When Detroit Was Revolutionary
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Detroit was home to a vibrant radical Left, photographer Leni Sinclair, cofounder of the White Panther Party and the Detroit Artists Workshop, stood at the center of a local scene where political and cultural ferment merged. We spoke to her about those years of upsurge.
- Interview by
- Billie Anania
Leni Sinclair is something of a legend in Detroit. Her portraits of iconic musicians like Prince, Iggy Pop, Fela Kuti, Patti Smith, and the Grateful Dead have given her a reputation as a veteran rock photographer, but her archives reveal a lifetime dedication to political activism.
Raised in East Germany during the Cold War, Sinclair relocated to the United States in the late 1950s. While studying at Wayne State University, she helped cofound the avant-garde art cooperative Red Door Gallery, which became the Detroit Artists Workshop. In 1968, she cofounded the White Panther Party (WPP, later renamed the Rainbow People’s Party — more on that below) with her husband, John Sinclair, who managed Detroit’s iconic leftist proto-punk band MC5. The WPP disseminated Black Panther Party literature, organized independent community services, and combated racism and white supremacy. Their ten-point program — adapted from the Black Panthers — called for the free exchange of energy and materials, the end of money and the prison system, and the dissolving of all unnatural boundaries.
At eighty-one, Sinclair is still a sharp-tongued critic of police violence and capitalist exploitation in the United States. Earlier this year, an exhibition and monograph from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Motor City Underground, brought together the largest-ever compilation of her photographs from protests, rallies, and concerts throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
Art critic Billy Anania recently spoke with Sinclair about her life’s work, which has always existed at the intersection of art and radical politics.
Can you tell me about your development as a photographer and the kinds of work that got you interested in the medium?
I first picked up a camera before leaving East Germany. There was this little camera I used to take snapshots and send back home for my family, to keep up with my travels. Later on, I used it to document political activities with student government and antiwar demonstrations. I wasn’t very proud of it at the time, but I was always there to take pictures, so I view myself and my photography in this country as a participant observer. That was always my unspoken job.
I also took many pictures of musicians, but that was just a small part of my life — even though it is what I’m best known for nowadays. I haven’t taken many pictures lately, especially during the pandemic, but I’m sitting on an inexhaustible treasure trove of photographs from the last sixty years. I don’t have time to work on them all before I die, because there are too many and I am not going to live forever. Reviewing this new monograph that MOCAD published has been wonderful; I haven’t seen some of these photographs in many years.
How did your experience with student activism inform your own political development, particularly in moving from East Germany to the United States?
The first political organization I joined was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when it first started. I was just enamored with Tom Hayden and the Port Huron Statement. The philosophy it represented aligned with my own, because I didn’t leave East Germany to become a capitalist. My ideas never changed, but I also didn’t want to be confined. I wanted to see the rest of the world, not just Poland or Czechoslovakia. Leaving was easy before the Berlin Wall, but the rest of my family was left behind. While I could occasionally go visit them, they could not visit me until after 1989.
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.
Can you tell me more about the federal agents who infiltrated the organization?
We were so paranoid and careful to avoid speaking on the telephone, and we kind of suspected our phone was bugged by the Detroit Police and FBI. We thought there were bugs in our house, so we held meetings at certain trees in the park. About twenty years later, I found out in my Red Squad files that one of our people was an informant, and to this day we don’t know who it was. We lived in a commune with about thirty people, and it could have been any of them. It really has a chilling effect. We all looked alike, with long hair and bell-bottoms, and no one looked particularly like a cop. It could have even been someone I slept with, who knows? [laughs]
You also dealt with police raids in the Detroit Artists Workshop, correct?
There was a long time between them. I was under surveillance even before then, when I was a student at Wayne State and the police monitored our campus newspaper. Now and then, I would write letters to the editor, and the police didn’t like that, so they kept a file on me even back then. When I met John and we got involved in the DAW, they had their eyes on him. They couldn’t understand the new hippie movement, which to them was just dope and dirty feet. John ran into the law three times for marijuana, mostly because he was an organizer with radical ideas. They couldn’t get him on anything else.
A Detroit-based curator once told me that the city’s infrastructure is conducive to new forms of organizing. I’m curious about that idea in the ’60s and ’70s. What were some common political struggles, particularly with city government and the automotive industry?
Detroit has always been a factory town and, when the factories left, people were very poor. In the early ’60s, Detroit had 2 million people, and now it has about 700,000. It’s been a gradual degradation, with people leaving in addition to redlining and jobs moving south or abroad. Detroit declared bankruptcy because it did not have enough income from taxes to support the infrastructure. Instead of helping Detroit, the auto companies took everything away. They just sent overseers into the city, much like in Flint and other cities left behind by industry, where people are left to struggle — it’s as if their appointment of managers completely cut out democracy. They were even trying to sell famous artworks at the Detroit Institute of Arts to make some money.
Eventually, the city got out of bankruptcy, and it’s now on the upswing with lots of new construction. But that’s only downtown. The rest of the city is the same as always — huge patches of empty land where houses once stood, so much desolation. Some parts still look like cities in Germany after the war. Detroit’s population is still going down, while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That’s the nature of capitalism, I guess.
Can you tell me about the WPP’s mission and its embrace of the Black Panthers’ revolutionary-nationalist strategy?
When we were the WPP, we did try to work with the Black Panther Party (BPP). They first dismissed us as hippies and called us “psychedelic clowns,” because they didn’t know where we were coming from. They came around after a while because we were militant and supportive, and we distributed the BPP newspaper throughout Michigan. We were sending money every week and held political education classes with Detroit-based Black Panthers. But then the BPP was totally destroyed thanks to J. Edgar Hoover. They worked so damn hard doing the right thing, and then COINTELPRO sabotaged their organization, divided and conquered. That’s how the police work, so that you don’t know who is who, brother or informant.
What are some ways that people mistook the WPP for a white supremacist organization?
One crass example of us picking the wrong name is when my brother started the WPP in East Germany. His arrest warrant blamed it on me, arguing that John and I were influencing him from Detroit. The chairman of a very conservative organization, the Stasi, conflated the WPP with white supremacists so that my brother would go to jail. My brother was not a run-of-the-mill prisoner in East Germany; he didn’t even mind being imprisoned for his beliefs. He wasn’t trying to flee, either, he just wanted to help make a more humane socialism.
For young Americans devoted to fighting racism, what can they learn from your life and work, which are both presented in this book?
Like Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” Protests and rallies can be very thrilling. Last summer, I went to Black Lives Matter demonstrations myself, even though I’m too old to mingle with the masses in this pandemic. But I had to go, keeping my distance and shooting a few pictures, because I couldn’t help myself. It’s an exhilarating experience to march with people shouting for justice and freedom. Last summer was a major breakthrough in America.
It really is great to have alternate avenues of organizing and meeting people, to know that so many others are mobilized independently.
Right, there was no national leader telling them to go out. People are sick and tired of police brutality. Finally, with social media, they can use their pictures and videos to open each other’s eyes. It’s not propaganda, it’s real. This is our reality now.