Symbionese Liberation Army: The Revolution Was Televised

Apocalypse for the vaguely political Seventies' terrorist group

FBI wanted poster of Donald David DeFreeze, Patricia Michelle Soltysik, Nancy Ling Perry, Camilla Christine Hall, and Patricia Campbell Hearst. Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army on May 20th, 1974. Credit: Interim Archives/Getty

The television coverage was live and in color throughout most of California, and it came at a prime-time, dinner-hour period on a Friday evening. People sat in their living rooms, watching an epic battle of American insanity, commenting to each other about the cases of ammunition being unloaded from the FBI car, about the small grin on the cop's face as he threw the bolt home on his rifle before firing another round into the blazing little bungalow in south Los Angeles. His baseball cap and clumsy flak jacket along with his bolt-action rifle made him appear as a boy playing at a game in which all the battles are heroic spectacles — where just the imaginary bad guys fall dead.

The camera pans closer, peering at a window belching flames. Nothing can be seen of the Symbionese Liberation Army. The live sound had earlier picked up the heavy fusillade from inside the house that police said "began" the gun battle, and later the camera spotted what looked to be a gun barrel poking through the drapes at one window. But only one human form from the house was seen, and that was a terrified young black woman who ran from the house as the fire began and stumbled into the grip of police who threw her to the ground and handcuffed her hands behind her back and then began shouting in her face: "How many?… Are they white people?"

They called it the greatest single shootout in Los Angeles history and probably the most spectacular shootout ever so intimately documented in all of America.

"Federal and local police officials plotted their moves during the day and, by the time the operation peaked, 150 Los Angeles policemen, 100 FBI agents, 100 sheriff's officers and about 15 California Highway Patrolmen were in the neighborhood and positioned for the battle. (Later 25 motorcycle officers were called in to control traffic.) One policeman rushed to the flaming building but was driven back by the intense heat. But he did get a look inside and spotted two persons — their clothes on fire — in the rear of the house. When he returned, he told other policemen that the people inside were wearing bullet-studded bandoliers crisscrossed over their backs and chests.

Bursts of gunfire. Tear gas. Automatic rifles. Machine guns. Pistols. "I've never seen this much ammunition concentrated in a single area in Los Angeles," one police official said.

Surveying the aftermath of battle, a federal agent said, "The biggest mistake these people ever made was coming to L.A., because the police down here don't fool around."

Later, police said at least 1000 rounds were fired. The figure was probably closer to 5000. Not one of the army of police and federal agents was hit. One cop fell off a roof and broke his leg. Except for those first few thunderous minutes, it was not really a shootout at all; it was a police shoot-in.

Despite the use of a bullhorn at the beginning, and the tear-gas shells that kept pouring in, it was apparent that the SLA was given no more than a perfunctory chance to surrender. Long after the holocaust had smothered the house in smoke and flame, the cops kept firing. It was the way the SLA seemed destined to end — six against 400, the hopeless odds in a single battle — the end to a romantic fantasy. Three suspected members of the SLA, including kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, were still at large. But Cinque, the soul of the SLA, was among the dead. His was a death like Lee Harvey Oswald's — an unsatisfactory conclusion that left unanswered the key questions about his character and motives. Cinque, like the rest, was an ultimate victim, whether of his own fantasies or of police fanaticism or of both. When it finally happened, the SLA was still alone, still isolated from the body of revolution they hoped to encourage by their terrorist acts. And in the end, they died because one of their members tried to steal 49 cents worth of socks.

Friends of Nancy Ling Perry in San Francisco remembered that she reveled in her exploits as a petty shoplifter. Small, meaningless things — a garden sprayer or a book, a trinket or two — but to Nancy, friends said, the things seemed to carry more value if they were stolen. For her it was the thrill of getting away with it.

Much is being made of Nancy Ling having been a school cheerleader in the rural suburb of Santa Rosa and later of her supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964. To her generation, it is nothing but a transparent myth about her personality and beliefs. She was a cheerleader in junior-high school, not high school. Her opinion of Barry Goldwater in high school was based on the politics of her father, a middle-class furniture dealer in insulated Santa Rosa. She was 17. She didn't just attend Richard Nixon's alma mater at Whittier College, she bummed out on Whittier College and found her way to Berkeley where at least she could find stimulation, instead of stagnation, in the times.

Nancy Ling was a tiny woman, 98 pounds and barely five feet. She was warm and introspective, avoiding groups of people, yet striking close relationships with individuals. Even in Berkeley, her closest friend was an old high-school classmate. Gradually, in the hypersociopathy of the Bay Area, Nancy Ling grew out of her Santa Rosa roots. She married a black piano player, Gilbert Perry, who is regarded as a composer of significant talent, but who has yet to be discovered or even to find a full-time gig. Their marriage, friends remembered, was a stormy one.

