The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army
"Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people." — slogan of the Symbionese Liberation Army
In 1974 a little-known but wealthy Berkeley undergraduate, Patricia Hearst, became a media celebrity after being kidnapped by a group of revolutionaries calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. The kidnap victim transformed into a seemingly willing accomplice; over the months of her kidnapping, she participated in crimes, claimed allegiance to the S.L.A., and defended her captors as valiant heroes. From tape recordings, her trial testimony and own telling of the story years later, several different versions of events emerge, but there seems to be no resolution to the questions about her transformation. Her parents thought that she had been brainwashed; experts suggested that she was a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, mistakenly identifying with her captors in an effort at self-preservation. Yet it is also possible that Hearst repudiated her upbringing to flirt with radical terrorism.
The revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army formed in Berkeley, California, just months before the kidnapping. Berkeley had long been America's center of radical militarism. By the early Seventies, after years of protest and resistance, some fringes of the Left were developing a sense of urgency. In the ever-present debate between non-violent and violent actions, the idea of terrorism was gaining ground.
The S.L.A. grew out of a black inmate organization, the Black Cultural Association, active in California's Vacaville prison in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Coordinated by a University of California-Berkeley professor, the group brought white students, including Russell Little and William Wolfe, to the prison to tutor prisoners in political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Begun as an inmate self-help group, over time the B.C.A. became more political, largely focused on black nationalism. One black Vacaville prisoner, Donald DeFreeze, who was serving a sentence for armed robbery, formed a splinter group, Unisight, that became the basis for the S.L.A. Future S.L.A. members Angela Atwood and Nancy Ling Perry also visited Vacaville to meet with radical prison groups. In the eyes of the young radicals, the black prisoners, no matter what their crime, took on heroic proportions as political prisoners, oppressed by a racist and corrupt American society.
The Group Forms
In March 1973, DeFreeze escaped from prison and headed to his friends in Berkeley. With the help of Little and Wolfe, he found shelter with two young white women, Nancy Ling Perry and Patricia Soltysik. In the meantime, a young couple, Bill and Emily Harris, had arrived in Berkeley with their friends Gary and Angela Atwood from Bloomington, Indiana. The Harrises and Angela Atwood soon joined radical groups, and connected with DeFreeze and the others. By the end of the summer, fiercely opposed to what they viewed as an oppressive, racist society, the radicals formed the Symbionese Liberation Army. Their militant, loosely Marxist priorities included ending racism, monogamy, the prison system and "all other institutions that have made and sustained capitalism." DeFreeze took the name "General Field Marshal Cinque" and became the group's leader. Their black nationalist program included creating a system of "homelands" within the U.S. for minority groups. Armed with stolen weapons and funded by robberies, the group trained in military maneuvers in the Berkeley hills.
In August the group moved to a group "safe house" in Concord, California. The group included Donald DeFreeze (S.L.A. name: Cinque), Nancy Ling Perry (Fahizah), Patricia Soltysik (Zoya), Bill Harris (Teko), Emily Harris (Yolanda), Angela Atwood (Gelina), Russell Little (Osceola), Joe Remiro (Bo), William Wolfe (Cujo), and Camilla Hall (Gabi). The small group of mostly white, upper middle class, well-educated young men and women, led by an escaped black convict, were determined to create a violent revolution. It is hard to imagine life within the walls of the safe house: intense political discussion, faux-military discipline, guns everywhere, and free and open sex.
First Public Act
On November 6, the S.L.A. stepped onto the public stage by murdering black Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster. The S.L.A. had targeted Foster because he supported an identification system for students, but by the time of his murder he had in fact withdrawn that support. The S.L.A.'s crime announced the group as one capable of committing violent acts in the name of revolution, but it also brought down the scorn of the Berkeley Left, most of whom found the political murder of a black man incomprehensible.
The S.L.A. members went into hiding after the Foster killing. Two months later local police picked up Russ Little and Joe Remiro on a traffic violation in a vehicle full of S.L.A. weapons and propaganda. The two revolutionaries were taken in for questioning and arrested for the Foster murder. Later that day, just ahead of the police, Nancy Ling Perry set fire to the Concord safe house. When police arrived they found the house scorched but not burned down, leaving a significant amount of evidence intact.
On February 4, 1974, the S.L.A. struck again. This time their target was the 19-year-old heiress to the Hearst family fortune, Patricia Campbell Hearst. A Berkeley undergraduate, Hearst was at home with her fiancé Steven Weed when three members of the S.L.A. forced their way in and abducted her.
Hearst's kidnapping made headlines across the country. Camped out on the lawn at the Hearst mansion, reporters waited for the drama to unfold. Local police and the FBI searched for the missing girl. Two long days later, on February 6, a letter arrived at Berkeley radio station KPFA. The "communiqué," signed by the S.L.A., called itself a "warrant for the arrest of Patricia Campbell Hearst," enclosing Patty Hearst's credit card and a warning that anyone attempting to interfere would be executed. The S.L.A. announced, "All communications from this court must be published in full in all newspapers and all other forms of the media." It made no demand for ransom. The Hearst family and the FBI were concerned that the S.L.A. would make a political demand that would be impossible to meet — such as the release of S.L.A. members Little and Remiro.
