Contemporaneous with the overtly political Black Panther Party and civil rights movement in the United States and the autonomous movements in Europe, new subcultures began to emerge, which took on symbolic and aesthetic forms as a rejection of consumer culture. When the American poet and activist John Sinclair asked the Black Panthers what white people could do to support their cause, the response was: start your own antiracist political party for white people. Sinclair did just that.
In 1968, Sinclair cofounded the White Panther Party as a militant, antiracist, socialist group composed primarily of young white radicals working toward goals similar to the Black Panthers’. At the time, Sinclair was also managing the Detroit rock band the MC5 (Motor City Five), who were becoming known for their incredibly loud and high-energy performances. The band’s sound has been described as directly influenced by the deafening, repetitive noises they heard blasting from the factory lines of Detroit’s automotive industry. Meanwhile, the band’s lyrics, imagery, and performances were molded in militant politics. The band’s general image included the icon of the White Panther Party, an adaptation of the Black Panther Party’s logo featuring a white panther in place of the black one. The White Panthers’ agenda included “fighting for a clean planet and the freeing of political prisoners” along with “rock ’n roll, dope, sex in the streets and the abolishing of capitalism.”[i]
In an episode infamous in the annals of rock history, the MC5 was the only band to perform at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. When police violently broke up protests at the convention, many of the scheduled musical acts backed out. The MC5 carried on, though, its members allegedly plugging their amplifiers into a generator used by a hot dog concession stand after they were cut off from the primary power supply. Silent footage of the performance exists, made by FBI field agents who were tasked with following the group in attempts to thwart its political agenda.[ii]
[i] White Panther Party, “White Panther Party ‘Ten-Point Program,’” Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, July 4, 1970 (Roz Payne Sixties Archive, https://rozsixties.unl.edu/items/show/528).
[ii] Josh Jones, “The MC5 Performs at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Right Before All Hell Breaks Loose,” Open Culture, May 16, 2017, http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/the-mc5-performs-at-the-1968-chicago-democratic-national-convention-right-before-all-hell-breaks-loose.html.