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The Last Outlaw: Pun Plamondon‘s Radical Odyssey

Robert Downes - January 27th, 2005
These days, it’s common for musicians, rappers and would-be tough guys to pose as “outlaws” in hopes of dazzling the public.
But in the revolutionary ‘60s, Pun Plamondon was the real deal. A native son of Traverse City, Pun was on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list, living on the run in Algiers and the American underground on charges of bombing a CIA office in Ann Arbor.
As Minister of Defense for the radical White Panther Party, Plamondon risked life in prison for his freewheeling hippie lifestyle, not to mention a political platform that touted a life of rock & roll, drugs, and sex in the streets. Every parent’s nightmare, he was a folk hero to thousands of dissaffected youth throughout the Midwest who rallied to the music and radical standard of the MC5 rock band.
“It’s the old Jesse James syndrome,” he says during a phone interview from his home in southern Michigan. “People like the outlaw.”

NATURAL STORYTELLER
Today, Plamondon’s outlaw days are far away over the hills of time, but they still glow with the vibrancy of a master storyteller in his new book, “Lost from the Ottawa -- the Story of the Journey Back.” The lost hippie enclave of Plum Street still shimmers in his pages, as do images of the Motor City burning in the ‘67 riot and life on the run.
Indeed, after a life of misadventure, that’s just what Plamondon, 59, has become: an Ottawa elder and storyteller reunited with his lost heritage. It’s the summation of a resume that has included stints as a juvenile delinquent, drifter, farm labor organizer, hippie sandal maker, revolutionary, fugitive, alcoholic, and rock & roll bodyguard.
Plamondon will tell his story this Saturday, Jan. 29 at a 4 p.m. booksigning at Horizon Books in Traverse City. It’s an important event in that his book -- filled with the tempest of 50 years of a counterculture revolution in America -- both starts and ends in Northern Michigan.
“There are two climaxes in the book,” he says. “One is political with my days in the White Panthers and the other is spiritual where I reconnected with the Ottawa people to get on the path to redemption.”
Plamondon is a natural storyteller, superbly weaving his streetwise observations into a tale of the times, shotgunned with edgy humor and cold punk reality. It’s the story of an underdog, often fighting for his life both on the streets and against the power pyramid of America’s status quo. When Plamondon is held down by drunks one night in a Detroit gas station and has his legs and neck slashed with a straight razor, we feel his hand desperately clutching the blade as it slices his palm to the bone.
There are dozens of stories like that in the book, delivered with a sense of nonchalance that offers a concussive view of life underground or on the streets. Each time, Plamondon picks himself up and keeps moving towards his destiny.

BORN IN A MENTAL HOSPITAL
Conceived in a cherry orchard on Mission Peninsula, Plamondon was born in the old State Mental Hospital in Traverse City. His natural father was a chronic alcoholic and a half-blood Ottawa; his mother was a mixed blood Ojibwa diagnosed with syphillis.
Pun (a nickname) was adopted as a baby by the Plamondon family and attended St. Francis Schools, “an institution, as I remember it, of torture and torment,” he notes in his wry style.
The 1950s America that Plamondon writes of is unrecognizable in today’s consumer society where shopping has become a national pastime. He writes of his family being dirt poor at a time when the middle class had not yet taken root for most Americans. Traverse City had a skid row, Plamondon wore homemade clothes, and the constant press of failure weighed down on his adoptive father’s grocery store.
Plamondon grew up a rebellious, “hyperactive” child, constantly in trouble at school or with the law. He endured a year in a Catholic reform school (along with numerous beatings), and eventually dropped out of high school to become a drifter around the country in the early ‘60s, sometimes hustling his body for money and meals.

RADICAL CHANGES
While drifting around the country and living in missions during the early ‘60s, Plamondon was drawn to social justice issues and became a farm labor organizer. He recalls a time when thousands of migrant workers were living in fenced-in labor camps, prevented from unionizing by company goons.
From an early age, he identified with underdogs and the dispossessed. By 1964, his education in politics included an interest in folk music and various civil rights and peace movements such as Ban the Bomb and the No War Toys Movement. “I didn’t seek out or notice these movements because I had high political principles, on the contrary, I was politically ignorant and so had few political principles,” he writes. “I noticed these movements because they stood out, stood against. They did not accept the status quo, but instead, seemed to be going against the tide.”
By 1967, Plamondon found his way to Plum Street near the old Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit. The blighted neighborhood was in a renaissance along the lines of the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, with thousands of suburban teens flocking to a new hippie scene sweeping the country.
Plamondon fell in with John Sinclair, described in the media of the time as the “king of the hippies.” A poet, jazz afficionado and master of promotion, Sinclair was organizing Trans-Love Energies, a collective of artists, musicians and activists in Detroit’s Cass Corridor area. In Plamondon’s prose, Detroit in ‘67-‘68 comes alive as a gritty, urban Camelot whose turned-on youth are on fire with creating a new age from the old, spiritless, plastic culture, with the MC5 as its guitar-wielding knights.

