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AADL Talks To: Leni Sinclair

In this interview, photographer and activist Leni Sinclair recalls the origins of the Detroit Artists Workshop and first Trans-Love commune in Detroit, and their strategic retreat to Ann Arbor following the Detroit Riots. She also talks about the groups' politicization as the White Panther Party and reflects on life at their Hill Street commune, including what led to its breakup in the mid 1970s.


  • [00:00:05.99] ANDREW: Hi, this is Andrew.
  • [00:00:07.43] AMY: And this is Amy. And in this episode, AADL talks to photographer and activist Leni Sinclair.
  • [00:00:16.46] Leni recalls the origins of the Detroit Artists Workshop and the first Trans-Love Commune in Detroit and their strategic retreat to Ann Arbor following the Detroit riots. She also talks about the group's politicization as the White Panther Party and reflects on life at the Hill Street commune, including what led to its break-up in the mid-1970s.
  • [00:00:34.67] AMY: Why did you come to America?
  • [00:00:36.68] LENI SINCLAIR: To live in a country that had democracy. And jazz.
  • [00:00:43.18] [LAUGTER]
  • [00:00:48.47] ANDREW: And then, what brought you to Detroit when you came-- did you intend to come to Detroit originally when you were coming to the United States?
  • [00:00:56.01] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, I had no choice. I had relatives in Detroit who were my sponsors, and that's where I had to be. I had an aunt and several cousins that lived here already, and they took me in when I first came here, and kind of watched over me and helped me get jobs.
  • [00:01:16.17] AMY: You met John in 1964, I think I read, and you were interested in shooting photographs of jazz musicians prior to getting involved with shooting rock musicians. What took you-- what brought you to photography of musicians in general?
  • [00:01:37.85] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, I did think when I came to America that there would be jazz on every street corner. But that wasn't why I took pictures. I got a camera before I left East Germany, just to have a camera to shoot snapshots Me at the Empire State Building, or me at the Grand Canyon, and then send them home.
  • [00:02:00.81] And so when I met John Sinclair, he was the Detroit correspondent for Down Beat magazine. And so when we became friends, I started hanging out, going to clubs with him, which prior, I had no excess when I first came here. I was only 19. I couldn't get into any clubs. And then when I met John-- we could go around, I could hang on and go to various clubs, and that's when I started taking pictures.
  • [00:02:31.72] But I wasn't really thinking of myself as somebody who would become a photographer. When we started the Artists Workshop, I think I was the only member who had a camera, so it fell upon me to document our activities, our concerts, poetry readings. And then if I did come up with a good image, then we may use it on a magazine cover or a book cover. And so that's how I started.
  • [00:03:02.13] ANDREW: Could you talk a little bit about the founding of the Detroit Artists Workshop, what it was all about and why you felt like it was something that you needed to start?
  • [00:03:09.91] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, you can imagine what it was like coming up in the '50s and in America. People were trying to break out of their middle-class, post-war, capitalist, materialistic society. And a lot of activities started all over the country. There was the civil rights movement. There was the jazz scene, which was very militant. The avant-garde jazz musicians, they were very political. And the poets, like Allen Ginsberg.
  • [00:03:39.56] Well, we started everything that was going on around the country, and we were used to people from Detroit always taking off. They got out of school and they went to New York, or the west coast, or somewhere else to seek their fortunes. We-- were determined to create a scene right where we were so we wouldn't have to go. And then people that had gone to San Francisco had come back to Detroit and brought back this ideas. For instance, Jerry Younkins, who was Detroit's first hippie, I think. 'Cause he went to the west coast in 1966 and he saw the light shows at the Avalon or the-- what's the other one called? The Fillmore.
  • [00:04:31.07] And so he came back to Detroit, taught other men that it's OK to let their hair grow long, and started the Magic Veil light show. Practiced in the basement with other people. Got the equipment together to do live shows, which eventually led to light shows at the Grande Ballroom and concerts everywhere.
  • [00:04:53.65] We had exchanges with musicians and poets in other places. We didn't think of ourselves just belonging to Detroit. We cooperated with musicians in Chicago that formed the-- what's that called? The Association for the Advancement of Black Musicians? Or Creative Musicians, something like that. And in New York, they had a arts colony, similar-- in Newark, New Jersey, they were trying to do things like we did.
  • [00:05:26.39] We got in a building on West 4th that we used like a community center, the Artists Workshop Community Center. And on the first floor we had a performance space right in front of the fireplace. That's where the band played. And we had poetry readings and different exhibitions every week. Every Sunday afternoon, we got together and had a concert for people that were members of the community.
  • [00:05:56.88] It was a place to belong, to be creative, and it was very intense because the people-- by us getting together on a weekly basis, people were always competing and creating something new. Something to present, some new music, present different bands, present new poetry. And every week everybody was working to show off the next Sunday what they'd done.
  • [00:06:28.89] AMY: So the focus was art and creativity. At what point did, do you feel, things began to get a little bit more politically motivated?
  • [00:06:39.50] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, we felt it was political, just promoting these avant-garde musicians. They were very militant. We were not political in the sense that we fell into the spectrum, left-middle-right or anything like that.
