By Hugh "Buck" Davis
The Beginning: Bombings and Conspiracies
In early August, 1970, two thin white guys with Afros and purple t-shirts that said “White Panther Party” (WPP) came into the National Lawyers Guild office at 5705 Woodward in Detroit (a building which Sheila Murphy [Cockrel] had scammed from the Archdiocese for the anti-STRESS 1 campaign). A few weeks earlier Lawrence (Pun) Plamondon, the first white revolutionary in modern times to make the FBI’s Top Ten, had been arrested in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) for allegedly throwing a beer can out of a van. He was being driven to a hiding place by Jack Forrest and another member of the WPP. They pled to harboring a fugitive.
Pun, Jack and John Sinclair2 (doing 9 ½ to 10 years for 2 joints) had been indicted earlier for the 1968 dynamite bombing of the CIA recruitment office in Ann Arbor. Pun, already facing numerous charges around the county, went underground at the news of the indictment and ultimately went to Algeria, where Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers (BPP) was also a fugitive. But there wasn’t any marijuana or alcohol (or hippie girls) in Algeria, so Pun did not last long. Because the FBI had infiltrated the WPP and their informant was sleeping with Pun’s wife, they were hot on his trail.
The guys who walked into the Guild office were David Sinclair, John’s younger brother and Chief of Staff of the WPP, and David Fenton, Minister of Propaganda. They announced that they were going to New York to get Bill Kunstler and Len Weinglass to represent John and Pun. Would I be willing to represent Forrest and act as local counsel on the bombing conspiracy? Never having handled a felony or been in federal court and still technically being employed by Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services until my fellowship ran out, I naturally said “Yes”. It did not seem like a big risk. Kunstler and Weinglass were the two most prominent lawyers in the country after the Chicago 73 Conspiracy trial. I assumed that they would not take the case. I was wrong. So it began.
Why me? The WPP already had Justin (Chuck) Ravitz, who had been representing Sinclair since the days of the Artists’ Coop in Detroit and was still appealing his last marijuana conviction and was attempting to get Sinclair out on bond. The backstory is that a couple of weeks before Pun and Jack were busted in the UP, Chuck and I were at a party hosted by lefty law professor Mark Stickgold of the WSU Free Legal Aid Clinic. I had volunteered to open the Guild office in January, 1970, but had been doing political misdemeanors (primarily Black Panthers charged with impeding pedestrian traffic with aggressive sales of their newspapers) for some time before that. After a few beers and a few tokes, Chuck and I were talking about our clients. He said “I’m really tired of the White Panthers.” I felt the same way about the Black Panthers4 . We agreed to trade for the next year. That is how I ended up at the first pre-trial conference with Kunstler, Weinglass, Damon Keith and U.S. Attorney Ralph Guy.
Trial Court: The Decision
Judge Keith gave us only until October 9, 1970 to file our pre-trial motions because all three of the defendants were incarcerated. All of the ordinary motions would be prepared in Detroit, primarily by Ravitz and me. But the electronic surveillance motion was prepared in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) (primarily by Bob Bender). My memory is that Ravitz and I filed 20 or 21 motions, including one to have the chief witness for the government, David Valler, to be required to submit to a psychiatric examination.
There had been 8 bombings in southeast Michigan in the fall of 1968 and Valler, who lived in a commune/abandoned house near Wayne State, was calling the editor of the Detroit News, implicitly confessing. The News ran a front page story with Valler’s picture and the headline “Is this the bomber?” Ultimately, according to Jack, Valler took 40 hits of acid and turned himself in. Valler not only confessed to all the bombings, but implicated John, Jack and Pun in the CIA blast. He got a sweetheart deal and a light sentence. The News made him its “youth” columnist in the Sunday Magazine, where he dutifully condemned the counter-culture and radical politics from prison for the next few years until the case was over. Then he was released. We had many people come forward who had known Valler and told us how crazy he was (painting pictures of Jesus with penises on his face, consuming an extraordinary amount of hallucinogenic and other drugs, etc). That caused us to make the psychiatric motion.