Word from Patty
In a recording delivered on February 12 to KPFA, Patty Hearst told her parents that she was okay, that she was not being starved or unnecessarily beaten. She told the police not to try to find her. S.L.A. General Field Marshal Cinque (Donald DeFreeze) made a demand for food to be distributed to poor people in the area. Later, Hearst would say that during the first weeks, S.L.A. members had confined her to a dark closet. When Patty's father, Randolph Hearst, replied that the demands of the S.L.A. were "impossible," Patty spoke in another communiqué on February 16, asking her parents to "stop acting like I'm dead." DeFreeze stated that the S.L.A. was looking for "a good faith gesture."
People in Need
On February 19, Hearst announced that he would create People in Need, a food distribution program. Their plan was to feed 100,000 people for twelve months with $2 million. In what must have seemed like a miracle to Berkeley's left-wing anti-poverty activists, People in Need began its work just a few days later. But the poorly organized program failed to fulfill the dream come true as riots over the food began.
The ransom negotiations dragged on. Patty Hearst must have heard her father announce on TV that the S.L.A.'s $6 million demand was beyond his capabilities: "the matter is now out of my hands," he said. His representative offered to pay $2 million for Patty's immediate release and an additional $2 million in January 1975. Though the food distributions went better over the next few weeks, Patty Hearst criticized her parents in a fourth recorded tape, saying "I don't believe that you're doing anything at all." Her parents were convinced that she was being brainwashed. But Patty would later say, "I felt my parents were debating how much I was worth... It was a horrible feeling that my parents could think of me in terms of dollars and cents." Inside the safe house, the S.L.A. began Patty's reeducation.
In a fifth tape recording, sent to KSAN radio station 59 days after the kidnapping, Patty Hearst denounced her family and claimed allegiance to the S.L.A. She took the name "Tania." Two weeks later, on April 15, "Tania" and four S.L.A. members were caught on a surveillance camera holding up a branch office of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. They got away with $10,000. Within a week, the FBI issued a "Wanted" poster with pictures of Donald Donald DeFreeze, Patricia Michelle Soltysik, Nancy Ling Perry, Camilla Christine Hall and Patricia Campbell Hearst. Hearst was charged as a material witness, but in a sixth recorded tape Patty offered evidence of her full participation — stating that at no time did her comrades have a gun pointed at her. She referred to her family as the "pig Hearsts" and to Steven Weed, her fiancé, as "an ageist, sexist pig." She said the idea of her being brainwashed was ridiculous.
In mid-May 1974, three months after Hearst's abduction, the S.L.A. turned up in Los Angeles. The FBI had no idea they had left northern California until Emily and Bill Harris were caught shoplifting in a sporting goods store. When a scuffle between the store clerk and Bill Harris began, Patty Hearst, who had been sitting alone in a Volkswagen, shot 27 .30-caliber bullets into the storefront before the trio made a getaway.
The next day the Los Angeles Police Department found S.L.A. members Donald DeFreeze, Willie Wolfe, Patricia Soltysik, Camilla Hall, Angela Atwood, and Nancy Ling Perry in an apartment in Compton. The S.L.A. made use of its sizable arsenal in a televised gun battle with L.A.P.D. SWAT teams. Police set the house on fire with gas canisters, and all six S.L.A. members were killed. There was confusion over whether Hearst was among the dead, but the Harrises and Patty Hearst had watched the shootout from their hotel room near Disneyland. The S.L.A. had been weakened but they still had their abductee, if indeed she was still being held against her will.
Back in Berkeley
A few weeks later, remaining S.L.A. members Hearst and the Harrises made contact with Kathy Soliah, Mike Bortin and several other future S.L.A. members at a Berkeley rally. On June 7, Hearst and the Harrises sent the media a recorded eulogy for the murdered members of their group. Hearst proclaimed her love for Willie Wolfe, and vowed that the S.L.A. would continue its fight. The diminished group went into hiding. Toward the end of 1974, with no further word from his daughter, Randolph Hearst withdrew his offer of $50,000 reward for her safe return.
The End of the S.L.A.
On April 21, 1975, four members of the S.L.A. held up the Crocker Bank in Carmichael, California. During the hold up, Emily Harris shot and killed a bystander, Myrna Opsahl. In September, Hearst, Bill and Emily Harris, and a new S.L.A. member, Wendy Yoshimura, were arrested in San Francisco. When asked for her occupation while being booked, Patty Hearst told the officer, "urban guerrilla." In a sensational trial in March 1976, Patty Hearst, represented by well-known defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, was found guilty of armed bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison. She served 22 months before having her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Bill and Emily Harris pleaded guilty to kidnapping Patty Hearst. They served eight years in prison. It was the end of the S.L.A. and its short-lived, dangerous revolutionary dream.