Who We Are
Thoughts on a community's character
by Robert Faber
Published in April, 2009
A proud liberal, I moved from an East Coast factory town to Ann Arbor in 1954, sure I would find a compatible political atmosphere. I couldn't have been more wrong. Mayor Bill Brown, a Republican stalwart, was elected to his sixth term shortly after I arrived, and there were ten Republicans and a sole Democrat on city council. In 1957 U-M professor Sam Eldersveld won the mayor's seat as a Democrat, but that insurrection lasted only a single term.
The real revolution came twelve years later, when out-of-state students were allowed to vote in local elections for the first time. In April 1969, Bob Harris, U-M law professor, was elected mayor, and I won the traditionally Republican Second Ward by an eight-vote landslide. Three other Democrats joined us to comprise our party's first council majority in thirty years.
But revolutions have a way of encouraging disruption. Ann Arbor soon began experiencing weekend invasions of rock music played at glass-breaking decibels in many of our public parks. Within weeks, everyone in government installed an unlisted telephone line to dodge the complaints of Ann Arbor's symphony-oriented older generation.
After many weeks of near-riots and dueling threats from both the increasingly deaf participants (including the preprofessional Iggy Pop) and their distressed and equally confrontational parents, I met with Skip Taube, "minister of education" for John Sinclair's White Panther Party and spokesman for the insurgents. We peacefully resolved the dispute by restricting the music to the field bordering Huron High, comfortably out of range of the city's residential antagonists, and the bands agreed to limit their volume to ninety deci-bels-still enough to break glass while leaving most skulls intact.
But that was just the beginning. On the very hot night of June 16, 1969, about 500 U-M students and street kids began an unplanned celebration on South University Avenue with wine, firecrackers, and unrestrained good cheer. In the midst of all this a motorcyclist engaged in some stunt riding, and the police ticketed him.
Energized by the confrontation, the party continued past midnight. The next day the Detroit media pumped up the story, and that night the disturbance swelled to about 2,000 participants, prompting about 300 city, county, and state police to use night sticks, Mace, and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
The next morning, kids distributed leaflets inviting everybody to party again. The White Panther Party, in coalition with Students for a Democratic Society and the Rent Strike Committee, issued a list of demands, including closing South University to traffic and putting police under "Community Control so the Fascist Pigs won't continue to run amuck."
That night, an estimated 1,500 people showed up. Douglas Harvey, the hard-nosed, confrontational county sheriff, established a beachhead at Washtenaw and South University, placing a borrowed army tank in the center of the street, flanked by parallel rows of snarling police dogs. More peaceably, Mayor Harris and U-M president Robben Fleming met with several hundred of the dissidents in the square behind the Administration Building. Although the meeting was predictably raucous and punctuated with catcalls and insults, it helped to calm the tension. So did a performance by the White Panthers' "house band," the MC5. Finally, the air cooled, the conflict dissipated, and the streets returned to the People (well, some of the People).
In 1971 the radical, youth-oriented Human Rights Party won two seats on council, leaving us Democrats dependent on their cooperation to get things done. Their election had little real impact on the city's affairs, but it did change the climate in council meetings, leading to many dramatic post-midnight political confrontations. In March 1971, we passed the infamous marijuana ordinance that made possession and use of pot no more than a minor misdemeanor. The $5 penalty was a compromise between the $9 we Democrats wanted and the 25¢ penalty the Human Rights Party proposed. I remember at the end of the very loud and highly emotional evening of council debate and audience participation, one of my neighbors came up to me in tears, and said, "Bob, you have destroyed our town."
Fortunately, the town survived. And looking back, I'm proud that during those years of political and social turmoil, while some cities were calling out the National Guard to quell assorted scenes of violence, Ann Arbor remained reasonably well ordered and fairly free of dangerous and damaging turbulence. Much of this relative calm was doubtless due to the restraint exhibited by our city and university leadership, but that in turn was a reflection of the character and attitudes of the larger community. At a time when so many college towns throughout the nation were disrupted, most confrontations here were directed into raucous but reasoned discussion rather than violence. That's not a bad legacy for any community.
[Originally published in April, 2009.]
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