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Symbionese Liberation Army

By Wikipedia

The Symbionese Liberation Army was an American-based group that considered itself a revolutionary vanguard army and was a proponent of radical leftist ideology. Members of the group were accused of committing murders, bank robberies, and acts of violence between 1973 and 1975. During this time, their underground fugitive period, they became the top ongoing media story, making their names and nicknames household words in the USA, even though they never had more than 8 members at one time (and perhaps no more than 18 - including Patty Hearst - in total). They are remembered most for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

 


The SLA were seen by some as a radical leftist group that had turned violent and by others as simply as a murderous gang of criminals and thugs. Neither description is accurate, though there is some truth in both. The truth to the thug argument is that they did commit horrendous acts of violence and some of their members had previously been in jail for very serious crimes. The truth in the political argument is that the rest of the members were white, middle-class, college-educated, male and female twenty-somethings with relatively bright futures - if only they had they chosen to be part of the establishment. In short, they did not need to be bank robbing murderers to get along in life. 

If you did not live through this period of our history (which saw the U.S. engage in a war it lost despite murdering whole villages of people in Vietnam while the rest of the country argued - sometimes violently - about whether or not any more of our soldiers should be sent there to die), you might have a difficult time understand how a group of young middle-class people could become terrorists. There was a feeling that the country was run by amoral criminals (well, actually it was) who cared as little for its own people as those it attempted to bomb out of existence.

That is not to excuse what they SLA did. Millions of Americans rightly felt the war was a tragic mistake, that more needed to be done in the areas of women's rights, civil rights, etc., but they did not take up arms and kill innocent people. Some SLA members may have joined the cause out of leftist political beliefs, but their actual actions were those of terrorists and were completely unjustifiable in any context. (They were no more justifiable than the actions of right wing Christian terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, James C. Kopp and Eric Rudolph.)

The SLA was largely unknown until they claimed responsibility for assassinating an African-American Superintendent of Schools for Oakland. Though they called him a "fascist" for agreeing to an identity card system for the troubled schools, murdering him won them no support on the Left (if anything some on the right, particularly KKK members, must have been tickled to see another prominent African-American dead).

Known and notable members

Founding members

  • Russell Little (SLA nickname Osceola or Osi), arrested for the shooting of Marcus Foster. Little was in custody during the time that Patty Hearst was with the SLA
  • Joseph Remiro (Bo), arrested with Russell Little. Little and Remiro were the prisoners whom the SLA intended to swap for Hearst
  • Donald DeFreeze (General Field Marshal Cinque Mtume), an escaped prisoner and the SLA's only African-American member after Thero Wheeler left.
  • Thero Wheeler, who escaped the Vacaville Correctional Facility in August of 1973. He escaped the SLA early on as well.
  • Robyn Sue Steiner, who stole the cyanide used in the Foster killing and was the girlfriend of Little. She left after the Foster killing.
  • William Wolfe (Cujo)
  • Angela Atwood (General Gelina)
  • Patricia Soltysik, aka Mizmoon Soltysik (Zoya)
  • Camilla Hall (Gabi), Soltysik's lover
  • Nancy Ling Perry (Fahizah)
  • Emily Harris (Yolanda)
  • William Harris (Teko), Emily Harris's husband, and eventual leader of the SLA following DeFreeze's death

Later members (after the Hearst kidnapping)

  • Patty Hearst (Tania)
  • Wendy Yoshimura, former member of the Revolutionary Army (a bombing group) with Willie Brandt and Paul Rubenstein.
  • Kathleen Soliah, a friend of Atwood's. She met Brandt as a visitor to the Soledad prison he was sent to. Soliah became involved when approached by the SLA after the shootout
  • Jim Kilgore, Kathleen Soliah's boyfriend
  • Steven Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's brother
  • Michael Bortin, who later married Kathleen Soliah's sister

