The Forgotten Legacy of John Sinclair and the White Panther Party

“The revolution has always been in the hands of the very young. The young always inherit the revolution. You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution.”

-Huey P. Newton

“Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.”

-John Sinclair

It seems like I’m always the last person to hear the bad news these days however, in my defense, I’m usually fucking drowning in it. We all are I suppose, what with the trials and tribulations of living in the Kali Yuga. But living with PTSD tends to make it all feel aggressively personal. Every bomb that drops on Gaza seems to awaken another monster in my Lovecraftian closet of repressed childhood memories, but somewhere amidst this maelstrom of misery, between the flashbacks and the war crimes, John Sinclair died and even my battered inner child feels the need to pay her respects.

For those of you who don’t know that name, that is likely because John Sinclair was the kind of motherfucker who led the kind of life that your history books would rather you forget. John, who died from heart failure this April at 82, was a leading figure in America’s other revolution, the one that saw a thriving underground ecosystem of Black Panthers, Street Transvestites, and Students for a Democratic Society taking on the man in the streets of Babylon over the savage injustices of white supremacy and the Vietnam War.

An enterprising young jazz poet and political provocateur, John Sinclair emerged from his native Michigan’s underground art scene in the late sixties with an itching desire to join the people of the global third world in smashing the white pig state that he and his pale stoner friends in the jazz scene had grown to despise. Like a lot of other misfits from that era, John was through with being bullied just for being freaky and found impoverished guerrilla agitators of color like Huey Newton, Malcolm X, and Ho Chi Minh to be a hell of a lot more inspiring than anything the honky dinosaurs of the Old Left could conjure.

John was a part of the Detroit Artist’s Workshop, which ran a network of communal houses along with a print shop and a performance space, but after years of police raids and drug busts, John decided it was time to up the ante. The breaking point came with the Detroit Riots that led to 43 deaths and nearly burned the Motor City to the ground in 1967. The Workshop proudly displayed a banner declaring “Burn Baby Burn” outside one of their communes and stood virtually alone amongst the white counterculture in declaring the riots to be a justified act of popular resistance against a racist police state.

Upon hearing an interview with Huey Newton in which the head of the Black Panthers suggested that the best thing white kids could do for the revolution was start a White Panther Party in solidarity with the third world, John did just that. Along with his wife Leni and a hippie half-breed named Pun Plamondon, John Sinclair formed the first White Panther Party in the charred ruins of Detroit with a rallying cry calling on the disaffected white youth of America to join the revolution in the name of rock n roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.

Many Black rebels were not amused, but John’s rag-tag army of heavily armed long hairs and burn outs proved themselves to be worthy comrades by organizing the white counterculture in support of third world struggle by redistributing bulk foods and Black Panther newsletters to impoverished communities across Detroit and the Bay Area. The White Panthers also raised the noise to downright frightening levels with their pioneering proto-punk band, the MC5, who John Sinclair managed and used like a fifty-megawatt bullhorn to promote the revolution far and wide.

Naturally, all this agitation against the amoral majority came at a price. John and his White Panthers may have joined their comrades in arms in Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, but they also joined them on J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro shitlist. In 1969, Sinclair himself was entrapped by an undercover officer into providing him with a king’s ransom of exactly two joints and was sentenced to a decade in prison for his charity. This is when John Sinclair officially became an underground celebrity. After Abbie Hoffman was booed offstage at Woodstock for attempting to bring attention to this injustice, John Lennon and Yoko Ono got involved by organizing their own rally in John Sinclair’s defense, bringing everyone from Bobby Seale to Stevie Wonder together at Ann Arbor’s Cristler Arena in 1971.

The John Sinclair Freedom Rally drew a sold-out crowd of 15,000 within two hours and John Sinclair’s case was overturned within days. But even miracles come at a price. The feds sicked their dogs on John and Yoko and nearly had the couple of bougie dabblers deported for their good deed. As for the freshly vindicated Sinclair, he had already been charged within months of his initial arrest along with his fellow White Panthers, Pun Plamondon and John Forrest on trumped up charges of conspiring to bomb a CIA office. These charges were also dropped after the government admitted to illegally wiretapping the Panthers and John even won a landmark Supreme Court case vindicating the constitutional right to privacy, but all the court cases took their toll, and the Michigan chapters of the White Panther Party closed its doors in 1973.

So, why then should you give a fuck about a bunch of musty old hippies with guns? For the same reason that I do, because the Second American Revolution is unfinished history. Everything that forgotten outlaws like John Sinclair fought for back in 1968 is more valid now than ever before. The war machine continues to rampage across the globe, performing My Lai Massacres by proxy from Bakhmut to Khan Younis, white supremacy remains a thriving multibillion dollar enterprise with the prison industrial complex devouring Black and brown bodies like a Ku Klux Cthulhu with bipartisan support, and it is the youth, the young people of Babylon, who continue to feel the pain of the third world even from a place of relative privilege.

I did. I spent my childhood as a middle-class prisoner of a Catholic school that violated my body and taught me that my gender identity rendered me wicked enough to deserve this trauma. And when I was lonely and hopeless, I would escape the horrors of my existence by pouring over the moldy old magazines in my mother’s basement vintage clothing store. This is where I discovered wild creatures like John Sinclair, the MC5, and the White Panther Party, and what they taught me was that I wasn’t alone, that my youthful rebellion wasn’t just valid, it was valuable because it served as a link to other oppressed people across the globe.

This was the truly brilliant thing about the White Panther Party. They made no attempt to co-opt the struggles of the third world, they simply pointed out the fact that young people were oppressed by the same power system and thus had every right to turn on their teachers and parents. Freaky people like John Sinclair militarized youth culture itself against the state and goddammit, we need this now more than ever. There is a reason that adolescents inherently identify with the ‘other’, from the ghetto to Gaza, and it has nothing to do with immaturity. Every single person under 18 is a second-class citizen in this country. American children are afforded all the rights and privileges of livestock, and this is why they are abused across the board at a far higher rate than any other demographic.

This has to stop, and John Sinclair gave us a glimpse into a world in which white children were empowered to stop it by embracing their otherness and throwing their lot in with other oppressed people across the globe who in turn taught them how to defend themselves against the adult establishment of the first world by any means necessary.

This is why I feel compelled to take a moment between the flashbacks and the war crimes to honor John Sinclair. He gave my battered inner child a loaded gun. Consider this rant a twenty-one-round solute from a fellow traveler.

Nicky Reid is an agoraphobic anarcho-genderqueer gonzo blogger from Central Pennsylvania and assistant editor for Attack the System. You can find her online at Exile in Happy Valley.