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.
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. The legal team wanted to know if potential jurors thought the killings at Kent State were justified and if they had ever heard of Abbie Hoffman or Eldridge Cleaver – or the John Birch Society. It also planned to ask jurors, “If you had a choice, would you prefer your child to grow up to be a CIA agent or a hippie?”
The defense filed motions seeking to have the indictment quashed on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the charges were merely meant to suppress political dissent. It also sought changes to ensure young people would be included on the jury, noting that the process for selecting the jury pool meant all potential jurors would be 25 or older. As Sinclair argued in his underground newspaper, “Older people can’t possibly judge us. They’re too engulfed by their culture of death to really understand what our lives are all about.”
Those motions didn’t get very far. As Judge Keith noted, if there was a conspiracy to commit a bombing, that would go beyond the protections of the First Amendment. While the motion to secure a more youthful jury did get a hearing, complete with poet Allen Ginsberg testifying as an expert on youth culture, it also failed.
A motion seeking to have the government turn over any electronic surveillance of the defendants, however, met with greater success, and the government was ordered to divulge any wiretaps of the defendants. In response, Attorney General Mitchell filed an affidavit acknowledging that Plamondon had been overheard on a warrantless wiretap that was part of the government’s efforts to spy on domestic dissidents. As Mitchell saw it, though, handing over the contents of the wiretap to the defense would compromise national security. In an interview in The Michigan Daily after the court case in 1972, Plamondon said the wiretap must have been of a phone call he made to the Detroit office of the Black Panther Party.
Much to Mitchell’s consternation, however, Keith ordered the government to turn over the contents of the wiretap. It refused, and the resulting lawsuit, United States vs. United States District Court, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the justices ruled 8-0 that the Nixon Administration couldn’t just ignore the Fourth Amendment whenever it felt like carrying out some domestic surveillance, no matter what it said about national security. (One hopes that the Bush Administration recalls that precedent).
Once the Nixon Administration had lost every appeal in the courts, the only way for the federal government to continue its prosecution of the White Panthers was to hand over the wiretap. That wasn’t palatable enough, so the government simply dropped the charges, and the former White Panthers – by now, the organization had been renamed the Rainbow People’s Party – went on with their lives.
In his memoir “Lost to the Ottawa,” Plamondon discusses the CIA bombing as well as the bombing two weeks later at the Institute of Science and Technology. He writes:
“I believe the ‘antiestablishment group or individual’ that carried out the bombing had wished the local and underground press would report not only the flash and fury of the explosions, but would look deeper at the motives for the bombings. What role, for example, did IST and the university play in maintaining American imperialistic power around the world?”
That’s an awful lot of insight into motives for someone who’s publicly denied carrying out the CIA bombing to have. But given the distaste for both dissent and the rule of law that characterized the Nixon White House, even the White Panthers’ version of events is difficult to dismiss out of hand.