The SLA, political memory, and how the real story of the 1960s is
falling victim to the war on terrorism.
By J.H. Tompkins
I REMEMBER THE summer afternoon in 1970 like it was yesterday. I was
standing with my friend Elena on a street in downtown Oakland. After
three years behind bars for killing an Oakland cop, legendary Black
Panther leader Huey P. Newton was about to be freed. A thousand
overwound Black Panther supporters had turned out to greet him
their campaign to "free Huey" and the work of his legal team had won
Newton a new trial. We craned our necks and shifted our feet, and
then suddenly there he was. The crowd roared, and Newton tore off his
shirt, raising his fist in the air and smiling as if he'd just
discovered how sweet life could be.
Years later, on the day Newton was murdered in West Oakland by the
crack dealer he was trying to rip off, Elena picked me up, and we
drove to the spot where he'd died. Newton had played a key role in
shaping the political and cultural life of the nonstop circus that
came to be called the '60s, and the influence he'd once had on our
lives was part of what linked Elena and I. We tried without success
to find something worth talking about; eventually Elena dropped a
rose on the pavement and we left.
Newton had fallen a long way down drugs were a problem, and his
reputation for violence, including his alleged involvement in the
murder of an Oakland prostitute, was not undeserved. He was once a
courageous, visionary leader. He also made serious mistakes, hurt
people, and died a thug's death.
The only heroes who can't let you down are dead ones. Real people
struggle to survive; they fuck up, get scared, give in to confusion
and self-doubt and there was a bumper crop of that back in the day.
In fact, back in the day, most of the people who were "activists"
and that was a whole lot of people weren't revolutionaries, or
famous, or even what we would call "radicals" today. They were just
ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary times, trying in all sorts
of good and bad ways, with great successes and great failures, to
survive and build a better world.
I thought about that when alleged Symbionese Liberation Army
associate and longtime fugitive Sara Jane Olson (formerly known as
Kathleen Ann Soliah) was arrested in 1999, and again a few weeks ago
when Olson, along with her brother-in-law Mike Bortin and onetime SLA
members Bill and Emily Harris, faced additional charges for the
murder of a woman during a 1975 bank robbery.
The recent SLA arrests have hit a community of veteran Bay Area
radicals like a time bomb. People are nervous and for good reason.
The political climate these days is as ugly as it's been in a long
time, maybe since the 1960s. And in this climate the whole message of
the '60s the legacy of a generation of idealistic people whose
actions changed the nation forever is at risk.
A different world
Maybe you had to be there. Imagine a generation of young men and
women, some in their teens, poised to inherit a world gone insane.
More than 50,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of
Vietnamese had been fed to a killing machine. Vietnam wasn't a
count-dead-Americans-on-one-hand sort of war: It was your friend down
the block, your cousin, your brother, and you. It was living in
Vancouver, or in a wheelchair, or in a trench until you were killed
in action, just a name on a long marble wall.
Black Americans in the 1960s lived in a very different world, and
white kids didn't really understand. But after a while even the
dullest mind had questions. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar
Evers, all shot dead speech wasn't free for everyone. Detroit
erupted, and then Watts and Newark. Politicians, civic leaders,
priests, you name it nearly every fucking adult you knew lived in a
web of lies and denial that insulated them from the ugly racist reality.
Those days birthed social experiments as bizarre as they were
forgettable and hair-brained political solutions like you wouldn't
believe. We were kids, OK? a fact, not an excuse. Extraordinary
things happened, often when you least expected it. A cop car
surrounded by UC Berkeley students kicked off the Free Speech
Movement. Incredibly courageous, often desperate African Americans
demanded simple justice and equality and paid dearly, again and
again. There were dropouts, runaways, crash pads, Black Panthers,
Brown Berets, and hippie communes, more than you could count.
The '60s spawned freedom riders, the "outside agitators" who crossed
racial and class barriers some died for it to fight for civil
rights in the South. In 1967 the Black Panther Party picked up legal
manuals, Mao Tse-tung's Red Book, and shotguns to institute citizen
patrols of the vicious police occupying West Oakland's black
community ("Niggers with guns!" the wail of a terrified cop). And
there were the clear-thinking students who in 1963 in Port Huron,
Mich., founded Students for a Democratic Society and jump-started an
organized flow of damning, socially flammable truth that grew wider,
deeper, and more combustible and wouldn't go away, that still won't
go away, simply because it was and is true.
There was surprise and frantic fun. You partied like there was no
tomorrow, because really, who knew?
America went through dramatic changes in the '60s, some of them
lasting. And powerful reactionary forces are still anxious to change
things back after all these years.
