FREE! The Political Economy of the White Panthers
Issue #42, March 1999
"The White Panther State/meant," written by Minister of Information John Sinclair first appeared in the Fifth Estate newspaper in Detroit, in the issue dated November 14-27, 1968. It was also distributed later on mimeographed flyers decorated by graphic designer Gary Grimshaw, and ultimately reprinted in Guitar Army (Douglas Books, New York, 1972). In a weird political campaign that backfired, a conservative lawyer with mayoral ambitions named Jack J. Garris gave it a boost in 1969 when he reprinted it along with other inflammatory writings by Sinclair and mailed them to every registered voter in Ann Arbor. Garris' Concerned Citizens group mounted a recall campaign against Mayor Bob Harris and Democratic members of the City Council who permitted such "red" hooliganism and other perversions like rock concerts in city parks where the MC5 exhorted the crowd to "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers."
In Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk (1996) guitarist and songwriter Wayne Kramer dismisses the White Panther Party (WPP) a quarter-century after its flowering in Ann Arbor and Detroit as merely "the MC5 fan club." This dismissal assumes that the WPP adopted its leftist rhetoric from the Black Panther Party for the venal purpose of promoting Kramer's old band. Really? Was the WPP ten-point State/meant a one-man pipe dream by a middling poet, or did Sinclair draft it with the Party? Was the Party no more than friends living together student-style in old houses, getting stoned, playing music, and putting out newspapers? Or was it a serious-minded organization with structure, rules, and procedures?
Alternatively, should the widely-read text of the State/meant be classified by historians among artists' manifestoes, comparable to those of Berlin Dadaists or Italian Futurists? Those manifestoes called for a politics of which their proponents were only intituitively aware (like Wagner at the barricades, 1848), conceptualized with an artists' broad brush and articulated in bellicose hellfire rhetoric. The significance of the WPP was to inject into rock concerts and youth culture some of the forms and terminology (and less of the substance) of revolutionary politics, to affect the region's teenagers. Many of us continue to think about these swaggering political pronunciamentos in later life.
The White Panther State/meant concludes with its famous ten-point program. In this manifesto the word "free" is used both as an imperative verb meaning "to liberate" and as an adjective meaning "noncommodified." It was even inserted into the Panthers' name of choice for members of the long-haired drug-taking counterculture: "freeks," a version of "freak" modified much like the name of the Detroit rock magazine Creem. The imperative explanatory clause of each point in the program is punctuated with an exclamation point, as if it were being declaimed in the word balloon of a comic book. Sinclair throws down the gauntlet with confidence: "We're bad. This is our program."
Point one was "Full endorsement and support of the Black Panther Party's 10-point program and platform." In their cover of John Lee Hooker's "The Motor City is Burning," written about the African-American riots (or rebellion) of 1967, the MC5's lead singer Rob Tyner shouted out "I'm a white boy but I can be bad, too!" Among students, in a tradition going back to the 1920s or before, political and cultural solidarity with radical Black movements were an important sign of sophistication. Norman Mailer saw such solidarity as the hope for liberation in his 1957 essay "The White Negro." Apparently little came of biracial political involvement between the White and Black Panthers, if it was even attempted, though Bobby Seale did give a speech on the obliteration of money at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in December 1971 after Sinclair had been sentenced to ten years for selling two marijuana joints to an undercover narc. Sinclair was paroled the following week. Culturally, John Sinclair and others in the region were tireless advocates and promoters of bleeding-edge jazz and historic blues, and Sinclair is now a jazz disc jockey in New Orleans on WWOZ. Black music in its least compromising form was seen as another weapon towards the goals of point number two.
