The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a California-based domestic terror group that operated primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Its name derived from the word “symbiosis,” signifying the interdependence and union of “dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership.” It also served as ametaphor for the amicable coexistence that different classes and races could purportedly achieve in a socialist society.
The SLA grew out of the Black Cultural Association (BCA), a black inmate organization that was active in California’s Vacaville Prison in the late 1960s and early ’70s.Coordinated by UC Berkeley instructor Colston Westbrook, the BCA brought a number of young white radicals—including such notables as future SLA members Angela Atwood, Russell Little, William Wolfe, Joseph Remiro, Nancy Ling Perry, Emily Harris, and William Harris—to the prison to tutor black inmates in subjects like 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 BCA and collaborated with inmate Donald DeFreeze to indoctrinate the students with Maoist politics. “In the eyes of the young [white] 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.” Before long, Donald DeFreeze, formed a splinter group called Unisight, which became the basis for what would soon evolve into the SLA.
The SLA first began to coalesce as a recognizable entity (though it was not yet named the SLA) in the Bay Area in 1971, when Russell Little and Robyn Sue Steiner led a loose band of middle- and upper-class white Berkeley radicals in an effort to draw public attention to the need for prison reform, poverty alleviation, and racial justice in an allegedly oppressive, racist society.
In 1973 Donald DeFreeze asserted himself as the SLA’s leader, taking the name “General Field Marshal Cinque” and pushing the group to use violence to achieve its ends. At one point in 1973 he personally threatened to kill Robyn Sue Steiner, causing the latter to flee to England in 1974.
Other noteworthy SLA members during the group’s brief existence included Mike Bortin, Camilla Hall, Emily Harris, William Harris, Patricia Hearst, James Kilgore, Joe Remiro, Kathleen Soliah, Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik, William Wolfe, and Wendy Yoshimura. Apart from DeFreeze, all of the organization’s members were white.
The SLA adopted much of its rhetoric from Communists and South American revolutionaries. It also embraced the Marxist French journalist Régis Debray’s concept of “urban propaganda,” which held that the use of selected violence—i.e., assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, etc.—could help radicals gain media attention and popular support for their agendas.
As its emblem, the SLA chose the seven-headed cobra, or naga, with each head bearing a Swahili name for a particular value or principle: (a) Umoja, meaning “unity in our household, our nation, and in The Symbionese Federation”; (b) Kujichagulia, meaning “self-determination”; (c) Ujima, meaning “collective work and responsibility”; (d) Ujamaa, meaning “cooperative production” whereby “we all profit equally from our labor”; (e) Nia, meaning a sense of “purpose” directed toward “our collective vocation” of advancing “the development and liberation of our nation … and all oppressed people”; (f) Kuumba, meaning the “creativity” required to “free our nation and defend the federation and constantly make it and the earth that we all share more beautiful and beneficial”; and (g) Imani, meaning “faith” in “our unity, our leaders, our teachers, our people, and in the righteousness and victory of our struggle and the struggle of all oppressed and exploited people.”
On August 21, 1973, Donald 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 for all their people and races.” 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.”
Likewise expressing contempt for America’s allegedly racist society was the SLA’s famous credo: “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 organization also referred to the U.S. as “the fascist state of Amerikkka”—the spelling intended to emphasize the nation’s alleged Klan-like racism.
By the end of summer 1973, the SLA’s priorities included: ending white racism, dismantling the American prison system, dispensing with monogamy, and abandoning “all other institutions that have made and sustained capitalism.” The organization’s black nationalist agenda called for the creation of a network of “homelands” earmarked specifically for minority groups within the United States. And SLA members, armed with stolen weapons and funded mainly by robberies, trained in military maneuvers in the hills of Berkeley. Their day-to-day interactions in their safe house, reports PBS.org, were filled with “intense political discussion, faux-military discipline, guns everywhere, and free and open sex.”In November 1973 the SLA claimed responsibility for the murder of Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California School District. Foster was killed with cyanide-tipped bullets, in retribution for the support he had voiced for a plan to issue school identification cards to students as a means of keeping drug dealers off the campuses. The SLA condemned this proposal as a police-state tactic. Unbeknownst to the organization, however, by the time of Foster’s murder, he had withdrawn his support for the program.