  • [00:07:00.13] We considered ourselves so political we were just outside of that whole system. At that time, we didn't really know anything about the left, the Old Left or the New Left. We were just trying to do our own thing.
  • [00:07:13.55] We got political, we've got politicized, after the police kept busting my husband. And then we had to get political because they were after him for political reasons. So we had to fight back and organize people to do more than write poems. We had to march in the streets.
  • [00:07:35.43] ANDREW: At what point did you start communal living in Detroit? Did you have your first commune. What led to the first commune in Detroit?
  • [00:07:43.80] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, the forerunner of the commune was actually the Artists Workshop housing project. There was a building on the Lodge Service Drive which we called the Castle. And it was one building composed of four different townhouses. Each had their own entrance. And each of those townhouses had five small rooms on the second floor.
  • [00:08:12.76] And so we started taking over these townhouses, one by one, and people could rent a room for $15 a month and have a communal kitchen, living room, dining room. And then the basement usually was rehearsal space for the bands. There was always some drumming going on down there, all through the night. And then one by one, we added another house and another house.
  • [00:08:39.26] Then for a few months after John got out of DeHoCo-- he was in the Detroit House of Corrections for six months-- when he got out of there, we were offered to manage the bookstore for the Fifth Estate on Plum Street. So we moved down there, too. John and I had one room in the third floor above the store. But that didn't last too long. That lasted maybe three months.
  • [00:09:06.93] And then we moved back on the Wayne campus, and that's when we acquired an old dentist's office that was on the corner of Warren and the Lodge Service Drive. And below it was the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and something else. But we had the upstairs.
  • [00:09:28.88] And then it was John and myself, and pretty soon Pun moved in, pretty soon Genie moved in, pretty soon Gary moved in, pretty soon other people moved in. And every time somebody new joined us, we had to take out all the dental equipment of these little examinations rooms and put it in the next room, so when the next person moved in we had to take all that and put it in the next room. Until we had five, six rooms.
  • [00:09:58.28] And that's how we starting living communally. It just happened that people came to live with us because we were always working on things and we needed everybody to chip in. We were all brothers and sisters, and we all partied together and worked together and tried to make a living doing what we were doing.
  • [00:10:20.97] We worked on newspapers. We worked on the Grande Ballroom. We started working on promoting the MC5 and all kinds of things. So the more, the better. Everybody who wanted to help got a place to stay. And we all cooked together and ate together, and it was cheap that way.
  • [00:10:40.45] My impressions of living in the commune later on in Ann Arbor were a little bit different, because then people moved in overnight that I didn't even know. And that's how we got infiltrated by people we didn't know for a long time. And one of them was an informant. To this day, we don't know who it was.
  • [00:10:59.63] Of all the people we lived with, it could've been anybody, except I know it wasn't me. I know it wasn't John, because he was in jail. Pretty sure it wasn't my brother-in-law. But then everybody else, you don't know.
  • [00:11:14.40] To this day I might be friends with somebody who was a cop. I would have no idea of knowing. Maybe a future generation of graduate students could follow up with some Freedom of Information inquiries and find out exactly who destroyed our good thing we have going. It was destroyed from the inside.
  • [00:11:37.39] Then I had a different attitude. I had nightmares about coming home after a trip from Germany to see my family. I walk in my room and it's full of people that I don't even know. And you can see how this infiltration had a chilling effect, because never would I want to live with the people that I don't know well. Just a bunch of strangers. No old folks' commune for me.
  • [00:12:13.31] AMY: When you finally moved to Ann Arbor, when you left Detroit because of the police and the attention that you were getting, the unwanted attention-- did you think you would be staying in Ann Arbor? That it would be your new home? Or did you see it more as a transition?
  • [00:12:30.55] LENI SINCLAIR: I call it a strategic retreat. Sometimes when you're in a war, you have retreat in order to save your troops. That's what we did. In Detroit, we really had little chance of keeping things together 'cause the oppression was coming down real, real heavy.
  • [00:12:48.31] And the minute Coleman Young got elected in Detroit, we moved back. We loved Detroit, our hearts were in Detroit. Even though some people called us traitors and said we were deserting the struggle and moving to the suburbs, that wasn't the case. We had to. Just to survive, we had to leave Detroit.
  • [00:13:10.41] ANDREW: Can you talk a little bit about the war that was going on? About what kind of harassment you were undergoing during those days?
  • [00:13:17.42] LENI SINCLAIR: In Detroit?
  • [00:13:18.23] ANDREW: In Detroit, yeah.
  • [00:13:18.64] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, there was a war going on for a long time against African-Americans, because the police force was predominantly white. And that war was extended to the hippies. Hippies were just as bad as blacks. And they would be stopped arbitrarily. They would be arrested and their hair cut off.
  • [00:13:48.74] Generally, hippies were-- there was a war against hippies. And there was a war against my ex-husband. Because there was one cop in Detroit who had the personal vendetta against him, Lieutenant Staudenmaier who thought that John Sinclair was the root of all evil and that he's the one that turned all the suburban high school kids on to smoking weed. And he had a daughter who got turned on to weed, and he blamed it on us.
  • [00:14:20.01] One charge after another. And the last one was possession. I mean, possession of two joints, which put him away for 10 years. That was war.