Neal Bush, another young Guild attorney who volunteered for the defense team, drafted a jury challenge in which we claimed that youth was a class and that the systematic exclusion of young people from the federal venire constituted discrimination (no one under 21 was allowed to serve).
The strain was especially intense for me because my wife was pregnant and due to deliver our daughter in early September. But Abigail did not come and on October 8, 1970, when Camilla went to the hospital to be induced. Ravitz and I worked on the motions all night on the 8th. Around 5 am on the 9th, the hospital called and I rushed there. Ravitz went home and changed for a Court of Appeals argument on another of John’s bond motions. We got back together and filed the motions later that day.
The Government responded and, to our surprise, admitted that there were electronic interceptions. The hearing on the motions was scheduled for early December, 1970. That morning, the weather was terrible and Metro Airport was closed. Kuntsler and Weinglass were not going to make it. We were going to have to argue. Neal turned to me, saying that he had never argued a motion before. I said that I had never handled a federal case. At the hearing, Judge Keith patiently and politely heard and denied all of our motions, except the one concerning the wiretaps. Since the Government had admitted their existence, he ordered them produced. There was another round of briefing regarding the timing and circumstances of the disclosure of the surveillance.
At the next hearing in January, 1971, Judge Keith ruled the intercepts illegal as warrantless political surveillance. Thus, the Government had to turn over the tapes and we had to have a “taint” hearing to see whether they would affect the trial. Keith was considering having the trial first and then having a hearing to determine if it had been prejudiced by evidence derived from the intercepts. The Government, objecting strongly to revealing their contents, assured Keith that Pun was not the target of the intercepts and that it would not affect the trial. Keith still insisted that the tapes would have to be disclosed.
At that point, U. S. Attorney Guy, apparently on orders from Washington, told Keith that the Government did not intend to disclose the wiretaps before or after trial. Keith looked at the defense and said “Mr. Kunstler, make your motion.” In the face of a dismissal, Guy asked for 48 hours to appeal to the Sixth Circuit by way of mandamus (a special motion to a higher court to compel a judge to do a particular act). They did and it was granted.
We never knew how the Nixon-Mitchell White House/Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to pick this case in which to take a stand. Similar motions had been filed in other cases and Warren Ferguson, a courageous federal judge in Los Angeles, had ruled warrantless political electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens illegal in a BPP case. But that was post-trial and the regular process of appeal was not going to be fast. Plus, he granted a stay of the disclosure order. The Government apparently wanted a rapid review and chose the case of this political band of counter-culturalists in Michigan. Perhaps they thought that the defense would be weaker than in one of the other big anti-war/BPP cases. Plus, they knew that the tapes were irrelevant to the charges.
The Sixth Circuit
The mandamus was against Keith’s disclosure order and made him a party to the case. That is how the case came to be known as U.S.v U.S. District Court (Keith) ex rel Sinclair. The Sixth Circuit ordered a short briefing schedule and oral argument on the day of the filing of the briefs. It was agreed that I would write the mandamus portion of the Defendants’ brief and the electronic surveillance section would be written in New York. Kunstler would fly to Cincinnati. I would drive down. We would put the halves together in the morning and then argue that afternoon. Keith did not participate.
I had no clue about mandamus and was working very long hours on all of the other political cases that were being handled by the Detroit Guild office. I needed access to a federal law library at odd hours. A Guild member was working for a federal judge and gave me a key to the chambers. I could come and go as I wanted. Security at the courthouse was different then.
Technically, I had a good argument that this was not a proper case for mandamus. If we could defeat it on technical grounds, the case against our clients would be dismissed. We had to try. But the impetus was with the Government. Everyone knew that the DOJ and the White House wanted this case as a ratification of their policies. Accepting the mandamus under a “special circumstances” rubric, the Court of Appeals decided the case on the merits.
