Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a vanguard guerrilla group active between November 1973 and September 1975. The SLA committed bank robberies, a kidnapping, and an assassination. Their politics were influenced by Maoism and the bay area group Venceremos. The SLA was composed of about a dozen members and gained international notoriety after the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

Venceremos was a Maoist organization formed at Stanford University in 1971 and active in the bay area for the next two years. One of the activities of Venceremos was to visit and help educate incarcerated prisoners of California. Donald DeFreeze was a black inmate who was exposed to leftist thought through this program. DeFreeze escaped from Soledad State Prison and found refuge among the radicals he made contact with in prison and ended up hiding out in the collective houses of the Bay Area. He moved in with Patricia Michelle Soltysik, a radical who was close with those he met in prison, but who was considered safe because she had never visited him herself. The two became lovers and wrote up the first SLA literature. They soon began to recruit others to join the group. Other than DeFreeze, all the other initial members of the SLA were white.

The SLA's first act of revolution was the assassination of Oakland's first black Superintendent of Schools, Marcus Foster. The SLA claimed this was due to Foster's plan to implement identification cards for students and his alleged support for bringing police on campuses. In reality Foster had objections to both of these ideas and his plan to implement identification cards was meant to be a watered down version of a plan proponents of ID cards had put forth. Overall Foster was not considered an enemy by most leftists and many liberals actively supported him. Many actually assumed that Foster was assassinated by a racist group before the SLA sent out their press release. Through their first act, the SLA became isolated from most of the Bay Area's Leftist groups. Those who were meant to be awoken and inspired by this act of propaganda were instead mourning for Foster and criticizing the SLA.

On January 1974 two members of the SLA were arrested and tried for the murder of Foster. They were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. In response the SLA kidnapped Patricia Hearst, heiress of a newspaper empire and granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst came from old money and her family had plenty of powerful connections. The Hearst owned newspapers were generally right-wing. Because of the fame of the family, Patricia's kidnapping made international news. At the same time the backlash from radicals and leftists only increased. Every group imaginable (other than the weathermen) publicly stated that the SLA was most likely a CIA/FBI front or if not, they were seriously discrediting the image of radicals and leftists. The kidnapping of Hearst gave the government an excuse to act against other leftist groups. For example, soon after the kidnapping Berkeley police raided a Black Panther headquarters arresting 15 members (though not charging any). The SLA action brought over 100 extra FBI agents into the Bay Area. Though the vast majority of The Left denounced the SLA, they did have enough sympathizers that they were able to successfully remain in hiding during this time.

At first the SLA demanded that the two members arrested for the assassination of Foster be released in exchange for Hearst. When this proved impossible the SLA demanded the Hearst family pay millions of dollars to a number of Leftist groups and to feed the hungry. The family agreed to four million dollars worth of food distribution. This food was distributed to families in the Bay Area.

During her kidnapping, Patty Hearst joined the SLA. She later claimed this was due to Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response in which a hostage exhibits loyalty to the abductor. She soon denounced her family and her former life and began to take part in SLA actions. Negotiations with the Hearst family for her release were ended.

The next action of the SLA was a San Francisco bank robbery. Hearst armed with a rifle took part in the robbery. Images of Hearst were published throughout the world.

Due to the lack of support for the SLA in the Bay Area, the group moved down to Los Angeles. This was where DeFreeze had grown up and he hoped they would be able to find new recruits there. As a result of a botched shoplifting attempt the police were able to trace the group to their safe house. By the time the police reached the safe house, it had been abandoned, and the SLA split up into two groups.

Not being familiar with much of Los Angeles or having much established support, one group was uncertain of where to go. They ended up stopping at a house in a predominantly black neighborhood. They did not attempt to hide who they were and instead asked to hide out there. Later that day the police received an anonymous tip that the SLA were in that house. The police assembled a small army of over 400 officers, along with FBI and highway patrol agents. They surrounded the house the six SLA members were in and began what was up to that time the largest shootout in California history. None of the surrounding houses were evacuated. After two hours the house the SLA was in caught fire. Rather than surrender, the SLA members hid under a crawl space while the building burned. All six died as a result of gun shots or smoke inhalation.

The Remaining SLA members moved back to the Bay Area and were able to find new recruits. Most of their activity at this time was spent hiding from the authorities and attempting to raise money for survival, including through small robberies and at least one bank robbery. These robberies were successful and no one was hurt.

At the end of April, 1975 the remaining members of the SLA robbed a bank near Sacramento. During the robbery a customer of the bank was shot and killed. A member of the SLA had been standing directly behind the customer when she was shot, and was close to being hit himself. The death along with the near accidental shooting of one of their own members resulted in new tensions in the group.

Afterwards the group moved their activities to bombings. They targeted police and blew up a number of bombs under police cars and places where police were known to visit. They did not hurt or kill anyone in these bombings and a number of their bombs failed to explode.

In 1975 the government was finally able to capture and break up the SLA. A number of members served time in prison. In the early 2000s some members were arrested again and served more prison time for other SLA acts. SLA member Kathleen Soliah lived as a fugitive for 23 years before her arrest in 1999. Patty Hearst was sentenced to 35 years but this was first commuted to two years by President Carter and then she was totally pardoned by President Clinton.

To see the wealth of the Hearst family one can travel down the coast to visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA. This was the mansion of William Randolph Hearst, Patty's grandfather. The influence of the Hearst family should also not be understated. During the initial kidnapping of Patty Hearst, her father arranged for American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks to be allowed to take a recess from his own trial, stemming from the Wounded Knee occupation. Banks was allowed to travel to California and through radio ask the SLA for Patty's release. A week long break in Banks' trial was created through a couple quick phone calls to the judge of the case and the justice department from the Hearst family.