12, 17-A; September 20, 1-A; September 30, 1-A; October 15, 3-A; November 12, 1-A and 18-A; November 20, 2-A; November 22, 4-A; November 24, 2-A; and November 27, 3-B. Not surprisingly, the Valler bombings influenced many local police and FBI to begin looking at all hippies as potentially violent.
In this atmosphere of mounting tensions the White Panthers presented their analysis of a pending revolution in increasingly militant terms. Plamondon emerged as the most radical of the group, issuing statements like: " . . . get a gun brother, learn how to use it. You'll need it, pretty soon. Pretty soon. You're a White Panther, act like one." 54 Fifth Estate, October 31 - November 13, 1968. For his part, Sinclair presented a "youth colony" thesis, which asserted that the hip youth of America were in fact a persecuted "colony," with similarities to both urban blacks and Third World anti-imperialist movements, such as the VietCong (National Liberation Front) in South Vietnam. "Our culture is a revolutionary culture," he stated, adding "we have to realize that the long-haired dope-smoking rock and roll street-fucking culture is a whole thing, a revolutionary international cultural movement which is absolutely legitimate and absolutely valid." Opposing the youth colony, Sinclair saw a "pig power structure," reflecting the "low-energy death culture" of American capitalist society, which he believed would even resort to "kill[ing] us if they can get away with it." 55 Sinclair, Guitar Army, 147-53.
The culmination of this increasingly militant posturing was the creation of a "White Panther Myth," by which the group portrayed themselves as genuine revolutionaries who would not hesitate to take the struggle to the next level -- violence against the state. The White Panther Myth contained both offensive and defensive components. Rhetorically, Sinclair and Plamondon promised to "attack" and "assault" the capitalist power structure; they boasted of their creation of "high-energy rock and roll bands," for the purpose of "infiltrating the popular culture." 56 Ibid., 48. Yet their propaganda also spoke of being "dragged into the struggle" against their will, due to increasingly severe police harassment. 57 Ibid., 42. The image of formerly peace-loving hippies who were forced to fight back (which paralleled the Black Panthers' raison d'etre) was therefore an important aspect of the White Panther Myth. However, aside from their written and oratorical bombast, and the occasional pose for photographs with guns clutched clumsily in hand, the White Panthers were far removed from the revolutionary violence which characterized groups such as the Weathermen and the New Year's Gang; their "assault" existed primarily in the cultural realm. But over the next two years, as a result of heightened police, FBI, and Justice Department interest in the group, the militant, offensive side of the White Panther Myth acquired a more potent basis in reality.
Events of 1968-1969 confirmed Sinclair and the Plamondons' "death culture" suspicions, as police surveillance increased and the WPP faced a staggering number of "creep scenes." Within a few weeks of the release of the MC-5's album, Elektra Records, apparently under pressure from industry executives, removed Sinclair's liner notes from all future editions of the album and released a censored version the single "Kick Out The Jams." Many stores had refused to carry the album due to its profanity. Angry and frustrated, the White Panthers requested that fans kick in the doors of shops which refused to sell the MC-5's music. Elektra responded in kind, dropping the group altogether in spring 1969. The MC-5's first big eastern city tour also ended ominously after an ugly incident in a club inspired "hip capitalist" promoter Bill Graham to blacklist the band nationally. Police hassles worsened, and WPP members continued to be arrested on a variety of charges. 58 Ibid., 98-100; 109-11.
The FBI's interest in the White Panthers, which had started in late 1968, 59 SAC, New York to Hoover, December 31, 1968, 62-112678-2. This document, as well as the hundreds of additional pages of WPP materials the author obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), have not been released in their entirety, thanks to two of the FBI's widely-abused FOIA exemptions under Title 5 of the U.S. Code: section 552, subsections (b)-7-c and (b)-7-d. The author's appeal was successful, but at press time the documents had not yet been released, allegedly due to FOIA "backlogs." remained minimal until the so-called "Ann Arbor Riots" of June 16-18, 1969, which featured three days of pitched battles between rock-throwing "freeks" and a massive contingent of riot-trained police. For FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who had been incensed by what he termed "filthy" and "obscene" lyrics by the MC-5, the mere presence of White Panthers at the riots was proof that they had coordinated the revolt. After reading reports on the riot, Hoover ordered that actions be taken to monitor, disrupt, and damage the WPP. 60 Hoover to SAC, Detroit, June 25, 1969, 62-112678-22; SAC, Detroit to Hoover, May 21, 1969, 62-112678-14.