  • [00:14:31.78] AMY: You were in a unique position when John was in jail. How did your role change? Or how did you feel during that particular period of time about your life in Ann Arbor and where that was heading?
  • [00:14:46.32] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, we were just singlemindedly determined to get John out and change the marijuana law. It was a 2 and 1/2 year-long-- actually 5 and 1/2 year-long struggle. 'Cause when he first got arrested, with the help of our lawyers we put the trial off for about two years, or a year and a half, something like that. And then when it finally came to trial, it was such a short notice, we were not prepared to put on a massive defense.
  • [00:15:14.96] And so while John was in jail, I was just very, very busy with trying to organize things that would help get him out. Without a pause, we did what we could. At the same time, I had two babies and thankfully, we had a whole commune of mothers and fathers who helped out with the child-rearing at that time. Otherwise, hey-- John might still be in jail.
  • [00:15:42.17] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:15:45.50] LENI SINCLAIR: The reason we had a commune and the reason we had all these White Panther kids walking-- I mean, every one of them was necessary in order to bring this off like we did. We needed everybody, everybody who was committed to work toward this goal.
  • [00:16:04.73] ANDREW: Of all the places that you could have gone when you left Detroit, why did you come to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:16:10.29] LENI SINCLAIR: I don't think we ever contemplated any other place. Oh yes, we did. We did go out in the country one time and found a farmhouse. It was actually really nice. There was a pond, and trees, and everything. It would have been perfect for the children to grow up. Somehow that fell through. I don't know why.
  • [00:16:31.09] So we did check out a place in the country. But then we chose Ann Arbor. I don't really know why, but we had close relations with some people in Ann Arbor. The Stooges lived in Ann Arbor already. We had an outpost, a Trans-Love Energies outpost in Ann Arbor, and the head of that was my Michael McClatchy.
  • [00:16:55.98] He's the one that got us permit to play in West Park, and he's the one that organized things in Ann Arbor. And he's the one that we went and stayed with and who took us in and rescued us when we took too much LSD. We just could chill out at his house for a while. Michael. He's still around.
  • [00:17:23.60] AMY: Can you talk about David Sinclair?
  • [00:17:26.85] LENI SINCLAIR: That is-- they're some big shoes to fill, for David Sinclair. If it wasn't for David Sinclair, his brother might still be in jail. Because after John was snatched up from us, we never thought he would go away. We thought he would get an appeal bond and everything would go on like before. Even the lawyer said, don't worry, we'll get him out on Monday. And then it took 2 and 1/2 more years.
  • [00:17:57.10] But so then David Sinclair took over the business operation of the whole commune. In fact, we had to dissolve 1510 Hill Street when the MC5 moved out into their own house in Hamburg. We closed down that house and all of us, the rest of us, the Trans-Love Energy people that were left after the MC5 moved out, we all moved en masse into 1520 Hill Street, which was Dave's commune that he had with the UP and the UP commune and the UP equipment people in this time.
  • [00:18:42.34] So he took us in, and he was the business manager who made sure the bills got paid, the lights stayed on, the cars got fixed, the heating oil appeared like by magic in the wintertime. The toilet paper was always there, there was always food. It was Dave. Without him, I don't know. I couldn't have done it. Like I said, I was very busy. Always.
  • [00:19:12.62] ANDREW: Were you ever scared, in Detroit or in Ann Arbor at any of these periods of time, especially having small children? Did you ever think that maybe-- did you ever think, John, just keep your mouth shut about something so that we don't--
  • [00:19:25.25] LENI SINCLAIR: Oh, yeah. Oh, plenty of times. I mean, he had a bad temper. After the judge sentenced him to 9 and 1/2 to 10 years, he lost his temper and he yelled at the judge, and said, you're a pig! You will die! And then you want to know why he didn't give you appeal bond?
  • [00:19:47.54] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:19:54.04] LENI SINCLAIR: And then there was another instance. During the riots, the police and National Guard came to our apartment where we were living. And there was-- then he was just two months old. I had this little baby in my arms.
  • [00:20:08.56] And John goes to the door, and he says, no, you can't come in here! This is a free country! Where's your warrant? And if you come in here, you might as well shoot me. I don't want to live in this country if you can do this to us.
  • [00:20:23.28] He was real mad, and I'm whimpering there, saying, oh, John, John. Shut up! They have guns.
  • [00:20:31.08] So they did come in. Well, I can't blame them for coming in our apartment, because just a few days before the riots broke out, Gary Grimshaw had taken a bed sheet and had printed like a black pussycat on it. You ever see that picture? And it said, burn, baby, burn.
  • [00:20:53.17] And we hung it out the window and the newspapers took pictures of it. So obviously they thought we started the riots, and they came up looking in the closets for snipers.
  • [00:21:04.73] But when the riots first started, the first couple of days, we had a ball. We took a TV up on the roof, were drinking beer, watching the fires on the TV and all around us. And we thought it was just fun.
  • [00:21:18.95] Driving down Woodward, disregarding all the lights. There were no cops around. Felt good. Black and white, looting together.