Today the legacy of the '60s is under attack. Public dialogue on
complicated, important questions globalization, militarization,
democracy, nationalism, cultural differences, you name it has been
stunted. Basic social concern the human impulse to care for others
has been labeled political correctness, a thought-stopping
punctuation mark masquerading as a noun. The federal government is
choking on prayer, and foreign policy is now defined by a biblically
inspired binary, good versus evil.
How is it possible that the nation is capable of forgetting the ugly,
antidemocratic history of the Central Intelligence Agency? If America
had even a short memory, rather than none, we'd be better off. But
believe it or not, the CIA its history of spilled blood, treachery,
and drug dealing overshadowed only by its ability to lie about it all
is suddenly cool in post-Sept. 11 culture. If that DJ job falls
through, join the CIA: soon you could be in Uzbekistan, torturing the natives.
On Jan. 30, 2002, S.F. Gate columnist Mark Morford, in a report since
confirmed elsewhere, wrote that Attorney General John Ashcroft had
directed the Justice Department to spend $8,000 on heavy blue drapes
to cover two statues of partially naked women that sit in the
department's Great Hall. Ashcroft heads up the country's Justice
Department. There is how can I say this strongly enough? cause
Talk about easy targets.
The SLA was the hapless crew of self-styled revolutionaries that made
headlines, if little sense, in the mid '70s. The group was foolish,
pathologically self-important, arrogant for no reason, and terribly
wrong which is exactly what a lot of the East Bay's graying
radicals told me last week. And the closer they once were to the SLA,
the louder they said it.
The SLA first surfaced in 1973 to claim responsibility for the
senseless assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus
Foster. Nobody had any idea who these people were or why they'd just
killed a popular black educator. A communiqué said only that the
group was out to eradicate "the fascist insect that preys upon the
life of the people."
Activists were horrified by Foster's murder, and most leftist circles
hurled criticism at the new group. A few months later the group
reappeared, kidnapping 19-year-old Patty Hearst from her Berkeley
apartment. She was a member of one of California's wealthiest,
most-storied, and most reactionary families. An army of federal
agents descended on the Bay Area, and the fabulous, unforgettable
saga of Patty Hearst was under way. She was held ransom or death
until she denounced her father and joined the revolution.
The SLA invented a world of their own that, had it not collided with
the real world, would have just been hilarious and surreal. It issued
threats, orders, and edicts in a style that combined a Stalinist lack
of humor and a Norma Desmond feel for life on Earth and this was a
group that paid attention to detail. Each soldier was given a new
name and a cabinet post; the group had an anthem and a logo, too as
if Spanky and Our Gang had organized a game of Let's Play Terrorist.
Hearst called herself Tania and was shown on TV toting a carbine in a
bank robbery. People tuned in, following the action and looking
forward to the next show. I was driving in Oakland when KSAN-FM
announced Hearst's walk to the wild side; I nearly crashed the car.
"My first thought when I heard about the Marcus Foster killing,"
Calvin Welch says, "was that they were FBI agents. I mean, what the
fuck was this?" Welch is a longtime community activist who now works
with San Francisco's Council of Community Housing Organizations. He's
passionate and practical when he talks about local issues. "Then came
the kidnapping of Hearst," he says. "That was just so bizarre. I
laughed. I mean, was this a movie or what?"
"At that time I was at KPOO-FM, and we got communiqués from the SLA,"
Welch says. "And we had to decide if we were going to turn them over
to the FBI, who were a very real presence, because we ran a draft
"The FBI and the SFPD frequently came around to our house and
threatened us with crazy things like accusing us of transporting
people to North Vietnam. They lied, stole, kicked your ass, and you
didn't want to deal with them. And then, with the SLA thing, you
couldn't turn around without hitting a spook. It was just insane."
Dan Siegel, now an attorney and the president of Oakland's school
board, was a student leader in the '60s and a familiar face in
radical circles in the years that followed. "The SLA was so strange,"
he says. "Think about this: they killed the last decent school
superintendent Oakland had until [current incumbent] Dennis Chaconas
"But if you were around radical circles then, you could see how this
kind of thing developed as wrong and crazy as it was. And I've
heard it said that almost everyone knew someone connected with the SLA."
He's right on that score, though few people will air it in public.
And who can blame them? The SLA's legacy is nothing but trouble. In
those days its members were too visible, too stupid, and after the
Hearst kidnapping they attracted an army of government agents.
