Everybody look what’s going down: An era of protest in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 11:59am

Leni Sinclair

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There’s nothing special about a street corner. It’s only a tiny intersection that thousands of busy passerbys see in their peripheral vision on their drive to work each day. Thoughts of their to-do lists or annoyance at the poorly made coffee the barista gave them that morning are given far more room in their minds. Ann Arbor street corners have been stepped on and overlooked for decades. Yet, they have felt the feet of  thousands of protestors beating against their pavement. They have heard the voice of John Lennon singing the words “Free John Sinclair” to a crowd of thousands. They have seen the delicate intricacies of an LGBT couple interlocking fingers in nervous excitement publicly for the first time. They have smelled the sourness of illegal (and now legal) marijuana being lit from the carefully rolled joints of college students for decades.

How many eyes have grazed over these idle street corners? And who did those eyes belong to? What did these people believe in? Who are they now? Street corners have been holding up the city of Ann Arbor for decades. Decades that were filled with groundbreaking political movements, new scientific discoveries and innovative musical melodies. Decades that have slipped away from us, falling into the all-consuming creature that is “the passing of time.”

However, the memories of these decades can forever be retold to all ears who are willing to listen. When I interviewed Jeff Gaynor, a retired Ann Arbor teacher who studied at the University of Michigan from 1968 to 1971, memories of the past seemed to come flooding back to him. After graduating from Cass Technical High School, Gaynor came to the University as a freshman in the fall of 1968. It was the only school hed applied to. He’d play pool in the billiards room and go bowling in the Union. His freshman year was also a huge year politically for the United States.

“The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, huge protests of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, etc. — the latter happening just after I arrived at U-M. But my freshman year, the student protest was to establish a student-run bookstore,” said Gaynor in an email to The Daily.

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“There were only two bookstores students had to buy textbooks: Ulrich’s and Follett’s,” he continued, “and we considered them to be capitalist businesses that were ripping off the students. (Students) wanted the University to fund our own bookstore. There were marches and protests, and one Saturday night students occupied the Administration Building – what became the LS&A building on State St.”

“I was involved enough so that when the administration placed a memo in all of the dorm mailboxes, giving their perspective but not allowing the protesting students to do the same, I was livid,” he said. “I found a friend and walked down S. University to the president’s house, knocked on the door, and asked to speak to President Fleming. We were ushered in, and 5 minutes later he came down and spoke with us, probably for 10 minutes. I left unhappy that we couldn’t convince him of the righteousness of our position, but I gained a lot of respect for him for speaking with us. It was more common in those days for hundreds of protesters to assemble on his lawn, and chant. Who knew that you could knock on his door in the middle of the day and actually talk with him!”

Bookstore protests didn’t seem to be the only political movements students were getting involved in during this time. Gaynor explained that in his sophomore year (1969-1970) he saw the emergence of BAM (the Black Action Movement) at the University. The Black Action Movement was a series of protests by students against the racist policies and actions of the University of Michigan.

“I wasn’t centrally involved, but I was supportive,” Gaynor said. “One day, I remember being in the lobby of South Quad talking with another student, a Black student, who was on the football team. I asked him if he was going to be participating in the student strike that the BAM organizers had called for. He paused, looked at me straight in the eye, and said, ‘Bo says, ‘No!’

Gaynor went on, “Bo Schembechler was the football coach, if I need explain. I was flabbergasted, but realized that scholarship athletes didn’t have the autonomy to make decisions that other students had. It also made me realize that U-Mich athletes were athletes first, and students only incidentally.”

It’s important to note that political movements such as the ones BAM participated in during this time are still being fought for today. The first protest that BAM ignited was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968; the students protested against the University administration for lack of support for minorities on campus. In September of 2017, racial slurs were written on dorm door nametags and students took to the lawn of President Schlissel’s home and protested in a manner similar to the protests Gaynor describes.

The incident was featured in Teen Vogue, which wrote, “On September 20, nearly 200 students, including members of the Black Student Union and student organization Students4Justice, protested (the racial slurs) on campus, leading to a meeting that night with University president Mark Schlissel and University police chief Robert Neumann — a meeting that Schlissel ultimately left early, to the ire of students. A white man, who was ultimately arrested, harassed protesters with racial slurs which led to a physical confrontation.” Perhaps the past isn’t as different from today as we are lead to believe.

“There was a significant town-gown split — the campus being liberal and the rest of Ann Arbor being quite conservative,” says Gaynor about the political climate in Ann Arbor at the time.  “It was the time of student power so we felt it natural that we could advocate powerfully for change. The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) had formed before I arrived on campus. Meanwhile there were many Republicans in Ann Arbor back then. In fact, there was a Republican mayor.”