  • [00:21:30.86] But then it turned real ugly after a couple days. All the MC5 got arrested. They were living in this apartment and they had a telescope, out of which they watched the burning of Detroit. And the cops thought it was a machine gun nest up there.
  • [00:21:50.77] They took 'em all. There was not enough room in the county jail or in the city jail. They housed the prisoners in the Belle Isle Bath House.
  • [00:22:00.00] I think about that every time I go to the Belle Isle Bath-- this used to be full of prisoners, including the MC5. Oh, those were the bad old days. Reminiscing.
  • [00:22:17.34] ANDREW: Can you talk a little bit about the founding of the White Panther Party and why it became time to solidify, and pick a name and a banner to have?
  • [00:22:28.28] LENI SINCLAIR: Well we were just all in love with the Black Panthers. They were doing the thing that we admired. They were not a black organization. They were trying to be a political organization. They were not anti-racist-- I mean, they were not racist, they were not anti-white.
  • [00:22:46.03] But when some white radicals approached them about joining the Black Panther Party, they said, no. I think you should organize in your own communities, because that's where the problem is. So organize white people.
  • [00:23:01.56] And so we took that so to heart. But when we started, it was like, oh, having a lot of fun. Getting together and getting high and just making plans and fantasizing about what we could do. We felt very powerful, having this powerful band.
  • [00:23:24.59] And all the MC5 were totally into it. There was the MC5, and John, and Pun and Steve Holliday, one of the equipment managers. And Jesse Crawford and his sidekick Panther White.
  • [00:23:41.14] These were two characters that came to Detroit or to Ann Arbor out of nowhere. Well, they came from Cleveland, but when they appeared, I had no idea who they were. And Jesse just became friends with the band and then became their announcer.
  • [00:23:56.03] And then he became almost the spiritual guide to the band. And they would have long rapping sessions and talk about all kinds of things they could do in the future, and what they could do to save the world with rock and roll. So out of those discussions was born the idea to form the White Panther Party.
  • [00:24:23.16] And it was almost tongue-in-cheek when we first started, because our first Chairman was Panther White. That was his real name, the guy that came from Cleveland with Jesse. And I just found out recently why his name was Panther White.
  • [00:24:42.98] A friend of his emailed me recently and said that Panther White ran with a group of kids in high school. They all adopted names, like Panther, Tiger-- all had different. And his name was Panther, and his last name was White. So we made him the first Chairman of the White Panthers, obviously.
  • [00:25:08.65] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:25:13.84] LENI SINCLAIR: And of course, the first program of the White Panther Party is not something I can say on TV. You know, the three pinnacles of success. Anyway, that gets quoted over and over and over again for the last 30 years, 40 years. They refer to it as rock and roll, dope, and sex in the streets. Which, you know, another tongue-in-cheek. We weren't going out there and having sex in the streets. It was like a utopian ideal.
  • [00:25:53.97] So anyway. And then after a while, I think somebody in the Black Panther Party called us psychedelic buffoons. And we started getting a little bit more serious about all of this, and that's when, I think, then John Sinclair became Chairman, and everybody got some official function.
  • [00:26:19.32] We formed the Central Committee and the MC5 became the main group for recording. We made White Panther Party buttons, and anybody who put one on became a White Panther automatically. It was very wide open, and very much like the Yippies used to do things. There wasn't really any membership or anything. It was just an idea.
  • [00:26:50.50] But then after a while, we had to get really serious about it and we formed chapters and every chapter had a structure. Chairman, Chief of Staff, and all that kind of stuff.
  • [00:27:02.80] ANDREW: Was anybody in your community turned off by the move towards more overt politics? The reading of Mao, and the reading of Castro's speeches. Was there anyone who thought, I was here for the music and the art? I'm not interested. Or was everyone pretty much on the same page?
  • [00:27:19.75] LENI SINCLAIR: Everybody was the same page back then, but when you read about it now, some people say, I wasn't all into the politics. But you didn't say that back then. But that became a factor after the MC5 went their own way and fired Jesse Crawford and fired John from the band. They said, they blamed it on that it was too political and that it was hindering their chance for success.
  • [00:27:53.44] In fact, that's what I think was whispered in their ears by these corporate people from New York that came to help the band after John went to jail. And then they denounced John. So part of the Cold War.
  • [00:28:11.87] AMY: I read recently in Pun's book that you would be very self-critical or you wouldn't analyze how effective each member's participation was, and let each other know if they weren't following the rule. Did that--
  • [00:28:27.96] LENI SINCLAIR: That sounds more like Weathermen.
  • [00:28:30.73] AMY: Oh.
  • [00:28:31.46] LENI SINCLAIR: We had a little bit of that. Like criticism and self-criticism, and ideological struggles within the Central Committee. But it wasn't like-- I've read in Bill Ayers' book about how they would grill people for hours, almost like, I don't know, Stalin.
  • [00:28:54.45] AMY: Yeah.
  • [00:28:56.23] LENI SINCLAIR: No, that didn't happen like that in the White Panthers. We all tight and we criticized each other, but we were basically just a bunch of hippies living together, trying to get our leader out of jail.
  • [00:29:09.79] AMY: But eventually, you decided that you wanted to change the image. You wanted to move the image to something a little bit less militant. Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be?
