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Judging the SLA 

Rethinking the brutal, sometimes misunderstood excesses of a bygone era

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
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The sentencing of Sara Jane Olson last Friday to 25 years to life for her role in the attempted pipe bombings of two LAPD patrol cars might have permitted the 55-year-old defendant to slip back into the relative comfort of obscurity, and quietly deal with her private regrets, while the dog-eared volumes of Symbionese Liberation Army history were re-shelved on local library stacks. It was not to be so. The murder charges, filed January 16, against Bill Harris, his ex-wife Emily Harris, Olson, and her brother-in-law, Michael Bortin, in the death of Myrna Opsahl, will put the SLA on trial -- and, no doubt, on Court TV -- in a sensational rerun of the 1970s “revolutionary” plot to carry out the Verdiesque slogan “Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys Upon the Life of the People.” Patricia Hearst, the most famous SLA victim, and its most notorious member, will likely testify not only about the Carmichael bank robbery on April 21, 1975, in which Opsahl was shotgunned and bled to death, but, under cross-examination, to sex, lies and communiques. The sordid fascination with guns and the transgressions of culture, politics, race and caste that made the SLA such a nightmarish inversion of the aspirations of middle-class American life will be on full view.

As will the politics of the 1960s. Just as Olson said in her Los Angeles case, there are those who will declare that, three decades after the fact, a generation is being put on trial. A dormant case has been revived, they will say, because prosecutors, having tasted victory in the L.A. bomb case, now want to render a final verdict against a band of radicals who were fighting valiantly, if maniacally, for social justice. The Carmichael case, to be tried in nearby Sacramento, is payback.

To think so, however, is to accept the central myth the SLA has sought to exploit from its inception, on November 6, 1973, when its soldiers unloaded eight cyanide-tipped bullets into Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland’s public schools, to the present day. Bill Harris, after his conviction in 1976 for the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, put it this way: “In a few minutes the judge is going to sentence us to long prison terms . . . He will probably explain that we are being sentenced because we have committed heinous antisocial acts. But any of you who sat through this circus of a trial know that this really isn‘t the case. We have offended the state, not the people. We are going to prison not because we are a threat or danger to the people of this society, but because our ideas are a threat to the way the present social order is organized.”

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The crimes of the SLA were, in Harris’ mind -- and in the minds of his comrades, who never numbered more than a dozen -- insurrectionary acts. Thus, the assassination of Marcus Foster was justified in a “Warrant Order” issued by “The Court of the People,” to prevent “the forming and implementation of a Political Police Force operating within the Schools of the People.” (In fact, Foster wanted student IDs to keep drug dealers from sneaking onto campus.) Hearst‘s kidnapping was explained as a Robin Hood gesture to use the heiress’s family fortune to finance a $2 million food giveaway. (The result was rioting and looting, but not any actual redistribution of wealth.) The Hibernia Bank robbery, in which two elderly men were shot, was an “expropriation” -- lawlessness, justified in the lingua franca of the left.

Angela Atwood, Olson‘s best friend, who had adopted the nom de guerre General Gelina, issued her own proclamation on March 9, 1974, amidst “negotiations” with Randolph Hearst for the return of his daughter. In her taped message, she assumed the voice of a black woman and said, “The dream -- and indeed it is a dream -- of [many on the Left] is that the enemy corporate state will willingly give the stolen riches of the earth back to the people and that this will be accomplished through compromising talk and empty words . . . To this, our bullets scream loudly. The enemy’s bloodthirsty greed will be destroyed by the growing spirit of the people and their thirst for freedom. We call upon the people to judge for themselves whether our tactics of waging struggle are correct or a incorrect in fighting the enemy by any means necessary.”

There was no “Court of the People,” just as there was no “growing spirit of the people.” These were only dangerous illusions, conjured from the ghosts of the popular revolt of the 1960s. The New Left had long since dried up, along with its angry residue, the Weathermen. But where the Weathermen had genuine roots in the ‘60s, the SLA was born adrift, without the least connection to a mass movement once capable of putting thousands on the streets and of influencing the course of the nation’s political life.

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