Still, in some ways, SLA members weren't much different from anyone
else: Joseph Remiro, the Vietnam vet who, with Russell Little, was
arrested for the Foster murder, was active in the hugely influential
Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization. My
friend Edward knew Pat "Mizmoon" Soltysik at UC Berkeley, and two
friends at the post office where I worked knew Angela Atwood.
Guns and trouble
The factors that created the SLA were part of the intense, often very
strange political brew that emerged in the early 1970s in the Bay Area.
Increasingly, prisoners and ex-prisoners most of them black or
Latin were becoming part of the scene. Their status as "heavy,"
stemming from a connection with street life and conflicts with
police, was further enhanced by their race. It was a fact that
nonwhite Americans had powerful, bitter experience that brought them
to the struggle but this truth, in the hands and heads of largely
white, generally middle-class radicals, generated thinking that was
sometimes so fuzzy it would have been great comedy had it not had
Then there was the debate around guns and the use of violence. It
started back in 1967, when members of the Black Panther Party marched
onto the floor of the state assembly in Sacramento carrying empty
(and perfectly legal) weapons to protest a proposed law to restrict
their right to bear arms. It was quite an event, and crucial to
understanding the changing world of radicals and revolutionaries.
In 1969 the Weatherman faction of SDS was formed, advocating that the
struggle take a more militant, sometimes violent turn. By the early
1970s Venceremos, a prominent group led by ex-Stanford professor
Bruce Franklin that believed America's black and Latin populations
were increasingly ready to use arms against the government, was
active in the Bay Area.
The SLA, like Venceremos, was consumed with the romance of black and
Latin culture, and its members were impressed with themselves for
brushing up against prison machismo. In 1972, when future SLA members
met a convict named Donald Defreeze, they were at a disadvantage:
heroic, misguided notions of armed violence combined with a
self-concious and confused understanding of race so crippling that
when they looked out at the world they couldn't see beyond themselves.
Defreeze, renamed Cinque, became their leader. They followed him into
a serious mess.
Timing is everything
The recent SLA arrests jolted people who had thought that part of
history was far, far behind them.
First there was the saga of Olson, linked to an alleged SLA attempt
to blow up a Los Angeles police cruiser in 1975 and arrested in 1999
after nearly 20 years in hiding. She'd evolved into a progressive
soccer mom not deep cover, just a sign of the times. Last fall she
made headlines while stumbling through a depressing series of legal
blunders and errors of judgment, during which she copped a plea,
tried to renege, and wound up sentenced to 10 years in prison. Then,
on Jan. 16, 2002, Olson, her brother-in-law Michael Bortin, and the
Harrises (who had each already served 8 years in jail for robbing the
Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with Patty Hearst in 1974) were
arrested and charged with the murder of Myrna Opshal, during a bank
robbery in Carmichael in 1975. Fired with personal ambition and
pushed by Jon Opshal, the dead woman's son, Michael Latin of the L.A.
District Attorney's Office had badgered the Sacramento District
Attorney's Office for five years to reopen the case.
It wasn't an easy fight. Olson's brother Steven Soliah had been tried
for the robbery in 1976 and acquitted. The evidence was old and
shaky; nobody wanted to try the case. But Litwin and Opshal
persevered, and when the events of Sept. 11 triggered a remarkable
shift in the political climate, suddenly the SLA was back in the news.
To many people, the timing of the arrests was too perfect to be coincidental.
"The thing is," says attorney Susan Jordan, who was initially
associated with Olson's defense, "the prosecutor is cynically taking
advantage of the events of September 11. Fear of terrorists is being
twisted around and used against the defendants. Things were simpler
in 1975. We didn't have the kind of terrorism that we have today. The
fact is that '70s terrorists were rank amateurs, new to violence, who
didn't know how to use it."
Barbara Lubin, a lifelong activist and the head of Berkeley's Middle
East Children's Alliance, puts it more succinctly: "Hasn't anyone
heard of the strategy of going after weak links?"
By any standard, the SLA is an easy target. Jon Opshal wants
vengeance and a chance to right old wrongs. The political right, on
the other hand, sees an opportunity to further redevelop the social
and political landscape.
The long-gone and much-maligned SLA may seem irrelevant, but a
conviction would set a troubling precedent in the event of future
actions against other activists.
Over the past few weeks, I spoke with many people, including medical
professionals, teachers, artists, lawyers, and community activists.
The arrests troubled all of them, and many expressed concern about
the timing, in light of the political climate.
This didn't mean they'd talk on the record. Even veteran activists
who have seen a lot of trouble in their lives don't want to go near this one.
"I never trusted the SLA, and the last thing I want is the FBI asking
me questions," one activist told me. At the end of another frosty
call, when I joked, "So I'll buzz you later to set something up," the
sound of the receiver crashing down was painful.