Point number two is "Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock'n'roll, dope, and fucking in the streets." These are the ripe phrases for which Sinclair is most remembered. Malcolm X's commitment to "any means necessary" is applied to a fully-frontal attack on the mainstream culture that Situationists would call the Spectacle and its institutions. This culture includes everything held dear by President Nixon's "silent majority." And what are the means of cultural revolution to be? The deliciously hedonistic three-point trident of sybaritic libertinage of "rock'n'roll, dope, and fucking in the streets" put fear into the hearts of conservative parents of teenagers everywhere. In another part of the State/meant Sinclair wrote "We don't have guns yet -- not all of us anyway -- because we have more powerful weapons: direct access to millions of teenagers is one of our most potent, and their belief in us is another. "The next three points might generously be called the White Panther's economic program. Point number three demands "Free exchange of energy and materials -- we demand the end of money!" The collectivization of the energy and matter (or in 1990s cyber-rhetoric, bits and atoms) used for building daily life would bring an end to the abstraction of exchange value in money. "What good is money? You can't smoke it, you can't fuck it..." said the MC5's Tyner in one interview. Meanwhile plenty of youth and student energy went into volunteerism, which was a good way to work off a dope high. Some people contributed to the production of underground newspapers, often with the involvement of the wide-ranging Youth Liberation News Service, run by high schoolers Keith Hefner and John Slote from a basement in a family home. Ads in the Ann Arbor Sun exhorted people to pitch in to refurbish an old car dealership and transform it into the short-lived "People's Ballroom." Once completed, the Ballroom functioned as an autonomous site (free of the indignity of applying for city permits) for rock n' roll dances and concerts. Among the WPP and their ilk the Ballroom was pursued in the spirit of constructing, like Rousseau's "state of nature," a collective arena returned to an ancient, fundamental integrity.
The concept of "tribe" was widely circulated, and there was a romantic idea held among the freeks that they were a tribe living uneasily amidst a hostile mainstream culture, like the Rom (Gypsies) of Europe or the Ainu of Japan, and within their group all cultural satisfactions could be found. The WPP-identified band The Up sang of a lifestyle "Just Like an Aborigine." Rock dance concerts were billed as "Tribal Stomps," where the 260-lb. Sinclair and his lithe German-born wife Leni were often seen gyrating in a leadfooted sort of proto-Pogo. It was as if the urban American concept of community, as defined politically by old coalition building liberal activists like Saul Alinksy, was insufficient to represent the counterculture commitment of the freeks. Sinclair wrote proudly "Our culture, our art, our music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way our hair grows, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep -- it is all one message, and the message is FREEDOM!" This culture fits anthropologist Edward Sapir's definition of a "vital culture" that expresses a "consistent attitude toward life...which sees the significance of any one element of civilization in its relation to all others...a culture in which nothing is spiritually meaningless." People who live in such a culture see themselves as distant from the mainstream culture within which they live, as Michigan's freeks claimed alienation from "Amerikkka's death culture."
Point four, "Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care everything free for every body!" really needs to be unpacked. These multivaried calls were lumped together in one voice as if Sinclair were trying to think of all life's essentials, then symbolically buying rounds of them for the house. Free food evokes the Black Panthers' inner-city breakfast programs, as well as the Symbionese Liberation Army's demand of distribution of food parcels in Oakland California six years later (which Governor Ronald Reagan muttered he wished was poisoned). Members of the Manson family recounted living for years off pickings from grocery store dumpsters, and texts like Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book gave pointers on these methods of urban survival. Hoffman even signed another of his books, Revolution for the Hell of It, "Free." In Michigan devotees of Krishna Consciousness and food co-ops set up kitchens at summer outdoor rock concerts where they served free meals of lentils, vegetables, and rice.
These free concerts, held in parks or on the grounds of a high school at the edge of town on each summer Sunday, created the expectation among the young that music was always supposed to be free, or at least very cheap. Not until the band Fugazi upheld a maximum ticket price of five dollars in the late 1980s did this issue surface again in popular music. New music put out by major distribution labels was enthusiastically purchased, yet alternatives to corporate market forces were also pursued. Student-run bookstores sold secondhand records that had often been played just once for taping. The Salvation Army and garage sales became the sources of older music for musicians and cognoscenti, rather than commercially available reissues. Music was publicly perceived as being tied to radical youth activism to such an extent that Columbia Records advertised in underground newspapers with the slogan "The Man can't bust our music." About three months before the State/meant was written, the MC5 played in Chicago's Grant Park at the rally protesting the Democratic Convention. They were the only band playing, and their amplifiers and other onstage equipment were endangered when the police riot began -- when The Man busted up their music. Bands -- especially the ubiquitous MC5, Stooges, and Up -- constantly played benefit concerts, often organized by the WPP. The apogee of these events was the Sinclair Freedom Rally, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as a slew of local bands and political speakers, appeared on his behalf.
