They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army and declared the Revolution come. As their emblem, the sign of the new order, they chose the writhing seven-headed cobra, the naga, hoary symbol of the serpent god of occult myth. They were a tiny band of political terrorists, made in America, organically grown, and in a frantic 22-month career they wrote one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of the American Left.
The End of the Sixties
All through the Sixties there had been a freaky fringe on the New Left, tiny sects of unruly over-believers, but while there was a mass movement, the dominant voice of the moderate Left had stood to challenge them. By the time the S.L.A. emerged in 1973, however, there was no longer a marketplace of American radicalism in which the freak extremists had to measure themselves against the center.
The Sixties were dead. Even with the sloppy overlap into the early Seventies, the mood of trauma, the era of drastic challenge and constant change had passed. A generation of self-righteous young rebels withdrew into their individual lives, idealism battered, spirit subdued. The retreat from the mass consciousness, the dissolution of "the Movement," was a discrete process, difficult to generalize, but central to the disaffection of many was the slow realization that the Movement had developed no language of challenge that did not alienate the vast majority of their countrymen. As the moral imperative of Vietnam receded, they were left with a structural challenge to the establishment, aware of the inequities in the distribution of power; but they had no plan, no plot for change, that could convincingly relate to their neighbors.
Yet there were those who could not or would not draw back. There were those who could not endure the integration back into the middle-class white world from which they had so fiercely broken... The counterculture went sour, the workers voted for Nixon, and Telegraph Avenue went commercial -- but in Berkeley, California, a huge community of young, largely-white radicals, veterans of the campus wars, walled themselves off from the middle-class world. In the mid-1970s, it was the largest garrison of vintage New Left radicals anywhere in the nation. It was a subculture scattered through the low-rent suburbs, but it remained curiously centered behind the spiritual barricades of Berkeley.
Richard Nixon's 1968 election, and massive reelection in 1972, had simply washed away the fantasy of some elemental revolutionary impulse bursting from the heart of the nation. The stature of the most authoritarian Marxist ideologues -- Lenin, Mao, even Stalin -- rose as the romantics drifted into cynicism. The innocent humanism that had been the lifeblood of "the Movement" faded into a militant, bitter chauvinism.
Yet there were enough of them so that among themselves they created a time-warp, an enchanted-village effect in which much of what constitutes time seemed frozen in 1969. Ideologies of "armed struggle" still dominated Leftist political debate, and Marx was still mixed with odd portions of the occult mysticism that so enchanted the freak theosophists, There was something still of the open, warm camaraderie of the street-demo culture, a gloss of flower power, and much of the old drug culture. "Street people" were still called that. Revolutionaries made a distinction between themselves and mere radicals.
An Ideology of Armed Struggle
The S.L.A. dropped into a time-honored slot in the Bay Left; militarism has always been popular, a necessary accouterment in the sectarian rivalry over who is the more revolutionary. The Bay Left had coalesced around the Black Panthers in the late Sixties, when the Panthers were still a paramilitary group, and young white radicals organized dozens of groups to mirror the Panthers' "armed struggle" ideology, often in tribal or cultish collectives. There were the White Panthers, the Rainbow Party, the Southern Patriots, the Red Feather Party, the Tribal Thumb Collective -- to name only a few among the myriad of Bay Area collectives and communes which paraded guns and theories of "armed struggle against the institutional violence of the state."
There seemed a curious design to the career of the S.L.A. that unwittingly illustrated all that had been simplistic, shallow, and self-centered in the rhetoric of the New Left. Domestic "fascism" was for them a pervasive and absolute relativity; "military dictatorship" was our state of government. Such terms may have had a certain metaphorical validity in protest rhetoric, but the S.L.A. took them as perversely literal.
Perhaps it was only the generation of their peers who could follow the convoluted patterns of the S.L.A. thought -- and then with reference books and benefit of a sheepish déjà vu. Veterans of the Movement are invariably proud of their experience; it reasserted a dimension of ethics into politics that had become pragmatic and jingoistic. Yet few are blind to its many failings: the anti-intellectualism, the youthful arrogance, and in the frustration of their isolation, the flirtation with totalitarianism.
The covenant of the New Left had been imbued with a muddled lower case marxism; but it was a romantic attachment, reflecting little study of Marx and virtually none of Lenin, the authoritarian architect of modern Communism.
The Radical Prison Movement
Perhaps it was as much caste guilt as the Marxist imperative, but the entire New Left period was characterized by a frenetic, desperate, and deadly serious search for the "revolutionary vanguard" -- some new class, group, or subculture with the moral authority and class validity to "lead us."
