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 “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.

Still, I disagree with them about DeFreeze/Cinque and about their hints in the direction of Harris/Teko. First of all, nearly every politically aware person in the San Francisco Bay Area has heard the charge that DeFreeze was either a spy or a provocateur, or both. But no evidence, let alone convincing evidence, has ever been brought to light to substantiate it. There is evidence of other police spy infiltrations but not of this one. DeFreeze might have been a provocateur or a judasgoat who was being used by a CIA or COINTELPRO or FBI or LAPD controller, but there is not a shred of fact to warrant the claim that he was.

Second, the language of the SLA’s communiques and its few pathetic manifestos suggests the prison autodidact. (I except the rambling and at times incoherent “Letter” written in January 1974 by Nancy Ling Perry—following the capture of Remiro and Little and the abandonment intact to the police of the SLA “safehouse”—which sounds exactly as though it had been written by a half-educated young person close to the end of her tether.) It is a mixture of Eldridge Cleaver, older Black Panther slogans, and the bombast and posturing of a 1950s youth gang “Minister of War” getting ready to lead his buddies on a rumble. All of the standard references to “blacks, browns, Asians, Native Americans, women, youth, the aged and other Third World peoples” are there but these words are incantations quickly learned and rolled out in speech almost as unconsciously as the “you know” which so marks the speech of the Berkeley flatlands.

The SLA was obsessed by ordnance, and every police rap sheet on DeFreeze mentions his “obsession” with bombs, guns, weapons. Tania mentions only Cinque as the teacher and leader in her last tape. When the SLA had to go to ground, to “break out of the massive pig encirclement” around San Francisco, they headed for the great, flat, smoggy Los Angeles plain just west of Watts and just south of the Santa Monica freeway, black territory and DeFreeze’s home grounds. It seems likely that he was the one who made that choice. In their detailed account of the final hours of the six SLA troopers in the house on Fifty-fourth Street, Belcher and West tell us themselves that DeFreeze mentioned personal motives for bringing his people to that place.

Finally, it is hard to accept the idea that Harris/Teko was the real leader. Most accounts of the Harrises, including some reported in both books, describe Emily as the smarter and tougher of the two. Harris may have provided the public relations and “media” savvy that the SLA displayed, but it seems unlikely that a band of women of such militant feminist views would have accepted the leadership of a married, white male. Russ Little, when he speaks, uses the rhythms and inflections of black speech. So, one gathers, did several of the young women. They would accept the leadership of a black man. As for Harris, one of the few acts we are sure he performed was a clumsy attempt at shoplifting in Los Angeles, with horrendous consequences for his comrades. It does not argue for his abilities as a leader.

The first “action” of the SLA was its first mistake. The savage killing of Foster aroused nearly unanimous repugnance in California. In addition to the conventional politicians and editorialists, such radical figures as Bobby Seale and Bruce Franklin joined in. The SLA members became pariahs, and nowhere more so than in the black communities. This reaction alone is a good indication of just how far out of touch with reality this group composed of black prisoners and overwrought white radicals seems to have been. The Foster murder was committed on the basis of a few incomplete newspaper stories. It is very clear from testimony at the trial of Little and Remiro for that murder that the SLA did not know much about the plans for ID cards for Oakland school children and for an increase in the uniformed patrol of the Oakland school grounds or about Foster’s responsibility for these things. Little and Remiro, permitted to cross-examine witnesses, show this ignorance in their questions and in their effort to portray Foster as some kind of fascist who deserved death for his repressive policies.

The kidnaping of Patricia Hearst made the SLA a familiar name far beyond California’s borders. To kidnap prominent persons was an approved tactic for urban guerrillas; after all, it was done by guerrilla groups in the Third World. But there is evidence that the Hearst Kidnap was planned by the SLA to recover some of what had been lost in the Foster murder, the capture of Remiro and Little, and the resultant loss of the group’s evidence-crammed “safehouse” to the police.

Belcher and West don’t think that the choice of Miss Hearst was accidental though it is clear that the SLA vastly overrated the size of her father’s fortune. The two reporters mention the fact that William Harris/Teko had long been interested in “armed propaganda” as a revolutionary tactic and that Patty was chosen precisely because she was an available “media princess.” (Neither of the books under review here puts much stock in the thesis that Miss Hearst was an accomplice in her own kidnaping.) There was some brilliance in getting publicity there, surely, as in the choice of the name Symbionese and of the oddly disturbing symbol of the seven-headed cobra. From the day of the Hearst kidnaping until the destruction of the SLA in May, the group was never off the front page. Belcher and West believe that their manipulation of the press and television was masterful. But if it was great guerrilla theater, it was rotten radical politics.

