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Judging the SLA

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.”

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.

In its arrogance and egotism, the SLA mistook itself for its own, inflated rhetoric. Their very look was cadged from the mainstream media‘s disfigured portrait of a young revolutionary -- beret, bandolier, beard. They had shadowy hideouts and propaganda units. They swapped bedmates, and relentlessly debated Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. They adopted terror as a mode of politics -- with justice no further away than a sawed-off shotgun or a semiautomatic Browning pistol. It was a revolutionary‘s playbook, no less real for its eerie likeness to Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film Battle of Algiers. And, perhaps because the spectacle was so perfectly attuned to the needs of a dawning telegenic age, the SLA was wildly successful at latching on to this new mainspring of society. It managed to project its image so widely that the tiny sect actually believed it was changing the world.

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.


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