Predictably, it was futile. Nothing discovered or created had the constancy or mass appeal to serve their purpose. Yet in the prisons, among the newly politicized convicts, there was a powerful connection made. Black-nationalist groups had just fought a struggle for racial equality in many state prisons. They were militant, organized, and reinforced by street kids fresh from the ghetto. Already the cellblocks, particularly in California, had produced the most articulate and bitter voices of black power: Cleaver, Newton, Malcolm X, and "the Comrade," George Jackson. Locked in the routine of prison life, inmates were desperate for beliefs that affirmed their individual purpose and identity. The culture of resistance offered dignity to men who had little... The Left supported and touted the radical prison movement, giving the convicts an urgently needed "outside connection." And the prison revolutionaries adopted and legitimized the "bourgeois" revolutionary Left.
Prisons became the issue of the Left, particularly in California, where prisons had been radicalized early. In the radical Bay Area Left, a dangerously indiscriminate credo evolved: that prison inmates, by virtue of their suffering alone, made the perfect revolutionary vanguard. And black convicts -- "the most oppressed of the oppressed" -- became the elite cadre.
General Field Marshal Cinque
In the fall of 1973, the S.L.A. set out to unleash "the most devastating revolutionary violence ever imagined," sure in their heady innocence that there was at least a black nation ready to follow in mass insurrection. They called themselves "Children of the Wind" and touted their leader, "General Field Marshal Cinque," as "not only a military genius to lead us but a spiritual prophet to save us."
Cinque was Donald David DeFreeze, a thirty-one-year-old escaped convict who, like many black nationalists, had renounced his Christian "S.L.A.ve name" to affirm his African heritage and deny the S.L.A.ve tradition. He called himself Cinque Mtume -- Cinque from the name of an enS.L.A.ved Wendji chief who led a famous revolt on the S.L.A.ve ship L'Amistad in 1839; Mtume from the Swahili word for "apostle" or "disciple."
DeFreeze entered California's prison system in the 1970s, virtually apolitical, a ghetto punk and petty hood. When he escaped after serving three and a half years of a five-to-life sentence for armed robbery, he had undergone a powerful transformation. In the intense, bitter atmosphere of the highly politicized California prisons he had become a revolutionary, a cellblock communist.
DeFreeze as Cinque was a magnetic, charismatic figure -- but the S.L.A. that gathered around him was more than just a personality cult. Only gradually did Cin become more than the first among equals; and it is unclear even now how much of his deification was self-conscious theater... Defreeze was a black man who led the S.L.A. because he was a black man. The soldiers of his tiny army were white -- upper-middle-class dropouts from the fringe of privilege, college-educated radicals who believed that any successful revolution had to be led by a black, preferably a black convict.
This was to be a black revolution, a neo-Maoist Helter Skelter, the triumph of the nonwhite over the bourgeois white capitalists, the rise of the oppressed against the oppressors -- and of course it would be led by a black convict, a man from the ranks of the most oppressed of the oppressed. But the first platoon would be this band of "conscious whites" -- reclaimed children of the oppressor who would show the way, as it were.
"White men themselves have only one avenue to freedom and that is to join in fighting to the death those who are and those who aspire to be the S.L.A.ve masters of the world..."
-- The S.L.A. credo; the Gospel according to Teko
Teko was the "reborn name" of William Taylor Harris, the S.L.A.'s second in command. General Teko was thirty years old, white, a Vietnam veteran from Carmel, Indiana, with a master's degree in urban education.
The S.L.A. was no voice from the ghetto -- despite such excessive empathetics as faked black accents. The S.L.A. was born in the white suburbs, nurtured in affluence, schooled in the protest politics of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. They were young radicals who had defined themselves as revolutionaries in the late Sixties, when the horizon seemed full of possibilities. They had then been caught treading water as tension waned with quieter years. Finally they had reached the point where they had to vitalize the dream with their own lives, their own bodies, or at last surrender the heroic self-image for the more mundane role of a middle-class survivor.
It was revolution as an act of will, ahistorical, individualistic rather than socialistic, a personal more than political process. Nothing so consumed the S.L.A. as personal identity. Nothing so marked them individually as the effort to transform themselves, to free themselves from the bourgeois stain. "We know that we have a long way to go to purify our minds of the many bourgeois poisons, but we also know that this isn't done though bull[expletive] and ego-tripping -- it is done by fighting...'"
The word "Symbionese" they coined from "symbiosis," an esoteric term from biology, which refers to unlike organisms coexisting in harmony for mutual benefit. It was to be a rejection of race labels; a new race label, a revolutionary nation of mingled skin color.
Not only DeFreeze but all members of the S.L.A. adopted the black-nationalist ritual, and renounced their christened names for "reborn names." The white S.L.A., far more than Cin, had a heritage to disclaim. It was more than ceremony. It was the culmination of their desperate struggle to cut away all traits of culture, class, and race they associated with their parents. The names they chose were plucked from fantasy and history; the names of black heroes, Indian heroes. The rhythm of their roll call must have sounded like an incantation: Fahiza... Teko... Yolanda... Cujo... Bo...Gabi... Zoya... Osceola...
"Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"
Excerpt from McLellan, Vin, and Paul Avery. The Voices of Guns. The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two Month Story of the Symbionese Liberation Army. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1977.