The day before the scheduled argument in Cincinnati, I drove to Columbus to see friends from my VISTA 5 volunteer days. But going down I-71 to Cincinnati, I hit a patch of black ice, went into the median and rolled four times. The Samsonite briefcase that Mother gave me when I graduated from law school shattered and cut off the top half of my right ear. I was taken by ambulance to the local hospital.
Kunstler, always magnificent in crises, grabbed a car or a cab in Cincinnati and rushed to the hospital and the scene of the accident. The originals of my half of the brief were spread along the median in the snow. Kunstler collected them and took them to a cleaners in Cincinnati, where he had them dried and pressed. He went to court, argued and we won 2-1, former Detroit Police Commissioner Edwards writing for the majority, U.S. v. US Dist. Ct. (Keith) ex rel Sinclair, 444 F2d 651 (6th Cir 1971.)
Back at the Fayette County Memorial Hospital, the switchboard was lighting up as calls poured in from around the country. It did not take them long to figure that not only did I not look like any lawyer they had ever seen (long hair, funny clothes), but that I was connected with some radical political case. My doctor clearly did not want me there and kept suggesting that I be taken by ambulance to Columbus to have my ear reattached by a prominent plastic surgeon. I indicated that I understood that the sooner that something was sewed back, the more likely the attachment would be successful. He acknowledged that, but still urged me to go to Columbus. I asked him about the relative difference in skill between him and the doctor in Columbus. With a supercilious look, he said, “Probably the difference between you and the best lawyer in the country.” More out of anger than accuracy, I said, “Well, sew my goddamn ear back on then. I’m one of the best.” He did. It took. Before I left the hospital, he visited and said, “I hope you lose.”
The divisiveness of the question and the degree to which the Nixon administration was prepared to go to defend this warrantless political surveillance was presaged by the final words of Judge Weick in the dissent in the Sixth Circuit, id at 677:
It has been said that wiretapping is a dirty business. Professor Wigmore answered this argument: But so is likely to be so all apprehension of malefactors. Kicking a man in the stomach is “dirty business”, normally viewed. But if a gunman assails you and you know enough of the French art of savatage to kick him in the stomach and thus save your life, is that dirty business for you?’
The Sixth Circuit ruled on 4/21/71. The Supreme Court granted cert on 6/21/71.
On To The Supreme Court
After the victory in the Sixth Circuit, the fact that the Government would seek and the Supreme Court would grant certiorari was a foregone conclusion. Once the Court took the case, the forces began gathering. The legendary Arthur Kinoy, one of the co-founders with Kunstler of the CCR and law professor at Rutgers, would argue for the individual Defendants. The brief would be written at CCR, primarily by Bob Bender.
Now Judge Keith decided to directly participate and went to Bill Gossett, one of the name partners at Dykema Gossett (the largest law firm in Michigan.) He was a former president of the ABA. Gossett took the case pro bono and engaged Prof. Abraham Sofaer of Columbia Law School to write the brief for Keith.
1. The amici curiae lined up for Sinclair and Keith:
2. The National ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan;
3. The Black Panther Party, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Conference of Black Lawyers;
4. The UAW;
5. The American Friends Service Committee;
For the Government, none.
Everyone knew that this would be a watershed case, particularly with the streams of political dissent (youth, anti-war, civil rights, black liberation, feminist, environmental, LBGT) bursting forth in 1971. The Government, determined to maintain the COINTELPRO program against these movements, as its final submission likened the case to the occasions in U.S. history when federal troops had to be called out to quell domestic disturbances, producing a list. Predictably, they were all racial incidents or labor disputes.
Importantly for progressives, all of the big anti-war and Black Panther conspiracy trials around the country were put on hold because similar motions had been made in each of them, with the Government uniformly admitting to warrantless wiretaps of the defendants and their organizations. It made no sense for them to move forward in the face of the impending decision in Keith.
