Marijuana legalization activist John Sinclair urged students to ignore material pursuits in favor of activism during a talk on Saturday.
Sinclair, a poet, activist and self-proclaimed performer, met with students at the Luther Cooperative House on Hill Street to speak about his life, values and issues facing Detroit. The open question-and-answer session was coincidentally held on what would be the seventieth birthday of former Beatles member John Lennon, who played a large part in Sinclair’s life — helping to shorten his jail sentence by more than seven years.
In 1969, Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years for handing two marijuana joints to an undercover policeman in Michigan. He garnered many supporters who opposed his sentence — including Lennon, who performed the song “John Sinclair” at a rally in Ann Arbor in December 1971 that was organized to raise awareness about Sinclair’s sentence. Three days later, Sinclair was released after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the state’s current laws regarding marijuana were unconstitutional.
The rally became the basis for “Hash Bash,” a gathering of marijuana legalization advocates that takes place in Ann Arbor every spring.
At the event on Saturday, Sinclair said that despite his time in jail for marijuana possession, he remains an avid user of the drug. He added that he is pleased with Ann Arbor’s current policy of fining first-time violators a fee of $25 for marijuana possession instead of making arrests.
“When I come to Ann Arbor I don’t have to worry about getting arrested … it’s a good thing,” Sinclair told the audience, many of whom were using the drug during his talk.
In addition to discussing the marijuana incident, Sinclair spoke of his time as a leader of the White Panther Party — a civil rights organization established in 1968 that was active in Ann Arbor.
“The idea was to build a mass movement among, basically, young white people in America to overthrow the government, to have a revolution,” Sinclair said, sparking laughter from the audience. “We thought the idea of building a mass movement was the only way that we could make a change.”
The party was renamed the Rainbow People’s Party in 1971 to eliminate violent connotations with the original name. Sinclair said the decision to rename the party was a smart move because it helped recruit peaceful activists.
In addition to talking about his life and experiences, Sinclair also discussed current issues, with topics ranging from the meaning of life to the current state of downtown Detroit. When audience members asked about Detroit, Sinclair said he was saddened by the hopelessness and desperation enveloping the city.
“Detroit had its future stripped from it 35 years ago,” Sinclair said. “All the white people moved out and took the money and jobs with them. Flint and Detroit are the monuments to the utter heartlessness of the capitalist system.”
University students said they were enlightened by Sinclair’s words.
“I think it’s really great that (Sinclair spoke),” LSA freshman Katherine Globerson said. “I think it’s a step toward giving people another perspective, whether they agree or not. I hope that there are people here that found this to be fresh.”
LSA freshman Olivia Wallace said she also enjoyed Sinclair’s talk adding that he is “teaching people and making them think beyond what we’re sort of conditioned to think.”
At the end of his speech, Sinclair left audience members with words of advice. He said things like the media and money distract people from more important pursuits and it’s crucial to band together, share resources and not sell out.
“Develop a concern for other people, for humans,” Sinclair said. “It’s important to understand more, and to try and figure out more, about what it all means. I don’t know myself, but I’m gonna try and find out.”