The group's worst setback to date came on July 28, 1969, when Detroit Recorder's Court Judge Robert J. Colombo sentenced John Sinclair to nine and a half to ten years in prison for his third marijuana offense, dating back to January, 1967. Rubbing salt in the wound, Judge Colombo refused to set bond, arguing that Sinclair displayed "a propensity and a willingness to further commit the same type of offenses while on bond." 61 Quoted in Sinclair, Guitar Army, 169. The impact on the WPP of Sinclair's incarceration was enormous, and the situation soon went from bad to worse. On October 7, 1969, a Federal Grand Jury in Detroit indicted Sinclair, Pun Plamondon, and Detroit WPP chapter member "Jack" Forrest on conspiracy charges stemming from the September 29, 1968, CIA office bombing in Ann Arbor. 62 Considerable documentary evidence exists to support the conclusion that Sinclair's inclusion in the CIA Conspiracy indictment was bogus -- a result of FBI pressure on David Valler to "revise" his sworn affidavits vis-a-vis Sinclair's level of involvement. See Hale, Wiretapping and National Security . . . (Ph.D. dissertation), 407-11. The inclusion of David Valler as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment demonstrated that the former anti-establishment bomber would be the government's star witness. 63 This was confirmed in a series of interviews between the author and former Detroit U.S. Attorney Robert Grace, July 20, 1992 and April 1, 1993, Ann Arbor, Michigan. However, the U.S. Attorney had to wait more than a year to start the trial, because Plamondon went "underground" to allude capture.
During the first half of 1970, the White Panther Myth reached its fullest expression. Now on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list, Plamondon moved with ease in the underground, hiding out on the west coast for a few months, then moving on to Canada, northern and central Europe, and finally to Algeria, where he met with Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader in exile, whose philosophy of black-white cooperation in the Movement had been instrumental in the creation of the White Panthers. 64 Detroit Free Press, May 5, 1970, 1; Stocking, "A Personal Remembrance . . .," 81. Returning to the U.S. during the late spring, Pun hid-out in the woods of northern Michigan, collecting weapons and writing inflammatory articles, one of which asserted "I don't want to make it sound like all you got to do is kill people, kill pigs, to bring about revolution . . . [but] it is up to us to educate the people to the fact that it is war, and a righteous revolutionary war . . . . It's up to the vanguard to start taking on activity." 65 Quoted in Argus, vol 2, no. 4, May 23, 1970. On the national scene, Weathermen bombings and the spectacle of Ohio National Guardsman shooting to death four unarmed student protesters at Kent State University caused many to question whether the social fabric of America was unraveling. For the WPP, the timing of Plamondon's underground capers could not have been worse; the group achieved national visibility at precisely the moment when the Nixon Administration was seeking to make examples of as many radical groups as possible.
The remaining White Panthers faced the continued imprisonment of Sinclair, the government's bombing conspiracy indictments against Sinclair, Plamondon, and Forrest, and ever- worsening police and FBI surveillance and harassment. Abandoned by the MC-5, who departed to make less revolutionary music with novice producer Jon Landau, the WPP faced a debilitating financial crisis. Somehow, the leadership of Leni and David Sinclair, as well as Genie Plamondon, Skip Taube, and Ken Kelley, managed to hold the collective intact. Even more miraculously, this embattled core group found the time and resources to correspond with and tutor dozens of emerging White Panther "chapters" nationwide and in England, 66 An estimated fifteen to twenty fully operational WPP chapters, and up to fifty "potential tribes," existed across the U.S.A. and in Europe. This estimate is based on three sources: (1) FBI Report, dated October 23, 1970, entitled "RE: White Panther Party (WPP) National Convention September 23-25, 1970," 22-23, Sinclair Red Squad Files; (2) various lists of WPP chapters, circa 1970-1971, located in JLSP, box 17, folder 31, "Chapters"; and (3) ASHP-Genie Plamondon Interview, 20. and entered into discussions with the Yippies concerning a possible merger. 67 Throughout the first half of 1970, a number of discussions were held between WPP and YIP leaders concerning a possible merger. However, a formal YIP-WPP merger was never consummated. At one point in the discussions, David Sinclair expressed his frustrations as follows: " . . . 'merger' is not a correct term in the first place, because you can't really have a merger between a political party and an image . . . . The fact is there are fundamental differences between ourselves and our politics and those of Abbie [Hoffman] and Jerry [Rubin] and their 'followers,'" "Report to the Chairman on the Central Committee Meeting of 27 February 1970, Prepared by Chief of Staff," February 27, 1970, JLSP, box 17, folder 21, "WPP Ideology." The "Free John" movement merged with a larger "CIA Conspiracy Trial" defense, which attracted support from such notables as Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and Allen Ginsberg. And famed "Chicago Conspiracy Trial" lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass signed on with Detroit National Lawyers Guild attorney Hugh "Buck" Davis to ably defend the White Panthers in their upcoming CIA Conspiracy case. 68 Kunstler's involvement in the White Panther case is summarized in William M. Kunstler (with Sheila Isenberg), My Life as a Radical Lawyer, (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994), 205-210.
