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When Detroit Was Revolutionary

In the 1960s and 1970s, photographer Leni Sinclair stood at the center of a local scene where political and cultural ferment merged.

How did the White Panther Party first come together, and what was your involvement?

John and I were following the development of the Black Panther Party, the kinds of organizing they did for their communities and fighting against police brutality. We respected them so much. When Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver said white people could not join but could start their own party, we felt they were talking to us. We were already organizing, so we thought it natural to call ourselves the White Panther Party. Our poster child was the MC5. They were preaching the gospel and getting people interested.

What kinds of organizing and mutual aid did you do?

We modeled ourselves as a proper party with a central committee, chief of staff, and ministers. We were trying to imitate the BPP’s militancy, but we were not on the spectrum of left to right — we were not the new or old left really. We were outside the political structure, because we were hippies.

The people who joined the party were not idle, they were all organizing in their communities — food co-ops, data centers, voter registration drives. In fact, the White Panther name had to be abandoned after a while, once there were no longer people like MC5 to explain to kids that “white” did not mean white supremacy. It was an organization developed to fight against racism, but it was misunderstood. In this country, to call yourself white is a source of pride for racists, so we changed our name to the Rainbow People’s Party.

We decided against forming a national organization with chapters, because that created more potential for sabotage. There were already agents provocateurs that got us into trouble, and people went to jail, so we decided to create socialism on a smaller scale in Ann Arbor. We helped elect people to the city council and pass laws that were beneficial to the people, like a free clinic, free daycare center, free school, free food, free this and free that. We were very successful for a couple years — it felt like the golden age of Ann Arbor. But then the party, which was responsible for electing city council members, got infiltrated by some reactionaries who had no respect for what we were doing and fought against us, running people with no chance of getting elected. We eventually lost and got run out of Ann Arbor once the right wing took over again. That’s what happens when you have an organization. You have to keep your eye out for the people who want to destroy it from the inside.

We made coalitions with the Human Rights Party, which was a third party. We registered thousands of students at University of Michigan and passed legislation for the $5 marijuana fine — the first in the country. The reactionaries tried to get rid of that law and failed every time it got back on the ballot. They did succeed in raising the fine from $5 to $20, however [laughs], but still no jail time, so Ann Arbor remained at the forefront nonetheless.