  • [00:29:21.90] LENI SINCLAIR: I just recently came across a copy of a letter that I wrote to John when he was in jail. And this letter was in the possession of the Ann Arbor Police Department. 'Cause the jail people in Jackson or in Marquette always made copies and sent copies around of my letters.
  • [00:29:42.07] So there was a letter that I got back through my Freedom of Information file. In this letter, it says, now that the MC5 are no longer with us, the reason for being a White Panther Party no longer exists. Something like that. But it took us another year before we actually got around to realizing it and changing the name.
  • [00:30:06.04] Because without the MC5, the name White Panther Party was misunderstood. As long as the MC5 was the image of what a White Panther was, then people could understand it. So it's about more organization with the same goals as the Black Panthers. But when the MC5 went their own way, then we were seeking for a new name and a new image.
  • [00:30:40.57] For a while, there was a real lively discussion, and letters back and forth between John and other members, about naming it the Woodstock People's Party. I talked them out of that. I went to Woodstock. Woodstock was a nightmarish experience for us, and I really did not think we should adopt that image as our name. So that's how Rainbow People's Party was born.
  • [00:31:09.80] There was other suggestions. In fact, I saw a letter by Gary Grimshaw that he wrote to John where he suggested the name Rainbow Tribe or something like that. He spent part of his time in San Francisco, and there it was all about tribe. Tribal stomps and tribal this and tribal that. We weren't really all that into being a tribe or being a family. We were a party.
  • [00:31:38.67] But there were lots of suggestions how to change it, and eventually Rainbow People's Party won out. Sounds a lot better than being white.
  • [00:31:50.47] ANDREW: I'm wondering about, especially during that period of time, if you were under quite a bit of pressure to keep things going. Because between you and David, you were sort of keeping things going, and a lot of other people-- I mean, John was in jail, and Pun was running away and then in jail, and people kept getting arrested. And you two sort of had to be the rocks of the entire organization. Did you feel that pressure, that you were the ones who had to keep this going if you were ever going to make progress?
  • [00:32:19.34] LENI SINCLAIR: No. We felt we were all of us, all of us in it together. It was-- without those 27 other people, David and I could not have kept anything together. No, it was everybody. And not just the people that lived with us, because we had the support of the Ann Arbor street people. The street people, the hippies, the runaways, the flower children.
  • [00:32:46.90] But then I had a lot of help. We had a lot of help, too, from John's parents. They were very supportive and they helped me with bringing up the children by taking them off my hands every other weekend, at least, and taking them away when I had things to do. And helping us out financially.
  • [00:33:09.41] AMY: When you look back on that time, you seem to have very fond memories of those days. I'm wondering, when you look back, if you see that there was anything you'd do differently if you had an opportunity to go back and try to make that life work again.
  • [00:33:27.77] LENI SINCLAIR: History's what it is. It is what it is. I don't know what we could have done differently to change the course of history.
  • [00:33:35.92] Perhaps if we had not gotten involved in the CIA conspiracy, maybe things would have turned out differently. Because the winds of change were in the air, and the marijuana laws were bound to be changed sooner or later. We just had to keep on. And once we kept pushing on the legislative front, we kept pushing on the judicial, the lawyers and the judges, and we kept pushing on the-- what's the third branch of government?
  • [00:34:09.27] AMY: Executive, legislative, judicial.
  • [00:34:12.98] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:34:13.80] LENI SINCLAIR: Well, we had to do it all. We did demonstrations in Lansing. We did demonstrations every time John had an appearance in federal court. We had a contingent of people. We had benefit after benefit, almost on a weekly basis.
  • [00:34:30.29] I don't really know what I could have done differently, except not married my husband.
  • [00:34:35.23] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:34:37.60] LENI SINCLAIR: But God only knows whom I would have married.
  • [00:34:43.21] ANDREW: Where did the idea for the rally come from?
  • [00:34:46.81] LENI SINCLAIR: I don't know who came up with the idea, actually. But at the time, Pete Andrews was in charge of the events program at U of M, and he could rent Crisler Arena or any space for us to have benefits. And he must have gotten together with Dave and other people, because I wasn't there from the beginning, how it all came about.
  • [00:35:15.36] But we were starting to get a little desperate. It's been 2 and 1/2 years, and we did everything we could. And John was still being denied appeal bond. So we decided to do one big push and have a rally at Crisler Arena with all-Michigan bands. The headliner was supposed to be Bob Seger.
  • [00:35:40.44] And then ticket sales were real slow. We were all scared we were going to lose our butts on this one, until John Lennon decided to come. And everything changed overnight. But it was supposed to be a rally. Before John Lennon came on board, there was supposed to be a rally at Crisler Arena, with all-Michigan talent.
  • [00:36:08.74] And if John Lennon hadn't shown up, and Bob Seger was the headliner with Teegarden & Van Winkle, and John got out three days later, Bob Seger might be the one that's dead now. Who knows? I mean, I just feel John Lennon became a martyr because of us. Because the government wasn't after him until after he played that benefit for John Sinclair. That's when his harassment started. And then he and Yoko were ordered deported to England, and they were allowed to stay in this country under the condition that they don't engage in any political activity.
