The Rise and Fall of the SLA


By Bernard Weiner


First published by the War Resisters League, WIN Magazine

June 13, 1974

Re-published by Northwest Passage, Summer 1974



In what seemed like a kind of suicide mission from the start, the group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army has literally flamed out of existence after capturing the attention of much of the world (certainly much of the world’s media) for nearly nine months.


What is the nonviolent Left to make of the appearance of the SLA on the American political landscape? And are there things we can learn from its manner of demise?


First, the origins of the SLA, for in understanding its genesis one can easily find the seeds of its destruction.


Certainly, one should not have been surprised that a group like the SLA would form in 1973 out of the moribund, fragmented Movement. Nearly everyone on the activist-Left spoke on the necessity for forming a new organization that would re-generate the spirit of early SDS, the anti-war movement, the civil rights struggle — in short, an organization that would weld together the varying racial, sexual and political factions of the New Left and regenerate the type of mid- and late-‘60s political dynamic that was so necessary in an age of Nixon-Mitchell-Agnew-Laird.


That such a revitalization of the Movement was necessary seemed obvious in the face of repression from the government (much of which is now being revealed in the wake of Watergate), entrenched racism, growing poverty amid inflation for wide segments of the population, the continuing “hidden” war in Indochina, and so on.


The issues were obvious but, for one reason or another, the activists of the ‘60s were not all that active anymore, at least not in the volatile and highly visible ways that suggested that revolutionary social change would occur anytime soon. They worked more in the community-organizing line — small, marginally effective, incremental encroachment — or were in semi-retreat in rural communes and collectives. In the meantime, things were going from worse to worser for the poor and oppressed minorities — and, indeed, for the working and middle-class as well.


Into this vacuum stepped the progenitors of the Symbionese Liberation Army — a mixture of black ex-prisoners, Third World activists, and white, middle-class radicals from America’s heartland — fired by the rhetoric slung so easily in the radical Berkeley culture, in prison-reform and Third World and gay liberation organizations, and seeing the need for some revolutionary alternatives. They had seen liberal reforms leading to inaction, radical alternatives grinding slowly, oh-so-slowly, to some far-distant utopian vision. It was time to move, it was time for direct action.




What seems evident now is that the members of this founding group were, by and large, ahistorical — outside the lessons of history. To them, it appeared, the world of revolution began with their own coming of political age, with few, if any, connections to historical precedent. Many in their early 20s seem to have been virtually unacquainted (except on a rhetorical level) with the lessons of Mao and Che and Lenin and the Tupamaros, and only marginally connected with the anti-war movement of the late-‘ 60s.


I’m not making up this ahistoricism. Read some of their own accounts of their political evolution, those of Fahizah (Nancy Ling Perry) and Russell Little, for example, or the instant revolutionism of someone like Tania (Patricia Hearst). Most of these reports, and their respective backgrounds, indicate that they “matured politically” in the early 1970s, as if they emerged full-grown from the some ahistorical godhead, their inspiration derived from acid and the teachings of George Jackson. 


This relative ignorance of and independence from the old Movement people helped them physically survive, since the police agencies couldn’t infiltrate anything so disconnected from the New Left mainstream — but it also meant, in effect, that the SLA had no allies in the organized Left. All of which meant that when the going got really heavy, they had nobody outside their scraggly little band to turn to for help — leading to the revolutionary’s ignominy of having, in the end, to buy a night’s shelter with hundred dollar bills. 


There are various estimates of the strength of the budding SLA in the summer of 1973. Perhaps 25, maybe a few more. And, one could well imagine that if they chose their actions wisely, carried them off with slickness and aplomb, geared up their agit-prop program correctly, had lines of communication and organization into the masses of the poor and oppressed, they might have been able to pull it off, might have been able to galvanize and resurrect the moribund Left.




So what was their first action? The assassination in the Fall of 1973 of the popular black superintendent of schools in Oakland, a man revered in the populous black community. His “crime”? Alleged support of a student I.D.-card proposal for the Oakland public schools. (As it turned out, the school’s chief, Dr. Marcus Foster, actually had been attempting to sidetrack the controversial I.D.-card plan.)


Many SLA supporters and members — at least one that is known by name, Thero Wheeler, another black escaped con — apparently dropped the organization at that point and, while refusing to have anything to do with the police investigating the Foster murder, equally refused to have anything more to do with the SLA. (Even the SLA must have realized their miscalculation. They seldom mentioned the Foster assassination in their later communiques, almost as if they hoped that by not talking about it, everybody might forget their first mistake.)