“The people” did not rally to the SLA. Even the “ransom” of food for the Oakland blacks could not help them with the masses. Radical and liberal spokesmen heaped new denunciations on them. And though the caper brought the SLA “lots of ink,” it was not really useful ink for a radical or revolutionary group. The only people who love soapsuds more than the housewife are the editors of the nation’s newspapers and television stations. Miss Hearst quickly became “Patty” to the eager millions. Could rich, beautiful, but spoiled Patty find meaning in her funky little revolutionary band? Could scholarly Steven Weed win back Patty’s love? Would rich, powerful, but charming Randy Hearst make a deal with sinister but fascinating Marshal Cinque to get Patty back “undamaged”? Or would bluff William Saxbe spoil it all by shooting everyone in sight before Patty could be rescued? How else would the American press have reported such a news story? If there was a “media genius” inside the SLA he or she should have known it would turn out like that.

From the standpoint of “armed propaganda,” furthermore, even worse things began to happen. With a “media princess” in captivity and a guerrilla band composed, it seemed, largely of young women led by a slightly older black man, the SLA began to appear in the press like a daisy chain, or maybe the Manson gang, with intimations of Interracial Sex, Lesbian Love! What did the SLA do when they all got together? We learned that Camilla Hall became a member of the band because she loved Mizmoon, who was sleeping with Cinque. Mizmoon had been turned on to Cinque by Russ Little, who was sleeping with Nancy Ling Perry, who came into the group because she dated Joe Remiro before bedding down with Little. But then Emily Harris was also sleeping with Cinque so where did that leave her husband? And what of tall, handsome, young Willie Wolfe? Was Patty grabbed for him?

For a time, at least in the Bay Area, it was as though the SLA could be explained by the sexual affinities of its members. Neither Belcher and West nor Bryan is seriously guilty of this kind of reporting. Oddly, it is the “alternative” journalist, Bryan, who does more of it and seems to suggest that in the cases of Remiro and Nancy Ling Perry, private desires were crucial in bringing them into the SLA.

The Manson analogy kept recurring. It was easy enough to think of the SLA as another example of California Gothic. The seven-headed cobra symbol hinted of diabolism. The Manson Family, after all, was also predominantly female presided over by a sexually vigorous male. Both groups thought the apocalypse was at hand; with, oddly, race war as the engine of apocalypse. The Mansonites sought to precipitate “helter-skelter” (their name for the catastrophic race war) by killing whites and making it look as though blacks had done the deeds. The young white Negrophiles of the SLA made their first public act the execution of a progressive black educator. Before their annihilation in Los Angeles, the SLA members could gain the approval only of Bernadine Dohrn, of Weather Underground, who also “dug” what the Manson girls did to Sharon Tate. But to go on about the parallels between the Manson Family and the SLA is to move away from an understanding of the SLA. Cinque was not another Charles Manson and the women of the SLA were nothing like Manson’s collection of misfits and losers. Nor are the roots of any “pathology” of the SLA to be found in sex, dope, and mysticism.

The SLA, alas, must be seen as a product of the 1960s, its origins lying in the relations among what we used to call the new left, the women’s movement, and the movement in California centering upon prisons and prisoners.

Many of the faults or shortcomings charged to the SLA, particularly by other radical groups, were only enlargements of tendencies long ago apparent in the new left. They were romantic and undisciplined. They were insufficiently theoretical. Private unhappiness and feelings of personal meaninglessness were often the sources of their political commitments. They substituted their personal impatience or “rage” for the mood of “the people.” They claimed to speak for the working class and for the oppressed but most of them had neither worked nor had they known oppression. They knew little or nothing of history and had, therefore, no real notion of how historical change might take place. They saw what they called “the system” as hopelessly corrupt, not amenable to any organized effort to improve it.

The SLA unveiled Tania to the world through the agency of a bank holdup in San Francisco during which two bystanders were shot down by the Symbionese troopers. In the first taped communication following the robbery Cinque gave the following account and explanation:

I am General Field Marshal Cin speaking.

Combat operations: April 15, the year of the soldier

Action: expropriation

Supplies liberated: One .38 Smith & Wesson revolver….

Cash: $10,660.02

Number of rounds fired by combat forces: seven rounds.