Considerable debate took place within WPP ranks about taking the struggle to the next level -- i.e. actualizing the White Panther Myth. From his prison cell, Sinclair began to express doubts about the violent "adventurism" now being advocated by Eldridge Cleaver and the Weathermen. Other WPP members, including Skip Taube and Jack Forrest, expressed support for the goals behind the violent actions, while struggling with the utility and consequences of actually committing them. Several WPP members began openly brandishing rifles and other firearms, engaging in target practice at rural locations on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. 69 Sun/Dance, July 4, 1970. These activities were influenced by a mysterious new arrival, Dennis Marnell, who assumed the title "Deputy Minister of Defense" and went to great lengths to make the group feel more comfortable handling and using weapons. The available evidence strongly suggests that Marnell was a government agent provocateur, who infiltrated the WPP commune for purpose of gathering intelligence on Plamondon's whereabouts and possibly setting the group up for future arrests.
Infiltration along these lines was a common COINTELPRO tactic during the period. 70 See, for example, Paul Cowan, et. al., State Secrets: Police Surveillance in America, (New York: Holt, Rineholt, and Winston, 1974), 59-76; Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 47-48, 65-77; Frank J. Donner, The Age of Surveillance: The Aims and Methods of America's Political Intelligence System, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 132-38; and Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI's Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 139-40, 222-26. In any event, Marnell was scared off by wary White Panthers before he could complete his assignment. 71 Marnell arrived at the WPP commune during the summer of 1970, and soon exhibited classic agent provocateur behavior. Claiming to have had combat experience in Vietnam, he conducted regular "armed self defense" classes with WPP members. He shunned cameras, and would not allow his name to appear in any WPP publications. After being ousted by the WPP, Marnell attempted to set up attorney Leonard Weinglass with conspiratorial plans to break Sinclair out of prison. See the author's personal interview with Genie Plamondon, March 31, 1993, Detroit, Michigan; and author's telephone interview with Weinglass, November 29, 1992.
Another turning point for the WPP came with Plamondon's capture by the Michigan State Police on July 23, 1970, near Cheboygan, Michigan. Press reports quoted FBI agents as stating that Plamondon had a .38 caliber Derringer pistol, a rifle, a shotgun, and "two cartons of dynamite" in his possession. Bail was set at $100,000, and Pun was soon transported to Detroit for arraignment in the CIA Conspiracy case. Traveling with Plamondon at the time of his capture were Taube and Forrest, each of whom were charged with harboring a fugitive and held in lieu of $25,000 bond. 72 Detroit Free Press, July 24, 1970, 1; Detroit News, July 24, 1970, 3-A. The shock of losing three more WPP leaders might have been bad enough -- but materials allegedly found in the Volkswagen van in which the three were traveling would ultimately have much greater long-term consequences for the group. 73 According to the FBI report, the materials found in the group's possession included a detailed address list of underground contacts, floor plans of a bank in northern Michigan, and a letter advocating the kidnaping of Gerald Ford and/or Spiro Agnew for political ransom. The latter document was actually an anonymous letter sent to the Detroit WPP chapter -- another FBI COINTELPRO tactic commonly employed against radical groups. See "Hale, Wiretapping and National Security . . ." (Ph.D. dissertation), 523-26. The FBI's new Special Agent-in-Charge in Detroit, Neil J. Welch, meticulously studied the materials, eventually preparing a 107-page report for FBI Headquarters, completed on September 3, 1970. Within weeks of the report's issuance, Hoover elevated the WPP to the status of one of the most dangerous militant organizations in America, and brought them to the attention of Nixon's Attorney General, John N. Mitchell. 74 FBI Report "Re: Plamondon," September 3, 1970.
