The Evolution of a Commune
By Leni Sinclair
When I moved in with my future husband, John Sinclair, in 1964 in Detroit, he was already living in a commune, although we didn't call it that back then. He shared a townhouse on the John C. Lodge Service Drive in Detroit with 4 or 5 musicians from the Detroit Artists Workshop. I joined this little group of artists, but while John was serving 6 months in DeHoCo (Detroit House of Correction), the commune broke apart. After John was released, we moved to a one-room attic apartment on Plum Street, where we managed the Fifth Estate Bookstore. That was the only time that John and I lived alone together as a couple. That experiment lasted exactly three months. Soon we moved back to the WSU area and rented an old dentists office above the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Fifth Estate on the corner of Warren and the Lodge.
This dentists office had 4 or 5 small rooms stacked full of dental chairs and equipment. These rooms were soon cleared one by one as people came to join us and needed a place to stay. This became the nucleus of the Trans-Love Commune. It's not like we decided to establish a commune; it's just that we had a lot of plans and ambitions for the future, and moving in together instead of paying rent on 5 or 10 different apartments made economic sense and made it possible to carry out some of our plans. As our numbers increased, we moved to a building at the corner of Forest and Second, still in the WSU area. This building had been used previously as an industrial clinic and had about 10 small examination rooms so that everybody in the commune could have their own room. The front room became THE STORE where we sold hippie beads, buttons, bumper stickers, candles, underground newspapers, records, posters and more. Everybody was always working to produce things to sell in THE STORE and in our store at the Grande Ballroom.
After we moved out, the MC5 moved in together into our old dentists office. But back then the police didn't like hippies very much, and we were being harassed and under constant surveillance. When our Trans-Love building was fire-bombed one night, we made a hasty strategic retreat to the beautiful city of Ann Arbor, about an hour from Detroit. There we rented a huge mansion at 1510 Hill Street, which had enough rooms for all the MC5 people and all the Trans-Love people to live together.
But we already had a reputation. The day we moved, some of the more conservative Ann Arbor citizens staged a protest candlelight vigil, carrying signs that read: "Sin like in SINclair." Ouch! We also received a visit from the town's top vice cop, Lt. Eugene Staudemeier. He challenged John about why we moved to Ann Arbor, and John challenged him right back, saying in effect that this is a free country and we can move where ever we want, and if you don't mess with us, we won't mess with you. And so these two gentlemen made a gentleman's agreement, and established a truce between us and the police that held the whole time we lived in Ann Arbor. In fact, we established our own hippie police force, the Psychedelic Rangers, a group of volunteers in their bright yellow Psychedelic Rangers T-shirts, who kept peace and order during our free concerts and events, including the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals. And the Ann Arbor police respected the work of the Psychedelic Rangers and stayed away from our concerts. (Except of course for all the undercover officers posing as hippies.)
We were told that the house we rented had been the residence of the mayor of Ann Arbor around the turn of the century (the last century that is, around 1900). We found some trunks in the attic, and some of our Trans-Love sisters could be seen strutting down State Street or the Diag in their finest, most elegant, albeit moth-eaten, fashions of the 19th Century.
About a month after we moved to 1510 Hill Street, Dave Sinclair, my brother-in-law, and his band and entourage moved to 1520 Hill Street, the mansion next to ours. Trans-Love produced three rock bands: the MC5, which was managed by John Sinclair, the UP, managed by David Sinclair, and the Psychedelic Stooges, who were managed by Jimmy Silvers. The MC5/Trans-Love house was a constant beehive of activity and creativity and loud music, mostly avant garde jazz. The band sound-proofed the garage and practiced there for hours every day. The rest of us were always busy, designing stage clothes for the band, designing and distributing flyers, working on the light show, mimeographing press releases, organizing benefits, taking photos, and always creating things that we could sell at our store at the Grande. I myself did my share of sewing pants for the band. Wayne Kramer liked his pants real tight, and often, during his acrobatic stage moves, the seams would split and Wayne would have to play the rest of the set with his guitar covering his crotch until he could change into another pair of skin-tight pants.
After signing a recording contract, the MC5 moved to their own house in nearby Hamburg and severed their relationship with John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, which they and John had created in 1968. The Trans-Love/White Panther commune continued living at 1510 Hill Street, but when John was suddenly removed from us by the State of Michigan and sentenced to 9-1/2 to 10 years for the crime of possessing 2 marijuana cigarettes in July 1969, we were no longer able to pay the bills and the phone got cut off just when we needed it the most. And so David Sinclair opened his big heart and big house at 1520 Hill Street next door and let all of us move in, and we consolidated the two households.