This was a welcome respite. It was now early in the 1972 presidential campaign. Remember Nixon’s slogan, “Peace with Honor!” implying that he had a secret plan to get out of Vietnam? We did not believe it, but we knew that the only way he would consider it to be a victory would be if he could dismantle all the progressive movements that had been building throughout the 60’s and 70’s.
The argument was held February 24, 1972. Because I had an appearance in the trial court, I was allowed to sit inside the bar, although I was not admitted to practice in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the WPP had filled Chrysler Arena with the now legendary “Ten for Two” (so-named because John got 10 years for 2 joints) concert in Ann Arbor featuring John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger, 5 of the Chicago 7 and many others, a ten hour extravaganza for $6. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court gave John bond on appeal as a precursor to declaring the Michigan marijuana law unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment, crowning an extraordinary and prolonged effort by Chuck Ravitz. 6 As the only free defendant, Sinclair had to be allowed into the Supreme Court argument. He and Leni (Magdalene Sinclair, his wife) sat on two throne-like chairs at the back of the chamber in purple White Panthers shirts.
Erwin Griswold, my law school dean and Nixon’s Solicitor General, refused to argue the case for the Government, bringing in Robert Mardian, head of the Internal Security Division of the DOJ and the first guy to resign after Watergate. I later tried to talk to Griswold about it at a reception, but he refused. Rehnquist had recused himself because he had helped formulate the policy at the DOJ. The courtroom was packed and the stage was set.
Mardian was not an accomplished appellate advocate and the Justices pounced on him quickly. As a final ploy, Mardian produced a tape and begged the Justices to listen to it in camera so that they could hear exactly how dangerous these defendants were and why it was necessary for the Government to use such means. One of the Justices asked if the Government would agree to have the Defendants’ lawyers listen with them. Mardian replied that he would agree for Gossett to hear the tapes, but not Kinoy.
Thurgood Marshall, who had argued Brown v Board of Education with Kinoy, turned his chair around and never looked at the Government again during the argument. Gossett acquitted himself well. But Kinoy was brilliant, going up and down the bench reminding one Justice after another of statements they had made in previous cases which compelled them to rule warrantless electronic political surveillance illegal.
The Keith decision was released on Monday, June 19, 1972, U.S. v U.S. District Court (Keith), 407 US 297 (1972). The Watergate burglary occurred the night of June 16, 1972, the Friday before. Kinoy always theorized that Rehnquist had tipped someone that they were going to lose Keith on Monday. Thus, the “plumbers” were not putting wiretaps into the Democratic National Committee office, they were taking them out. No evidence has ever been adduced to disprove the theory, but none of the “plumbers” ever said so. Regardless, the combination of the decision and Watergate ultimately led to the end of the Nixon presidency and a comprehensive expansion of political rights.
Interestingly, the opinion was written by Lewis Powell, who had given speeches in favor of warrantless wiretapping while he had been President of the ABA. Bill Gossett’s representation of Keith could not have hurt in that regard. It was a unanimous 8-0 decision. But that was not the end of the case.
Quietly, all of the big conspiracy cases, including the Weatherman indictments in Detroit and elsewhere were dropped. The Government could not prove a single case without its illegally obtained evidence or else did not want to suffer further embarrassment and exposure of COINTELPRO, so they abandoned them. That is how the White Panthers and Judge Keith saved the movement from years of surveillance, COINTELPRO disruption and conspiracy charges.
During the pendency of the appeal, I had a conversation with Ralph Guy, still US Attorney. He indicated that if we won, he was afraid that it would just drive the practice further underground and make it more clandestine. How prophetic that was! Guy went on to be appointed to the District Court and then to the Sixth Circuit. He has been one of the judges appointed to sit on the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court, which, after the reforms which came out of the exposure of the COINTELPRO program, was supposed to consider applications for intercepts and searches involving foreign threats to domestic security. We now know that under Bush II, even this extremely friendly bench was not considered to be sufficiently malleable for the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld security initiatives, even after the Patriot Act.
