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Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2002 14:25:44 -0800
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: The return of the Symbionese Liberation Army
The return of the Symbionese Liberation Army
By Guy Ashley and John Simerman
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Tuesday, January 22, 2002
They came and went in a flash of cyanide-laced gunfire and a shootout
captured on live TV, an upstart band of angry '70s radicals cutting a
bloody path to an ill-defined brand of freedom.
The short, violent arc of the Symbionese Liberation Army punctuated by the
kidnapping of Patricia Hearst left families grieving and even the far left
of the post-Vietnam era rattled.
Now, the arrests last week of four former SLA members for a 1975 bank
robbery and murder have revived old resentments and hopes for justice,
while raising concerns about whether the truth can be extracted
from nearly three decades of dusty evidence and memories.
Two schools of thought
On one side is the cadre of veteran law officers delighted over activity in
a long-dormant case. They hope the SLA will once and for all be stripped of
any revolutionary luster that may linger from its two years of mid-^A'70s
On the other side sit the suspects' defenders. Some of them see the arrests
as a cynical ploy to capitalize on fear spawned by the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks. Prosecutors, they note, have revealed little of the new evidence
they claim to hold in a case that has been rejected repeatedly over the
years by other district attorneys and a grand jury.
One thing is clear: A murder trial is bound to exhume the strange, violent
history of the SLA, a group for which, even now, scholars and aging
activists are loath to clear a place at the table of ^A'70s leftist ideology.
Even the most charitable observers say the SLA was composed of young
zealots whose passion for change led them into acts of unconscionable
Victim's son haunted
The more prevalent suspicions that the group was always more criminal than
political, more driven by media than any revolutionary socialist
ideals have haunted Dr. Jon Opsahl.
He was 15 when his mother took a fatal shotgun blast during the Carmichael
bank robbery that, 27 years later, brought the arrests of four aging SLA
"There was anger at the establishment in those days and I know a lot of it
was justified," said Opsahl, who spent years pushing prosecutors to level
charges in the case. "Looking back I guess it's understandable that the
radicals were the heroes of the day. But the SLA doesn't belong in that
category. People on both sides of the fence were appalled at what they did."
Four people long believed to be at the heart of SLA operations Sara Jane
Olson; William Harris; his former wife, Emily; and Michael Bortin were
arrested Wednesday and charged with the murder of Myrna Opsahl, who was
depositing church contributions at Crocker National Bank when she was shot
for unknown reasons.
An arrest warrant was issued for a fifth member, James Kilgore, who has not
been seen for years.
While the band of well-educated outlaws continues to fascinate due in
great part to its spectacular abduction of newspaper heiress Patricia
Hearst Shaw and her brief conversion to SLA ideals there are few people,
if any, who today champion the group's activities.
"They had ideals, but if you do horrible things in the name of those
ideals, they're still horrible things," said Dan Siegel, an Oakland
attorney and longtime leftist who advised Hearst and the Harrises in
seclusion before their arrests in 1975.
But Siegel counts himself among the civil libertarians who question whether
justice can be done in a case that has grown so old. He particularly
questions the credibility of Hearst, who was granted immunity and is
expected to provide key testimony.
"Can you recall what you said or did one day 27 years ago?" he asked. "The
passage of so much time makes it very difficult for either side to bring a
credible case and it means questions will linger more than ever about what
really is the truth."
Susan B. Jordan, an Oakland attorney who represented Emily Harris and Olson
in other cases, said she believes the case is being brought now because
prosecutors think evidentiary gaps will be overlooked by jurors who today
live in fear wrought by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and
"It will be a very difficult thing to get a fair trial in this climate,"
she said. "And the prosecution knows that."
Veteran law officers who have grappled with SLA-related crimes for decades say
they're disgusted to hear such complaints
"How about the poor woman who was killed in that bank?" asked Alameda
County Sheriff Charles Plummer, who was Berkeley's acting police chief when
SLA members kidnapped Hearst there. "She didn't get to see her children
grow up, and their mother was taken for no reason."
Todd Gitlin, the onetime radical who wrote "The Sixties: Years of Hope,
Days of Rage," notes that it may be difficult now for many people to
understand acts that seemed to make sense in more politically volatile
times. That rule, however, doesn't apply to the SLA, he said.
