John Sinclair recalls impact, importance of Freedom Rally
Related story: White Panther Party coming home to Ann Arbor this weekend
John Sinclair had the worst seat possible for the freedom rally held in his own name at Crisler Arena on Dec. 10, 1971.
But he didn’t miss a minute of the show.
Photo by David Fenton
Even 40 years later, Sinclair, who is seldom at a loss for words, struggles to describe the experience.
“I was gassed about it,” Sinclair recalled last week during a phone call from Ghent, Belgium. “It was just very, very heavy.
It was also scary, he said, since he used his weekly call to his wife, Leni, to call in to the concert and have his words broadcast throughout the arena.
“I was terrified, because I thought as soon as the guards found out, they’d carry me off to the hole,” he said, breaking into a hearty laugh. “But I was lucky, because they were listening to the basketball game instead.”
“Then I figured all weekend I figured when the warden came in and heard the report of the phone call, my goose would be would be cooked."
Still, Sinclair recalled, it was worth the risk.
“I felt like I had the chance to speak with people who were supporting me from the penitentiary was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Ironically, instead of waking up Monday morning to a punishment, he learned that he was going home. On the day before the concert, the Michigan State Senate voted to remove marijuana from the state’s penal code for narcotics and to reconsider all existing convictions.
“We’d won before they even played a note,” he said.
More importantly, after two and a half years in prison, he was going home to his family.
Although his release was secured through a twist in the state’s political machinations, Sinclair believed then—as he does today—that his release came about in part to the hue and cry he and his supporters raised about what they saw as political and social persecution.
“They took two and a half years of my life—but on the face of it, I beat them because I refused to shut about it,” he said. “Ten years for two joints is cruel and unusual punishment, but I was a vociferous opponent of their system and they made an example out of me.”
Today, Sinclair remains a staunch pro-marijuana advocate—particularly for medical reasons—and said that his and his compatriots’ efforts during the 1960s and 70s helped to break down the stigma attached to its use.
“There was nothing wrong with marijuana then and there's nothing wrong with it now,” he said.
Sinclair, who today, at 70, splits his time between Detroit and Amsterdam, will be back in Ann Arbor on Dec. 9 and 10 for a two-day Ann Arbor District Library event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rally. He said he’s particularly gratified to see their efforts being recognized for their contribution to Ann Arbor’s history.
“Everything we did in the ‘60s and ‘70s has been erased from modern life, because they don’t want people to do it again,” he said. “They don’t make movies or TV shows about hippies and dope fiends like us.
“So for the library to enshrine this countercultural, left-wing, anti-capitalist movement that we were a part of well, that excites me.”
He said he also plans to attend the Friday reunion of former residents of the two houses on Hill Street that were the headquarters of Sinclair’s White Panther Party.
“It’ll be a kick,” he said. “I lived with these people and went through some heavy (stuff.)”
Then he added with his trademark raspy laugh: “I’ll try to keep an open mind and not call anybody any names.”