This Soldier Still at War
Through the late spring and summer of 1973, while Huey P. Newton dreamed of getting training grants from HEW and Bobby Seale was putting together his campaign for mayor of Oakland, a handful of young, mostly white, radical men and women were preparing to launch guerrilla war against the United States from the Black Panther’s old home grounds in the Berkeley-Oakland flatlands.
The would-be guerrillas called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. At the time of their formal declaration of “revolutionary war” in August of 1973, their number might have been as many as twenty-five or thirty, as few as a dozen. No one, in any case, not even the intelligence squads of urban police departments in California, noticed their declaration. Three months later, however, on the day following the shocking murder of Dr. Marcus Foster, the respected black superintendent of Oakland’s city schools, the SLA decisively ended that obscurity. In its “Communique No. One,” left in the mailbox of Berkeley radio station KPFA and also mailed to several Bay Area daily papers, the SLA announced that it had “executed” Foster both for his own alleged “crimes” against Oakland school children and as a retaliation for the slaying of a fourteen-year-old black youth by an Oakland cop a few days earlier. The authenticity of the claim could scarcely be doubted, for the “communique” noted that Foster’s death “warrant” called for “cyanide bullets” and at that time not even the police realized that the eight shells in Foster’s body were tipped with cyanide.
Who were the Symbionese Liberation Army? Two very useful books help us to know something about the question, though, as the authors of both would acknowledge, there are plenty of mysteries left over. Only eleven people can be positively identified as members of the SLA. Six of them died in the televised Los Angeles gun battle and incineration of May 1974. Two others are in custody and currently being tried for the murder of Foster. The remaining three, including the most famous member, Patricia Hearst, are still at large. California police agencies say that the SLA has been smashed and its members accounted for. The officials also like to suggest that the full story of the SLA is known to them. John Bryan, author of This Soldier Still at War, a not unsympathetic account of the political life of Joe Remiro, one of the two SLA soldiers being tried for Foster’s murder, and Jerry Belcher and Don West, co-authors of Patty/Tania, are not so sure of either of these official claims.
Both books, for example, agree that the SLA combined on the one hand some black men in California’s prisons and, on the other, well-educated but inexperienced white youths of the middle class. The whites were mainly, though not exclusively, affiliated with a Bay Area radical group called Venceremos, which at the time espoused both what it called “armed struggle” and the view that prisoners, notably black prisoners, because of their desperation and their training in violence might play a leading role in that armed struggle. The intellectual patrimony of Venceremos came from Frantz Fanon and Regis Debray more than it did from Marx and Lenin. The group was organized from the wreckage of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) by Bruce Franklin, a Melville scholar and former Stanford English professor. In the early 1970s, it was easily the most radical of the innumerable Bay Area left organizations, though not so well known as the Black Panthers.
It is ironic that Venceremos was destroyed as an above-ground group when a number of its members were arrested after a convict they had helped to escape (murdering a guard in the process) turned out to be more canary than revolutionary and sang for the authorities. In any case, of the known members of the SLA, Joe Remiro (Bo), Emily and Bill Harris (Yolanda and Teko), and Angela Atwood (Gelina) had been members of Venceremos, engaged in its program of work with prisoners. Patricia Soltysik (Mizmoon/Zoya). William Wolfe (Cujo), at least arguably the main instrument of Patty Hearst’s metamorphosis as Tania, and Russell Little (Osceola), who was apprehended with Remiro and is his codefendant in the Foster murder trial, were not members of Venceremos but in 1972 and 1973 were very much part of its program of visits to prisoners, serving as tutors, counselors, and just plain sympathizers.
Around the same time, Nancy Ling Perry, through friendships with Remiro and Little, was also drawn into prison work. Of the known white membership of the SLA, then, only Patricia Hearst and Camilla Hall (Gabi) were not actively at work among black prisoners just prior to the formation of the group. The authors of both books have been diligent in working through prison records and grand jury reports as well as personal interviews to show this web of relationships.