"It was love-hate, maybe," one of their friends said, "but it was real love. It just couldn't hold together for long. They'd break up and get back together and then break up again." Nancy Ling Perry slowly but easily became a "street person." Her politics were vaguely left, but unlike some others', they had not solidified into sectarian lines. She drifted on the periphery, avoiding the tedium of theory and the jubilant anarchy of confrontation.

"It was like she had a feeling for politics and even an anger over politics, but she really didn't have any politics," a friend said. "She liked the freedom of the streets; she liked hitchhiking, and she liked just appearing as if with no past at all. She was living to be an immediate self, a person who happened just now."

She was deeply into astrology and, in fact, paced her life by the planets. She was nearly an expert in the I Ching as well as astrology and taught yoga to her friends. In the I Ching there is something to be learned of Marxism and in the way she lived; Nancy Perry felt a certain safety in intrigue. People who knew her sensed a curious intellectual loneliness about Nancy Perry.

She dealt blackjack topless at one of the tourist joints in San Francisco's North Beach. Later she sold organic beverages from one of the sidewalk stands clustered on the south edge of the Berkeley campus. A number of people also remembered her as someone not only into dope, but also as a reliable source from whom to buy a good lid. But nobody remembered Nancy Perry as a political heavy, at least not until she became Fahizah of the SLA.

It was the same with Mizmoon. She came from high school in Goleta, a suburb of Santa Barbara, as Patricia Soltysik, the daughter of immigrant, separated parents. She was an honor student, active in high-school student government, a member of 4H who trained guide dogs for the blind. Like Nancy Ling, she grew up in a comfortable middle-class setting that doted on the success of scholarship and making good in life — yet she began to doubt those ideals really applied to women.

Arriving in Berkeley in 1967, Soltysik found herself in the environment of social change while majoring in letters and science at UC Berkeley. She found herself in a community with a consciousness far apart from her hometown of Goleta. The entire neighborhood around where she lived on Channing Way, south of campus, was coming together like a tribe unto itself. The residents shared a feeling for each other, not only in appreciating how their neighbors felt and lived, but in exchanging a sense of survival, both social and economic.

Patricia Soltysik also found a way of loving and being loved that she had not discovered back in Goleta. On Channing Way in 1971, she was living with another woman four years older than herself, a winsome gentle person named Camilla Hall. It was Hall who, in a poem to her lover, christened Patricia Soltysik "Mizmoon." For almost the rest of her life, even to her family back in Goleta, her name was simply Mizmoon. In the SLA, she took the code name "Zona." She died under a blazing house on her 24th birthday. If, as friends and her family remember her, Mizmoon was given to sharp feelings of anger and jealousy expressed through icy stares and staccato bursts of rhetoric, then her hard mood was made more apparent when contrasted with the sensitive touch of Camilla Hall.

Camilla Hall was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. Her blonde hair and fair complexion caused people to remark of her Scandinavian ancestors. Back in Minneapolis, she had been nicknamed "Candy." Two brothers and a sister had died young of congenital diseases. Her mother had died while she was still a child. If those tragedies left scars, they were somewhere well behind the smile she showed so often. Traveling with her father to Lutheran missionary programs in South America and Africa, she saw and felt poverty and real hunger. Maybe more than any other SLA member, including Cinque, she was at least secondhand familiar with true stifling deprivation.

After graduating in English from the University of Minnesota in 1967, she worked for three years as a social worker in Minneapolis. By the time she came to Berkeley in 1970, she had declared herself to be a lesbian. She too understood politics and the dehumanizing monsters of racism and poverty, but, like Mizmoon and Nancy Perry, she remained on a political periphery in Berkeley. Her real love was in growing, gentle things — her plants and her Siamese cat. Behind the ever-present smile and the thick glasses, there was perhaps a lonelier Camilla Hall. The first stanza of one of her poems, written in 1972, is a small clue.

Surely out of two hundred
million people there must be
one… two… or even three
who could love me…
Where can they be?

In January, Dr. L.S. Wolfe, an anesthesiologist at an Allentown, Pennsylvania, hospital, recoiled at the slightest suggestion that his son could be involved in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

"My son?" he scoffed. "My son's a pussycat, a gentle kid who even convinced me to give up my hunting rifles." Willie Wolfe came to Berkeley in 1971, with a general major in letters and science. His experience there was similar to that of the women. Through Colston Westbrook, a black-studies teaching assistant at Berkeley who called himself "Big Daddy," Wolfe was introduced to the Black Cultural Association at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. Westbrook served as outside coordinator for the BCA, and was a vehicle for young people like Wolfe who were eager to learn from prisoners. Wolfe was one of the most dedicated visitors to the BCA. He had moved into a loose collective in a sprawling old house on Chabot Road in Berkeley that sometimes was referred to as "Peking House," not for political reasons but because of the Oriental food stand called "Peking Man" that the house members operated on a south campus sidewalk right next to where Nancy Perry worked.