  • [00:37:02.89] Now if you were John Lennon, the working class hero, I wonder-- you know, you can imagine what that did to his soul and his psyche. Here he seeks freedom in the land of the free. When they first moved to New York, John and Yoko were able to walk down the street holding hands through the Village, and nobody bothered them. There was no hordes of teenagers chasing 'em out. And so they enjoyed living in New York, where they had, relatively, freedom to be normal people.
  • [00:37:39.07] And then for the government and J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon and all these people telling him he couldn't be himself anymore-- that's like a death sentence right there. I think he gave his life for a cause. That's my feeling.
  • [00:37:57.86] ANDREW: Regarding John Lennon-- did John Lennon approach you? Because he got-- he learned about John's predicament from Jerry Rubin. Isn't that right? And then did John approach you and say this was something he wanted to do?
  • [00:38:12.64] LENI SINCLAIR: No, I think he told Jerry Rubin, and Jerry Rubin told us. First he wrote that's song about John, and then, you know. I don't know if he knew about the rally before he wrote the song or after. That I don't know.
  • [00:38:26.74] ANDREW: What was the actual rally like? Was it just incredibly hectic?
  • [00:38:31.98] LENI SINCLAIR: For me it was. For me-- I didn't really have any time to enjoy the bands, because I was trying to coordinate our literature table, where we were trying to sell some posters and some programs to make a little money back. And I had the two children to watch over. And once in a while, I got to run downstairs in front of the stage and snap a few pictures, and then I had to go back to work.
  • [00:39:00.28] And so I did get a couple pictures of John and Yoko. I got a couple pictures of Bob Seger, and Teegarden & Van Winkle. I got a couple pictures of Archie Shepp with Charles Moore. And I think that's all. The rest of the time, I was just too busy.
  • [00:39:18.63] AMY: But three days later, John's released. Can you talk to us about how that felt? What is your lasting memory of that particular event?
  • [00:39:29.23] LENI SINCLAIR: Euphoria. Euphoria and a whirlwind of activity following. Like the day after he got out, we barely had time to get to know each other and breathe together, that we were called to New York to hobnob with the Lennons and to go on whirlwind speaking tours. Do interviews on TV with Bill Barnes, and all kinds of stuff.
  • [00:39:58.76] And so there was never any time to reflect and go back to who we were before he got snatched away. All of a sudden it was just like, we were like, in this whirlwind that kept on going along. And we just went along.
  • [00:40:20.62] That started our alienation. John, all of a sudden, was a celebrity. And I felt silly sometimes, going to places where he was giving a speech and I was just standing next to him or behind him, like the little woman behind the big man.
  • [00:40:45.80] That's where I felt a division came in between me and John. That we never really had a chance to reconnect and to become a family again. Then our lives just played themselves out in the media.
  • [00:41:04.78] And while John was in jail, he was everybody's favorite political prisoner. And then after he came out, things turned out a little differently when John was trying to resume his normal life again, and manage bands, and put on concerts.
  • [00:41:28.71] There was a real backlash on the left. The people that formerly worshiped him now turned against him and called him a hip-capitalist who was a traitor to the movement now because he charges money to get into events and stuff. And the White Panther Party program says, everything free for everybody. So there was a backlash against him, that he did not fully comprehend where that came from.
  • [00:42:00.44] Well I have my own theories. And that's another topic for some graduate students to research sometime. Where did that backlash come from? My theory is that it came from the most militant factions in Ann Arbor, that were actually fronts for the counterinsurgency.
  • [00:42:23.87] One of them was the Gay Rights Liberation Front. I don't know if you know anything about that. These were a group of people that were so anti-male white that their programs was that unless you're gay or bisexual, you're a counter-revolutionary.
  • [00:42:45.40] And they called John a male chauvinist pig, and they spray-painted slogans on the U of M campus that said Free Leni Sinclair. And those kinds of things were so hurtful, that I think to this day, just-- John doesn't understand that I feel there was an orchestrated-- a campaign to damage him and our relationship. Because what worse than a radical, than a radical with money?
  • [00:43:21.88] And so they tried to do whatever they could to make it impossible for John to get a foothold again in the music business. He suffers to this day. He's tried managing bands, and he's tried this and that. And most of it just never produced any money.
  • [00:43:41.26] So that, I think, was the long-lasting effect of what they did. They destroyed it. They destroyed us.
  • [00:43:50.23] AMY: Did you feel that that was part of what caused the end of the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival as well?
  • [00:43:57.88] LENI SINCLAIR: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That and the demise of the Human Rights Party, which was also caused by infiltrators. In the early '90s, I had a job working for the Detroit Police Red Squad Distribution Program. It was a program that was mandated by the courts to right the wrongs that were done by the Detroit Police Red Squad when they had surveillance on people for political purposes. Not for criminal purposes.
  • [00:44:34.54] So I was in charge-- I was one of the researchers who was in charge of amassing files for people that asked for their files back. And they had to be censored by the police and everything. But I learned a whole lot about how the police, and how the infiltrators, and how the agent provocateurs worked.