ON THE GROUND
The WPP rented a house in Detroit to act as defense headquarters and a place for Kunstler and Weinglass to stay when they came to town. On report, a good time was had by all. Given that the first three planks of the WPP platform were “Rock and roll, dope and f’ing in the street,” one can assume they did. The fourth plank in their platform, “Full unemployment!” was also achieved, primarily by dealing marijuana. But as an already neglectful young husband and father, I did not spend much time there.
One thing that Guy did not know was that shortly after Pun’s arrest in August of 1970, the FBI put a warrantless wiretap on WPP headquarters in Ann Arbor. The defense team did not find out about it until a FOIA request in 1977. Because the White Panther case was at the center of the left-legal universe for six months with Kunstler and Weinglass as lead counsel, an astonishing number of prominent media, celebrity (Jane Fonda, Allen Ginsberg) and leftist leaders called or came through Detroit and Ann Arbor during that time. I have a copy of the logs of that wiretap as a result of separate litigation, but it is still under seal and classified. With the help of Professor Robert Sedler at Wayne State Law School and some declassification experts in Washington, I am attempting to have them released. They are a fascinating oral history of the movement from August, 1970 to January, 1971.
As an indication of how seriously a threat the FBI took the WPP was the fact that the results of the intercept at their headquarters from August, 1970 through January 1970-71 were routinely transmitted to approximately 125 SACs (Special Agents in Charge) of FBI offices around the country. So when some hippies in Seattle (this actually happened) called Ann Arbor and asked how to get in touch with the WPP in Seattle, they were told, “You’re it.” The Seattle FBI dutifully opened a file.
POST-KEITH: SINCLAIR v NIXON and the 2nd Wiretap
Separate litigation referred to as Sinclair v. Nixon, was initiated by CCR in the DC District Court after the decision in the Keith case, claiming that the secret intercepts had violated Plamondon’s Fourth Amendment rights. Through a series of decisions, Nixon was granted presidential immunity and Mitchell qualified immunity. But after the discovery in 1977 of the second secret wiretap on the WPP headquarters from August 1970 through January 1971 through an FOIA request, the suit was amended to add that claim. Please remember that throughout the proceedings in the Keith case, the Government never disclosed the fact that they were at the very moment that Judge Keith was deciding the legality of warrantless domestic surveillance, the FBI was conducting surveillance in the very case which was pending before him. In response to a draft of this paper, Judge Guy emphatically said that he was unaware of the tap. It was conducted by the FBI office in Detroit and regularly reported to Director Hoover himself.
The existence of the second wiretap was never disclosed to the defense, Keith, the Sixth Circuit or the Supreme Court. Technically, the FBI could argue that since the Defendants were in prison, they were not the ones who were being targeted. But they frequently called the headquarters from their jail phones. Thus, it was ultimately a deception, orchestrated at least by Mitchell and Hoover. It was never disclosed under ordinary procedures. The tap was lifted the day after Keith ruled warrantless intercepts illegal.
After the second wiretap was discovered in 1977, the tapes revealed that I was intercepted. That implicated the Sixth Amendment (confidential relationship between clients and attorneys). Although the communications were with the Defense Committee, rather than with the Defendants themselves, they still revealed defense strategy.
Thus, the original case against Nixon in D.C. was transferred to Michigan on a forum non coveniens basis. I and one of the original WPP lawyers in Ann Arbor, Dennis Hayes, handled the case thereafter. There was another appeal (the third) to the Sixth Circuit on the issue of immunity for the individual FBI agents who had monitored the attorney calls. It was unsuccessful and the case came back for discovery. Geneva Halliday handled the case for the U.S. Attorney’s office. She was gracious, but persistent, throughout. The attorneys for the plaintiffs had few resources. The Party itself had long since dissolved 7 and the individual plaintiffs had little or no money. Revolution is not a lucrative vocation.
