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John Sinclair: Poet and Activist

Los Angeles City Beat , 28th July 2006

American culture has closed up around John Sinclair. There’s just not enough freedom in it any more – not enough free time, not enough outrage, not enough difference between one place and the next, not enough high culture or genuine bohemia, not enough Sun Ra or Dylan.

Anyone who didn’t live through his era – or, more particularly, through his life – might not know what he’s talking about.

Poet, founder of a 1960s arts collective called the Detroit Artists Workshop, and manager of the proto-punk rock band MC5, Sinclair co-founded the White Panther Party in 1968 after one of his heroes, Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton, said in an interview that the best thing white people could do to support their struggle was to start such a thing. So he did. And paid the price, serving a couple years of a nine-and--a-half- to ten-year prison term for marijuana distribution after police started swarming the group.

He was released after John Lennon and others put on a concert in his defense, but that probably wouldn’t happen today. The White Panther Party credo of “rock ’n’ roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” is completely impossible in a world where only millionaires are considered real artists and Americans happily embrace domestic wiretapping and corporate spook culture. Well, hell, it was impossible back then, too. But the difference is: Sinclair and a million other beautiful dreamers believed it.

– Dean Kuipers

CityBeat: Why did you move to Amsterdam in 2003?

John Sinclair: I just can’t stand it here anymore. And plus, the positive part: I love it there. It’s a kind of place where I want to live in my old age. No one’s armed. They have a social structure where they take care of people who don’t have any place to live, if you don’t have any money. If you get sick, you can get healed. And then, they don’t care if you get high. If you’ve got six euros, you can get a gram of the best fuckin’ weed you ever smoked in your life.

What changed here? It’s not just the war on drugs, right?

No, but it’s just the downward trend that that represents. The venality, the hypocrisy. Everybody knows the war on drugs is a shuck. But still and all, they’re all profiting from it. Musicians and those in the record business; they know it’s all horseshit, but they’re all groveling to keep milking it. And that this guy Bush could take the election, and then they believe anything he says, and nobody says nothing about it, so he’s got us in perpetual war. Finally, I concluded: there’s nothing for me. I’m 64 years old. I lived in New Orleans for 12 years, and I got evicted. I thought: Jesus Christ, this is humiliating! And I thought: If I’m going to starve, I could starve in Amsterdam just as easily.

But America used to hold magic for you.

I loved it here. I never even went to Europe until 1998. This used to be a great country, man! Until Ronald Reagan and the CIA. It’s turned into CIA country. It’s a country run by fuckin’ narrow-minded little guys who all want to get millions of dollars. It’s all business. Corporations. And they have no noblesse oblige. They have no taste. They have no humanity. America is becoming a reflection of their shitty reality.

When you helped create the Detroit Artists Workshop, was it a political movement?

We weren’t political at first. We hated politics. I mean, political organizing – getting people to go to meetings and putting together programs – when I got out of prison, I did that. Before that, it was just ideas, and organizing cultural activities. We didn’t have no meetings. We had dances! [long laugh] Because what was there to talk about? We all felt the same. Everybody hated the war. Nobody went in the army. Everybody hated the drug laws and smoked pot and got high. Nobody wanted to oppress black people.

Why start the White Panther Party?

We were already there and we [the MC5] had a record contract. We’d just recorded our first album. And then we thought: We don’t want to go out there and just be another band. We want them to know what we feel and think, so we’re going to start this White Panther Party. We’ll make an impact then! Not such a great idea, in retrospect.

Why not?

Well, because we took it in the ass! For sticking our head above the ground. But we had tremendous feeling for the Black Panther Party. Because they were getting fucked. They were getting gunned down, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and all their leadership was in prison. They were the James Browns of real life to us. We wanted to say: We’re rock ’n’ roll with the Black Panthers! Come with us! Nice people! Not like they say! Ha!

It was an anarchist movement, basically, but you did start a program of building institutions

Yeah. When I came out of prison, I was more of a Maoist. From ’72 to ’75, in Ann Arbor, we were engaged in institution-building. We created what we called the Tribal Council, and we organized all the longhairs and the anarchists and all that. Nobody knows about this. The White Panther Party was really based on the Yippies. And we really wanted to merge with the Yippies. But even so, we gave speeches and organized events, we had rock ’n’ roll bands, light shows, a newspaper, houses. We had housing. We had six houses in Detroit in 1965, plus the Artists’ Workshop. We saw that we could provide places for people to be like we wanted to be.

Did you coordinate with folks like SDS?

We hated SDS. I mean, not hated them, we admired them for their nerve, but they weren’t anything like us. They didn’t even listen to the Beatles. They listened to folk music. They didn’t even get high. And then they took all these things out of our book and never gave us credit for ’em, and just as well, because they fucked it all up. Communal fucking. Taking drugs. They all did it in this kinda ego-driven context that they were all in. I mean, there in Ann Arbor, with Bill Ayers and Tom Hayden and them? They never came to the free concerts. They never came to the MC5 dances or anything. We were having a ball. We flourished.

Why do you think the war on drugs is our archetypal battle right now?

The template of the war on wrugs is what rules our society – certainly it rules our foreign policy. What is Iraq but a drug bust template? You go in, you kick the door down, you grab the people, you throw ’em in jail, you take all their shit. They resist, you drop bombs on ’em, you have helicopters everywhere. This thing has worked so well for ’em against us, the pot-smokers. The only progressive thing happening right now is the medical marijuana movement.

You said the other day that the war on drugs has already been won.

Why not? The squares won the war on drugs. Okay, you won. You don’t need to spend any more of the taxpayers’ money on this. You’ve pulverized us. You’re number one! We’re pitiful, we’re drug users, maybe, but we ain’t any threat to you anymore. You’ve killed us. Withdraw the troops. Send out some humanitarian aid. Restore our crops! Send in Halliburton! Bring the troops home. Turn ’em loose on the terrorists.

How does your poetry work in a political context?

When Allen Ginsberg died, I realized that he played this incredible role of talking about shit from the context of poetry, but he talked about real shit. What matters to me is art and music. Because to me, and this is the biggest ugliness of today, on top of all this other, is that there’s no art. Black Americans don’t know who Miles Davis was, or Muddy Waters, or Louis Armstrong. But when Ginsberg died, I wrote a couple pieces that deal with some social issues. God help me, what if they ever put me on TV doing this? I’ll be assassinated. Maybe that’s too extreme. They don’t have to assassinate you now. You’re out, anyway. Anybody like us – intellectuals, music lovers, flesh lovers – real people! – they’re after us.

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