Terrorists, Revolutionaries, or Criminals?
By: Associated Press
Date: c. 1974
Source: This Associated Press photograph of Patricia Hearst posing before the Symbionese Liberation Army's (SLA) symbol was widely circulated during the months in which the SLA was active.
About the Photographer: The Associated Press is one of the leading international newswire services, providing articles and photographs to newspapers and broadcasting outlets around the world.
On February 4, 1974, 19-year-old Patricia (Patty) Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment near the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a student. The kidnappers were a revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). The kidnapping attracted widespread media attention because Hearst was the granddaughter of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. Over the next year, the public grew fascinated with Patty Hearst's apparent conversion from kidnap victim to gun-toting member of the revolutionary group.
The SLA was founded in 1971 in the San Francisco Bay area by a group of Berkeley radicals led by Russell Little and Robyn Sue Steiner. Originally, the group, which adopted Marxist and South American revolutionary rhetoric, focused on problems of race, poverty, and prison reform. Its slogan was "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people."
By 1972, members of the SLA were attending meetings of a prison group called the Black Cultural Association. There they met Donald DeFreeze, who escaped from the prison later that year. In 1973, under the revolutionary name General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume (a name taken from the leader of the revolt on the slave ship Amistad in 1839), DeFreeze took over leadership of the SLA and pushed it in a new, more violent direction. Steiner fled to England when DeFreeze threatened to kill her.
Late that year, the group claimed responsibility for the assassination of Oakland, California, school superintendent Marcus Foster in the mistaken assumption that he advocated a "fascist" plan to require Oakland students to show identification on campus. In 1974, Little and Joseph Remiro were arrested and charged with the murder. Little was later acquitted at a retrial, but Remiro was sentenced to prison.
The SLA gained the media attention it craved on February 4, 1974, when eight of its members kidnapped Patty Hearst from her Berkeley apartment. The group described Hearst as a "prisoner of war" and called her family's Hearst Corporation a "corporate enemy of the people." The group offered to release her in exchange for a $2 million food giveaway to poor people, but in April it released a communiqué in which Hearst announced that she would "stay and fight" with the SLA under the name Tania. Days later, Hearst was photographed by a security camera as she apparently helped the SLA rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, and in May, she sprayed a sporting goods store with bullets from a submachine gun as SLA members Emily and William Harris robbed the store.
By this time, American television viewers and newspaper readers were widely familiar with the following photo of Hearst, wielding a submachine gun and posing before the SLA's symbol, a seven-headed cobra.
See primary source image.
The SLA began to unravel in May 1974, when six of its members, including DeFreeze, were killed when the South Central Los Angeles house they were holed up in caught fire during a shootout—all shown live on television. Afterwards, surviving members Hearst and the Harrises joined Kathleen Soliah, her sister Josephine and brother Steven, and James Kilgore in relaunching the SLA. In April 1975, the group robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California. During the robbery, Emily Harris shot and killed bank customer Myrna Lee Opsahl, who was in the bank to deposit her church's collection money. Harris told Hearst, "Oh, she's dead, but it doesn't really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway."
In September 1975, the Harrises, Hearst, and Wendy Yoshimura were arrested. When asked her occupation at her booking, Hearst replied "urban guerrilla." At trial, Hearst portrayed herself as an SLA victim, claiming that she was starved, tortured, and sexually abused while she was held captive. In March 1976, she was found guilty of bank robbery and sentenced to prison, but in February 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted her executive clemency and commuted her sentence. Meanwhile, the Harrises were convicted and sentenced to prison, but released in 1983.
The SLA story did not end with the Hearst trial. In 1999, Soliah was found living under the name Sara Jane Olson in Minnesota, where she was arrested as a fugitive. In 2001, she plead guilty to attempting to bomb Los Angeles Police Department patrol cars and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Then in 2002, Soliah—along with the Harrises, Kilgore, and Michael Bortin—was charged with the murder of Opsahl. Kilgore fled, but the former communist revolutionary was seized in his luxury apartment in South Africa on November 8, 2002. In May 2004, Kilgore was sentenced to six years in prison, finally closing the book on the SLA.
In January 2001, just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton granted Hearst an executive pardon.
Holman, Virginia. Rescuing Patty Hearst: Growing Up Sane in a Decade Gone Mad. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
McLellan, Vin, and Paul Avery. The Voices of Guns: TheDefinitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two-Month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army. New York: Putnam, 1977.
CourtTV.com. "'70s Radical Bombing Case." <http://www.courttv.com/trials/soliah> (accessed May 23, 2005).
Audio and Visual Media
Patty Hearst, directed by Paul Schrader (original release, 1988). Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1990 (VHS).