John Sinclair, 82, Dies; Counterculture Activist Who Led a ‘Guitar Army’

John Sinclair, a counterculture activist whose nearly 10-year prison sentence for sharing joints with an undercover police officer was cut short after John Lennon and Yoko Ono sang about his plight at a protest rally, died on Tuesday in Detroit. He was 82.

His publicist, Matt Lee, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was congestive heart failure.

As the leader of the White Panther Party in the late 1960s, Mr. Sinclair spoke of assembling a “guitar army” to wage “total assault” on racists, capitalism and the criminalization of marijuana. “We are a whole new people with a whole new vision of the world,” he wrote in his book “Guitar Army” (1972), “a vision which is diametrically opposed to the blind greed and control which have driven our immediate predecessors in Euro-Amerika to try to gobble up the whole planet and turn it into one big supermarket.”

He also managed the incendiary Detroit rock band the MC5. Their lyrics — “I’m sick and tired of paying these dues/And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse” — were a kind of ballad for the cause.

Mr. Sinclair, right, with members of the MC5, the rock group he managed, and friends in 1967.Credit…Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs, Archive, via Getty Images

Mr. Sinclair’s command of this “raggedy horde of holy barbarians,” as he described them in his book, was upended in 1969 when Judge Robert J. Colombo of Detroit Recorder’s Court sentenced him to nine and a half to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover police officer.

During the hearing, Mr. Sinclair argued that he had been framed.

“Everyone who is taking part in this is guilty of violating the United States Constitution and violating my rights and everyone else that’s concerned,” he said. He added, “There is nothing just about this, there is nothing just about these courts, nothing just about these vultures over here.”

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