It was this exact political divide in Ann Arbor that ignited movements such as “Free John Sinclair.” Sinclair was one of the founders of the political party The White Panthers. The White Panthers were a far left, anti-racist, White American political collective. John Sinclair was sent to prison in Jackson, Mich., serving an eight-and-a-half to 10 year sentence for giving two marijuana cigarettes to an undercover police officer in 1967. In response to his arrest, a “John Sinclair Freedom Rally and Concert” was organized.

According to an essay written for the Ann Arbor District Library by Rob Hoffman, a former sports reporter for the Ann Arbor News, “Leni (Sinclair) had spent the evening of Dec. 10, 1971, manning a table on the Crisler concourse where she sold merchandise and distributed literature for the political party founded by her then-husband, the White Panthers. By her side were her two young children. Between the table and her parenting responsibilities, she admitted she remembered very little about the music and speeches taking place on the main stage - except for the surprise appearance by one of her personal favorites, Stevie Wonder.

Hoffman went on to write that, “The night, however, belonged to two main attractions: John Lennon, performing live in the United States for the first time since the breakup of the Beatles. And there was Sinclair himself, in a phone call piped over Crisler's PA system ... It was a semi-clandestine call — one that Sinclair didn't think would happen until he noticed that the prison guards were paying more attention to the game on TV than to what he was doing. About 48 hours after Lennon closed the concert by singing ‘Free John Sinclair,’ a song he had especially written for the event, Sinclair walked out of his prison cell and into the arms of a sobbing Leni and their two children.”

I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Amy Cantu, a librarian at Ann Arbor District Library and organizer of the 2011 program “Freeing John Sinclair: The Day Legends Came to Town. This was a series of events celebrating the launch of AADLs Freeing John Sinclair website and marking the 40th anniversary of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally that took place in Ann Arbor on December 10, 1971. Cantu has spoken with Sinclair herself.

“He doesn’t hold back,” Cantu said of Sinclair. “He says what he thinks and he’s very thoughtful and willing to share.”

Although I did not get a chance to interview John or Leni Sinclair myself, I watched the panel discussion he participated in amongst many other members of The White Panther Party during the “Freeing John Sinclair: The Day Legends Came to Town” program curated by Cantu.  

Retired Professor Bruce Conforth moderated this panel. When discussing the ideas The White Panther party promoted, Conforth asked Sinclair, “Are you still putting together the idea that, come out in the open and smoke some dope with us, pass the joint around to your friends, doesnt it make you feel good, doesnt it make you want to fuck, well then go right ahead. Because after all, what we want is fucking in the streets.’” Sinclair responded with a solemn, “Amen.”

Conforth followed up his question by asking, “What were you thinking?”

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Sinclair replied: “Thinking? Does thinking have anything to do with a statement like that? We also had an expression at that time called cut your head off, stop thinking, follow your body. That would be part of that rhetoric. Cut your head off, get rid of it. People thinking too much. Thinking was what got them into the war and the whole ugly shit that America has become all came from white men with a lot of money thinking about how they wanted a perfect world. Now they have it. Do you like it? It's like Frank Zappa said. Do you love it? Do you hate it? There it is, the way you made it.

The energy surrounding Sinclair’s statements was palpable, and truly a testament to the times back then.

In my conversation with Cantu, she spoke of the energy of the streets of Ann Arbor during the 60s. “Ann Arbor tapped into that whole social protest of the period. It was fueled by some of the groups that were here. It had kind of its own energetic era,” she said.

The energy Ann Arbor had then is still lingering in the street corners somewhere, although now, it may be a bit harder to find. Gaynor attested to the belief that although Ann Arbor isn’t the same as it once was there are still some dangerous similarities.

“I’ve always said Ann Arbor is a great town to live in if you’re educated and/or wealthy enough — and that is even more true now,” Gaynor said. “More people want to live here, and an even greater number can’t afford to. This is true for students too, I’m sure. I paid $480 a year for tuition in 68-69. When I lived off campus, I paid $150 a month rent – or less when I lived with more people. And as liberal as Ann Arbor pretends to be, many long time Ann Arbor residents, especially homeowners, don’t want new development, don’t want Ann Arbor to change.”

The fights that were being fought back then are largely the fights we are fighting now. Yet during the time of the White Panther Party, there seemed to be an altruistic energy to their protests. Now, it seems that people profit and capitalize off of the “coolness” of the 60s, as seen through the mass marketing of flower crowns and bell bottom jeans. Our obsession with the aesthetic of the 60s and 70s rather than their cultural importance perpetuates a culture of people fighting for the perfect Instagram photo rather than equal rights. Or perhaps a culture obsessed with trying to wistfully regain a past that is looked at with such affection. But these are only prototypes and renditions of an era with an authenticity and energy that cannot be replicated. And though the era cannot be so easily replicated, it can certainly teach us all something. These Ann Arbor street corners have thousands of stories to tell — we should be listening.