Associates and sympathizers

  • Josephine Soliah, Kathleen Soliah's sister and later the husband of Martin Bortin
  • Bonnie Jean Wilder, Seanna, Sally (a friend of Remiro's), Bridget - all mentioned in Hearst's book Every Secret Thing as potential members
  • Micki McGee and her husband (though they didn't officially marry until he was dying of cancer) Jack Scott, a writer and critic of organized sports, rented a farmhouse in which SLA members hid for a period. He wanted to write a book about them (which was never published). Scott, a Berkeley graduate, tried to apply the radical Left views to professional sports and wrote of how athletes were "exploited."  Basketball star Bill Walton was a friend of Scott, and Jack's name became tied to the SLA after Walton revealed he had been contacted by agents investigating the case.
  • Bill Walton publicly supported Scott and his wife in their refusal to give information to the grand jury. I wonder what he would say if some current basketball player took that position regarding someone who was harboring known terrorists?
  • Jay Weiner, a 20 year old intern with Newsday and a sportswriter, who delivered a cryptic message to "Tania, Teko, Yolanda, Jack and Micki" via assembled reporters after being compelled to speak to a grand jury. He worked with Scott but refused to testify against him.
  • Philip Shinnick, a former Olympic long-jumper, who, along with Weiner, initially refused to testify to a grand jury in Pennsylvania regarding Scott's harboring of the SLA. Unlike Scott, both Weiner and Shinnick served time in jail

Formation and initial activities

Prison visits and political film

Russ Little remembers that the SLA began to form as a result of a prison visitation program (Venceremos) and a series of San Francisco film screenings within the radical left. The idea of South American style urban guerilla activity appealed to a number of people around Willie Wolfe who was an anthropology student involved in studying the prison system.

Co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner, who described herself as a "nice Jewish girl from Miami" in an exclusive San Francisco Chronicle story in 1979, claimed that Little was a gentle, idealistic person until he began visiting the California prisons.

Amongst anti-prison activists within the New Left it was a common belief that America's prisons were concentration camps designed to repress African Americans. This led some sections of the radical left to believe that all African Americans were political prisoners, and that Black power ideology would naturally appeal to all prisoners. Cujo (Willie Wolfe) developed this ideology into a plan for action, linking student ideologists with prisoner militants. (Stone 2004).

DeFreeze escapes prison

The SLA formed after the escape from prison by Donald DeFreeze, who adopted the byname "Field Marshal Cinque." Cinque took this name from the reported leader of the slave rebellion which took over the Spanish slave ship Amistad in 1839. Cinque escaped from the Soledad State Prison on March 5, 1973.

DeFreeze had been active in the Black Cultural Association while at the California Medical Facility, a state prison facility in Vacaville, California, where he had made contacts with members of the radical political organization known as Venceremos. He sought refuge among these contacts, and ended up at a commune known as Peking House in the San Francisco Bay Area. For some time he shared living quarters with future SLA members Willie Wolfe and Russ Little, then moved in with Patricia Soltysik, also known as "Mizmoon". DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers and began to outline the plans for forming the "Symbionese Nation".

The word "Symbionese" is thought to be derived from symbiosis, a term used in biology to denote mutually beneficial interaction between different species; apparently the founders of the SLA had different human races in mind when coining the term. The Black Panthers had split violently in 1971 and the more militant faction called itself the Black Liberation Army. As this was a multicultural terrorist group, it is not hard to understand why the name Symbionese Liberation Army was chosen.

Russ Little attests that the group's primary activity during this period was acquiring, storing and training in firearms at various public shooting ranges (Stone 2004). Co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner fled to England after DeFreeze threatened to kill her and Thero Wheeler skips town after his life is threatened for not going along with the planned assassination of Marcus Foster.