THE WHITE PANTHERS
It was a tempestuous time. Plamondon gives a day-by-day rundown on the Detroit riot with vivid memories of looters rummaging through grocery stores and tanks rolling down the freeways. His troubles with the law also increased with the first of several warrants for smoking marijuana. Framed by an informant with a roach that turned up during a visit to Traverse City, Plamondon was faced with the threat of 20 years to life in prison.
“My political thinking was getting sharper and my attitude more militant -- especially since the Detroit riots, the murder of Dr. King, the police riots at the ‘68 convention, the murder of Black Panthers, the continuing war in Vietnam and the brutal oppression of domestic political opposition against it, and now this phony pot charge,” he writes.
He, and many other young people at the time, also felt that the country’s leadership had betrayed America’s ideals of freedom.
“The U.S. was doing everything backwards, it seemed to me. Instead of ousting dictators, they were supporting them. Instead of supporting struggles against colonialism, they were defending colonialism.”
Plamondon didn’t find much hope in the white student political movements of the time, such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “They worked hard and were oh, so serious, but they seemed to be lacking the vibrant energy of the wider youth movement.”
Inspired by the creative, anarchistic street theater of the Yippies! and the disciplined tough-guy stance of the Black Panthers, Plamondon conceived of the White Panther Party while spending 84 days in the Grand Traverse County Jail for possession of pot.

THE BOMBING
The creed of the White Panther Party was spread at MC5 concerts and through underground papers such as Detroit’s Fifth Estate. Thousands of tin buttons displaying a white panther on a purple background were passed out to teens in southeastern Michigan. “Naturally the parents, school authorities, and police were alarmed to see white suburban teenagers wearing white panther pins and carrying Mao’s Little Red Book and reading the speeches of Fidel Castro and Malcolm X,” he writes. “The authorities mobilized for a counterattack.”
By 1968, Trans-Love Energies had moved to Ann Arbor’s Hill Street where Sinclair established a commune supported by the MC5. In September of that year, leftist radicals exploded a dynamite bomb at a clandestine C.I.A. office near the U-M campus.
Ultimately, the blame led to Plamondon, who was fingered by a Detroit-area extremist who was known to have been involved in a number of bombings. Plamondon shaved, cut his hair, and went on the run in the American underground, living in a series of communes and safe houses across the nation while occupying a position on the FBI’s top-10 “Most Wanted” list.
“A part of me was thrilled,” he writes. “Imagine me, a little ole’ high school dropout from little ole’ Traverse City with the whole f*cking FBI looking for me. That had to count for something.”

STEAK TARTAR
By 1970, his trail led to Algeria in North Africa, a refuge for numerous radicals and fugitives, including Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther author of “Soul on Ice.” Algeria was the kind of place where you could find a $3 hotel on a street like the Boulevard de Che Guevara.
Plamondon’s sense of humor comes through in one episode involving a restaurant encounter. Sick of eating nothing but gyros from street vendors, he decides to order the most expensive dish on the menu, not knowing that steak tartar is raw meat. The dish -- “a reddish brown blob of raw flesh with yellow marbling flecked with green” -- is delivered to his table with a flourish and a “monsieur.”
“With trepidation I jabbed a forkful. Up came a clump of raw meat, raw egg and a big booger of egg white snot dangling down coated with pepper and chives. I put my fork down, laid ten dinars on the table, and got up and left. I decided to stick with the gryos. I also decided I could not live here, it was all too alien -- I wanted to go home.”
Algieria turns out not to be the romantic revolutionary utopia Plamondon imagined. There were no hippies, rock & roll, junk food, FM radio, art scene or pot. Plus, Eldridge Cleaver was a self-absorbed bore.
Plamondon made his way back to the States. Later that summer, he was driving through Northern Michigan with friends in a van bearing an arsenal of weapons. One of the party threw a number of beer cans out the door during a stop in Indian River, which got the Michigan State Police on their trail. Plamondon and his friends were captured north of the Mackinac Bridge, ending two years on the run.