All of the original white SLA cadre were in their twenties. All save Remiro and Willie Wolfe were college graduates. Only Remiro, the hawk-faced, short, wiry Vietnam veteran, came from the working class; Wolfe’s father was a doctor, Hall’s was a missionary and college chaplain, Emily Harris’s was an engineer, and so it went. All save Remiro came from suburbs and small towns in California, the Midwest, Florida, and Connecticut. Remiro was born and raised in San Francisco. None of the group had been prominent or even active in the great Berkeley protest movements of the 1960s, though Mizmoon and Nancy Perry (Fahizah) were both on the scene there by the late years of the decade. Remiro, again, was something of an exception; though he was a political cipher before his service in Vietnam, he was subsequently active not only in Venceremos but also in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Finally, though neither book makes much of a point of this, Mizmoon Soltysik, Camilla Hall, and Angela Atwood had become militant feminists; Hall and Soltysik were also lesbians, though Soltysik could swing the other way, and did. Soltysik, indeed, was a hard case; as Tania would say of her later, she “moved viciously….”
But one part of the Symbionese Liberation Army was anchored in the prisons of California—in Soledad, Folsom, San Quentin, and, most importantly, at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. It was at Vacaville that the Black Cultural Association was formed in 1968 and it might truly be said that the SLA issued from a union of the cons of the BCA and their young, white, middle-class visitors and admirers. Of all of the black cons who were in touch with the people who became the SLA, only Donald David DeFreeze, a one-time member of the BCA who escaped from Soledad in March 1973, was known to be a member of the SLA. Perhaps Thero Wheeler, another BCA member and escapee from Vacaville in August 1973, was also a member. Bryan as well as Belcher and West believe that he was. Wheeler is usually identified along with DeFreeze as one of the “two black men” who provided the muscle the night that Patricia Hearst was snatched. But it is by no means established that he was. Wheeler has disappeared. Tania did not mention his name in her eulogy of her comrades slain in the Los Angeles gun battle and fire. Wheeler’s role and his present whereabouts are two of the puzzles of the case.
DeFreeze, of course, became famous as General Field Marshal Cinque of the SLA and its chief spokesman after the kidnap. He died, in the LA county coroner’s judgment, by his own hand at the climax of the incredible violence in Los Angeles. For all of the police and prison rap sheets on him and for all of the incandescence of his brief celebrity, he remains a shadow. How much the black convicts contributed to the form and leadership of the SLA is still unclear. Were they catalysts in some way or were they the actual leaders? Were they merely “blacks up front” to lend funk and “Third World” validity to a lily-white gang of college kids? If we knew the answers to these questions, and knew more about the relations between the white youths and the black convicts, we would know more than we do about the SLA.
Bryan, a veteran “alternative” or counterculture journalist in California, who has had the benefit of long interviews with Remiro and Little, the two SLA troopers held “in the belly of the beast,” as Tania liked to put it, is generally satisfied that Cinque was the leader in fact and, perhaps, even the real founder of the SLA. He acknowledges that there was little in DeFreeze’s past as a petty hoodlum and, possibly, a police informer, to suggest he would emerge as a guerrilla leader. But, Bryan says, we have other examples before us of seemingly incorrigible black petty criminals experiencing regeneration while in prison to make the transformation of DeFreeze at least plausible. Bryan is clearly impressed by Miss Hearst’s eulogy of Cinque, by the respect for him displayed by Remiro and Little, and by the eyewitness testimony to his stoicism and resolve as doom was gathering for him and his followers in the house on Fifty-fourth Street, out under Elizabeth Hardwick’s “dusty palm trees” in the Los Angeles ghetto.
Belcher and West, who were San Francisco Examiner (Hearst) reporters assigned to the kidnap case as it was breaking, are not so sure that DeFreeze led the group. They stress the absence of anything in his background to support that interpretation. They also stress more than does Bryan the links between the Symbionese and Venceremos, noting that Venceremos, despite its Third World rhetoric, was an almost exclusively white organization with blacks and chicanos around only as window-dressing. They do not dismiss the possibility that DeFreeze was, even at the end, a double agent, and they do a far more thorough job than does Bryan, the “counter-journalist,” to give the reader some notion of just how California’s various state and local police agencies have been able to infiltrate left-wing organizations.
Belcher and West even suggest that DeFreeze, just before the Los Angeles gun battle, might have been seeking to make a private deal to ransom Miss Hearst for his own skin and some getaway money. Throughout their work they speculate on who might have been the “real” brain behind the SLA, the real leader. They do not dismiss the possibility that it might have been a smarter, tougher, black con than DeFreeze. They are also drawn to the possibility that the well-educated, military-trained Bill Harris/Teko, with his degree in “communications,” was in charge with Cinque as a frontman, a kind of Potemkin village. Put so simply their argument may seem to be no more than a not-so-subtle racism; in fact their case is always tentative and in no way do they seem prejudiced.