From then on, for the next two and a half years, the work of the commune was almost single-mindedly devoted to freeing John "from the clutches of the man," as John Lennon put it. The UP became the new (White Panther) party band, who played countless benefits to help raise money for John's legal defense and help keep the lights on. But when Frank Bach, the lead singer, became a single father, his parental duties clashed with his economic duties. We knew that we needed Frank to work, and so, during a house meeting where we discussed matters affecting us all, we came up with a plan for collective child care. Each one of us would sign up for a two-hour shift of watching the children. I say children because this arrangement not only benefited Frank but also myself, since I had two children to take care of 24/7 by then. This new arrangement freed Frank and myself to devote more time and energy to the Free John Now! campaign. And the children benefited from having constant supervision by fun-loving young people, many of whom were not so far removed from childhood themselves. The parents of some of these young people didn't mind their children living with us, because they trusted that we would keep them safe from hard drugs and alcohol.
But why stop with collectivizing child care? Soon we made big wall charts with everybody's name and all the tasks that had to be done in two-hour increments. Besides baby duty, there was kitchen duty, office duty, cleaning duty, community organizing duty, and I forget what else. Everybody could decide what they wanted to do that day. But everybody had to sign up for something.
The number of people living at 1520 Hill Street was always fluctuating, as people moved away and new people came to join us. I remember coming home from a trip one day to find out that the whole Felch Street commune, 5 or 6 people, had all moved in with us. A sympathetic carpenter in the community had build us a very large beautiful dining room table, big enough to seat 28 people. We all ate together, enjoying 4 or 5 course gourmet macrobiotic dinners, most often cooked up by macrobiotic master chef, Frank Bach. We bought our brown rice in 100-pound bags from Eden Foods, and procured fruit and vegetables at the Eastern Market in Detroit. Soon we started taking orders from other community members, and thus was born the Ann Arbor People's Food-Coop, which is still flourishing in Ann Arbor more than 40 years later.
The work to free John Sinclair had to be carried out on many fronts. We organized demonstrations, benefits, petition drives, newspaper ads, and acts of guerrilla theatre, such as the time when a bunch of hippies gathered around a table piled high with a pound of marijuana one night, donned rubber gloves and rolled hundreds of joints (not an easy task). Then they put two joints each in an envelope addressed to each Michigan State Representative and each Michigan State Senator, with a note explaining that they are now in possession of two marijuana cigarettes and could be sentenced to 10 years in jail like John Sinclair. (Newspaper reports said that most of them turned their stash over to the State Police, but not all of them.)
With the help of a team of brilliant people's lawyers, and the support of people from all over the country, we eventually succeeded in winning over the Governor, the Michigan House and Senate, and the Michigan Supreme Court, and a new law was enacted that reduced the sentence for possession of marijuana from 10 years to a 1-year maximum, and the maximum sentence for sale and distribution (and that included giving a joint to a friend, if that "friend" turned out to be an undercover cop), from 20 years to life, to a 4-year maximum, thereby saving the State millions if not billions of dollars in prison, police, and court costs over the last 40 years. (Think about it and do the math, if you have the time.)
On December 10, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to Ann Arbor to headline the historic John Sinclair Freedom Rally at Crisler Arena. And just three days later, on December 13, 1971, John walked out of Jackson Prison after having served two and a half years already. But he was not yet a free man, because in the fall of 1969, shortly after he was sent to Marquette Prison in the Upper Peninsula to start his 9-1/2 to 10-year sentence, John and two other White Panther leaders were indicted by the Federal Government for conspiracy to blow up a clandestine CIA recruiting office in Ann Arbor. A conviction on that charge could put him back in jail for another 15 to 25 years. And our little band of White Panther hippies on Hill Street, which was just beginning to organize the fight to free John Sinclair from his 10-year marijuana sentence, was suddenly faced with an even bigger Goliath in the form of the CIA, the FBI, the US Justice Department, and the whole Nixon administration.
Paranoia struck deep. We believed that our house was bugged, and that our phone was tapped. So we started holding our important meetings to plan our defence strategy under a tree in the park, thinking that we were safe from the uninvited ear. Only 20 years later did we learn that there was one among us, living with us at 1520 Hill Street, who regularly wrote reports about us to the FBI. To this day we don't know the identity of that informer. But just knowing that the government planted an informer among us certainly puts a big chill on the idea of ever wanting to live in a commune again.
With the help of some of the best lawyers in the country we won that case in the US Supreme Court, too. It's a long story that will have to wait to be told another day. Read the essay by Hugh "Buck" Davis. It became known as the "Keith Case" and can be researched on the internet. The unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in that case ensured that the 4th Amendment to the Constitution that protects citizens against warrantless wiretapping or searches remained the law of the land. This was a pivotal case for the future of American Democracy, because without the protections guaranteed by the 4th Amendment, the Constitution would not worth the paper it's printed on.
After losing this case, the Justice Department dropped the charges against the indicted White Panther Party leaders, and John was finally a free man. To all the people who lived and worked together in the 1510/1520 Hill Street commune, whether I can remember all your names or not, I want to say that you are every bit as important as John Sinclair and John Lennon. Without you it could not have been done. To you and to all of our supporters far and wide I want to say, "Thank you for helping free my husband and for helping keep our country free."
Minister of Education
White Panther Party