The SLA: Revolutionary Irresponsibility


"To compound the excitement (of the May 17 shootout between police and FBI officers and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army), the action was beamed by radio, and by live television, into millions of homes. People watched live warfare from their living rooms." --Boston Globe, May 19, 1974

THE AMERICAN public rarely gets to see agents of its government inflicting violence, even violence in the name of the people. No television cameraman was allowed to cover the carpet bombing of Hanoi. No newspaper picture has ever shown the final gasp of an electric chair victim. When 1000 New York State troopers, sheriff's deputies, and prison guards overran Attica State Prison in September 1971, no photographer was permitted to see police bullets cut down 28 prisoners and 9 of their hostages. As a result, Walter B. Dunbar, then New York's deputy commissioner of corrections, was able to tell reporters incorrectly that inmates had slit the hostages' throats, and that one man who he said had been killed before the onslaught was stabbed and emasculated by cold-blooded insurgents.

Consequently, the May 17 California telecast of police attacking a houseful of Symbionese Liberation Army members was a special occasion. It was special because the police did not take the normal security precaution of cordoning off the block on which shooting would take place. They clearly believed that so little public sympathy for the SLA existed that nothing they could do to destroy the SLA would cast the police or FBI in a bad light even if covered on live television. Moreover, they must have believed that permitting the neighborhood--and the country--to see the battle would teach a lesson to potential terrorists more important in their consideration than the safety of neighborhood residents. Charles Bates, the special FBI agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco office and the Patricia Hearst case, admitted he was worried about more "political kidnappings." The FBI had to demonstrate, Bates said, that "we've got more equipment and training than any army."

The FBI could hardly have chosen a more propitious target strategically. In six months of public notoriety, the SLA had won conspicuously few friends. Its first admitted act of political violence was the November 1973 slaying of Marcus A. Foster, Oakland's popular superintendent of schools and the only black in California to head a major public school system. Foster was killed for allegedly advocating a student identification program in Oakland high schools which the SLA, in a letter issued after Foster's death, likened to the photo I.D. system used in South Africa. In fact, Foster was opposed to the system and by skillfully leaking information to appropriate community groups had managed to nearly kill the plan by the time of his assassination. Foster and his chief aide Robert Blackburn, who was severely wounded by shotgun fire in the SLA attack, were so popular with Oakland liberals and virtually every Oakland community group that many West Coast leftists were certain that the SLA was a CIA or right-wing plot to provoke an attack on the Left.

The SLA's second mission was only slightly more popular. As the editors of Ramparts pointed out in a May 1974 article "Terrorism and the Left," the strategy behind Patricia Hearst's kidnaping last February could not have been worse from the standpoint of radical organizers. Hearst's parents, a conservative publisher and a reactionary regent of the University of California, were made to appear as the warmest and most sympathetic of characters, while the kidnapers--and, by extension, the Left--seemed violent and heartless. California poor people were cast as beggars, taking morsels of food from the rich under the threat of an innocent woman's death, while Randolph Hearst seemed a man genuinely concerned for the welfare of the masses. The SLA's topsy-turvy tactics were condemned by Ramparts and a host of activists including Cesar Chavez, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin, and Jane Fonda. Even the Weather Underground expressed its sympathy for the SLA cautiously; only the Black Liberation Army, a Black Panther splinter group, supported the SLA with enthusiasm.

FOR THE MOST part, however, there has been little serious public consideration of the moral and political significance of the SLA program. With the notable exception of Ramparts, the long line of leftists ready to disown the SLA plus the major newspapers and newsmagazines which have played the sensational aspects of the Hearst case to the hilt have tended to obscure or at least to deal too briefly with serious issues raised by the history of the SLA: were its actions in any sense justified? If so--or if not--was the SLA's liquidation by the police and FBI justified? Have news media been providing sufficient information to the public to help people open-mindedly evaluate the politics of the SLA?