The WPP's era was the height of the American Empire, or Henry Luce's "American Century." These were the years prior to the 1973 gas shortage when American life suddenly became more expensive, and Americans first perceived limits to their lifestyle. Times were fat, and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and programs for economic opportunity had enlarged the human services sector to the point where a large number of people -- especially flexible, pragmatic youth -- could live adequately on its margins without much ready cash. None of this public sector was dismantled during the Republican presidencies of Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. Medical care was readily available in free clinics like the youth service agency Ozone House that had been established to serve runaways. Medical students ministered to rock concert emergencies. Though Roe v. Wade had not yet made abortion nationally available, it was decriminalized in many states. The WPP program's demand for free "bodies" may have been a poorly articulated, yet feminist, reference to abortion and gay rights, even though articles specifically about these topics were a year or two from appearing in the WPP's Ann Arbor Sun. Finally, free dope was easily available, as marijuana grew abundantly in agricultural Michigan and the rest of the Midwest, with homegrown the prevalent vin ordinaire at any youth gathering. In 1972 the fine for a first offense for marijuana possession in Ann Arbor was $5, payable through the mail like a parking ticket without a court appearance.
Point number five calls for "Free access to the information media -- free the technology from the greed creeps!" While formerly-staid FM radio was opening up to album-oriented rock, nonprofit radio was also being explored. And while some Detroit UHF stations were amenable to shows by and for freeks, low-end video systems that became available in the mid 1970s saw the rise of public access television. The MC5's first album was recorded on Halloween night only two weeks prior to the writing of the "State/meant." The press came to have a significant impact on its sales. When the Detroit department store chain Hudson's refused to stock it because of its cry to "kick out the jams, motherfuckers!," the band -- full of themselves as a result of a big story in Rolling Stone -- took out an ad in the Fifth Estate and the Ann Arbor Argus urging their fans to also "kick in the door if they won't sell you the album! Fuck Hudson's!" This act drew legal threats.
The sixth point, "Free time and space for all humans --dissolve all unnatural boundaries!" is an odd philosophical construct. Few conservatives would argue against Sinclair -- "No, John, we must uphold all unnatural boundaries" -- so perhaps he was grasping to assemble ten points. "Space and time" might evoke to his readers the shifting perspectives and floating shapes of reveries found in a ZAP comic (ZAP's Robert Crumb included a caricature of Sinclair on the cover of Motor City Comics). But the concept of mastering space and time has been a recurrent and seductive one. Piano player Leon Russell was billed as "Master of Space and Time" on a Joe Cocker tour around the time of the State/meant. Rudy Rucker (who asked me around 1991 what ever became of the MC5), published a science fiction novel in 1984 called Master of Space and Time. The New York Times titled a 1997 story on digital simulation of a comet striking the earth "Giant Computer Virtually Conquers Space and Time." The more mundane reference to boundaries may have been prompted by the searches by U. S. Customs that hippies had to endure when crossing into Detroit from Windsor, Ontario. Or perhaps a twenty-something friend of Sinclair's with a teenage girlfriend had been jailed for violation of the Mann Act -- the law against "immorally" transporting a minor over state lines -- which had been enforced against older rock n' roller Chuck Berry only five years before. The boundaryless, oceanic feeling induced by marijuana and psychedelics ("We are LSD-driven total maniacs in the universe" writes Sinclair), and also by sex, is thus evoked.
Point seven's call to "Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule -- turn the buildings over to the people at once!" is notable in its conflation of schools and corporate rule. In Ann Arbor at this time, private schools consisted only of the University high school, three Catholic schools, and a private college prep academy. Yet the corporate ties to the University of Michigan had been analyzed and publicized on the left -- a significant project of the Students for a Democratic Society since their founding in Michigan in 1962 -- with links being drawn between the University's military research contracts and the corporate backgrounds of its Board members. Point number eight, "Free all prisoners everywhere -- they are our comrades!" resembles the ninth one "Free all soldiers at once -- no more conscripted armies!" to the extent to which they could both be rallying cries in Berlin 1918 or Detroit 1968. While blacks had long been aware of shouldering a disproportionately large share of the prison population and the military draft rolls, white youth were increasingly entering prisons for sale or possession of drugs, and for acts of resistance to the Vietnam war era "peacetime" draft. Within a couple years of the State/meant President Nixon dispersed the large numbers of students that had swelled antiwar demonstrations by eliminating military conscription, a position that was supported by right-wing groups like the Young Americans for Freedom who otherwise supported the Vietnam War
The tenth and final point calls upon the freek populace to "Free the people from their phony "leaders" -- everyone must be a leader! Freedom means free every one! All Power to the People!" An anti-authoritarian plea thus closes with the slogan that originated with the vanguardist Black Panthers. Yet it can also be read as if Sinclair is admitting the buffoonery of such dogmatic pronouncements. The communistic trappings, like a party title of Minister of Propaganda for the postermaker Gary Grimshaw, and the publication of birthday greetings to Ho Chi Minh, were probably promulgated largely to tweak the honkies, to inflame the parents of kids who picked up the "underground" Argus or Sun and left them lying around the nuclear family. These trappings became potent symbols of negation and opposition. Although this symbolic political action was similar to British punks' adoption of anarchistic symbols and rhetoric in the mid-1970s, the references to problematic politics made these actions more similar to instances of bikers' Nazi regalia, 60s surfers' iron crosses, or nonracist British Punks wearing swastikas (before racist groups courted Punks, and California's Dead Kennedys warned "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!"). The gentle and tolerant volunteer "Psychedelic Rangers" who wore printed orange t-shirts bearing a red sheriff's badge star with a mystic eye, patrolled the summer free concerts in Ann Arbor substituting for the private security or the Ann Arbor Police, like similar volunteers at the punk club 924 Gilman in 1990s Berkeley. They may have served as a model for a vestigial form of organized authority in a leaderless, limitless age.