A woman I first met 32 years ago through a friend in the Weathermen
shouted at me that the SLA was fucked, that she was sick of talking
about them, and that everyone should "get over it." And then there
was the Revolutionary Communist Party, which decided it wasn't
talking to strangers, a category that included me.
"It gets harder and harder for me to believe that the government
doesn't have ulterior motives when they go after any political
people," Lubin says. "Look what our government routinely does, look
at Chile and Central America, and please, look at Iraq, where over a
million children have died since the embargo began. The question is,
How paranoid do you have to be before you're paranoid enough?"
A moment of glory
I hate it when people dismiss activists with generalizations like
"spoiled rich kids." What's wrong with a rich kid trying to do
something extraordinary rather than settling for whatever it is rich
kids normally do? The discarding of social privilege to live a life
with meaning is an American tradition, and a fine one at that.
I tried with no luck to reach Patty Hearst recently to pass along my
thoughts on this matter. Though she was indeed spoiled and rich,
there was a time long ago when Ms. Hearst experienced a moment of
transcendence that most us can only dream of. On April 3, 1974, after
two months in captivity, Hearst ditched the straight life, stepped
forward, and exposed and publicly humiliated her father, who, through
his wealth and media empire, had heaped insult and indignity on
countless others. Her performance included this:
"Dad, you said you were concerned with my life and ... the life and
interests of all oppressed people in this country, but you are a liar
in both areas.... You are a corporate liar.... Tell the poor and
oppressed of this nation what the corporate state is about to do....
Tell the people that [the energy crisis] is nothing more than a means
to get approval of a program to build nuclear power plants.... Tell
them how law-and-order programs are just a means to remove so-called
violent individuals from the community ... in the same way that
Hitler controlled the removal of the Jews from Germany" (SLA
It didn't last, but it was perhaps the one shining moment in the
dismal history of the SLA.
Hearst claims to be anxious to testify against her old friends. She
was, she says, a victim of Stockholm syndrome, which causes captives
to identify with their captors. Perhaps it's true. But hell, I saw
Berkeley students attacked by rioting cops and radicalized in an
instant. Besides, she gave her occupation as "urban guerrilla" when
she was finally arrested.
Still, the birthright she reclaimed is working out as birthrights
like hers tend to do, buying not just a presidential commutation of
her sentence but later also a presidential pardon. The Harrises
served eight years, Hearst just two. Now she's set to testify against
defendants charged with a crime she has admitted to taking part in.
But no matter what happens now, the heir to the Hearst fortune won't
go back to jail.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine less-favorable conditions for the
defendants' day in court. They're up against time, mistakes, and the
awesome, all-consuming power of the T word. Although the prosecutors
claim existing physical evidence has become more useful with the help
of new technology, people close to the case say that in fact it is
the same evidence that Sacramento prosecutors have had for years.
The defendants are people who have long since left the SLA part of
their pasts behind. "I am a friend of Bill Harris," Lubin tells me,
"and I don't justify the killing in the bank robbery at all. But the
Bill Harris who I've known, who's been there for me as a friend, and
who I care about a lot, well, I can't believe the state went ahead
with this. And for god's sake, Sara Jane Olson is a respected person
in her community."
It's tough to blame the Opshal son who lost his mother in the
shooting. But public opinion post-Sept. 11 has taken a turn so
aggressively reactionary that it recalls the red-baiting inquisitions
of Joseph McCarthy. Let's face it: 2002 is a bad time to be labeled a
terrorist. The onetime SLA members and their associates have paid for
at least some of their sins, and all have forged new, productive
lives. The turn of events is a kind of worst-case scenario for everybody.
Recently my cousin and longtime pal Sharon and I were talking about
the past back when we hung out with the same people and had the
"I've had people ask me if I regretted all the time I spent as an
activist and all that," Sharon said, rolling her eyes. "I can't
believe it. The fact is that I don't regret a thing; those years were great."
Non-'60s people (the world breaks down into us and everyone else, of
course) hate hearing '60s people rhapsodize, so I won't do it other
than to say this: The '60s were full of challenge, and although I'm
not a revolutionary now, in my heart, I'm still a revolutionary then.
You believed you could change the world and yourself in the process,
and that was liberating. The politics were confusing, we made
mistakes, and at the end of the day, the fact is that we were right
and the other side racists, politicians, corporate vultures, and
the rest were wrong. It was a great time to be young.
