Founder of the domestic terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army
- Killed in a 1974 shootout with Los Angeles police
The oldest of eight children, Donald DeFreeze was born in Cleveland, Ohio on November 16, 1943. He was a ninth-grade dropout, a runaway at age 14, and by 16 was in his first reform school. DeFreeze was subsequently incarcerated numerous times, on charges that included robbery, assault, grand larceny, kidnapping, rape, and the possession of knives, bombs, explosives, sawed-off shotguns and other firearms.
In 1963 DeFreeze married Gloria Thomas, a woman who had three children from a previous marriage. The following year, Thomas had DeFreeze arrested for desertion.
From 1967-69, DeFreeze served as an informant for the Los Angeles Police Department, even as he was earning money as a pimp. But after a November 1969 shootout with police, he was sentenced to 6-14 years in the psychiatric ward of California’s Vacaville State Prison.
During his time in Vacaville, DeFreeze became acquainted with the Black Cultural Association (BCA)—an inmate “tutoring” program that put him in touch with young white radicals like Angela Atwood, Russell Little, William Wolfe, Joseph Remiro, Nancy Ling Perry, William Harris, and Emily Harris. Through the BCA, these individuals tutored black inmates (like DeFreeze) in political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Over time, the BCA became increasingly politicized and ever-more committed to black nationalism. In 1972 Russell Little and William Wolfe seized control of the program and collaborated with DeFreeze to indoctrinate the students with Maoist politics. DeFreeze subsequently formed a splinter group called Unisight, which, along with the BCA, would soon coalesce into the terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
In December 1972 DeFreeze was transferred to Soledad Prison in California, from which he escaped three months later. In the summer of ’73, DeFreeze joined the SLA and promptly abandoned his “slave name” in favor of “Cinque Mtume,” a Swahili name meaning “Fifth Prophet.” Quickly asserting himself as the group’s leader, DeFreeze pushed his comrades to embrace violence as a means of achieving their ends. At one point, he personally threatened to kill Robyn Sue Steiner, an early organizer of the white Berkeley radicals who formed the core of the SLA, causing her to flee to England.
On August 21, 1973, Defreeze wrote the SLA’s Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program, a manifesto that defined the SLA as “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.” These downtrodden folk, said the Declaration, “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 …” Moreover, the document: (a) denounced “the ruling capitalist class” and its propensity “to murder and oppress us all”; (b) pledged to “build a new world and system” where “there is really freedom and a true meaning to justice and equality for all women and men of all races … and an end to the murder and oppression [and] exploitation of all people”; and (c) announced that, “under the rights granted to the people under The Declaration of Independence of The United States,” the SLA had firmly resolved, “by Force of Arms and with every drop of our blood,” to “Declare Revolutionary War against The Fascist Capitalist Class, and all their agents of murder, oppression and exploitation.”
In February 1974, several SLA members kidnapped 19-year-old heiress Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of press baron William Randolph Hearst and the daughter of Randolph Hearst (board chairman of the Hearst Corporation). Describing Miss Hearst as a “prisoner of war,” and her father as a “reactionary corporate-military pig,” the SLA demanded that Mr. Hearst, in exchange for his daughter’s release, give away $6 million worth of food to poor people. In response, Mr. Hearst announced the creation of a more modest, $2 million food-distribution program called People In Need. Defreeze derided the program as a “mockery” and refused to release Miss Hearst. Around this time, he also took the name “General Field Marshal Cinque.”
On April 15, 1974, DeFreeze and four fellow SLA members—Patricia Soltysik, Camilla Hall, Patricia Hearst, and Nancy Ling Perry—carried out a gunpoint robbery of some $10,690 from a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Two men who entered the bank while the robbery was occurring were shot and wounded.
On May 17, 1974, DeFreeze was one of six SLA members who were killed in a two-hour shootout with police at the terror group’s hideout in South Central Los Angeles. The others who died were Angela Atwood, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe.
Further Reading: “The SLA Is the CIA” (by Mae Brussell, from The Realist, February 1974); “The Man and the Mystery Behind the SLA Terror” (People.com, 4-29-1974); The Essential Mae Brussell: Investigations of Fascism in America (by Mae Brussell, 2014); The FBI Encyclopedia (by Michael Newton, 2003, pp. 330-331); “The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army” (PBS.org); Encyclopedia of American Activism: 1960 to the Present (by Margaret Dicanio, 2005); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com,1-24-2002).