Assassination

The SLA made their first move on November 6, 1973 when they murdered Oakland, California superintendent of schools Dr. Marcus Foster. They characterized Dr. Foster's plan to introduce identification cards into Oakland schools as "fascist." Ironically, Dr. Foster had opposed the use of identification cards in his schools, and his plan was a watered down version of similar plans that had been proposed by others. Dr. Foster, who was black, was popular on the left and in the black community, and his murder was considered a counterproductive, pointless action by just about everybody; thus, they garnered no support, just media attention. On January 10, 1974, Joe Remiro and Russ Little were arrested and charged with the murder of Dr. Foster. Little was ultimately acquitted on retrial, but Remiro was convicted and remains in prison on a life sentence.

Prisoner swap

As a result of the arrest of Remiro and Little the SLA began planning their next action: kidnapping an important figure to negotiate a prisoner swap (Stone, 2004). Documents found by the FBI at one abandoned safehouse revealed that an action was planned for the "full moon of January 7". The FBI did not take any precautions and the SLA did not act until a month later. On February 4, publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, then a Berkeley college student, was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. The SLA had chosen to kidnap Hearst to increase the news coverage of the incident.

The SLA initially demanded a prisoner swap for Remiro and Little. When this proved impracticable, a ransom, in the form of a food distribution program, was demanded for her release. The demanded value of food to be distributed fluctuated wildly: on February 23 the demand was for $4 million, but peaked at $400 million. Some free food was actually distributed. However, this was stopped when one of the four distribution points suffered a riot (Stone, 2004). Hearst, however, was not released.

Conditions of the initial imprisonment of Patty Hearst

While the FBI was conducting an ineffective search, the SLA took refuge in a number of safe-houses. While under the SLA's control, Hearst was subjected to a series of ordeals that her mother described as "brainwashing". This claim is viewed by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, as extreme and unsubstantiated. The change in Hearst's politics has been claimed to be Stockholm syndrome. Hearst was later examined by the specialist psychologist Margaret Singer, who agreed with this theory. The brutal treatment she received from her captors might be taken as evidence for that diagnosis.

Communique #3: Prisoner of War

Geneva convention

The SLA claimed to be holding Hearst according to the conditions of the Geneva convention. At the time, the Geneva conventions only covered combatants and non-combatants in declared wars between states. As such, it is difficult to comprehend Hearst's imprisonment as a POW, as Hearst was not a combatant for the United States in any meaningful sense. Additionally, the threat to execute Hearst for the alleged criminal activities of her parents was not sanctioned by the Geneva conventions of the time. Under the modern Geneva convention regarding wars within states the actions of the SLA would probably be considered legal, however, this convention is very generous to combatant forces, allowing them to arrest and try opposing forces according to the arresting power's law.

Hearst was imprisoned in solitary confinement, in a suburban closet sufficiently large to lie down in. Like any prisoner, Hearst's contact with the outside world was regulated by her captors. Hearst was adequately fed and clothed, though regularly threatened with execution.

Political inculcation

In order to provide a measure of human contact, the SLA allowed Hearst human contact, in the form of educational or indoctrination programs in SLA ideology. In Hearst's taped recordings, used to announce demands and conditions, Hearst can first be heard extemporaneously expressing SLA ideology on day 13 of her capture (Stone 2004). After Hearst began adopting SLA ideological positions, the group improved her conditions.

In later taped communiqués Hearst denounced her former life, her parents and fiancé.

After Hearst adopted the SLA's ideology, at least in its outward forms, she was integrated into the group as an active member. Hearst announced that she was taking the pseudonym "Tania".

Activities during the period of Hearst's membership

A large amount of time in captivity was taken up with military training; physical training, weapons training, as well as group socialization. Sexual bonding within the SLA was also significant.

Hibernia bank robbery

The next action taken by the SLA was to rob the Hibernia Bank, an incident where two civilians were shot. Cinque's communiqué account of this robbery is dry, and attempts to rationalize the accidental nature of the two shootings (Stone 2004). (The rambling communiqué's usually ended with the ominous sounding "Death to the fascist insect that prays upon the life of the people.")

Hearst participated in the robbery, holding a rifle, and the security camera footage of Hearst became a news icon of the time.

