<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Justice or Revenge: The SLA and the War on Terrorism
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Justice or Revenge: The SLA and the War on Terrorism

The government is gaining momentum for their war on terror both at home and abroad. A recent conviction for a crime committed in the heat of the 1960s proves a point in case for activists to be wary of the new tide proclaiming activists as terrorists.

by Ron Jacobs


On October 31, 2001 Sara Jane Olson pled guilty to conspiring to firebomb some police cars in 1975. Ms. Olson was supposed to have conspired with other members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and the New World Liberation Front (NWLF) in the mid-1970s when the attempted bombings occurred. Although no cars were ever burned or blown up, Ms. Olson was arrested and convicted on these charges almost 30 years later despite the lack of evidence that linking her physically to the acts.

At her sentencing in January 2002 she was notified of new charges stemming from the murder of bank customer Myrna Opsahl that was allegedly committed by members of the SLA during a holdup in Carmichael, Calif. in 1975. Four other former SLA members were also charged with this murder. Their names are Bill and Emily Harris, James Kilgore, and Michael Bortin.

Although the murder made little political sense when it occurred, like many of the SLA's actions, one has to question the curious timing of the arrests. Since the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, the hysteria surrounding so-called terrorists has shaped virtually every act of law enforcement and the ruling elites in the US. Indeed, part of the draconian anti-terrorist law passed by the US Congress --known by its acronym the USA-PATRIOT act -- in November 2001, created the new crime of domestic terrorism. Under this new law, many direct action tactics (lockdowns, street blockades) may be viewed as domestic terrorism. The act also allows for anyone providing assistance to a "domestic terrorist" to be charged with harboring a terrorist. Not only does this law create a new crime, it makes it possible for the state to retroactively prosecute suspected individuals for crimes decades old as there is no statute of limitations.

Who Were the SLA?

The SLA's origins are vague, to say the least. Never more than a dozen individuals, it burst on the US political scene in November 1973 when two of its members murdered the Oakland, Calif. superintendent of public schools, Marcus Foster. Foster was tremendously popular in the primarily black and Latino community the Oakland school system served. His murder was mourned by thousands and disavowed by virtually every other radical organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. His moderately progressive ideas were opposed by many in Oakland's ruling elite -- a city that ran itself much like a racist city in America's old South -- and supported by many grassroots leftist groups such as the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. The reasons given by the SLA for the assassination focused on Foster's plans to require all public school students to carry school identification cards and to plant uniformed police in certain schools in the district.

The murder drew attention to the SLA from law enforcement, the media, and the Left. Almost immediately, the Black Panther Party began an investigation into the group's origins. Their investigation brought up several interesting leads that all too often brought the investigators back to the Criminal Conspiracy Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Criminal Investigation Division of the California Highway Patrol. Both of these units are well-known for their infiltration of radical groups and street gangs and their use of informers.

Although it is not my intention to delve into conspiracies here, it is worth mentioning that one such informer who had been on the payroll of these and other law enforcement agencies at different times throughout his adult life was the leader of the SLA, Donald DeFreeze. Furthermore, DeFreeze had documented contact with a Louis Tackwood, who was well known to the Los Angeles Black Panther chapter as an informer. After an unusual transfer from Soledad Prison to the Vacaville state prison and medical facility, DeFreeze first met the future SLA members in a state-sponsored program to promote literacy in California's prisons. His participation in the program was at the behest of prison officials.

The program, known as Unisight, had been infiltrated by many white radicals who were interested in the revolutionary potential of prisoners, especially those of color. This interest had been on the rise since the late 1960s and had created revolutionaries like the murdered Black Panther George Jackson and the men of the failed September 1971 rebellion at Attica Prison in New York. The Black Panthers did not trust the Unisight program and considered it a way for prison officials to keep tabs on outside radicals who were interested in prison organizing. The (mostly white) radicals from the outside were from the Venceremos group, which had developed out of the Bay Area Revolutionary Unions, which in turn had derived from the 1969 disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Venceremos had minimal training in the use of arms and spent much of their time proselytizing the uninitiated and arguing with other ultra-left sects in the Bay Area over various and often arcane aspects of Marxist-Leninist theory. After a number of Unisight group meetings at Vacaville prison, the SLA and its program of revolutionary terror was developed. DeFreeze walked away from Vacaville prison near Sacramento, Calif. in March 1973 -- a feat that was not particularly easy and gives further credence to the theory that he was working for the police as a provocateur -- and meet up with his fellow SLA members in Berkeley.