Information concerning the "ultra-radical" White Panthers was welcome news to the Nixon Administration that fall. Congressional elections, the most divisive in years, were heating up. Hoping to overturn Democratic majorities in Congress, Nixon assumed a major role in the campaign, delivering highly-partisan speeches associating Democrats with hippies, Black Panthers, and Charles Manson-esque radicals. Obsessed with acquiring more intelligence on radicals, Nixon directed Hoover's FBI to expand its COINTELPRO dragnet against the Movement, and the Bureau's "Ten Most Wanted" list was expanded to sixteen, with nine slots occupied by Movement radicals. 75 New York Times, November 28, 1970, 13; Mark Sabljak and Martin H. Greenberg, Most Wanted: A History of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1990), 179-81.
Events came to a head on September 9, 1970, when a "national security" wiretap -- installed without a court order -- was initiated on the WPP's Ann Arbor commune; it would remain in operation through January 26, 1971. On the 22nd, Nixon, Mitchell, Hoover, and Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford discussed the White Panthers in a White House meeting. 76 Hoover to Ford, September 25, 1970, 62-112678-102, located in the Gerald R. Ford Congressional Papers, Ford Presidential Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, box D-102, folder "Radicals/White Panthers/Protest." Three days later, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Internal Security Subcommittee heard testimony regarding the WPP from Sergeant Clifford Murray of the Michigan State Police. 77 U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and other Internal Security Laws, Extent of Subversion in the "New Left," Testimony of Clifford A. Murray and Richard M. Schave, Part 8, September 25, 1970, 91st Congress, 2nd Session, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971), 1221-2. It wasn't long before nearly the entire spectrum of U.S. government and military intelligence agencies (FBI, CIA, DIA, NSA, and NSC) were actively investigating the group. 78 Report, SAC, Detroit to Hoover, September 17, 1969, 62-112678-29; "CIA Memorandum for the FBI Re: White Panther Party," June 2, 1970, 62-112678-59; Department of State "Airgram," from American Consul in Montreal, Canada to the U.S. Department of State, June 11, 1970, 62-112678-[unnumbered].
The White Panther saga took another unexpected turn late in the year, when the Nixon Administration became interested in the group for more than its militancy. Using the WPP's federal CIA Conspiracy trial as a test case, the Justice Department attempted to acquire Supreme Court sanction for a sweeping, unconstitutional wiretapping plan, known as the "Mitchell Doctrine" (so named due to Attorney General Mitchell's delivery of the legal briefs before U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith in Detroit). The Mitchell Doctrine asserted that the President possesses the "inherent constitutional power" to wiretap "domestic radicals" without a court order if he, and he alone, believes them to be threatening to the national security. Ultimately, a Supreme Court with several Nixon appointees voted unanimously (8-0) against the doctrine in June of 1972, in the landmark U.S. v. U.S. District Court (also known as "Keith") decision. The WPP case was subsequently dropped, as were many other federal conspiracy trials involving Movement groups which involved illegal government electronic surveillance. 79 For a detailed history of the Keith case (407 U.S. 297) and the evolution of the Mitchell Doctrine, see Hale, Wiretapping and National Security. . . (Ph.D. dissertation); see also Arthur Kinoy, Rights on Trial: The Odyssey of a People's Lawyer, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 1-38.
Freed from prison, Sinclair and Plamondon returned to Ann Arbor and established the "Rainbow People's Party," a non-militant, grass-roots organization, whose activities mirrored the Movement's entrance into mainstream politics after 1970. Sinclair's marijuana case received belated, yet critical, attention from the Michigan Supreme Court, which overturned the state's draconian pot statutes. The national trend of marijuana decriminalization during the seventies owed much to the two and a half years which John Sinclair had spent behind bars in Michigan.
The White Panthers represent a clear example a sixties counterculture group which evolved into a militant political organization. Their metamorphosis was due to a combination of factors, including: (1) the uniquely conservative southeast Michigan environment, particularly the inflexible, often repressive police, which overreacted to cultural radicalism; (2) the group's considerable success in recruiting a popular following, via the MC-5's music and youth culture propagandizing, which imbued the WPP's leadership with a dangerous "we can get away with anything" attitude; (3) the organizational abilities of the group's leadership, which allowed them, through such means as the underground press and other organizing, to remain well informed concerning national trends in the Movement -- and also made them susceptible to the allure of militant political organizing after the Chicago riots; and (4) the U.S. Government's dedication to prosecuting and jailing the group's leadership, which provided all the proof the WPP needed that its self-created myth of revolutionary prowess had a basis in reality.