In the wake of Foster’s death, allSLA members went into hiding. In January 1974, two of them—Russell Little and Joseph 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 arrested at the scene. Later that day, fellow SLAer Nancy Ling Perry, having heard about the arrests of Little and Remiro, 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. Both Little and Remiro were subsequently convicted and incarcerated in 1975, though Little was later acquitted in a 1982 retrial.
In February 1974, eight SLA members kidnapped 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of press baron William Randolph Hearst and the daughter of Randolph Hearst (board chairman of the Hearst Corporation, which the SLA denounced as the “corporate enemy of the people”). 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, which ultimately proved to be poorly organized and ineffective.
On April 3, 1974, the SLA released a “communiqué” tape on which Patricia Hearst pledged to “stay and fight” in alliance with her captors. She also announced that she had adopted the name “Tania”—for Tania Burke, Che Guevara‘s lover. Twelve days later, Miss Hearst helped the SLA rob $10,000 from a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Characterizing the theft as an “expropriation,” Hearst said in a subsequent tape recording that “the difference between a criminal act and a revolutionary act is what the money is used for.” In yet anothercommuniqué, Hearst referred to her biological family as the “pig Hearsts,” and to Steven Weed, her fiancé, as “an ageist, sexist pig.”
On May 16, 1974, SLA members William and Emily Harris were spotted shoplifting at a Los Angeles sporting goods store. To help them escape, Hearst, from the window of a van that was parked outside, fired 27 bullets at the store with a submachine gun and a carbine. The next day, six SLA members—Angela Atwood, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe—were killed in a two-hour shootout with police at their hideout in South Central Los Angeles. The Harrises and Patricia Hearst watched the deadly events unfold from a motel-room television in Los Angeles.
Soon thereafter, Kathleen Soliah, who had been a friend of the slain Angela Atwood, held a memorial rally for the SLA members who she said had been “murdered” by police. On June 7, Hearst and the Harrises sent the media a recorded eulogy in honor of their dead comrades. Hearst, for her part, proclaimed her love for Willie Wolfe and vowed that the SLA would not be deterred from its revolutionary mission. The group remained in hiding, however, while the famed radical attorneyLeonard Weinglass represented the parents of the late “victims.”
On April 21, 1975, four SLA members—Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore—held up the Crocker Bank in Carmichael, California. William Harris and Steven Soliah served as their lookouts, while Patricia Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura drove the getaway cars. During the robbery, Emily Harris shot and killed a 42-year-old bystander named Myrna Opsahl, who was a church secretary and the mother of four children. Reflecting later on Opsahl’s death, the gunwomansaid: “Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor.”
In August 1975 the Los Angeles Police Department found unexploded pipe bombs beneath two of its patrol cars, and evidence indicated that Kathleen Soliah and James Kilgore were responsible. Their whereabouts remained unknown, however. (By this time, they had split up and were no longer a couple.)
In a March 1976 trial in which she was represented by defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, Miss Hearst accusedthe SLA of brainwashing her, raping her, and forcing her to make the tape recordings that had been distributed to the media. She was found guilty of armed bank robbery and was sentenced to seven years in prison. At this point, the SLA was essentially moribund. Hearst served just 22 months behind bars, before her sentence was commuted in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.
For additional details about various SLA members, see the individual profiles of Angela Atwood, Mike Bortin, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Emily Harris, William Harris, Patricia Hearst, James Kilgore, Russell Little, Nancy Ling Perry, Joe Remiro, Kathleen Soliah, Patricia “Mizmoon” Soltysik, William Wolfe, and Wendy Yoshimura.