From an unremarkable working-class boyhood, Russ Little became a key member of the headline-grabbing Symbionese Liberation Army. The homegrown terrorist group committed violent acts in opposition to what it viewed as a corrupt government, hoping to achieve social change. Little was actually somewhat lucky in his path toward radical terror, ending up in jail instead of dead, like many of his co-revolutionaries. He would survive to look back on his experience and try to explain what had happened.
Russell Little grew up in modest circumstances in Pensacola, Florida, unaware of the politics and social problems around him in the segregated South. He entered college in 1967 to study engineering, hoping to become an astronaut. Like others of his generation, Little observed watershed Sixties events like civil rights demonstrations and anti-Vietnam War protests. He began studying Marxist philosophy, developing a new sense of alienation from American policies and actions. Little described himself as a child of the Fifties: "I grew up watching Zorro and the Swamp Fox... which was about the American Revolution, Robin Hood... all these tales of swashbucklers and people who were fighting against the government." For him, the killing of student anti-war protesters at Kent State University in May 1970 was a turning point. "Then I felt... that people like me were being declared the enemy by the government of the United States," he would recall.
Little moved to the West coast in the early 1970s, settling in the storied left-wing enclave of Berkeley. To him, some of the fire seemed to have gone out of the protest movements. "We were pulling out of Vietnam," he would remember. "A lot of people were going, 'oh everything's over now, we'll go back to college' — and it wasn't over at all. The same stuff was still going on. The same criminals... were still running the government." After President Richard Nixon shocked them by winning re-election in 1972, Little and his friends continued to agitate for change, screening political films about international revolution. Communist rebels like Che Guevara, who had helped topple a corrupt Cuban regime in 1959 and been murdered while fomenting worldwide revolution in 1967, were inspirations.
A group of like-minded friends, including William Wolfe, Bill and Emily Harris, and Joe Remiro, met at the Berkeley screenings, and soon got involved in visiting prisons to try to help the prisoners they perceived as victims of the state. "There were discussions," said Little. "'We know there are people in prison that we don't think should be there. What are we willing to do about that?'" In particular, the group of young radicals came to know and like Donald DeFreeze, a black convict who would escape in March 1973 and go into hiding with his white friends.
Their Own Little Group
By the end of the summer, the group had coalesced into a militaristic, armed entity called the Symbionese Liberation Army. "We were... forming our own little group, to be able to respond to things, to be able to do things that were illegal," Little would later admit. Little had bought his first gun with the money he made cutting lawns as a child; now he was in weapons training for the revolution. The S.L.A.'s first act was the cold-blooded political murder of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster, and the wounding of Foster's deputy and close friend, Robert Blackburn. Along with the mainstream, liberal Berkeley was shocked and repelled by the senseless death of an African American community leader. The defiant S.L.A. declared its responsibility.
The law caught up with the S.L.A. about two months later. On January 10, 1974, Joe Remiro and Russ Little were arrested by a traffic cop. Within hours they were being held for Foster's murder. Their capture precipitated the S.L.A.'s next — and most famous — action, the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. Ironically, Little's imprisonment may have spared him the fate of his co-revolutionaries, many of whom died in a May 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police.
Remiro and Little were sentenced to life in prison in April 1975, but in 1981, Little was retried and acquitted of the Foster murder. Today, the decades have given him perspective on his youthful allegiances. "As far as changing the whole society goes, it was always a pipe dream," he says. "The true communist state where everybody is a brother to everybody else and we all share everything and everybody lives happily ever after... I would have been fine with that. But I'm older now. People, they're working, they're paying their mortgage, they're worrying about their kids... I was 24 years old when I got arrested. People talk about, 'Hearst was only 19.' Hey, we were all young."