You could never tell what was going to happen next. Something could
fall on you from a tree or come loping through your front door with a
gun aimed at your heart. That's how it was during my first
unforgettable brush with the FBI. It was September 1970, and my best
friend, who was attracted to the Maoist Revolutionary Union, and I,
who hung out with former Weathermen, moved from Berkeley to Richmond,
bringing with us two dogs and a 19-year-old postal worker named Sarah
whose political activities were limited to driving a truck painted
like an American flag.
One morning several weeks later, a large squad of FBI agents with
guns drawn and a pack of reporters in tow came charging up to our
house and entered.
They were after a fugitive Weatherwoman who, they were sure, was
living in the small room behind our garage. A beefy posse of agents
exchanged glances and heavily trotted down the driveway and into the
backyard liberating both dogs, who then raced into the yard of our
next-door neighbor, an elderly Lithuanian. She looked sweet, but she
hated the dogs, and as was her habit, she began to curse them. The
pups liked to do their business in her garden, and she wasn't happy
about it which is, I should add, critical information with respect
to this story.
The FBI, believing they were about to nail a Maoist-Weatherman
conspiracy, kicked in the back door, waking Sarah, who promptly burst
into tears. They dragged her, handcuffed and wearing a nightgown, out
front. A few agents ransacked our house they found guns, drugs, and
money and left them all behind, which meant they were after something
else that wasn't there. The real action, however, was building outside.
An agent flashed a picture of the fugitive to curious neighbors, and
then they pointed to Sarah, which elicited no response. Finally they
produced our Lithuanian neighbor who was not the nice, albeit
high-strung, lady I'd thought her but a first-class fink and
provocateur. "She is definitely the one," the old woman cried,
pointing a crooked finger in Sarah's direction. Cameras started to
flash, and the ghost of a satisfied smile graced the face of the
agent in charge. He shoved Sarah out in front of him, and the crowd
leaned closer. "Is she the one?" he asked. "Are you sure?"
The old lady was sure, and to prove it, she pointed at the dogs, who
were pulling a small wire fence from the border surrounding some
tulips. "She is the one," the woman hollered in broken English,
shaking her head violently. "She is the one with the dogs, look,
those dogs. She is the one."
Our neighbor stared venomously at the big shot, who, sweating
nervously, stepped back to huddle with a sidekick. They talked,
compared Sarah with the photo, looked around, and left. The same
journalists later showed up for our press conference, which was the
first item on the 11 o'clock news. I celebrated by taking LSD.
A modest proposal
I came across an article in a recent San Francisco Chronicle
reporting that President George W. Bush and several cabinet members
were casually exploring a timeline to overthrow Saddam Hussein's
government in Iraq. Most extraordinary was the headline, which noted
that this time the "U.S. would have to go it alone." The piece was
followed a few days later by the news that Israeli premier Ariel
Sharon had publicly considered in much the same off-hand fashion
whether or not in 1982 a sniper shadowing Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat should have just killed him.
Truth be told, things don't look good in the world.
They don't look good for the four ex-radicals, either. It's not clear
when the Carmichael trial will begin, but get ready for a roomful of
ghosts and the possibility that a jury will ignore the lack of
evidence, buy into the war on terrorism, and send the defendants to
jail for life.
If the SLA members killed a woman in a bank robbery, the passage of
time and the political context will never justify their actions.
But it's hardly fair. The SLA members, most of them, anyway, were
sucked into a political shitstorm started by others. Robert McNamara,
William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger (to name a
few) were guilty of sending 50,000 American kids to their deaths and
laying waste to Vietnam, a country that was lovely, except where it
was nothing but craters and rubble. The men responsible for those
crimes have never had to answer for them.
Nobody is in jail for the murder of Black Panther leader Fred
Hampton. Nobody is in jail for setting up Geronimo Pratt, fabricating
evidence that sent an innocent man to jail for more than 20 years.
Nobody is paying for all the police beatings, police shootings, FBI
harassment and surveillance, COINTELPRO operations, and dirty tricks
that were part of life in the 1960s. In fact, nobody's even talking
about those crimes.
It's time that the United States stop blocking the U.N. from
establishing a new mechanism to bring those responsible for war
crimes to trial. Of course, that would mean that men like Henry
Kissinger (and so many others) would have to take responsibility for
their actions. But it's time to settle the score.
Fair is fair: If Kissinger has to answer for his deeds, then the
onetime activists charged in the Carmichael case should do the same.
We need closure something that can be entered into history and,
settled, left behind. This would, I think, be just and when all is
said and done, justice is what the '60s was about.
J.H. Tompkins fought the war and the law during the late '60s and
early '70s. He wrote about his experiences for various outlets in the