A Symbionese Family Reunion

New York Times-Opinion/January 28, 2002
By Tim Findley

Fallon, Nev. -- One more time, state and federal authorities seem determined to reassemble the Symbionese Liberation Army. At this 26th- year reunion, the aging soldiers of the S.L.A. will face trial for the murder of Myrna Opsahl during a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, Calif.

Patricia Hearst, in her 1982 book "Every Secret Thing," accused Emily Harris of killing Mrs. Opsahl, and of saying later that "it really doesn't matter" and "she was a bourgeois pig anyway." Now Mrs. Opsahl's son Jon says those two comments kept the family pushing for an arrest. "Those words have always kind of haunted us," he said recently.

I covered the S.L.A. for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970's, and there is something haunting about it. Only a handful of members of that murderous cult are left, fading emblems of the social chaos, violence and fake sentiments of liberation that dominated Bay Area life in those years. They are being brought back together like characters in the last chapter of an Agatha Christie novel. Among them are Emily Harris, the former Indiana student who spent almost eight years behind bars for the kidnapping of Ms. Hearst; Kathleen Soliah, now known as Sara Jane Olson, a Minnesota housewife who just got two terms of 10-to-life for an equally old plot to bomb Los Angeles police cars; and of course, Ms. Hearst, the former Tania, who may be the prime witness against her old comrades. The S.L.A. has returned as whodunit kitsch.

Beginning in 1973 with the escape from prison of Donald DeFreeze, S.L.A. founder and "field marshal," and winding up three years later with Tania surrendering to a San Francisco cop, the S.L.A. was always nothing if not theatrical. I didn't believe it when, as a reporter, I received their first communiqué in November, 1973, claiming credit for the assassination of Dr. Marcus Foster, the first black school superintendent in the history of Oakland, Calif.

It was the only known homicide ever committed by the band of adventurers who gathered around Donald DeFreeze, who had taken the name Cinque from the leader of a 19th- century rebellion on the Amistad, a slave ship. The field marshal had never quite made it as a street mugger in Los Angeles. In prison he was known as a lightweight. But to the young white prison-reform activists who adopted him, Cinque was a street-talking Spartacus.

"Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people," proclaimed the S.L.A. motto. I had difficulty with it - trying to picture an insect with fascist characteristics. As their banner, the S.L.A. presented a seven-headed cobra image taken from either Hindu mythology or, more likely, a Jimi Hendrix album cover from 1967. "Symbionese," the field marshal explained, described how the army would survive among the people, risking their lives on daring escapades against the establishment in return for shelter in the community. The enemy was just about everybody else who wasn't already poor and oppressed, including most white people but also blacks, like Marcus Foster, who didn't meet Cinque's standards. The S.L.A. also railed against sexists and, eventually, even ageists. As one S.L.A. member said later, the little army emphasized "respecting the freedom, self-determination and culture of all peoples" who agreed with them.

When Cinque's two top soldiers were arrested for the Foster murder, Bill and Emily Harris (Teko and Yolanda) got the revenge assignment. The Harrises were an attractive young white couple who apparently learned basic radicalism at Indiana University before moving on to Berkeley, Calif., where Emily took a job that gave her access to university student records. That was how she and her husband found Patricia Hearst and snatched her, presumably as a bargaining chip for the freedom of their jailed comrades.

The S.L.A. drove the radical underground in Berkeley crazy. These "infantile leftists" of the S.L.A., I was indignantly informed, had stolen the guns they were using from the stash of a genuine Marxist. Now it was the Berkeley left that wanted the renegades caught. Symbiosis wasn't catching on, not even when Cinque demanded, and got, a promise from Randolph Hearst, Patricia's father, to feed the Bay Area's hungry. Volunteers rode on trailer trucks, flinging frozen chickens and fresh produce in all directions.

And still Patty did not come home. In fact, she sounded a little embarrassed when she issued a communiqué denouncing her parents and asking to be called Tania. "I have chosen to stay and fight," she said. Her parents insisted for the rest of their lives that Patty had been tricked. A short time later Tania was caught by video cameras waving a carbine during a bank robbery. The Berkeley radical from whom the gun was stolen took bitter notice of it in newspaper photos.

Blazing away, but without killing anybody, the S.L.A. fled again. Fascist insects everywhere were terrified. But Cinque's idea of swimming symbiotically with Bay Area leftists had run out of chances; the army marched to South Central Los Angeles for a fresh start.

Tania made her presence known by splattering a sporting goods store with gunfire while she, Bill and Emily fled a botched shoplifting attempt. The rest of the S.L.A. realized their safe house might not be so safe and found a new spot on 54th Street. It wasn't safe for more than a few hours. Cinque and five others went down shooting, bandoliers of ammunition across their chests. But in a typical blunder, they took cover in a crawl space beneath the house. From that angle, all the bullets they fired could go nowhere but over the heads of the police. Tear gas finally set the house on fire. Bill and Emily, along with Patty, watched the whole thing live on national television for hours, in a motel room in Anaheim.

For the next year, Patricia Hearst's parents waited for her to show up at the family mansion. In the end, though, she was captured and signed herself into jail listing her occupation as "urban guerrilla."

Whatever Kathy Soliah knew about it all probably had to come from after the Los Angeles shootout, when she adopted the role of spokeswoman. Nothing in the way of a clear political manifesto had ever been produced by the S.L.A. Its splintered rhetoric on cultural, racial and sexual oppression was nearly random. Ms. Soliah took on the task of explaining the S.L.A. philosophy in the underground press. She didn't have much success.

Then came the Carmichael robbery and the shotgun went off, killing Mrs. Opsahl. Everybody went to jail for a while - everybody except Kathy Soliah and a few other loose-change wannabes who did not even appear to be urgently sought by the F.B.I. until the capture of the ex-Soliah, Sara Jane Olson, suburban housewife and amateur thespian. The arrest of Mrs. Olson freshened the Opsahl case up a bit.

And now, the coming courtroom spectacle of aging revolutionaries, Peter Pan's pirates with sagging jowls and thinning white hair. Mrs. Opsahl's grieving children, now grown up, will sit in the courtroom with Ms. Olson's daughters, who probably understand not a thing of what this was all about. I doubt Kathy Soliah can explain it.

Perhaps it had something to do with the same youthful delusions that set some off to chain themselves to fir trees or free horses or join the Taliban. In the end, the S.L.A. was about leading a wild, gangster life, not about instigating social change. After the L.A. fire, all that kept the S.L.A. going in the public imagination was its celebrity hostage-comrade.

Now the suspects are in the drawing room. The main players, once on the lam together, are assembled to tell of old delusions in a pointless spasm of violence. What would Agatha Christie's little Belgian make of this? Even if we solve the crime, will we ever have the answers?

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