THE SUPREMES
The early ‘70s were the hey-day of dramatic court trials involving left-wing radicals. John Sinclair was serving 9-10 years in Jackson Prison for having given an undercover cop two joints several years earlier. The Chicago Seven were involved in a circus-like trial for conspiracy.
Plamondon’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine the legality of warrantless wiretaps which had been used to bug his headquarters in Ann Arbor. As events unraveled, the case had serious ramifications for the Nixon administration (see sidebar).
Plamondon got a favorable Supreme Court ruling and the wiretaps were deemed illegal. But he still had to face pot charges in Traverse City, weapons and pot charges in Chicago, and charges of distributing obscene materials to minors (an underground newspaper) in Ann Arbor.

BACK TO THE OTTAWA
Plamondon also had to face his continuing descent into chronic alcoholism which began at the age of 14. The abuse, including bouts with cocaine, accelerated after his release from jail when he got involved in the rock & roll lifestyle, first as a driver for Kiss and then as head of security for Bob Seger.
Today, he’s been sober for 22 years as the result of finding a new spiritual home with Michigan’s Anishnabee community. Plamondon had been told as a child that his natural parents were of Indian heritage, and eventually, he gravitated back to his native culture.
The last chapters of his book describe his return to the Ottawa and how he became a tribal elder and a storyteller. Like many ‘60s radicals, Plamondon’s life matured into more acceptable ways of changing society. He got involved in an archeological dig of an Indian village in Grand Rapids. He also renounced his Catholic faith to accept the “Great Mystery” of the Ottawa religion, an inspiration which led to his last drink in 1982.
Today, Plamondon isn’t living on easy street; he’s dabbled at making furniture and has sunk all of his funds into publishing his book. He’s still in touch with many of his radical friends from the ‘60s, however, and his afterword offers a glimpse at what they’re all doing today. His book, “Lost from the Ottawa,” reads like an action thriller, superbly written with vivid images of a counterculture on the rise and the grime and grit of street-level humor. It would make a great movie -- a story which seems too unbelievable to be true, and yet as true as Plamondon’s Ottawa roots.


A conversation with Pun Plamondon
NE: How do you assess your revolutionary days in the ‘60s? Do you think they did any good?
Plamondon: Absolutely I think they did some good. The whole nation was in a turmoil at the time with the civil rights movement and people were becoming more aware of things like healthy food.
We were coming out of a pretty dull time of the Eisenhower years and rock & roll and the anti-war movement were rejections of what we euphemistically called the ‘plastic’ culture. That led us into next directions such as organic farming and the environment.
The movement itself opened a lot of doors for things like gay and women’s liberation. All of those things were made possible because of the general turmoil and the challenging of authority of the time.
NE: So you feel that things have changed for the better?
Plamondon: It’s the best of times and the worst of times. I think there’s been a broadening of our culture and an acceptance of different points of view in looking at the world. Of course, there are also the right-wing stalwarts who still want everything to be like it was in 1956.
I don’t think the final chapter has been written on the ‘60s yet. I think we’re still dealing with its changes and will be for some time.

Did Pun bring down Richard Nixon?
Pun Plamondon’s Supreme Court case over illegal wiretaps and the Watergate break-in by the corrupt Nixon administration were connected. In a bizarre twist of fate, the fate of the imprisoned ‘60s radical may have led to the resignation of the President.
Faced with an impending Supreme Court decision on the illegality of wiretaps, President Nixon personally ordered the break-in of the Watergate building to have his bugs removed from the Democratic National Headquarters (DNH). The capture of the Watergate burglars by Washington D.C. police and the subsequent lies of the President led to his resignation.
“It went down like this,” Plamondon writes. “The Justices decided the Supreme Court wiretap issue on Friday the 16th of June, 1972. ... the decision was to be kept secret until it was released by the Court, in this case, the following Monday. However, someone at the high Court notified the White House and informed them the wiretap issue had been lost.
“This meant that any wiretaps installed by the Executive branch, or its agents, or Nixon’s re-election committee, would be illegal on Monday, the 19th, when the ruling was made public. The Watergate burglars were sent in to the DNH to retrieve the electronic listening devices on Saturday, the 18th of June, before the Monday release of the decision made warrentless wiretaps unconstitutional. The rest, as they say, sucks.”
Plamondon has never publicly admitted or denied his role in the bombing of the CIA office in Ann Arbor, but he is proud of his part in Nixon’s resignation.
“I can only add that whoever bombed the CIA office in September of 1968 set in motion the planets that would ultimately collide, resulting in the Supreme Court decision which prompted the Watergate break-in. Whosoever bombed the CIA indirectly brought down the Nixon administration...”
He adds in our interview, “I never said I bombed the building and I never said I didn’t. I’ve left a little intrigue about what happened.”




 
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