By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Meanwhile, the SLA mined the political impulses of its predecessors -- “that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the [means] for their common participation,” as the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society had eloquently put it -- for legitimacy. The SLA called for much the same thing, in the Balkanized terminology of the 1970s: Apart from an end to capitalism, the group sought to “give back to all people their human and constitutional rights,” to abolish legal marriage, to hand out old-age pensions, to bring women and minorities into the mainstream of economic life.
This was perhaps the SLA‘s true crime, a piracy that hijacked the aspirations of a generation, and made them seem a counterfeit. The violence they adopted required that their targets be transformed into depersonalized objects of hate -- in much the way that Olson was during the nearly three years leading up to her guilty plea in Los Angeles. In the name of humanity, the SLA systematically defiled human beings. Not to Watergate alone should the end of politics, and the birth of cynicism, be laid. The SLA, rather than being the last breath of the 1960s, was the first of the 1980s.
The SLA was always part tragedy, part farce, with the capacity to devour its own devotees and fellow travelers. Sara Jane Olson, it is fair to say, was devoured twice: first, after the May 17, 1974, SLA-LAPD shootout in which her best friend, Angela Atwood, died, her body riddled with gunfire and partially incinerated; second, following her June 16, 1999, arrest, after 24 years as a fugitive. In 1974 she helped the surviving members of the SLA escape an FBI and police dragnet, and later helped them re-ignite round two of their senseless crime spree. In 1999, upon her capture, she became a proxy for the SLA’s misdeeds. It was apparent during the courtroom proceedings leading up to her sentencing before Judge Larry Paul Fidler that, no matter what the level of her culpability in the actual planting of the bombs -- there is no question that she helped whoever did it, but scant evidence of her actual participation in the plot -- she would have to pay for more than her own wrongdoing. She would have to pay for an era‘s worth. (Although she was sentenced under old law to 20 years to life, according to Olson’s lawyers, more recent sentencing guidelines mean that the actual term will be five years, four months.)
Inside Fidler‘s courtroom, at Olson’s sentencing, there was a tug of war between justice and retribution. Her 15-year-old daughter, Leila Peterson, told the judge, in a voice abject with sorrow, that Olson “was one of the best mothers anyone would ever want. I was raised in a home filled with love and compassion.” Yet, however true and heartfelt, it was impossible for words to change anything. In the awful finality of that moment, Olson seemed ready to reconcile herself with her past. “If I did harm, I did not want to. I want to apologize for any mistakes I made,” she said, her face scarlet and drenched with tears. “I accept responsibility and I am truly sorry.”
In her statement to the L.A. County probation office, prior to sentencing, she wrote, “I am aware now that some of the things I did to help people helped perpetuate a course of action that may have contributed to harm and pain for others. If that is so, I have had to and will continue to live with the agony and sadness that my unknowingly participating in such things brings. I know that people can care for other people but still bring them harm and suffering. It happens all the time. I am one of those people and for anything I have done to harm others, I am truly sorry and gracefully accept the prison sentence to which I am assigned.”
For the first time since her arrest, Olson seemed to grasp that the SLA had nothing to do with righting society‘s ills -- that theirs was a criminal rampage aimed at innocent bystanders.
The ceremony was sad, and it was touching, and it made one wonder, did the sentence fit the crime -- and, more importantly, the criminal? That question may not be answered for two years or more, when a Sacramento jury issues its verdict in the Carmichael bank-robbery murder of Myrna Opsahl.