Russell “Osceola” Little was born in 1949 and grew up in Pensacola, Florida. He entered the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1967 and was deeply affected by the May 1970 killing of student anti-war protesters at Kent State University. As he would recall many years later: “Then I felt … that people like me were being declared the enemy by the government of the United States.”
In the summer of 1972, Little and his college friend Robyn Steiner drove from Florida to the West Coast and moved into the Peking House, a Maoist commune in Berkeley, California, where they met a fellow young radical named William Wolfe. Little also became involved with the Black Cultural Association (BCA), a black inmate organization that was active in California’s Vacaville Prison at that time. Coordinated by UC Berkeley instructor Colston Westbrook, the BCA brought a number of young white radicals—like Little, Angela Atwood, William Wolfe, Joseph Remiro, William Harris, Emily Harris, and Nancy Ling Perry—to the prison to tutor black inmates (like Donald DeFreeze) in political science, black sociology, and African heritage. Over time, the BCA became increasingly political and ever-more committed to black nationalism. In 1972, Little and Wolfe seized control of the BCA and collaborated with DeFreeze to indoctrinate the students with Maoist politics. “In the eyes of the young radicals” who served as BCA tutors, says PBS.org, “the black prisoners, no matter what their crime, took on heroic proportions as political prisoners, oppressed by a racist and corrupt American society.”
After Richard Nixon was reelected as U.S. President in November 1972, Little, inspired by Communists like Che Guevara, ramped up his efforts to agitate for societal change. Toward that end, he frequently screened political films about international revolution along with other like-minded young people like William Wolfe, Bill and Emily Harris, and Joseph Remiro. “We felt like we had to get something going” after Nixon’s electoral victory, Little recalls, explaining how he and his comrades formed “a little group to do things illegal.” Convinced of “the necessity to used armed force to destroy U.S. corporate fascism,” Little in 1973 became a founding member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a Marxist-Leninist terror cult that sought to overthrow the U.S. government by means of guerrilla warfare. Among his comrades there, were a number of the young people whom he had previously gotten to know through the BCA.
On November 6, 1973, Little and Joseph Remiro assassinated Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California School District. (For details of that killing and the motivations behind it, click here.) Two months later, on January 10, 1974, Little and Remiro were stopped for a traffic violation while driving a vehicle filled with weapons and SLA propaganda materials. They were questioned regarding Foster’s murder and were promptly arrested and incarcerated. Later that day, fellow SLAer Nancy Ling Perry, having heard about the arrests, set fire to the group’s Concord, California safe house in an effort to destroy any evidence that might be useful to the police. When officers arrived at the house, they found it damaged but not burned down—and thus, with a significant amount of evidence still intact.
In 1975 both Little and Remiro were convicted for Foster’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. While Remiro continues to serve out his term at Pelican Bay State Prison, Little’s conviction was overturned in June 1981 on a technicality—i.e., the judge had made an error in his instructions to the jury in the original case. Little was released in 1983, and he currently lives in Hawaii. Reflecting on his days with the SLA, Little says: “As far as changing the whole society goes, it was always a pipe dream. The true communist state where everybody is a brother to everybody else and we all share everything and everybody lives happily ever after…. I would have been fine with that. But I’m older now. People, they’re working, they’re paying their mortgage, they’re worrying about their kids…. I was 24 years old when I got arrested…. Hey, we were all young.”
Further Reading: “Russell Little” (PBS.org); “The SLA IS the CIA” (by Mae Brussell, from The Realist, February 1974); The FBI Encyclopedia (by Michael Newton, 2003); “What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?” (Slate.com, 1-24-2002); “For Paralyzed Meth Addict, Worst Is Over” (San Francisco Chronicle, 12-4-2009); “Around the Nation; Russell Little Is Acquitted of Slaying on Coast in 1973” (NY Times, 6-5-1981); “Herhold: Photographer Revisits Bay Area Murder Scenes” (MercuryNews.com, 11-4-2015).