It was spring 2003, the run-up to the Iraq War. I had just entered law school and the government was priming the country to bomb another place that most Americans couldn’t find on a map; to fight, kill and die on a mass scale so that oilmen, arms merchants and bankers could make a different kind of killing. Business as usual, maybe, but I couldn’t just keep building up my life as though I weren’t taking part in it. My tax dollars were going to burn more innocent brown bodies, and there I was, studying the law to advance up the ranks of the society dropping the bombs.
Like millions of people around the world, I took to the streets. But given the stakes, the protest marches felt tired. They didn’t require putting anything on the line, and I was ready to put everything on the line, including my professional future. For my own salvation, I sought out music and culture that reflected the kind of rage and frustration that churned inside me. I wanted a soundtrack that could melt the face off the façade of the system, that penetrated the apathetic silence and filled my heart with the knowledge that I was not alone.
On cue, I discovered MC5.
I should say rediscovered. I had heard the band before, back in my adolescent punk days. But at thirteen, I was too young to receive the message. The musicians seemed too distant, too heavy, too serious. When I found them again in law school, it was like experiencing Picasso’s "Guernica" for the first time — art that made sense of the darkness.
I stumbled on the band indirectly, during an independent study of the Chicago Seven trial. In the summer of ’68 — the so-called “Year of Rage” — Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies teamed up with the Black Panthers and other anti-war groups to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It was a time when artists were still relevant and saw it as their duty to be on the front lines. Genet was there. Ginsberg. Burroughs. The best minds of a generation mobilized.
Of the bands invited by the organizers to play in Grant Park, only MC5 showed up. Only they had the courage to make music for the resistance against the American night. They played in the middle of the park, in the middle of the people, surrounded by Chicago police in riot gear.
At the time, MC5 had just found their voice. They’d formed in 1964 — four teenage friends in the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park — but only became the band we know today in 1967, while smoking weed in an attic during the Detroit Uprising. They reconceived the band against the sounds of wailing sirens and images of the dispossessed taking back control of their lives at the cost of everything around them.
In The Hard Stuff, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer’s sharp-edged recent memoir that makes you feel like you’re asleep at the wheel, he describes how the ’67 uprising shaped their music and ethos, leading them to create sounds that weren’t like, but actually were, a revolution. “The people of Detroit who had been on the short end of the stick for so long lashed out at everything that represented generations of racism and poverty….During the insurrection, [band manager John Sinclair’s] place was raided by the police, who took exception to the ‘BURN BABY BURN” sign that he put on the roof. The scene in the living had been a serious confrontation with John, holding his newly born daughter, telling them ‘Either shoot me or get the fuck out of my house.’”
The group loved what Warhol was doing in New York with the Factory. They wanted to create an aesthetic experience that burned through manufactured consciousness and exposed and liberated the mind: true freedom in every cell and orifice. Democracy is supposed to be a wild vision of liberty and experiment, not the tired resentments of old white men crying in their beer and sending young people off to die. Kick out the jams, motherfucker!
MC5 wanted freedom for the hippies as well as the workers in the auto plants. When the invitation to Chicago came down, their friends who'd worked in the factories were coming home in body bags. They didn’t ask what the terms were, what the stage was like, or what fruit was going to be in the dressing room. They packed up the van and drove into the maelstrom.
The police caged the band as they set up, smacking batons on their shields and pounding out the familiar beat of authority and fascism. The event in Chicago was dubbed the “Festival of Life,” and the state went after its principals much as they cracked down against the J20 protesters two years ago in Washington, charging them with incitement to riot.
It was an ugly spectacle all around. Prosecutors bound and gagged Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers in the courtroom like a slave, and denied him a lawyer in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. They sanctioned William Kuntsler, the defendants’ lawyer, sentencing him to four years in prison. The band did not escape the feds’ wrath: The FBI surveilled MC5 and made them a target of COINTELPRO, a program that monitored and harassed radical groups and anyone that the U.S. government deemed a threat. The FBI infiltrated the band’s scene and went after John Sinclair, in a failed attempt to incarcerate him for life on possession of two joints.
When I discovered this history in law school, Sinclair was of particular interest to me for a lot of reasons. He was a poet, a rebel visionary, and after he was convicted, beat his case with the help of another great radical lawyer, Len Weinglass, who in United States v. United States District Court got the court to rule that it was unconstitutional for the government to engage in domestic surveillance without a warrant. When I got Sinclair’s number from a friend and called him out of the blue, he immediately intuited that I wanted to talk about more than the procedural mechanisms and constitutional grounds that led to the federal court’s ruling. He kindly asked me what was really going on, and I told him about my existential and professional crises, about how I needed to put my beliefs into action, not for anyone but myself, so that I could keep going, and in some small way cleanse the stain of a lifetime of complicity.
We talked for two hours. Despite the FBI breathing down his neck for decades, he was jovial. He made me laugh and feel good about the path I was heading down. People had rocked the boat in very big ways and lived to tell the tale. It was better this way, a more interesting world. It wasn’t fun being prosecuted by the U.S. government — you rattle that cage, you’re going to pay — but no one he ever knew who stood up against the American war machine for the right reasons had ever regretted it. In fact, it counted as the proudest moments of their lives. There was a long and burning tradition of raising hell. The MC5 manager told me that this tradition is here for the likes of you, my friend, to sustain you, nourish you, and give you strength in your fight for a better world.
Several weeks later, I was in midtown Manhattan at rush hour, in front of Rockefeller Center, lying in the middle of Fifth Avenue as the sirens blared. As they put me in handcuffs and dragged me away, the people on the streets screamed: “NO BUSINESS AS USUAL! / NO BLOOD FOR OIL! / STOP THE WAR!” It was a moment that I carry with me to this day, when the sounds of liberty and defiance filled my heart with a freedom that cut at the bars of my jail cell.
Now, when I stand in front of judges who have no time for talk about justice — when I look back over the courtroom and see nothing but black and brown faces; when I represent activists who stand up against money and power; when I’m threatened with sanctions from attorneys general and corporate lawyers — I think about those who have come before me, who laid down the soundtrack of the resistance, who looked beyond the confines of their own lives and understood that there comes a time when you have to pick a side.
At the shows in the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, JC Crawford, the official MC of the MC5, would introduce the band. His words speak to us in our deeply troubled time: “Brothers and sisters, I want to hear some revolution out there, I want to hear some revolution. The time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds. Five seconds of decision. Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move. It’s time to get down with it. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to testify, and I want to know — are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial, THE MC5!”
Jason Flores-Williams is a Denver-based civil liberties attorney.
Westword occasionally publishes op eds and essays on matters of interest to Denver residents. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to [email protected]