A series of spectacular acts followed, including the kidnapping of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's daughter Patty and the subsequent ransom payment of millions of dollars of free food to the poor neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley. A few weeks after her kidnapping, Patty joined the group, which then went on a robbery spree through California. This series of "appropriations" resulted in large newspaper headlines, increased police harassment of street people in cities like Berkeley and Santa Cruz where large numbers of movement and counterculture adherents made their home, and a final showdown in Los Angeles on May 4, 1974 between six SLA members and hundreds of Los Angeles police. The showdown ended in the deaths of all six SLA members inside their safe house. It was followed by a months-long underground journey by Patty and other SLA members that traversed the continent and brought down the wrath of the FBI as it raided communes in the countryside known to be populated by new leftists and city dwellings that housed food coops, underground newspaper offices, and other oppositional political organizations.

It was during this period underground that the bank robbery in Carmichael, Calif. took place and Myrna Opsahl was killed. Patty was captured in September 1975 along with another SLA member named Wendy Yoshimura. Yoshimura's association with the group had begun after the debacle in Los Angeles and is notable mostly for two things: 1) her parents were interned in the World War Two internment camps set up by the US government after the Japanese navy attack on Pearl Harbor and 2) it was through Yoshimura that the SLA connection to the radical sports critic and teacher Jack Scott was made. Scott was well known in US sports circles for his anti-capitalist critique of college and professional sports in US society and for his unconventional approach to sports education and coaching. Although never conclusively proven, Scott was believed to have provided shelter to the SLA members while underground and it was through Scott that basketball star Bill Walton (known for his antiwar/antiracist and counter cultural views) was also implicated. Other SLA members, including Sara Olson were also underground.

Very few leftist groups supported the SLA, even when they were under heavy attack by the police. Much of this hesitation stemmed from the heightened paranoia prevalent amongst leftist political and counter-cultural activists in 1974-76. That paranoia can be traced to the increased public awareness of the State's repressive tactics that were coming to light in the wake of revelations surrounding the Watergate scandal. Some of the revelations eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign under threat of impeachment and an almost certain conviction.

In fact, the only widely published statements of support came from the Weather Underground and Yippie activists Stew Alpert and his partner Judith Clavier Alpert. Both of these sources decried the Left's attempts to distance themselves from the SLA. The statements urged other movement people to "not do the work of the state" and to recognize the SLA as fellow fighters in the struggle, in spite of its terrorist tactics and curious origins. Ironically, the police and the system they protect did not acknowledge any difference between the SLA and other parts of the movement, preferring to place them all in the camp of the "terrorists." One support group did arise, calling itself the New World Liberation Front (NWLF). These individuals issued statements of support for the SLA and carried out actions to support them. It was the NWLF that claimed responsibility for other police car fire-bombings that occurred around the same time as the attempted ones that Olson is now serving time for.

The War on Terrorism and Political Repression

Ever since those planes hit the towers on September 11, the political climate amongst the United States' elites is one of consolidating power and abrogating liberties most US citizens take for granted even though they don't use them. Given this, most citizens either support the curtailment of their liberties or, since they never use them, are unaware of how this curtailment affects these liberties' fragile existence. Of course, the rulers have taken full advantage of this confusion and the fear many Americans feel since the terrorist acts of September 11. To this end, they have locked up more than a thousand men of Middle Eastern, Pakistani, and Afghani origins, and increased their harassment of those who speak out against the so-called war on terror. This increased harassment includes the general isolation of all political prisoners in US prisons, greater police violence and intimidation at demonstrations, and actual raids of organizations and individuals offices and dwellings in supposed searches for "terrorist" materials.

These moves are less about terror and more about control. Before the occurrences of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent combat overseas, the US corporate plan for economic hegemony was under attack. The protests and riots in the streets at every meeting of the world's capitalist leaders were but the most obvious aspect of this opposition. Just like the number of protestors in the streets at these meetings, overall opposition was growing. It was growing so quickly, in fact, that the governments and corporations who had much to lose from the growing popularity of the protestors' demands had to do something. The use of live ammunition by police in Gothenburg and the killing of a protestor in Genoa were indications of what lay ahead for protestors planning on attending the demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC on September 29, 2001 --meetings that were cancelled in the wake of September 11th. The bullets used by the police and fences constructed around these meetings are a metaphor for the legislation demanded by the corporations of the governments they control. It is necessary to silence the protestors by any means necessary. The terrorist attacks gave the authoritarians the opening they needed.

