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This is significant as a social event, much less so as a musical event.
When John Sinclair, a guiding hand (don’t call him a manager) for the MC5, conceived of an event modeled after the Human Be-In held in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, he wanted to hold a day-long event that would include free food, free drugs, free love, and free music. Yeah, man!
And he wanted to have it in Belle Isle Park. So, he and other members of Trans-Love Energies (his organisation/anarcho situationists) started planning. They went down the straight route - unusual for Sinclair - and even got the proper permits.
And here they are just after getting the permits. Sinclair on the far left.
They designed the posters, and booked the musical acts. On April 30th, 1967, thousands of people streamed onto the island.
Some were cultural tourists looking to see what the new turned-on, freaky deaky culture was all about, but others were already immersed in it.
Michael Davis - bass player for MC5 recalls, “They were already there, they were stoned, they had the fringes on, they had the hair long, they had everything going.”
Also on the island that day were dozens of Detroit Police officers, including many on horseback. Gary Grimshaw - who designed a poster for the event - says as far as the police were concerned, the hippies were trouble.
“Well, because we smoked weed and hung out with black people, and we attracted suburban kids to come down and do the same. And they didn’t like that,” Grimshaw says. This is the poster he made along with the one at the top of the page.
The cops turned up mob-handed to oversee the whole thing. What did they think was going to happen? By any stretch of the imagination, this was just a group of stoners who wanted to change the world with love, not with tear gas and billy clubs. I just don’t understand why they were so uptight. Was their world really so good? This wasn’t about any actual threat to society more widely, it was a threat to The American Way and that had to be resisted. But you can’t keep people on the ship when the water looks so lovely to swim in.
For most of the day, the event remained peaceful. But at 7 p.m., the situation changed. The MC5 were on stage. Michael Davis explains what happened next.
“We started our ‘Black to Comm’ thing and wouldn’t you know it, ‘Black to Comm’ just, like, took the cap off the thing. And I mean, we always felt like we caused it, you know, that the chaos and the high energy of ‘Black to Comm’ just sent people, just turned it into a disaster.”
The police arrested a motorcyclist for reckless driving. A confrontation ensued with the audience before things got violent. Thousands fled the island. On the other end of MacArthur Bridge, police were again confronted by an angry mob. Glass was broken, and more than a dozen people were arrested. The day after the Detroit Love-In, Leni Sinclair — nine months pregnant at the time — started worrying about a backlash. She thought the police would blame Trans-Love Energies and hippies for the violence.
“We were scared,” Sinclair says.”We thought we may have to flee or something, I don’t know. With the foreboding aftermath, I remember we were huddling and just really being sad and disappointed and scared.”
Leni Sinclair says regardless of the Love-In’s violent outcome, change was in the air. She says things had to get better. In the following months, John Sinclair and Trans-Love Energies would continue their quest to legalize marijuana. Four days after the love-in, Leni Sinclair gave birth.
After the way the police had behaved, Sinclair would find other ways to disrupt the status quo as a founding member of the White Panther Party, a militantly anti-racist socialist group and counterpart of the Black Panthers.
Arrested for possession of marijuana in 1969, Sinclair was given ten years in prison. The sentence was criticized by many as unduly harsh, and it galvanized a noisy protest movement led by prominent figures of the 1960s counterculture. Sinclair was freed in December 1971, but he remained in litigation – his case against the government for illegal domestic surveillance was successfully pleaded to the US Supreme Court in United States v. U.S. District Court (1972).
Sinclair eventually left the US and took up residency in Amsterdam. He continues to write and record and, since 2005, has hosted a regular radio program, The John Sinclair Radio Show, as well as produced a line-up of other shows on his own radio station, Radio Free Amsterdam.
Sinclair was the first person to purchase recreational marijuana when it became legal in Michigan on December 1, 2019. Yeah! Stick that in your pipe and...err...well...smoke it, baby.