  • [00:44:57.87] And when you go back in history and research what happened to organizations that had a progressive program, invariably, there's a split. And they fight each other instead of working together. I mean, it's always, under capitalism, divide and conquer. As long as it's black against white, they leave you alone.
  • [00:45:23.69] Like Malcolm X was no threat to them until he started talking about-- it's not about race. It's about class. Same with Martin Luther King. When he started talking about the Poor People's March and not the Black People's March, that's when he got killed.
  • [00:45:40.53] And I think the same thing happened with the Women's Liberation Movement, which was infiltrated. Which was directed and financed by the CIA in order to put a division between men and women and destroy any kind of chance of a movement they had, working together.
  • [00:46:01.54] To me, the Women's Liberation movement was always misdirected from the start, in my opinion, because it should have been a Mother's Liberation movement. It should have been mothers and others. Not females against males. But that didn't happen.
  • [00:46:24.17] Look at the Black Panther Party and how they destroyed them. They put Eldridge Cleaver against Huey P. Newton. It's the COINTELPRO program that did that. They wrote letters-- like there was a letter from Eldridge Cleaver to Huey P. Newton, but it wasn't written by Eldrdige. It was written by the CIA.
  • [00:46:42.71] Same thing happened to the White Panther Party. They published a letter in the New York Times and made all the papers in the country say, White Panthers plan to kidnap Spiro Agnew to demand freedom for John Sinclair. It was an agent who wrote the letter.
  • [00:47:00.94] And this campaign against us was designed to paint us as a violent, dangerous organization prior to the CIA wiretap case. They were trying to influence the judges to vote in favor of Nixon having all these new powers. They were trying to institute the Patriot Act in 1971. And we put a stop to it.
  • [00:47:34.88] So anyway, we know freedom isn't free. We paid the price.
  • [00:47:39.96] ANDREW: When you left Ann Arbor to go to Detroit, what was the spirit of that move? Was there a spirit of defeat, that something had failed? Or were you excited to be going back to Detroit? Did you feel that a new day was dawning in Detroit?
  • [00:47:53.65] LENI SINCLAIR: Oh, no. It was an escape from Ann Arbor, the same it was when we went from Detroit to Ann Arbor. When we left Ann Arbor, we were so down and out that we had to go begging for food.
  • [00:48:05.03] At the same time the city councilman-- that was one real ferocious right-wing city councilman who was the raging, saying, Sinclair made a million dollars and now he's leaving town! They had no idea that we were on our last straw financially. We couldn't hold that house together. We couldn't keep nothing together. We were way, way, way over debt.
  • [00:48:29.27] My brother-in-law, David Sinclair-- bless his heart. He stayed in Ann Arbor for 10 more years working his ass off, and paid off every penny we owed. There was conflict between him and his brother over that issue too.
  • [00:48:48.33] AMY: After that, what did you do when you got back to Detroit? Can you tell us about your life following your return to Detroit?
  • [00:48:55.38] LENI SINCLAIR: Yeah. We were still a commune. We were still five people that were like the last holdovers from the commune days. And it was John, myself, and Frank Bach, and Peggy Bach, and Barbara Weinberg. And we rented a house in Detroit, and we tried to just work to survive.
  • [00:49:21.83] John started working with Charles Morgan, who was in the Artists Workshop, and they had started a record company by then called Strata Records, which we worked for. And then Barbara Weinberg and her husband David Fenton kind of shifted the Ann Arbor Sun to Detroit, and it became the Detroit Sun. And we all worked for the Sun. I was production manager, which meant I never slept.
  • [00:49:55.59] And just trying to pick up where we left off before we left. Trying to get back into the music business and doing what we were supposed to do before they-- before they made it [INAUDIBLE]. So coming back Detroit was very difficult. We had absolutely no money. We were just really down and out and had to work our way back.
  • [00:50:29.03] But under those circumstances, our marriage did not survive. Economic hardship can do that to a marriage. When you have no chance of things ever getting any better, you just take it out on each other, and it just doesn't work.
  • [00:50:46.25] But at the same time, being back in Detroit, at least it felt like we were back on our own territory, in our own home. Because when you live in a city like Ann Arbor, and you're poor, it's hard. When you live in Detroit and you say you have no money, people know that means you have no money. And in Ann Arbor, somebody says, I have no money. Well, you didn't get to the ATM.
  • [00:51:21.97] So anyway. Detroit. You know, when you're poor and live among other poor people, it's more fun than living poor and being in a town where everybody thinks you're rich. The stress-- stressful.
  • [00:51:37.56] ANDREW: So you said you never set out to be a photographer. When did you start identifying yourself as a photographer? When did you say, this is what I do. I'm a photographer.
  • [00:51:48.13] LENI SINCLAIR: I still don't.
  • [00:51:49.53] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:51:53.27] LENI SINCLAIR: I started in the Artists Workshop, when our program was that when you think of yourself as an artist, then the rest of life gets put into perspective. It doesn't get you down when you have to do this for a living or that for a living, as long as you think you're doing that in order to work in your profession. That keeps you going.
  • [00:52:23.52] So at the Artists Workshop, I started thinking of myself as an artist. And my art was photography. I did an exhibition. I made some nice prints. I loved working in the darkroom. I still do, but now it's almost a lost pleasure. I don't have time for my beloved darkroom work anymore. It's all, like, computers now. I don't really like that.