The Sara Olson trial was underway well before September 11th and Ms. Olson was planning on challenging the charges before a jury, figuring that she would be found innocent given the flimsy and circumstantial nature of the evidence. She abruptly changed strategy after the World Trade Center disaster, however, afraid of the climate of fear running rampant through the country and the prosecution's certain manipulation of that fear -- something easily done by reminding jurors that the SLA were "terrorists." Olson then pled guilty despite her denial of the charges. Her plea was accepted with reservation by the court and she was asked to reconfirm her guilt at sentencing because of statements she had made while free on bail and awaiting sentencing. These statements cast doubt on her guilt and focused on her inability to get a fair trial in post-911 America.

Unfortunately for Olson, she was charged with murder soon after she was sentenced to ten years on conspiracy and possession of bombing materials charges. The murder charge was related to a robbery conducted by the SLA in Sacramento where an innocent bystander (Ms. Opsahl) was allegedly killed by a masked SLA member. Olson was one of four SLA members charged with murder. The trial has yet to begin. According to law enforcement sources quoted in various mainstream media, these charges were being prepared before Olson pled guilty to her other charges. Olson and many others believe that her inclusion in the indictment is an attempt to force her to turn state's evidence and tell the prosecution whatever she knows about the SLA, the Weather Underground, and any other groups and individuals she came in contact with during her involvement in revolutionary politics.

This opinion is not without basis. There has been an ongoing campaign by the ultra-right in the United States to undo the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of this campaign's most dogged soldiers can be found in the right wing of the Republican Party and include at least two former New Leftists, David Horowitz and Peter Collier -- both former staffers of the New Left journal Ramparts and supporters of the ultraleftist elements of the New Left. Other participants in the drive to discredit the radical left of America's past include former FBI agents who were fired from the agency for committing illegal break-ins and other activities in their pursuit of leftist and antiwar/antiracist activists, and a variety of former prosecutors and just plain old demagogues who make their living off of attacking anyone to the left of George W. Bush and his cabal.

Now that the new crime of domestic terrorism has been created, this campaign has the potential to dig up a lot of bones from the graveyard of the movements of the 1960s. Like the storm surrounding former radical Joschka Fischer's activities in Germany during the same time period, the US may find itself in the same position as it tracks down former radicals. The law is sure to also cause trouble for the activists of today. In addition, the protagonists in this campaign to eradicate the legacy of the New Left and imprison its former leaders appears to have the support of the current regime in Washington, something that makes the US scenario quite different than that in Germany, where Fischer and his fellows are the current rulers and his detractors are in the minority.

As for the US Left, both old and new, support for Olson and her cohorts has been minimal. Like much of the US populace, popular movements have a short memory. The history of the 1960s and 1970s is already ancient history to most grassroots activists today. Despite a rash of books and articles covering that period from a variety of political angles, there is still an overwhelming ignorance of the politics of that period, its principal players and its roster of martyrs and political prisoners. Add to this the general lack of support for the SLA in its heyday and one can see the possibility of these folks getting much harsher sentences than someone else convicted of the same crime under non-political circumstances.

What Does the Future Hold?

To be brutally honest, it doesn't look good for the Ms. Olson and her fellow defendants. In all likelihood, they will all be convicted of the murder charges against them, despite the fact that only one person (who may or may not be one of those indicted) actually pulled the trigger that killed Opsahl. Under California law, however, anyone who was involved in the planning of a crime where a murder occurred is liable for the murder. It is expected that Patty Hearst will testify at the murder trial and, even though both Harrises have already done some prison time for their actions while with the SLA, their fate and the fate of their co-defendants is not a hopeful one.

Indeed, the current climate in the US is one that does not bode well for anyone who the state labels "terrorist," and the definition of that word is expanding to include more and more of the government's opponents. While it would be easy to blame their lack of support from groups and individuals usually involved in political prisoner support entirely on the methods and rhetoric the SLA employed during its existence, to do so would be letting these organizations off too easily. The murder of Ms. Opsahl, an innocent bank customer who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was, and remains, a reprehensible act. Despite this, one has to wonder if the zealotry on the part of the state in its desire to pursue these prosecutions is, while not without precedent, a harbinger of the future at least as regards the repression of the State's enemies. If so, the US left, Black liberation, and anarchist movements would do well to come up with a strategy to combat such a future. The SLA case might be a good place to start.

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