White Panther Party coming home to Ann Arbor, 40 years after bringing John Lennon to town in aid of John Sinclair
Related story: John Sinclair recalls impact, importance of Freedom Rally
They came from all over.
Runaways, university students, traveling counter-culture scenesters. And they all found a home away from home in two enormous houses on Hill Street, where they made a lot of noise, talked a lot of revolution, smoked a lot of grass and caused quite a stir around sleepy little Ann Arbor.
photo by Leni Sinclair
Members of the White Panther Party, the communal tribe of politicized hippies who lived at 1510 and 1520 Hill St., are staging a reunion to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the high-profile, star-studded concert they staged at Crisler Arena to secure the prison release of the party’s charismatic figurehead, John Sinclair.
Once again, they’re coming from all over.
“We realized that we were starting to lose some of our friends from those days,” said Anne LaVasseur-Mullen, one of the reunion’s organizers, who moved to the commune on her seventeenth birthday in November 1970. “I really wanted to do this as a tribute to the family we had back then, because we really did some crazy and incredible things.
“I think it’s important that we have a chance to look each other in the eyes before we go over that hill for the last time.”
Talk to former members of the White Panther Party for more than a minute or two and that word keeps coming up: family.
“We made lifelong friends,” said Peggy Bach. “They were all like our brothers and our sisters.”
In fact, Bach was drawn to the party’s house at 1510 Hill Street, because her older brother, Skip Taube, was hanging out there. It’s where she met her husband, Frank Bach, who was then the lead singer in the popular local band The Up, which was also based out of the houses on Hill Street.
“In my case, it really did turn into family.”
The White Panther Party, which was named for its self-declared alignment with the Black Panther Party, arrived in Ann Arbor after Sinclair’s Detroit Artists Workshop commune was squeezed out of Detroit in the wake of the city’s riots.
In bucolic Ann Arbor, just as the anti-Vietnam War movement was fomenting here, Sinclair and his comrades—including the revolutionary rock band MC5, which Sinclair managed—found a perfect environment for a unique social experiment.
Photo by Leni Sinclair
But as the White Panthers’ profile began to rise, Sinclair became a target of the status quo. He was arrested in 1968 for giving two joints to undercover narcotics officers. It wasn’t his first offense, and the system made an example of him, slapping with a 10-year sentence under the state’s stiff narcotics laws.
Immediately, the Panthers, led by Sinclair’s wife, Leni, and brother, David, swung into action—organizing a series of concerts and guerilla actions designed not only to raise a defense fund for Sinclair, but also public awareness of his situation.
“As crazy as it was, we were a pretty organized bunch,” Peggy Bach recalled. “There were a lot of different aspects to the whole thing, all of which were designed to bring attention to the cause.”
And all of which led up to the Freedom Rally. If Sinclair is the defining figure of the White Panther Party, then the Freedom Rally is its defining event—even more so than Panther official Pun Plamondon’s alleged bombing of the CIA recruiting office on campus.
poster by Gary Grimshaw
As members recalled, the Feedom Rally was shaping up to be yet another in a series of low-key events, until Yippee leaders Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman convinced their pal John Lennon that he should come to Ann Arbor in support of Sinclair’s release.
Lennon and Ono eventually agreed, leaving organizers just two weeks to get a show together that would be worth of a visit not only from a former Beatle, but one who would be performing live in the U.S. for the first time since the band’s demise.
“Needless to say, this was a very big deal,” Lavasseur-Mullen said.
Fenton, who by now had begun running publicity for the Panthers and their de-facto newspaper, The Arbor Sun, was among those who swung into action.
“I was the guy who called all the radio shows to make the announcement,” he said. “No one could believe it was really happening.”
In fact, no one was really willing to believe it was true until Lennon and Ono arrived in town.
Just a year after arriving in Ann Arbor, Lavasseur-Mullen found herself serving as one of the show’s two MCs.
As gender equality wasn’t as high on the Panthers’ list as reforms to the status quo, she said she was consigned to announce the show’s lesser acts, while her male counterpart got to announce the big names.
“Still, standing up in front of 10,000 people was a really big deal,” she said. “That was a lot of people to be looking out at as an 18-yea- old.”
Although everyone’s recollections are pretty fuzzy after 40 years, among other factors, (“I remember all these people breaking out literally pounds of pot in the audience,” Fenton said) they all agree that the concert was long. Too long.
Lennon and Ono didn’t hit the stage until well after 3 a.m., at which point they performed a short set, including the tune “John Sinclair,” which the former Beatle wrote for the occasion.
“We came here not only to help John and to spotlight what's going on, but also to show and to say to all of you that apathy isn't it, and that we can do something,” Lennon said on stage. “"Okay, so Flower Power didn't work. So what? We start again."
Ironically, just before the concert, the Michigan State Senate approved a bill that would exclude marijuana from the state’s narcotics code and cut the penalties for marijuana use from 10 years to 90 days. The Senate also agreed to reconsider existing convictions.
Still, when Sinclair was released from prison the following Monday, it was hailed as a victory of the people over “The Man.”
Indeed, it was more likely the result of some really groovy timing.
“It was the culmination of so many things we’d been doing,” Peggy Bach recalled. “It seemed to us as if we’d really made it happen.”Now, this Friday, former White Panther Party members and associates will reunite in the Michigan Union Ballroom. In addition, the Ann Arbor District Library has organized a series of events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rally.
While the rally was the Panthers’ public high-water mark, their work didn’t end there. By 1972, with change in name to the Rainbow People’s Party, the group had organized its Human Rights Party and gained seats on the Ann Arbor City Council.
“We were able to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Fenton, who now runs his own communications company in New York City. “I learned everything I know about my career back then.”
By 1975, the commune had folded and its members began to disburse. The Bachs moved to Detroit to raise their family and organize at the local level. LaVasseur-Mullen moved to Hawaii, where she is a high school art teacher. Fenton moved back to New York to work for Rolling Stone magazine.
An era had ended. But Ann Arbor would never really be the same.
“A lot of us never saw one another again,” Fenton said of the reunion. “So this is really exciting.
“We were so young and half crazy, but now we’ve all grown up and are growing old.”