The SLA had the rhetoric down, and their social analyses were close to the mark — though written in a terribly convoluted, almost illiterate prose — and so presumably could have made some inroads into the traditional Berkeley Left except…except for the Foster assassination, which seemed to make no sense whatsoever, and because the SLA had no connection with those who had earned their dues on the barricades and in the streets during the previous decade, suspicions grew that the SLA might be a police- or CIA-sponsored front.


The dozen or so people who did know about the SLA, and/or who decided to drop away from the organization after the Foster slaying, were keeping such knowledge to themselves, lest they be hauled in by the cops pronto — or, what was a more frightening possibility, lest they be rubbed out by the gun-happy SLA leaders with their strict code of discipline.


The SLA faded to the back pages of the newspapers and all was relatively quiet until February 4th of this year, when Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and a mass FBI-police hunt began. It became apparent at this stage that the SLA understood the surface tactics of urban guerrilla groups like the Tupamaros but no earthly understanding of the necessities for running — and, what’s more important, building — a successful urban-guerrilla program. 


Once again, the SLA blew it when they had the perfect chance to exploit their position. They had virtual control over the Bay Area mass-media, and were even receiving attention from the national and international press, but were unable to capitalize on their success by building a mass-based support.




Randolph Hearst, unwittingly, nearly gave the SLA entree into the masses it so desperately needed in order to survive and grow. He offered to set up a permanent feed-the-poor program, staffed and overseen in large part by volunteer workers who could have been the vanguard wedge in educating the poor and oppressed as to the realities of economic subjugation in America and the necessity for radical or revolutionary alternatives. Instead, the SLA rejected that plan in favor of once-only, headline-grabbing food distribution. Through their seemingly contradictory positions and their taped communiques — which were always days late in responding to by-then changed situations — the SLA came to be seen as opportunistic bad-guys and, believe it or not, the Hearsts came more and more to win the sympathy of the masses. Who the Hearsts were and that they represented was pushed to the background while the two sides haggled over the quality of the food being offered. It didn’t seem to matter that the Hearst plan was a partial rip-off, using surplus and donated food instead of money from the Hearst Corp. empire. By and large, the people receiving the food saw themselves, correctly, as pawns in the SLA’s political chess game in much the same way they’d always been pawns in the Hearst economic game.


The SLA members were free, but they were captives of Marshall McLuhan, truly believing that the medium was the message, that they could create the revolution out of whole cloth by simple manipulation of the media, without the dull day-by-day work of building a mass-based infrastructure. They were riding high in the headlines, and capturing the imagination of the people, but they were living in a world of dreams, cut off from all but the most minuscule support. (They received words of encouragement from the remnants of the Black Liberation Army and a weak endorsement from some Weather People Underground — but Ramparts Magazine, the voice of the organized New Left headquartered in Berkeley, denounced them as counterrevolutionary; people began to inform on them; Left factions revealed that General Field Marshal Cinque had once been a police informer, etc.


Presumably to show off their new convert Tania (Patty Hearst), but also more likely because they were out of cash, they robbed a bank, in the process of which they demonstrated their great love for “the people” by shooting a couple of elderly ones who happened to be in the vicinity during their escape.


By this time, they were obviously terribly alone, trigger-happy in their nervousness to the point of paranoia (Cinque even supposed that the hunt for the Zebra killers in San Francisco was really a manufactured plot designed to catch him in the dragnet), running out of cash to support their high overhead (submachine guns don’t come cheap — unless authorities are providing them for free), and running out of hiding places, with the bumbling FBI hot on their trail. It was time to split their Bay Area womb. 




One can well imagine their reluctance to move their Bay Area base of operations at that time. No doubt, they had a few sympathizers and helpers in and around Berkeley and San Francisco — and, by and large, the ex-SLA members were remaining quiet and not cooperating with the feds. In addition, they were making the local FBI agents look like fools, and forcing the Bureau’s national director to admit that the FBI was “stumped” by the SLA. However, while the SLA was always one jump ahead of the feds, even they could see that things were getting much too hot for them in the Bay Area, and their luck couldn’t hold out forever. Thus, off to the Los Angeles area where, apparently they had a few contacts and perhaps dreamed of the revolution there. If it wouldn’t happen in radical Berkeley, it would have to take place in Watts. 