It was Wolfe, Russell Little (now facing trial with another SLA member, Joseph Remiro, for the Marcus Foster murder) and two other residents of the Chabot Road collective who were the real mainstays of the outside white support for the BCA. Although he had never been in the military, Wolfe also became involved in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization. He met Joe Remiro through VVAW/WSO and the two future SLA members later shared a small house.

"My son was not an activist," Dr. L.S. Wolfe said with conviction in January. "Willie never marched." Wolfe's personal interest in the prison movement and in militant veterans' activities brought him together with Bill and Emily Harris, both graduates of Indiana University who had first appeared in Berkeley only as recently as 1972. It is still not clear why the Harrises left Bloomington. Emily had been a junior-high-school teacher in Indiana. Bill was a Marine combat veteran finishing up his masters in urban education.

They had toyed with politics and even posed in Emily's school annual with Bill jokingly holding a book titled About Communism. But they could hardly be called pacesetters in radical politics. She had belonged to a sorority; he had been in a fraternity. They had gone steady for years before getting married. People who knew them remembered most their devotion to each other, particularly Bill to Emily. "Emily was obviously the stronger of the two," a Berkeley acquaintance recalled. "She was obviously more political and obviously called the shots."

Probably one reason for their coming to Berkeley was to get together again with their old friends from college days — Gary and Angela Atwood. Like Emily and Bill, Angela had been leaning toward a teaching career in Indiana. She was neither as bright nor as forceful as Emily and often her personality seemed overwhelmed in Emily's presence. In the summer of 1973, Gary and Angela's marriage fell apart. Gary returned to Indiana and Angela stayed on in Berkeley, supposedly moving in with the Harrises. In December, Willie Wolfe wrote to his father that he had moved again. He gave a new address on Delaware Street in Berkeley. It was where Gary and Angela had lived before they broke up.

Of all those who would later form the SLA, it was clearly Emily who had the strongest background in organized politics, although even she was not remembered as an outspoken force in the radical movement. Indeed, the Harrises had hardly been in Berkeley long enough to learn all the complications and tricky meanderings of the disassembled left. But Emily was part of the Chino Defense Committee, an offshoot of the Marxist-Leninist Venceremos organization which was working to support Venceremos members accused of aiding a prison break, and she worked hardest of any future SLA members in writing letters on behalf of inmates during spare moments on her job as a clerk-typist for an opinion-polling firm under contract to UC Berkeley.

There is hardly anything in the carefully middle-class backgrounds of these seven young whites that can be said to be close to that of Donald David DeFreeze. Some of Donald DeFreeze's earliest memories of his home in Cleveland were of his father beating him. Part of the thick record of arrests and probation reports that began when he was 14 is an entry from a psychiatrist in 1965, a year when all his future seven comrades were in school.

"…. . .[DeFreeze] states father tried to kill him three times. Used to inflict inhuman punishment — hit him with hammers, baseball bats, etc. He shows areas on head where he was struck and had to receive sutures. Every time he went to the hospital, his father told them he just got hurt. The time he was picked up with the gun, he had planned to shoot father who had been mistreating him."

DeFreeze was married at 17 to a woman six years older than himself. He served as father to six children by the time he was sent to prison in 1970. His wife divorced him while he was in prison. DeFreeze was probably the least formally political of all the SLA. His assortment of arrests, almost all of them on gun charges, hinges on no political statement of his own, although some of them bear somber witness to the politics many communities learn at the end of a policeman's club. If by a sense of white guilt alone, that was a form of politics all the SLA understood.

After being sentenced to prison in 1970, DeFreeze, in his defense, wrote a letter to a Los Angeles judge that seemed to call up all the strength of belief he had at the time. The letter spoke of God, although it is not clear whether that was the Christian God in which DeFreeze had claimed to have so much faith at earlier court hearings, or if "God" was merely a word for determination. Whatever the case, the style of the letter had a prophetic ring.

"My father has said that in the day that the walls are to be built around me, in that day shall the decree be far removed. "There is nothing more to be said than this, so well know [sic] when it comes to pass that I'am [sic] not alone. "You can smile and laugh at me and call me a fool for you think the Power [sic] of my Life is in your hands.

"But your Power [sic], My god well take: for I'am [sic] not alone."