The contradictions of "hip capitalism" were becoming clear to some writers of this era. Headshops in every midwestern college town were selling accessories for dope-smoking and for enhancing the taking of psychedelics (swirly posters), and were accompanied by pricey boutiques selling clothing with hipness cachet like leather jackets and pants from San Francisco. The lives of members of the WPP and MC5 were rife with such contradictions, perhaps in an American vein smugly carried in the tradition of Walt Whitman who proclaimed of America "I contain multitudes." Sinclair was both the manager of the MC5 and White Panther Minister of Information, which makes entirely plausible Kramer's confession that their revolutionary rhetoric was just a marketing technique to promote the band. Each member of the MC5 spent his advance from their first album on a macho new Detroit muscle car, including more than one Corvette -- at the same time that Chevrolet gave matching Corvettes to the moon landing Apollo astronauts. The MC5 eventually broke with Sinclair's management, changed labels, and in 1970 put out a second album that prefigured the energetic double-time punk of the Ramones, political in spots but no more so than the angry-young-man songs of Bob Seger. No longer was rock'n'roll presented by the band as an organizing force within a context of radical social change, nor was it tied to an inspirational ten point platform. On the MC5's eclectic and essentially nonpolitical third album in 1971 each member of the band's individuality is emphasized, rather than their unshakable collective strength. Singer Rob Tyner is photographed among art-class paintings and ceramics with the caption "Think of a world where ART is the only motivation."
The program contained in White Panther State/meant can be seen today as a tough-sounding manifestation of a widespread hippie tendency to reject consumerism, a renunciation, and perhaps even one of the most radical and truly establishment-threatening strains of the times. It resurfaces today when we remember that true status and security can come only from the unpurchased -- what is truly hip can't be bought -- and choose to live a life that is primarily experiential.
Whatever his motivation, Sinclair was the leading public intellectual of what can be called the proto-punk rock'n'roll Left of that region in that era. His productivity mirrored the "publish or perish" motivations of the Big Ten university a few blocks from the Panthers' communal home. The delicious paradox was that the more John Sinclair advertised and marketed the MC5 with the WPP's rhetoric of freedom, the more kids expected the Five and other bands to play for free. Perhaps just as Pink Floyd's "We don't need no education" chorus from The Wall was taken up in the 1980s by South African students protesting Apartheid, or like the numerous anti-authoritarian 'zines and broadsheets that are produced on the Macintosh computer, the absurd commodity called the MC5-qua White Panther Party touched an imaginative nerve that caused it to be re-imagined by the kids of the time for various liberatory purposes. Perhaps the WPP's rhetoric has new meaning today, as the mobility of urban and suburban youth is increasingly criminalized, and as our landscapes become places where a mall is considered sufficient public space for youth and shopping sufficient amusement. Like the riff of a good song (cue up the MC5's "Rambling Rose," "American Ruse" or "Kick Out the Jams") these ten political exhortations, however mush-minded and utopian, stick in the memory and nag us to envision and create free access to everything for everybody, to idealistically demand all for all. In Michigan as elsewhere, these words are yet to be expressed in lasting deeds.
Thanks to Dan Gunning and Megan Shaw for editorial suggestions. The MC5 was the first band that artist Mike Mosher ever saw play live, in a free concert of course.