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Ten for Two: Forty years ago, one man's imprisonment would forever change Ann Arbor

Courtesy of Ann Arbor Public Library
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By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published December 5, 2011

It was past 3 a.m. — more than eight hours after the show started — by the time John Lennon and Yoko Ono took the stage at Crisler Arena wearing matching magenta T-shirts and leather jackets.

A wary crowd of 15,000 erupted for the two ’60s heroes as a haze of marijuana smoke hung over the arena floor. Lennon’s appearance was the capstone of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally — a mega concert to benefit jailed left-wing activist John Sinclair, one of the founders of the White Panther Party.

“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 we can do something,” Lennon told the audience. “OK, so flower power didn’t work, so what? We start again.”

In July 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to 9.5 to 10 years in prison for selling two joints to an undercover narcotics officer. The Freedom Rally, held on Dec. 10, 1971 — 40 years ago this Saturday — was the culmination of more than two years of efforts to free Sinclair.

In an interview while sipping coffee at the Starbucks on East Liberty Street last Saturday, Sinclair said the Ann Arbor rally wasn’t an isolated event.

“Every week there was something somewhere, and sometimes there were fairly big ones,” he said. “But this one, for December 10, 1971, was scheduled to be as big as we could make it.”

An astonishing mix of activists and artists gathered in Ann Arbor that Friday night to put pressure on the Michigan Supreme Court to finally release Sinclair. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, activist Jerry Rubin and the poet Allen Ginsberg all spoke, while Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Teegarden & Van Winkle and Phil Ochs performed.

Sinclair himself even spoke from prison — via phone — to the rally.

Still, Lennon was the headliner.

“(Lennon) just put it over the top,” Sinclair said. “All the tickets sold out in three minutes. It was the fastest selling ticket in Michigan pop music history, and that just put the focus on my case and the issue.”

The Ann Arbor performance was Lennon’s first since The Beatles broke up the previous year. Lennon was only on stage for about 15 minutes, playing three songs including one called “John Sinclair” he wrote specifically for the occasion.

“Won’t you care for John Sinclair? / In the stir for breathing air,” Lennon sang, as Ono stood to his right playing a bongo. “Let him be / set him free / let him be like you and me. / They gave him ten for two.”

And that Monday, Dec. 13, Sinclair was set free.

The Hill Street Commune

Sinclair was a major player in Detroit in his early years, managing the politically active band MC5, contributing to several underground publications and creating the Detroit Artists Workshop. But after the 1967 riots, police began to crack down on citizens, and in May 1968, Sinclair decided to make the move to liberal Ann Arbor.

Sinclair and his friends settled into large houses at the corner of Hill Street and Washtenaw Avenue, creating for themselves a hippie commune that totaled about 35 people.

When they first got to Ann Arbor, Sinclair said the hippies stuck out from University students.

“The rest of Ann Arbor was pretty much students with short hair, student garb — squares,” Sinclair said. “We were like sore thumbs walking among the students. Students didn’t like hippie chicks because they didn’t have brassieres on and stuff like that. They didn’t shave under their arms and (the students) thought they were scum. They would verbally attack them on the street. It wasn’t very pleasant.”

It was on Hill Street where Sinclair began to mobilize politically.