Move to Los Angeles and police shootout

As a result of the Hibernia Bank robbery, the SLA moved operations to the Los Angeles area. This move was conducted in an extremely slipshod manner, and resulted in a catastrophe for the group. The SLA relied upon commandeering housing and supplies in Los Angeles, and thus isolated the people ensuring their secrecy and protection. At this stage the imprisoned SLA member, Ross Little, claimed that he believed the SLA had gone off the rails and entered into a confrontation with the police rather than a political dialogue with the public (Stone 2004).

On May 16, 1974, William and Emily Harris entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood, California, to shoplift supplies for their safehouse. When his attempt was foiled by a security guard, Bill Harris droped a revolver. The guard knocked the gun from his hand, and had succeeded in placing a handcuff on William's left wrist. At this time Tania (Patty Hearst) began shooting into the store from across the street with a submachine gun from just outside the SLA's van. Everyone in the store took cover, and the Harrises escaped with 'Tania.'

As a direct result of this, the police found the address of an SLA safehouse from a parking ticket in the glove box of the van that had been abandoned. The rest of the SLA fled the safehouse when they saw the events on the news. The SLA took over a house in a Black neighborhood that happened to have its lights on at 4 am.

The next day, an anonymous phone call to the LAPD stated that several people were staying at "her daughter's house" and that they had many weapons. That afternoon, more than 400 Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, under the command of Captain Mervin King, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles Fire Department surrounded the neighborhood. The squad leader of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team used a bullhorn to announce, "Occupants of 1466 East 54th Street, this is the Los Angeles Police Department speaking. Come out with your hands up!" A small child walked out, along with an older man. The man stated that no one else was in the house, and the child reported that several people were in the house with guns and ammo belts. After several other attempts to get anyone else to leave the house, a member of SWAT fired tear gas projectiles into the house, was answered by heavy bursts of automatic gunfire, and the battle began.

Two hours later, the house caught fire. The police again announced, "Come on out! The house is on fire! You will not be harmed." Two women and a child left from the rear of the house and one came out the front (she had come in drunk the previous night, passed out, and woken up in the middle of a siege); all were taken into custody, but were found to not be SLA members. Automatic weapons fire continued from the house. Patty Soltysik ("Mizmoon", "Zoya"), and Camilla Hall ("Gabi") charged from the burning building, still firing at the police, and were shot. The rest died in the house from gunshot wounds or the fire. After the shooting stopped and the fire was extinguished, nineteen firearms, including rifles, pistols, and shotguns were recovered.

Group shot

Among the items recovered after the fire was this Polaroid of the group.

Courtesy of the LAPD. SLA photographer unknown.

 

The charred bodies of Nancy Ling Perry ("Fahiza"), Angela Atwood ("General Gelina"), Willie Wolfe (who was reputedly Patricia Hearst's lover and who bore the SLA alias "Cujo"), and Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque") were recovered.

The siege was televised live and watched by Tania (Patty Hearst), Teko (William Harris), and Yolanda (Emily Harris) in their hotel room.

Return to the Bay Area

As a result of the siege, the remaining SLA members returned to the relative safety of the Bay Area and the relative protection of student radical households. At this time a number of new members gravitated towards the SLA (Stone 2004). The active participants at this time were: Bill and Emily Harris, Patty Hearst, Wendy Yoshimura, Kathleen and Steve Soliah, James Kilgore and Michael Bortin. The SLA began a relatively minor bombing campaign in the Bay Area.

At a minimum, the Harrises, Hearst and Yoshimura headed to Pennsylvania during the early fall of 1974 with the assistance of organized sports critic Jake Scott.

Crocker bank robbery

On April 21, 1975, the remaining members of the SLA robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California and killed Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer, in the process.

Much later, Patty Hearst, after being granted immunity from prosecution for this crime, stated that Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore actually committed the robbery, while she and Wendy Yoshimura were getaway drivers and William Harris and Steven Soliah acted as lookouts. Hearst also stated that Opsahl was killed by Emily Harris.

