An American Army

This Soldier Still at War

by John Bryan
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 341 pp., $9.95


by Jerry Belcher and Don West
Pyramid Books, 347 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Symbionese Liberation Army
Symbionese Liberation Army; drawing by David Levine

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…

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