For the most part, the news media have ignored the question of moral justification of the moral the SLA's strategy to mental or emotional disturbances among SLA members. Accounts in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Time, and Newsweek have focused on the SLA members' unstable personal relationships; the bitterness and isolation supposedly associated with the lesbianism of Patricia Soltysik and Camilla Hall; the desperate disenchantment of Nancy Ling Perry, a former topless waitress who had been a Goldwaterite in her youth. Apparently taking their lead, Dr. Thomas Noguchi, Los Angeles County coroner, ordered a "psychological autopsy" on those who died in the May 17 battle. By attributing violent politics to personal illness, it is possible to avoid altogether any moral discussion of the SLA.

But in the case of Donald D. DeFreeze, the SLA's main spokesman, dismissing his politics as middle class disenchantment is simply impossible. DeFreeze was the eldest son of a poor and unstable black family in Cleveland. His father punished him three times when a child by breaking both his arms. He dropped out of high school at the age of 14, moved to Buffalo, N.Y., joined a street gang, and was arrested for grand larceny two years later.

The next 13 years of his life, from 1960 to 1973, were largely spent running from police in New Jersey, Ohio, and California, serving time in reform school and prison, or staying on probation by providing California police with information on crimes in Los Angeles. As the Ramparts editors noted, DeFreeze's stark, inaccurate analysis of the operation of American society in general was actually a painfully accurate analysis of power relationships and exploitation within prisons, that aspect of American society which DeFreeze knew best. DeFreeze first met his fellow SLA soldiers in Vacaville Prison in 1969 through a Black Culture Association which brought black prisoners together with white, non-prison radicals. In this sense, the SLA grew out of a genuinely unjust system; in view of its prison origins, the SLA's paranoia seems less surprising.

It is also difficult simply to dismiss the SLA's political motives if you consider the seriousness of the SLA's political symbolism and the political framework within which its members saw their mission. DeFreeze took the name Cinque, the name of an African slave who led a slave ship revolt in 1839. The SLA's food plan resembles the tactics of the Argentine Revolutionary Army of the People, a terrorist group which has successfully demanded food, clothing, and medical equipment in ransom for kidnaped corporation executives. The set of SLA demands to Randolph Hearst involved no payments to the SLA. The Army's platform declares the SLA's opposition to "all forms of racism, sexism, age-ism, captalism, fascism, individualism, possessiveness, and competitiveness."

However, political seriousness is not moral justification by itself any more than vague psychologizing about the SLA provides a valid basis for ignoring all moral discussion. The important lesson of the SLA is not how much evil can be accomplished by politically naive madmen, but how much harm can be done by rational, politically serious people who fail to comprehend their moral and political responsibilities or to live up to their announced ideals.

TERRORISTS traditionally justify political violence with two moral arguments that do not hold for the SLA. The first argument is that terror--a program of violence designed to achieve specific political ends--finds its legitimacy in the popular support of an oppressed mass of people with no other recourse for the achievement of its own liberation. The National Liberation Fronts of Algeria and Vietnam, although they did not officially run the governments of their respective countries, justly claimed political legitimacy on this basis.

The second argument is that the terrorists, even if not supported by the great mass of people, understand history and the political conditions necessary for social progress with a true consciousness the majority has not yet attained. This historical argument is rarely made seriously unless a terrorist group has mass support. Its logical extension is Rosa Luxembourg's definition of revolution--a string of failures that ends with a final success. In other words, if terror works--if it forces a ruling class to meet the demands of terrorists--that success validates and justifies the terror. If the terror fails, the terrorists usually die and the problem of justification becomes a problem only for their successors.

Unfortunately, the SLA fails on both counts. The Oakland community's overwhelming satisfaction with Foster belied any attempt to claim mass support for his assassination. Though not a radical, he enjoyed the endorsement of black and white community organizers alike. Indeed, the behavior of the SLA in killing Foster and kidnaping Hearst led at least one black spokesman in California to question whether the SLA was not simply exploiting DeFreeze as a figurehead. Colston Westbrook, a Berkeley linguistics instructor who met DeFreeze through the Vacaville Black Culture Association, said in April, "I think the honkies are calling the shots. [DeFreeze had] better wake up."