Further, the FBI agents who were the individual defendants had either retired or been assigned all over the country. The question was whether the plaintiffs could show that they acted so egregiously that, despite the novelty of the situation, they were liable. Without the ability to pursue expensive discovery, there was no way to adduce such proof. Judge Joiner dismissed the case. It went back to the Sixth Circuit and was extinguished in 1989.
What was on the tapes? Who intercepted them? Were the Defendants guilty?
There remains the questions of what was on the original intercepts of Plamondon and what effect they would have had on the trial. The contents have never been disclosed. A popular theory is that, given the focus on the BPP, the intercepts were of Pun and Eldridge Cleaver calling BPP headquarters in Oakland from Algeria when they were both fugitives. Please remember that at this time not even Congress knew about the existence of the National Security Agency (NSA), exposed in William Bamford’s book “The Puzzle Palace.” One can understand why the Government would not reveal intercepts by a secret communications monitoring agency.
Would the information in the intercepts have tainted the trial itself? Almost certainly not. The late John Hausner, before he became a Wayne County Circuit judge, was the AUSA assigned to the actual prosecution of the case. Whatever he knew of the contents of the intercepts, he told me years later that they would not have tainted the trial. I believe it.
Hausner also claimed that he would certainly have obtained a conviction had we ever gone to trial. That is an uncert ain proposition. My view is that Sinclair would have been acquitted and was only thrown into the indictment because he was a nationally notorious figure, particularly after Robert Colombo, Sr. gave him 9½ to 10 years for two joints. Kunstler and Weinglass tried to subpoena John from prison to testify in the Chicago 7 trial, but were rebuffed by the good Judge Julius Hoffman.
The only apparent evidence against Sinclair were two FBI memos of interviews with Valler (the snitch) in the Wayne County Jail. They indicated that while John was in town for a concert with the MC5, Valler claimed to have met Sinclair in Peter Werbe’s office at the Fifth Estate, an anarchist newspaper. There, Valler claimed that he told John that he had a lot of dynamite and asked if he was interested. Even the FBI reports only claim that Sinclair said he would be interested in some dynamite, but did not want to blow anything up himself. On another occasion after the bombing, Valler claimed that he and Sinclair were in the same room and that John looked at him meaningfully and shook his head “Yes”. Without more, that is not the stuff of conspiracy convictions.
About Jack Forrest, nothing can be said. He has never publicly spoken. He was clearly an acquaintance of Valler’s during the time that the bombings took place in 1968. He was a YIPPIE8 organizer in 1968. But at the time of the bombing, he was still living in Detroit.
That leaves Pun Plamondon, the flamboyant Minister of Defense for the WPP. He was a wild man. By the time I finished with all of his cases in 1973, we had faced at least 18 felonies. Emblematic of Pun’s style is his comment in his autobiography Lost to the Ottawa (he discovered that he had been taken away from his unmarried Native American parents and given to a “white” family) that he was framed for a crime he does not deny committing, “I’m not saying I didn’t bomb the CIA building in Ann Arbor. But I damn sure didn’t tell that government snitch I did.”
Papers of Hugh M. Davis at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Accession at No. 1881. Open to research at http://www.reuther.wayne.edu/node/6640
Pun Plamondon’s book Lost from the Ottawa: The Story of the Journey Back. Copyright 2004. ISBN number 1412022657.
John Sinclair, Guitar Army, Copyright 1972. Published by Douglas Book Corporation. Library of Congress No. 73-182698:
“Wiretapping and National Security: Nixon, The Mitchell Doctrine, and the White Panthers,” Doctoral Thesis by Jeff A. Hale (1995) UMI Dissertation Services No. 9609089
Rights on Trial: The Odessey of a People’s Lawyer by J. M. Lewis. Copyright 1993. Available on Amazon.com. The Biography of Arthur Kinoy
William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America by David Langham. Amazon.com
Politics on Trial by William M. Kunstler. Amazon.com
My Life as a Radical Lawyer by William M. Kunstler. Amazon.com
“The Bush Administration’s Terrorist Surveillance Program and the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Requirement: Lessons From Justice Powell and the Keith Case”, Vol. 41 #3, University of California Davis Law Review, February 2008 by Tracy Maclin.