"The SLA never made sense," said Gitlin, now a professor at New York
University. "They were idiots. They were killers. And by the time they come
along, the movements of the '60s are essentially over."
The SLA's violent tactics, borrowed from guerrilla movements in Latin
America, were misplaced at best, said Gitlin.
"They thought their tactics made sense in the context of their view of what
America was, but their view was a hallucination," said Gitlin. "They had a
fantasy that they were a guerrilla army, but these guerrilla armies were a
disaster in Latin America, too. They didn't know that. They just liked the
The suspects' staunchest supporters cite the stable, seemingly positive
lives they have assumed over the years, and wonder why they are being
hauled back to jail when they present no threat to society.
After serving eight years in prison for Hearst's kidnapping, William Harris
was a private investigator at the time of his arrest; Emily Harris, a
computer consultant; Bortin repaired floors. Olson, known earlier as
Kathleen Soliah, was a physician's wife and soccer mom when she was
arrested two years ago in an SLA police car-bombing case, for which she was
sentenced Friday to 20 years to life in prison.
Olson's supporters laud her many years of clean life and community activity
in their fight on her behalf. To those seeking justice, the murder
suspects' reconstructed lives matter little.
"It's nice they sought ordinary lives," said Robert Blackburn, a retired
Oakland educator who was wounded by SLA gunfire in 1973. "Whether that was
out of fear or lack of alternatives, those ordinary lives do not excuse the
crimes that were committed."
Added Jon Opsahl: "I would have been an upstanding citizen, too, if I knew
this day was coming."
Blackburn, now 67, took a shotgun blast to the side as he was walking with
then-Oakland schools Superintendent Marcus Foster, who was gunned down with
cyanide-laced bullets in what was deemed a political assassination by the SLA.
Even in the stew of leftist Berkeley activism that boiled up after the
Nixon and Vietnam eras, few people had heard of the SLA until the group
took credit for Foster's slaying.
Led by a black ex-convict named Donald DeFreeze, known as General Field
Marshal Cinque, the band of mostly white, middle-class, college-educated
radicals claimed that Foster oversaw a police plan for students to carry
Unlike other violent radical groups, such as the Weathermen, the SLA did
not emerge from an organized mass movement, said Dan Georgakas, co-editor
of the "Encyclopedia of the American Left."
"They were self-proclaimed, self-declared revolutionaries," said Georgakas.
"I think they thought of themselves as the vanguard of the American people."
The killing of Foster, a respected liberal school leader, confounded
activist liberals in the East Bay. They could understand the group's
cause to free children from oppressive government but most couldn't
swallow its tactics.
"It was as much the right causes and the wrong way to do it. There was
something about the contradiction that drove people crazy," said Michael
Rossman, a free-speech activist in the ^A'60s who now teaches
"They burst like a meteor," he said. "Was this just a gang of thugs
masquerading as revolutionaries? Everybody stopped looking at the problem,
because their way to deal with the problem was so horrible."
The Hearst kidnapping
Then, three months after the Foster slaying, the Harrises kidnapped Hearst
and promptly converted her to their cause. Hearst's conversion and
subsequent criminal acts including the San Francisco bank robbery that
landed her in federal prison made the SLA a household name.
The group never held more than 20 people. They gained some fringe leftist
sympathies for their Hearst ransom demands of food for the poor, but never
grew in numbers after the Foster shooting.
Then, and even now, theories abound that the SLA was some kind of
government provocateur designed to give liberal activism a bad name.
Rossman said he still holds those suspicions. Bobby Seale, co-founder of
the Black Panther Party, shares them.
"The SLA was a clear government setup to discredit the positive
revolutionary movement we were leading," said Seale. "And to this day,
there's nothing that upsets me more than being linked to that absurd
Gitlin, the NYU professor, said the conspiracy theory is conjured by people
who "can't address the obvious fact that some people who profess left-wing
ideas are wicked. You find the same crackpot thinking on the right."
If there are lessons to be learned from the SLA, Gitlin said, they can be
distilled to a simple thought. "Don't do that," he said. "That's the lesson."
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