What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?

Five former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were charged last week with the 1975 murder of Myrna Lee Opsahl. What was the Symbionese Liberation Army, and what are they known for, other than kidnapping Patty Hearst?

The SLA was a group of Berkeley radicals led by Donald DeFreeze, an escaped convict whose nom de guerre was “General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume.” The word “Symbionese” comes from the biological term symbiosis, the interdependence of different species. It suggests the union of classes and races.

The SLA adopted its rhetoric from Communists and South American revolutionaries. Members rejected their given names for new, “revolutionary” names. The group used a seven-headed cobra as its symbol. The SLA’s slogan: “Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people.”

The SLA embraced Marxist French journalist Régis Debray’s concept of “urban propaganda,” according to Les Payne, co-author of The Life and Death of the SLA. “The concept called for selected violence—assassinations, kidnappings, bank robbery, etc.—aimed at capturing media attention and through it popular support.” But unlike other radical groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as the Black Panthers, the SLA weren’t of real historical significance.

Here’s a time line of the SLA’s most noteworthy activities:

1971: Founded in the San Francisco Bay area by Russell Little and Robyn Sue Steiner. The group is a loose band of Berkeley radicals focused on prison reform, poverty, and race. Most members are middle- and upper-class whites.

1972: Donald DeFreeze, a convict in the California state penitentiary system, meets members of the SLA who are sitting in on meetings of an inmate group known as the Black Cultural Association. In December, DeFreeze escapes from prison and makes contact with SLA members in Oakland.

1973: DeFreeze takes over the Symbionese Liberation Army. SLA co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner flees to England when DeFreeze threatens to kill her. DeFreeze pushes the group toward violence.

In November,the SLA claims responsibility for the murder of Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland school district. According to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the SLA “mistakenly believed Foster wanted to require students to show identification on campus, which it believed analogous to a police-state tactic.”

January 1974: SLA members Russell Little and Joseph Remiro are arrested for Foster’s murder. Both are convicted; Little was acquitted in a 1982 retrial. Remiro, now serving a life sentence in San Quentin, is the only SLA member currently in prison.

February 1974: Eight SLA members kidnap 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of press baron William Randolph Hearst and the daughter of Randolph Hearst. The SLA calls Hearst Corp. the “corporate enemy of the people” and describes Patty Hearst as a “prisoner of war.” The group commands Hearst to give food away to poor people in exchange for Patty’s release. Randolph Hearst announces a $2 million food distribution program.

April 1974: The SLA releases a “communiqué” tape on which Patty Hearst says she will “stay and fight” with the SLA. She adopts the name “Tania,” for Tania Burke, Che Guevara’s lover. Twelve days later, as the SLA robs a Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, a security camera photographs Hearst. On another tape, Hearst says the robbery was an “expropriation”: “Greetings to the people, this is Tania … the difference between a criminal act and a revolutionary act is what the money is used for.” U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe calls Hearst a “common criminal.”

May 1974: Emily and William Harris, two SLA members, are seen shoplifting at a Los Angeles sporting goods store. To help them escape, Hearst fires at the store with a submachine gun and a carbine from the window of a van outside.

The next day, six SLA members die in a two-hour shootout at a house in Los Angeles’ predominantly black South Central neighborhood. The shootout, shown live on television, attracts a crowd of more than 10,000 people. Hundreds of police officers are on hand, mostly to handle the crowd. SWAT teams fire 5,371 rounds.

A neighborhood man told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 that people “connected to SLA members” assumed that South Central residents would rise up and join the revolution once the shooting started. “But hey, this isn’t Berkeley,” the man said.

The house caught fire when tear gas ignited an ammunition cache inside the house. Four SLA members died inside, and two were killed in a shootout as they attempted to escape. The dead: Angela Atwood, Donald DeFreeze, Camilla Hall, Nancy Ling Perry, Patricia Soltysik, and William Wolfe.

William Harris, Emily Harris, and Patty Hearst watch on television from a Los Angelesmotel room.

June 1974: The Harrises, with Hearst as either a prisoner or a partner, relaunch the SLA with the help of Kathleen Soliah, who recruits her siblings Josephine and Steven Soliah, as well as James Kilgore.

April 1975: The SLA robs the Crocker National Bank in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, Calif. In her 1982 book Every Secret Thing,Patty Hearst says Emily Harris, Kathleen Soliah, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore entered the bank, while William Harris and Steven Soliah served as lookouts, and Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura drove the getaway cars. During the robbery, bank customer Myrna Lee Opsahl is shot and killed. Hearst says Emily Harris admitted to shooting her: “Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.” Opsahl was depositing her church’s collection.

August 1975: The LAPD finds unexploded pipe bombs beneath two patrol cars. Evidence points to Kathleen Soliah and James Kilgore.

September 1975: The FBI arrests the Harrises, Yoshimura, and Hearst. When booked for bank robbery at the San Mateo County Jail, Hearst states her occupation as “urban guerrilla.” But during her trial, she portrays herself as an SLA victim. She accuses the SLA of brainwashing her, raping her, and forcing her to make tape recordings. (To read more about the brainwashing defense, click here.)

February 1976: Steven Soliah is indicted for conspiracy to commit murders and possession of explosives. Hearst doesn’t testify against him at his trial because prosecutors doubt her story, and he is acquitted.

March 1976: Hearst is convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison. During the trial, she took the Fifth Amendment 42 times.

March 1978: William and Emily Harris, already in prison, plead guilty to kidnapping Hearst. They’re sentenced to 10 years to life and are released in 1983.

May 1978: Hearst loses the appeal of her bank robbery conviction and reports to federal prison.

February 1979: President Jimmy Carter commutes Hearst’s sentence by granting her executive clemency.

1991: Patty Hearst, Steven Soliah, and Wendy Yoshimura are given immunity when they testify in grand jury proceedings about Myrna Lee Opsahl’s murder.

June 1999: Kathleen Soliah, who has changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, is arrested as a fugitive in Minnesota, where she is a housewife and community activist.

January 2001: President Clinton pardons Patty Hearst as part of a flurry of last-minute pardons. (Click here for the difference between a pardon and clemency.)

October 2001: Olson pleads guilty to attempting to bomb LAPD patrol cars and is sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, though she may serve as little as five years.

January 2002: Sara Jane Olson, William and Emily Harris, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore are charged with the murder of Myrna Lee Opsahl. James Kilgore remains a fugitive. Click here for his FBI “wanted” poster.

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