1 Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets (STRESS) was a notorious unit set up by the Detroit Police after the 1967 rebellion. Its tactic was to have an officer appear to be drunk, drugged or otherwise vulnerable in high crime neighborhoods in order to induce robberies. It was extremely violent and killed 13 people. Sheila Murphy and Ken Cockrel led the Ad Hoc Coalition Against Police Brutality which spearheaded the anti-STRESS campaign. Ultimately, Coleman Young was elected Mayor of Detroit in 1973 on an anti-STRESS platform. He disbanded the unit. Murphy and Cockrel later married and both went on to the Detroit City Council.
2 John Sinclair was the leader of a group of progressive artists and musicians who formed the Artists Co-Op, Translove Energies and put on various counter-cultural events and concerts beginning in the mid-60’s. He was an open advocate of marijuana and was set up 3 times by the cops. As they became more militant, they became the White Panther Party in Detroit. Their band was the MC5 (for Motor City) - raucous and revolutionary, their famous line was “Kick out the jams, MFers”. The Party moved to Ann Arbor after the rebellion.
3 It was originally the Chicago 8, with BPP leader Bobby Seale included in the indictment. He was not on bond and was subjected to horrendous treatment and restraints in the courtroom. Protests ensued and he was severed from the case. Hence the Chicago 7.
4 Petty disputes, pointless confrontations, changing leadership and a high sense of entitlement to free legal services from white movement lawyers without concomitant respect were characteristic of the BPP in Detroit.
5 Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA - the domestic Peace Corps) encouraged progressive youth to live at least a year at a subsistence level in poor or deprived communities, organizing and providing assistance. Joining deferred the draft. Because I was only 24 when I graduated from law school, I had a year to go before I went into the secondary pool. Faced with joining the Army or going to jail, I joined VISTA. They had a policy of assigning you as far as possible from home and your usual support network. I got Detroit.
6 Ravitz, after a brilliant and sustained effort, finally won People v Sinclair and People v Laurentzen in the Michigan Supreme Court, invalidating Michigan’s antiquated marijuana laws as cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment and finding that marijuana was not a narcotic. In Sinclair, a defendant could receive up to 10 years for possession of any amount of marijuana. John Sinclair had 9 grams. For sale or delivery of marijuana of any amount, there was a minimum mandatory 20 year sentence.
When Sinclair was decided, it was the last great jail-break in Michigan. Approximately 120 prisoners were freed. Their friends and girlfriends pulled up in front of Jackson prison in limousines with bottles of champagne and smoking dope. It took the Legislature a month to pass the new statute (substantially what we have today – 4 years for sale, a 90 day misdemeanor for use, 1 year misdemeanor for possession.) The first Hash Bash in Ann Arbor on April 1, 1972 was to protest the new law. It took the various municipalities around the state 2 to 3 years to pass ordinances which reflected the new state statute. Thus, for a month marijuana was legal in Michigan and for years thereafter, practically every small case got dismissed. That was the real reason John Sinclair was a hero. You could not go into a bar or restaurant for years afterward without somebody on the staff or among the clientele being among those who either directly benefited from Sinclair’s case or knew someone who did.
7 After the legal battles, the WPP became the Rainbow Peoples Party and began putting on the famous (but short-lived) Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival with their unique security apparatus, the Psychedelic Rangers. In 1975, they merged with other progressive groups to form the Human Rights Party, took over the Ann Arbor City Council and passed the $5 pot law. When the Republicans made a comeback, they raised the fine to $25.
Originally written for the Detroit and Michigan National Lawyers Guild Annual Dinner, 2010.