Casualties: People’s forces, none, enemy forces, none. Civilian, two. Reasons: Subject One, Male. Subject was ordered to lay [sic] on floor face down. Subject refused order and jumped out the front door of the bank. Therefore the subject was shot. Subject Two, Male. Subject failed or did not hear warning to clear the street. Subject was running down the street toward the bank and combat forces assumed subject was an armed enemy force element. Therefore subject was shot. We again warn the public. Any citizen attempting to aid, to inform or assist the enemy of the people in any manner will be shot without hesitation. There is no middle ground in war. Either you are the people or the enemy. You must make the choice.

Belcher and West comment on the chilling, cruel impersonality of this passage. But it seems to me to have greater significance than that, for it represents in a raw and pure form the old spirit of Regis Debray.

Mao’s guerrilla who lives among the people as a fish lives in the sea has no place here. Nor does any concern for the “objective conditions” for successful guerrilla war or any concern for a “social base” in the oppressed population. Instead there is the armed guerrilla, “organizationally separate from the civilian population,” as Debray himself put it, and without any responsibility for the defense of the “civilian” population or for the consequences which might fall upon it as a result of the armed action of the guerrilla. Debray’s guerrilla would be young, so as not to be too cautious or prudent. He would not have connections to work or industrial production, for these would give him an “interest” and, therefore, blunt the edge of his willingness to die. The student or young urban intellectual, thus, was the ideal guerrilla for Debray. When he gave any thought to the needs or wishes of the people, it was to substitute his own half-formed, unrooted judgment for that of the civilian population.

What counted for the new guerrilla, in Debray’s view, was to act rather than to think or to reflect or to locate his action in a historical moment. There are other “existential” overtones in Debray’s work, but what should be clear is that the SLA members did not invent themselves out of their own fevers and passions. Their type was already a kind of beau idéal among the new left years before most of the SLA had become interested in radical politics.

The fascination with prisons as revolutionary incubators is rooted in some of the ideas of the 1960s. On the campuses and in places like Berkeley the work of Frantz Fanon has now achieved the status of a myth. Usually, when academic observers speak of the influence of Fanon on white American radicals, they are warming up to a lament about violence. But it was Fanon who also popularized the lumpenproletariat, whom he saw as the urban allies of the armed revolutionary peasantry, mainly of Africa. Fanon’s urban “wretched” were the lowest of the low, the starving, uprooted, hopeless masses of the African shanty towns or the favelas of the hispanic world. His lyrical celebration of their pure revolutionary possibilities went a long way toward concentrating the attention of the American new left on what equivalents they could find of such masses. I believe that this helped to lead to the discovery of the black prisoner. There is nothing new in any of this. What is important, I think, is that the prisoners dramatically escalate the violence level for their young admirers.

The SLA went far beyond breaking windows, roughing up hecklers, and screaming “pig” at the cops. They went far beyond hit and run bomb attacks on empty public installations, banks, utilities, and the like. Some of their number coolly waited for Marcus Foster and put eight cyanide-laced slugs into him and cut his assistant nearly in half with a sawed-off shotgun. That kind of violence, I think, comes out of the prisons. Fanon’s lumpenproletarian, or his American version, becomes the ideal teacher for Debray’s armed intellectual. They met, so to speak, in the SLA.

Who can doubt that part of the fascination the SLA held for us stemmed from the fact that women were important to its short life? What a long way they had come from the old days of the cry, “Chicks up front!” as both torment for and protection against the police. But beyond the obvious connections between the SLA and the feminist movement, or at least a part of it, there is that element in “women’s liberation” which stresses the intensely personal and private, which originates not only in personal unhappiness but in the sustained contemplation of one’s personal unhappiness, usually called “oppression.” This can lead, obviously, to analysis of the social causes of oppression or unhappiness; but it can lead also to evaluating any action by its capacity for relieving one’s own personal sense of suffering or oppression. Even radical politics can be viewed as an instrument for such psychological purposes.

This last tendency was always present in the American new left, back to what I consider its best and most promising time. The Port Huron Statement of 1962, that admirable document of the hopeful early new left, was suffused in its language by sounds of personal melancholy, a sense of having been betrayed, that chances for finding personal meaning in life had been stripped away. And we can hear the same sounds, without the grace and lucidity of the original, again in Nancy Ling Perry’s “Letter” of January 1974, in Joe Remiro’s confidences to John Bryan, and in Patty/Tania’s denunciations of her parents and of her “former life.”

The SLA were not the best and the brightest. Neither were they merely freaks. It is too much to say that they could have been “any educated young Americans.” But no one who is familiar with the history of this century can feel easy in his mind when ordinary young people from the university turn to the “propaganda of the deed” and the romanticizing of the violent act.

This Issue

June 26, 1975