That this possibility existed in their minds can be seen in that they apparently spent a day or so in LA openly recruiting black members for what they saw as the “revolution” that was about to begin. Visitors were permitted to freely come and go from their South-Central hideout, even after talking with the SLA members about their activities and observing the formidable arsenal laid out on the living room floor of this racially-mixed band.


Since this openness with strangers violates rational revolutionary conduct — indeed, the SLA had expressly forbidden such behavior in their internal rules of operation — one is left to puzzle out the meaning of such apparent sloppiness. Two explanations appear at once, both connected to a deteriorating state of mind:


1) They were so goddamned tired of running, the pressure was so intolerably great, that, in a sense, they didn’t care anymore; if the cops came, they came, and at last the open confrontation with the enemy would be met. (But they weren’t totally suicidal — not all the SLA members stayed in the house, and they made sure their media star, Tania, was out of the house before the firefight began.)


2) Given their exhausted condition, their hyper-tense mental state, their delusions of grandeur and invincibility may have become so heightened that they believed their battle with police would spark a genuine revolt in Watts — in short, that their example of revolutionary bravery would lead The People at last to a revolutionary readiness where all previous actions, including the SLA’s, had failed.


The first explanation makes a certain degree of sense, especially if one is to believe the far-Left theory that DonaldDeFreeze (Cinque) was in reality a police agent, instructed that the game had gone far enough and it was time for the SLA to disappear. But given the dynamics of psychological stress, the explanation has a certain validity even if one forgoes the conspiracy theory. 





The latter explanation makes even more sense if one ponders a moment the SLA’s idolatry of the mythical entity called “The People.” Revolutionary vanguard often speak in the name of “the people,” almost always without permission of the folks they’re supposedly speaking for. In the SLA’s case, they may have so convinced themselves of the unified nature of the downtrodden “people” they wanted and needed so much, that it may have never entered their rational minds that some of the black residents of Watts might have other ideas about the benefit to themselves and their community of having a (mostly white) terrorist band in their midst. In effect, the SLA committed the cardinal error of the revolutionist: believing their own rhetoric to the point of having it cloud their perception of reality — failing to see that “the people” are many peoples and before these multifarious individuals and groups can become “the people,” recognizing a common enemy and organizing for common revolutionary aims, a lot of hard, slogging educational and organizing work has to be done first. But the SLA was never comfortable mixing with “the people,” content as they were to believe they could adequately represent “the people” by concocting a racially- and sexually-mixed vanguard whose revolutionary actions would come to unite “the people” behind them.


And so the majority of the SLA leadership was wiped out in a massive firefight with police and FBI agents — perhaps, aptly, dying as a result of their own huge store of ammunition — and the remaining stragglers became a kind of mop-up operation for the authorities, though not without adventure and meaning of its own.


From jail, two of the captured SLA soldiers — Remiro and Little — continued to seek the creation of the myth, to turn the SLA into a phoenix that would rise again from the ashes, by their comments suggesting that the SLA had proved its value because: 1) It showed that a racially- and sexually-mixed, disciplined band could carry out revolutionary actions in an urban war; and, 2) that the firepower of the SLA leaders in the LA shootout had been so strong as to even shock the police. Such is the depth of the intellectual and political analysis emerging from this ahistorical band. 


However, Remiro and Little are correct in one respect: the SLA was able to create a truly mixed revolutionary band, with women sharing equal responsibility with men, and whites with non-whites.


Finally, regardless of whether Cinque was or was not a police agent, the effect of the SLA on the Left has been the same: as a perfectly justifiable excuse for the feds and local police to come down heavy on those Left elements who are most effective as organizers (Panthers, health and political collectives, etc.). Whether this will rebound in the faces of the authorities is hard to say at this point; the meteoric rise and deterioration of the SLA has forced virtually every leftist group in the Bay Area, and beyond, into a painful reassessment of the requirements of radical political activity in 1974. 


Who knows? In the end, the SLA — at a godawful cost — may prove to be a healthy spur to the organized, non-violent Left, motivating it to get its shit together and moving before more frustrated crazies come along bearing bombs, bombast, and stoned-out visions of the Imminent Revolution. #




Bernard Weiner, active in the Movement since the civil rights struggles of the early 1960s, has written for The Nation, Village Voice, WIN, The Progressive. Formerly editor of Northwest Passage in the Pacific Northwest, he is now with the San Francisco Chronicle. His most recent volume is “The Bellingham Poems” (Goliards Press).