Capture and conviction

Patty Hearst, after one of the longest and most publicized manhunts ever, was captured with Wendy Yoshimura in 1975. She was convicted of the Hibernia bank robbery and served 21 months in prison. Her sentence was commuted by President Carter and eventually she was pardoned by President Clinton. As soon as she was freed from the SLA, Hearst reidentified with the role she grew up in: wealthy heiress.

On August 21, 1975, Kathleen Soliah failed in her attempt to kill officers of the LAPD when the bombs she placed under a police car did not detonate. After Hearst was arrested, Soliah fled to Zimbabwe before settling down in Minnesota under the alias Sarah Jane Olson; she was married to a doctor and had several children. The former terrorist was now a soccer mom.

Recent trials

The FBI finally caught up with Kathleen Soliah in 1999 when she was arrested. In 2001, she pleaded guilty to possession of explosives with the intent to murder and was sentenced to two consecutive ten-years-to-life terms, after being told as part of plea bargain that she would serve only eight years. She did not go to trial because she felt she could not get leniency from a jury so recently after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Prosecutors were relieved to avoid a trial due to their fear that Hearst's testimony was an unreliable witness.

On January 16, 2002, first-degree murder charges for the killing of Myrna Opsahl were filed against Kathleen Soliah, the Emily & William Harris, Bortin, and Kilgore. All were living "aboveground" and were immediately arrested except for James Kilgore, who remained at large for nearly another year.

On November 7, Soliah, the Harrises, and Bortin plead guilty to those charges. Emily Harris, now known as Emily Montague, admitted to being the one holding the murder weapon, but said that the shotgun went off accidentally. According to a public statement by Hearst, Montague had dismissed the murder at the time saying, "She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor." In court, Montague denied that remark, and said "I do not want [the Opsahl family] to believe that we ever considered her life insignificant."

On November 8, 2002 James Kilgore, who had been a fugitive since 1975, was arrested in South Africa and extradited to the United States to face federal explosives and passport fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged a pipe bomb was found in Kilgore's apartment in 1975, and that he obtained a passport under a false name. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 2003.

Sentences were handed out on February 14, 2003 in Sacramento, California for all four defendants in the Opsahl murder case. Montague was sentenced to eight years for the murder (2nd degree). Her former husband, William Harris, got seven years, and Bortin got six years. Soliah had six years added to the 14-year sentence she is already serving. All sentences were the maximum allowed under their plea bargains.

According to CourtTV Soliah (aka Sara Jane Olson) was expecting a 5 year 4 month sentence, but "In stiffening Olson's sentence two years ago, the prison board turned to a seldom-used section of state law, allowing it to recalculate sentences for old crimes in light of new, tougher sentencing guidelines.". Soliah was sentenced to 14 years, later reduced to 13 years, plus six for her role in the Opsahl killing. Hearst had immunity because she was a state's witness, but as there was no trial, she never had to testify.

On April 26, 2004, Kilgore was sentenced to 54 months in prison for the explosives and passport fraud charges. He was the last remaining SLA member to face federal prosecution.

Film history of the SLA

The SLA was a media savvy organization. They distributed photographs, press releases, and radio-quality taped interviews explaining their activities. Additionally, the first television media frenzy occurred outside of the Hearst family residence during the kidnapping. The media history importance of the SLA has led to a number of films focusing on them.

The saga of the SLA was the subject of an unsuccessful yet highly controversial 1976 film, entitled Patty. The film attempted to portray the organization as a sex cult rather than a band of revolutionaries, and received profoundly negative reviews from virtually all cinematic columnists who saw it. The movie, which was rated X by the Motion Picture Association of America, was shown in only a few markets, most of them large urban areas.

References/Bibliography

 

 

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SLA 7 HEADED SNAKE

Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.' —motto of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who used this 7-headed snake as their logo.


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