As for the SLA's political analysis, events proved sadly the Army's lack of revealed political consciousness. A kidnaping which made the "corporate criminal" look good, demands for a good program actually less sensible than Hearst's counter-offer, gratuitous insults against Hearst which further alienated the media, and a failure to consult with any of the leftist organizations on whose behalf the SLA was supposedly struggling, practically guaranteed the SLA's political isolation. Its crimes would have invited violent reprisals in any case, but more so in California where several series of mysterious killings this year have left police authorities--especially in San Francisco and Los Angeles--on edge.

It was simply inevitable given the SLA's political objectives and the state of California and national politics that their strategy would not only fail but jeopardize the political position of the Left, in general. Such gross political aad moral miscalculation--especially for a group supposedly committed to the SLA's announced ideals--totally undermines any claim that might be made for the moral legitimacy of their activities. If we take the SLA's program seriously and acknowledge, in some sense, the righteousness of its discontent, the sincerity and personal suffering of the SLA's members still do not justify their adventurism or the real and potential suffering they wrought for the Left and other innocent people. Whether the dead SLA members were good or bad people as individuals, what the SLA accomplished as a group must be judged morally and politically reprehensible.

Yet, there is no justification for the way six members of the SLA were ultimately destroyed by police--even if it can be argued that such a dramatic death may have served their political purposes more eloquently than any planned action. It is impossible to believe that the Los Angeles police and the FBI needed 400 men equipped with helicopters, tear gas, bullets, and fragmentation grenades to overcome six amateur gunmen trapped in a single house. Nor is there any excuse for the police to have totally ignore the safety of the community. A crippled woman sitting on the porch next door to the SLA's hideout had to be helped to cover when the shooting began without previous warning.

Finally, it's easy to guess whether the police would have so cavalierly destroyed the SLA's hideout had its members fled to a stucco mansion like the Hearsts' in Hillsborough rather than to the modest home of a black family living on the edges of a southeast Los Angeles ghetto. That the police should have appeared "the good guys" on television was ironic, all the more so because California authorities are using SLA activities as an excuse for rounding up dozens of Bay area radicals on unverified charges.

THERE IS ALSO no justification for the press's coverage of the SLA--biased, sexist, sensationalist, and superficial. The Boston Globe has devoted three days of features this week to a popular psychology-type diagnosis of Patricia Hearst's emotional development. In The Globe, she is described as dependent and weak-willed. The Los Angeles Times last February called her self-reliant and "a classic beauty." References to the sexual mores of the SLA women abound. Even Vin McLellan, a Boston Phoenix writer who has thoroughly reported the background of Donald DeFreeze, belittles the SLA for misspellings in their documents and ridicules the group's members' poor marital relationships.

Some kind of journalistic low point was achieved by The Boston Globe in its capsule profile of Patricia Soltysik on May 19; the piece concludes: "Once devoted to cashmere sweaters, she adopted black and white striped overalls." What such information adds to public understanding is inconceivable; that it detracts from more important issues is certain. The Globe also exaggerated the length of the Los Angeles gun battle and the volume of ammunition and the number of police involved.

Because the press by and large has not done its job--because there has been a disturbing tendency to reduce issues of terror and morality, politics and justice, and life and death to popular psychologizing and knee-jerk sermonizing--it is crucial for political activists, particularly on the Left, to take the SLA's example seriously. It is imperative that activists examine the SLA's experience in order to arrive at a better understanding of the moral, as well as the tactical ramifications of violent political programs whether at home or in Uruguay, Israel, or Ireland. The Left needs to formulate a coherent moral vision and to maintain a vigorous moral debate not only to avoid unnecessarily alienating the majority of the American public, but also as a basis for the design of constructive tactics. The editors of Ramparts wrote:

If there is a lesson to be learned from the SLA, it is that in a society as violently racist, exploitative and aggressively heartless as America's, we cannot afford to be without an organized mass movement of the Left. For what the Left means in human terms is a moral community of hope--the revolutionary possibility of a better way.

We need a 'moral community of hope' to protect against both the destructive adventurism of self-obsessed quasi-revolutionaries and a successful government repression of leftist activity in a broad campaign of force or legal harassment which may one day be massed with the public's fearful consent.