Some of the most significant events of the ’60s have been almost forgotten—like the pot bust of John Sinclair, Minister of Information for the White Panther Party. His 9 1/2-to-10-year sentence for possession of two joints in 1969 was a cause celébre during the “cultural revolution” of the ’60s. Protests were launched and benefits (starring John Lennon and Stevie Wonder, among others) held on his behalf. From the July, 1988 issue of High Times comes John Holmstrom’s interview with the poet, writer, and political activist John Sinclair. In honor of Sinclair’s birthday on October 2, we’re republishing it below.
High Times: Who were the White Panthers, and what did they stand for?
John Sinclair: It was a group formed to support the Black Panther party, which was under attack at that time from the government. We were a bunch of hippy dope fiends and rock ’n’ roll musicians operating in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area as a commune called Translove Energies. It included a couple of bands, the MC5 and the Up. The bands, myself, and others went to Chicago for the festival at the Democratic Convention. We went through a lot of problems with the police and other authorities, and started developing a militant outlook from reading things like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panther newspaper. We decided to be the ones to heed their call for a similar group among white youth. When the MC5 hooked up with Elektra Records and recorded our first album live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, we announced that we were going to be the White Panther Party, and had buttons printed up and passed them out at our gigs. Kids would wear them to school and get thrown out. It wasn’t really an organization.
HT: How much did the rock ’n’ roll scene have to do with the political and cultural activities in Detroit?
JS: Before 1966, they were separate entities. We were cultural avant-gardists—poets and jazz musicians and painters and 16 millimeter filmmakers and stuff. Ed Sanders was our mentor in the underground poetry revolution. It preceded the underground press in that there were a lot of mimeographed poetry magazines. Suddenly these tabloids started springing up and then there was an active merger of the avant garde, beatnik poetry, jazz, and the left with newer elements through the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, LSD and all that. We all got together here in Detroit about ’66, when they opened the Grande Ballroom, which was modeled on the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco. Rock ’n’ roll musicians became part of the bohemian community, whereas before, they were part of a high school culture.
HT: Why did it end?
JS: It seems like it ended when Nixon got removed. Starting with Ford and particularly with Carter, they took the heat off on the cultural issues, the daily life issues. You could have a job and have long hair and smoke pot without people busting through your windows. They started to institutionalize rock ’n’ roll and move it into the stadiums in a high-pressure way. It was like a Herbert Marcuse scenario where they co-opted the cutting edges.
It used to be if you selected or chose to adopt an alternative lifestyle, you were also buying into a lot of police harassment and repression wherever you’d turn. That drew a line between regular people and ourselves, and the more they would mess with people, the sharper the line would be drawn, and the more militant the response would be until you’d get to, say, the Weathermen.
HT: There’s more repression than ever against pot smokers lately.
JS: It’s on the dealer level, though, or dealer paraphernalia. My memories are of the person smoking the joint being under fire, and most people who had long hair smoked pot. The nature of the repression now is different. The tone of the ’60s was set by the civil rights movement, which had a tremendous task. It was 1960 when they started integrating lunch counters and bathrooms. Then the war started cranking up in ’64, and you had the antiwar movement. And that was a real life-and-death kind of issue. The people who were protesting were the ones who were supposed to go there and die.
HT: What were the origins of the Ann Arbor Hash Bash?
JS: The first one was in 1972. It just appeared. There’s a little background on that which has to do with my case. On December 9th of 1971, the Michigan legislature passed a bill that reclassified marijuana as a controlled substance as opposed to a narcotic and lowered the penalties from 10 years and twenty years to one year and five years. The state law was changed and then, sometime in March, the Supreme Court of Michigan decided my case in my favor and declared the old law unconstitutional. When they passed this new law in December, it was set to go into effect on April 1st of 1972. So when the Supreme Court decided on my case early in March and threw the old law out, we actually had no marijuana law in Michigan for about three weeks. Yes, it was a happy occasion and, of course, we made the most of it. April 1st was when the new law was supposed to go into effect, and it would be illegal again, but we were running people for city council in Ann Arbor on the Human Rights Party ticket, and the first thing they did was pass the $5 fine.
I think the Hash Bash had a kind of edge to it, that they might make pot illegal again but we weren’t paying any attention to it in Ann Arbor. I wish I could say we started it. I mean, somebody just put out a flyer saying the Hash Bash was April 1st, and all of a sudden it was there and everybody said, “Oh, this sounds like fun,” and everybody went.
HT: While I was in Ann Arbor, I noticed you get a lot of good press for your latest cultural activities.
JS: Well, yes. I’m basically a writer and poet now. I’ve been in the rock ’n’ roll business for the last five years. Before that, I worked with jazz artists for four or five years, and before that I wrote for alternative papers around here. I just concentrate on my own writing and activities and performances.
HT: You still believe that marijuana should be legalized.
JS: Absolutely. But I gave up on activism about 10 years ago. I was a lobbyist for NORML in 1977, when they were trying to get a bill through the Michigan legislature. It ended up with people squabbling among themselves, having physical confrontations on the floor of the Senate and the House and I just said, “Wow, these people are too nuts.”
HT: Speaking of activists, did you know Tom Forçade? Did you like him?
JS: Well, we had a mixed relationship. He seemed to do a lot of things that put people off on a personal level, but then his energy was so fantastic and he had so many interesting ideas. In the latter days—I mean the ’70s—he was like, carrying the flag.