  • [00:52:53.69] But so when I got my camera, I never thought of becoming a photographer. That just happened by default, because I was the person with the camera, so I got to take the pictures. Same as when we managed the MC5. I had a camera so I constantly was taking pictures to use for publicity, to help them become more famous.
  • [00:53:19.70] AMY: Do you have a favorite photograph?
  • [00:53:22.37] LENI SINCLAIR: Yeah. I would say it's my picture of John Coltrane. I'm just so lucky that I have that really beautiful picture of him. Only one. Only one good one, but that's all it takes sometimes. Even with Jimi Hendrix. I only got one. Out of a whole roll of film, I only got one nice one. So that's enough.
  • [00:53:46.72] AMY: What are you doing today? Can you talk about what your work is today?
  • [00:53:50.14] LENI SINCLAIR: I'm still a full-time mother. Now I'm also a single grandmother. That's what I do, mostly. Try to provide and keep my family alive and from despairing. And at the same time, I'm trying to get a book published with my friend Gary Grimshaw.
  • [00:54:13.23] And that's been very hard, because we've all had our problems. Family problems, money problems, health problems. And we're keeping on keeping on. One page at a time.
  • [00:54:26.85] And it's called Detroit Rocks: A Pictorial History of Motor City Rock and Roll, 1965 to 1975. It consists mostly of Gary's posters and fliers and artwork, coupled with my photos that go along with it. Say, for instance, if there's a poster of Big Brother & the Holding Company, there'll be my pictures of Janis Joplin. We're putting it together like that.
  • [00:54:57.53] That's what my main, main occupation now, is to try to get that book finished and get it out. 'Cause I have all kinds of other plans in the pipeline, and I have to make some progress before I die.
  • [00:55:11.90] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:55:13.51] LENI SINCLAIR: I have to. It wasn't for nothing I was Minister of Education. I have a mandate to educate.
  • [00:55:23.10] ANDREW: Do you still keep in contact with-- I mean, obviously you keep in contact with Gary Grimshaw. You're working with him on a book. Do you keep in contact with a lot of the other White Panthers, a lot of the other people from that era?
  • [00:55:35.31] LENI SINCLAIR: I'm still very good friends with Genie Plamondon, but it's something that's recent. There was a whole big period of two or three decades where we had no contact. And just in the last 10 years or so, we became deeper friends than ever before, you know?
  • [00:55:56.46] And same with Pun, and same with Becky Tyner, the widow of Rob Tyner. And Gary and Laura Grimshaw. I know more about people now, about some people now, than I did back then. It seems back then we were still involved in daily activities that we never sat down and talked about your mama or your sister.
  • [00:56:19.56] So anyway, the families didn't exist. We were the family then. But now I get to know people on a more personal level.
  • [00:56:29.57] ANDREW: What's the thing you're proudest of?
  • [00:56:32.19] LENI SINCLAIR: Personally I think the thing that I'm most proud of is being part of that movement that helped save democracy. And that's also the main thrust of the book, that it was the Detroit rock and roll community that with instrumental. Because if it hadn't been for the support that John got locally, God only knows.
  • [00:56:54.93] If they had picked, say, Weathermen, or if they had picked the Republic of New Africa as a testing group, we may very well have lost. And then all of us, including Damon Keith and [? Vincent Klearmy ?], everybody. We could be in a concentration camp now.
  • [00:57:14.75] If Nixon had won, he would have had the sole power, just like any dictator, to single-handedly decide who lives and dies. Who goes to jail, who gets broken into, who gets detained without bail. All that was in the pipeline. That was coming if we hadn't have won. That's what I'm most proud of as a citizen, to have been part of that, what saved us.
  • [00:57:46.18] Because when I read my own files from the CIA or the FBI, there was one agent early on who surmised that maybe I was sent to America by the Stali to recruit American college students to becoming little Commies. And what better way than to marry one of the students leaders in America, John Sinclair?
  • [00:58:16.93] ANDREW: How clever of you. Oh, how cunning you were.
  • [00:58:20.59] LENI SINCLAIR: See what I mean?
  • [00:58:22.28] [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:58:23.13] LENI SINCLAIR: And so in retrospect, I want to tell this agent, well, perhaps I was sent to America by a higher force, by a higher power than that, to do my little part. And keeping America safe for democracy for another generation.
  • [00:58:43.26] I'm an American. I believe that the American character and most Americans are good people, compassionate people, love their freedom. Some of them are brainwashed and seeking it in the wrong places, but basically, I don't believe-- you know, as a German, I don't believe what happened in Germany could happen here. Because Americans are not like Germans. Americans are not as obedient as-- well, maybe so. I might be taking my foot in my mouth, here.
  • [00:59:20.97] But I have hope for the future, that America will survive as a democratic nation. And that people in Egypt and other places, they look towards the United States as an inspiration for their own struggle.
  • [00:59:44.76] AMY: To learn more about Leni Sinclair, go to
  • [00:59:52.97] ANDREW: "AADL Talks to Leni Sinclair" has been a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.
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Length: 1:00:11

Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)

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