[sixties-l] The return of the Symbionese Liberation Army (fwd)

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Date: Thu Jan 24 2002 - 19:17:58 EST

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    Date: Thu, 24 Jan 2002 14:25:44 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.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
    the Pentagon.
    "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
    elementary-school science.
    "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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