Domestic anti-capitalist terrorist group, founded by Donald DeFreeze in 1973
Murdered an Oakland school superintendent in 1973
Kidnapped Patricia Hearst in 1974
The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a California-based domestic terrorist group that operated primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Its name, "symbionese," was a reference to different types of people -- black and white, young and old, male and female -- living in harmony. For its emblem, the organization chose the seven-headed cobra, or naga, representing the seven socialist principles of "unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative production, purpose, creativity, and faith."
On August 21, 1973, Defreeze wrote the SLA manifesto titled "The Symbionese Federation & the Symbionese Liberation Army Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program." It stated, in part: "The Symbionese Federation and [the SLA] is a united and federated grouping of members of different races and people and socialistic political parties of the oppressed people of The Fascist United States of America, who have, under black and minority leadership, … agreed to struggle together in behalf of all their people and races and political parties' interest in the gaining of Freedom and Self Determination and Independence. … [B]y Force of Arms and with every drop of our blood, Declare Revolutionary War against The Fascist Capitalist Class, and all their agents of murder, oppression and exploitation. … The group adopted the creed, "Death to the fascist insect [a reference to anyone who was white, wealthy, or a police officer] that preys on the life of people."
The SLA was responsible for the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster in 1973, who was killed with cyanide-tipped bullets for issuing school identification cards to students in an effort to keep drug dealers off school campuses. SLA members Little and Remiro were arrested for the murder. They were found guilty in 1975 and sentenced to life in prison.
The SLA gained more notoriety in 1974 by kidnapping Patricia Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolf Hearst. She later testified that she was raped and kept in a closet for months, and was eventually indoctrinated into the group. While in captivity, she took the name "Tania" and helped the SLA in several bank robberies and other activities.
On May 17, 1974, DeFreeze, Atwood, Hall, Perry, Soltysik, and Wolfe were killed in a shootout with police in their Los Angeles hideout. Kathleen Soliah (Sara Jane Olson), who had been a friend of Atwood's, held a memorial rally for the slain SLA members and characterized their deaths as "murder." Famed radical attorney Leonard Weinglass represented the parents of the SLA “victims.” Hearst befriended Soliah, as did a young married couple named William and Emily Harris. Soliah, Mike Bortin, James Kilgore, and Wendy Yoshimura also joined the "revolution," and the SLA was injected with new life.
For several months the group continued to rob banks and plant car bombs under police vehicles. In April 1975, members of the SLA shot and killed a 42-year-old mother of four named Myrna Opsahl during a California bank robbery. Reflecting on the murder, trigger-woman Emily Harris said: "Oh, she's dead, but it doesn't really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor." In September of that year, William and Emily Harris, Patricia Hearst, and Yoshimura were arrested.
Kathleen Soliah fled to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she went underground under the alias Sara Jane Olson in 1977. She met Fred Peterson in 1979 and married him in 1980. Together they had three daughters. Finally tracked down by the FBI in 1999, Soliah, now a “soccer mom” living exactly the bourgeois life the SLA once denounced, was arrested and brought to trial for her long-ago crimes of explosives possession and attempted murder. Patricia Hearst's testimony helped convict Soliah, who was sentenced to serve 20 years to life in prison (a sentence that was later reduced to 14 years).
On November 7, 2002, Michael Bortin, Emily Harris, William Harris, and Sara Jane Olson, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder charges in the death of Opsahl. Mike Bortin was sentenced to six years in prison, Emily Harris received eight years, William Harris (who had since divorced her and remarried) received seven years, and Olson had six additional years tacked on to her previous sentence. Kilgore, the last member to be captured in 2002, was also convicted in May 2004 for Opsahl's murder and was sent to prison for six years.
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