BY CHRISTOPHER ZBROZEK
Published October 24, 2006
Former Ann Arbor Police Chief Walter Krasny didn't rest well the night of September 29, 1968. Asleep in his home more than two miles from downtown, Krasny awoke shortly before midnight, his sleep interrupted by the blast of an explosion on Main Street.
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There was a CIA recruitment office at 450 Main in those days, although its staff liked to keep quiet. A secretary would inform visitors who walked into the inconspicuous, unnamed office that the manager was out of town. That statement was probably even true from time to time; the agent running the office, John F. Forrester, was charged with recruiting students both from our University and from that farm school over in East Lansing.
On that night in late September, someone set off four to six sticks of dynamite in front of Forrester's office. The explosion blew a three-inch deep hole in the sidewalk, shattered windows and overturned furniture, causing thousands of dollars of damage, though no one was hurt. The bombing was interpreted as a political act; Krasny was quick to tell the press he suspected "anti-establishment militants" and said that "hippies of a college age" were the focus of the investigation.
By itself, the CIA office bombing might be a footnote, a particularly explosive illustration of the unrest in those days. Indeed, Ann Arbor experienced two more bombings within a year. Two weeks after the CIA bombing, the Institute of Science and Technology on North Campus was targeted, presumably for its role in military research. The following June, a bomb went off under a car outside North Hall in an apparent attempt to disrupt the ROTC program.
A court case that arose out of the Ann Arbor CIA bombing, however, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which dealt the Nixon Administration a solid defeat. The case involved some of the leading figures in the White Panther Party, the radical political group centered for a time around a commune at 1520 Hill that also happened to house the band MC5.
The CIA bombing was similar to a string of bombings, mainly of police cars, then underway in Detroit. A fellow by the name of David Valler later confessed to carrying out or aiding those bombings, as well as the IST bombing in Ann Arbor. Valler, whether truthfully or not, claimed after his arrest to have repented his former dope-taking hippie revolutionary ways, and he rapidly made a name for himself as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, denouncing the evils of drugs and youth culture and writing that the hippie "sweeps his dirt into the hallways of society. He creates chaos."
A little more than a year after the bombing of the Ann Arbor CIA office, a federal grand jury indicted three members of the White Panther Party based on Valler's testimony. White Panther Minister of Defense Pun Plamondon was charged with having set off the bomb, and White Panther Minister of Education Jack Forrest was charged with conspiracy to commit the bombing. The biggest name, though was White Panther Minister of Information - and MC5 manager and general counter-culture icon - John Sinclair, who was also charged with conspiracy. When the indictment was handed down, Sinclair was already in prison on his infamous 10-year sentence for possession of two joints. Plamondon, meanwhile, went underground for nearly a year after hearing the indictment on the radio, winning himself a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.
From the White Panthers' perspective, the charges were a government frame-up to silence an inconvenient challenge to the established order. Admittedly, if a statement from Valler to one of Sinclair's attorneys now archived in the Bentley Historical Library is truthful, the defendants deserved to be found guilty as charged: Valler describes telling the grand jury how he asked Sinclair if he had anything to blow up, dropped off dynamite for Plamondon and heard Pun tell him that he'd blown up the CIA office. But to the White Panthers, the way that Valler's approach to life shifted so drastically once the authorities got their hands on him reeked of a desire to get the government on his side, even if it meant participating in an plot to shut down the White Panther Party.
Sinclair and his co-defendants were hopeful given the circumstances. U.S. District Court Judge Damon Keith, who was hearing the case, had the reputation of being liberal. What's more, Keith, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, is black - which lead the defendants to feel he'd be more sympathetic to a bunch of would-be revolutionaries than some white Establishment lackey.
The defendants secured the help of a top-notch radical legal team through the National Lawyers Guild, and their attorneys used strategies that were innovative to say the least.