How real were the White Panthers' revolutionary aspirations? The answer depends upon one's definition of "revolutionary." If judged by the standards of the time, the much-envied Che Guevara model of armed revolt, the WPP, with the possible exception of Plamondon, failed to live up to the White Panther Myth of Movement radicalism. In the final analysis, much of the White Panther message was confined to Yippie-like posturing. However, the cultural assault formulated by Sinclair and carried out by the WPP -- the national propaganda campaign involving alternative newspapers, rock music records, and live shows -- had very real revolutionary potential (which, more than any other factor, may explain why Sinclair was repeatedly denied bond). Prior to Sinclair's imprisonment and the departure of the MC-5, the White Panthers possessed both the means and the message to radicalize millions of youthful Baby Boomers.
Did the WPP have a strategy beyond blowing young peoples' minds? Or was its main goal merely radicalizing youth and, like the Yippies, waiting for Armageddon to trigger "action in the streets"? Sinclair admits that at the time he possessed "a vision of instantaneous, violent, and apocalyptic change." 80 ASHP-Sinclair Biography, 62. However, in the turbulent period between 1968 and 1971, such visions were not uncommon, both within the Movement and among the police/FBI/Justice Department. The White Panther Party's strategy began with a commitment to turn on as many young people as possible to all facets of the new counterculture lifestyle, including its political implications (such as the likelihood of police reaction/repression and how to fight back). From here, the WPP sought to further politicize the counterculture by injecting political content -- the doctrines and messages of radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Yippies -- into their avant garde, rock and roll-inspired message. And by adopting a political framework which was, in Sinclair's words, "looser and more far out" 81 ASHP-Sinclair Interview, 40. than their more doctrinaire contemporaries in the New Left, the White Panthers believed that they could reach the millions of disaffected youth who may not have otherwise responded to a radical political message. For Sinclair, the recruitment of this large and growing segment of the population was a prerequisite for achieving a genuine mass revolution in the United States.
The fact that the utopian vision of Sinclair's White Panthers may appear maniacal or largely unfulfilled three decades later does not denigrate its significance. As Theodore Roszak states, the counterculture in America during the sixties had few historical models of leftist rebellion and organizing to draw upon, as did their European peers. American counterculture radicals, he adds, assumed positions that were "more flexible, more experimental, and . . . . more seemingly bizarre" than any of their historical predecessors. 82 Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on a Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), 4. By declaring that rock music, marijuana use, and "fucking in the streets" would bring about revolution, the White Panthers introduced a new chapter in American radical utopianism. They took a pre-rock model of beatnik hedonism, added LSD, marijuana, and high-energy electric music, and concluded that the act of liberating young people from traditional societal inhibitions would bring about a new culture.
The White Panther saga contains many ironies. None of these is greater than the fact that a group of counterculture "freeks," who, in search of radical certification, created a largely- fictional "White Panther Myth" -- only to end up being portrayed by the Nixon Administration as the epitome of domestic "national security" threat, and embroiled in a landmark constitutional case. It is hard to disagree with Sinclair's reflective assessment: "The Government . . . . should have been paying us for what we were doing!" 83 Quoted in Sinclair, Guitar Army, 349.
|Copyright©2001 From IMAGINE NATION
- The American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s
(section two 'Cutural Politics' chapter 5 The White Panthers' "Total Assault On The Culture") by Jeff A. Hale / Peter Braunstein (editor) & Michael William Doyle (editor). Reproduced by permission of Routledge / Taylor & Francis Books, Inc.
Photos by Leni Sinclair , Dean Sherwood , George Tysh
|ADDITIONAL READINGS & LINKS
"Rock & Roll Dope" Street Writings 1968-1969 by John Sinclair (1968 - Fifth Estate) »»» online article
"John and Leni Sinclair Papers" Bentley Historical Library - University Of Michigan
"Lost From The Ottawa - The Story of the Journey Back" by Pun Plamondon (2004)
Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and Plum Street & The Belle Isle love-in by Julie Morris and Jenny Nolan (The Detroit News)
The Detroit Artists' Workshop website
The Grande Ballroom dedicated site
The Fifth Estate website
The Weather Underground a film on the Weathermen wherein the MC5 make a quick appearance live at the GRANDE
Freedom Of Information Act : Motor City 5 FBI website
Leni Sinclair - Jeff A. Hale - Peter C. Cavanaugh
2005 - MC5 GATEWAY