In the same trial that led to his imprisonment, DeFreeze had tried to subpoena the former district attorney of Los Angeles County and present attorney general of California, Evelle Younger. DeFreeze, whose wife urged the judge to consider his past "cooperation" with authorities, implied in his demand for Younger's trial appearance that he knew a great deal about the intelligence-gathering methods of the Los Angeles police. Younger did not appear, and whether DeFreeze was bluffing or not has never been determined.

DeFreeze was sent to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a medium-security prison. He became well-known and he had friends, but he was not recognized as an inmate leader. Indeed, many inmates thought him a hip-shooter who spoke without thinking and without being able to back his own con. At first, DeFreeze took the reborn name of Mtume, a Swahili word meaning prophet. After joining Westbrook's BCA, he added the name Cinque, a frequently used moniker in honor of a captured African chief who, in the 1830s, led a slave rebellion on a ship bound for market and killed its white captain.

DeFreeze was transferred from Vacaville in December 1972. He was sent to Soledad Central, one of the tightest-run of California's 13 prisons. On the night of March 5th, 1973, he was taken out of "Central" and escorted to the old abandoned minimum prison facility known as Soledad South. "South" was in gross disrepair. Authorities planned to renovate it for use as a training ground for new correctional officers, but on the night DeFreeze was escorted there to work on a boiler, the only correctional officer present was DeFreeze's guard. For some unexplained reason, that officer had business elsewhere at one point. Cinque merely walked away.

In the spring and summer months that followed, it is believed that DeFreeze was hidden by his white friends from the BCA. Since they were known to be visitors to the BCA and could be found by authorities looking for DeFreeze, they led him to the small Berkeley bungalow rented by Mizmoon, who had established a relationship with people from Chabot Road. By then she had broken off her love affair with Camilla Hall, though they remained close friends.

Even Venceremos had fallen apart and disbanded by the summer of 1973. The Movement was largely leaderless, without a cohesive organization and badly divided since the all-out federal and police effort of the past four years to promote paranoia and disunity among the left.

The left, struggling to form a party or at least a coalition base for organization, fell back, appalled, a year later, at the SLA's murder of Oakland School Superintendent Marcus Foster and the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst — they were suspicious of possible provocateurs. Literally hundreds of people in Berkeley and the Bay Area were harassed and hassled as police, and later the FBI, flailed about in a clumsy effort that seemed an excuse for general suppression of radical dissent.

By May 15th, even the fabled "Gmen" admitted they were "stumped" and made a public appeal for help. Two days later, Bill and Emily Harris walked into Mel's Sporting Goods in south Los Angeles and bought $31.50 worth of outdoor gear, most of it thermal underwear. While Emily paid for the merchandise. Bill lifted the socks. Store security people apparently saw him do it. They confronted the couple outside and demanded he pay. There was a struggle. One of the security men managed to get his handcuffs around one of Bill's wrists. A 38 pistol that records show was purchased in the Bay Area by Emily fell to the sidewalk, and suddenly, from a van parked across the street, there was a quick chattering burst from an automatic weapon that slapped big holes in the plate-glass window of the store. Some contended that the white woman behind the gun was Patricia Hearst — a young woman not much different from Nancy or Mizmoon or Camilla or Angela or Emily. She was a woman of some political awareness without being political, a woman who resented her family's insulation from the reality of an uneven, unfair society. Tania — Patricia Hearst — was the SLA's biggest success.

The SLA had apparently purchased the van in San Francisco, using money taken in their April bank robbery and apparently convincing a black family in the Bay Area to make the actual purchase. The van was later abandoned as the Harrises and Tania began their complicated escape in Los Angeles. The action at the store, however, set off a flurry of tips and police investigations, some of it no doubt encouraged by the $50,000 reward Randolph Hearst offered for the return of his daughter. By early the next day, Friday, police had located another van believed to belong to SLA members and had a solid lead that they were possibly holed up in the little yellow bungalow in South L.A. It took all day, right up to prime time, for them to marshal their forces for the assault.

The KNX-TV generator was beginning to falter. With still plenty of light and plenty of shooting, there was a desperate need to keep the live camera operating. There was one hope, a disappointing one for sure, but at least the show could go on that way. So the CBS outlet borrowed a generator from the NBC outlet, and that let NBC in on the live telecast. Since there were now two networks involved, sharp thinkers at ABC realized that unless they and any independent who could afford it were let in, CBS and NBC could be considered to be in violation of antitrust laws. While the SLA died a horrible death, the media wheeled and dealed.

It ended at sunset, just about right for the live camera to leave the fading light of Los Angeles and switch you back to your local programming. The SLA believed, and whatever is left of it probably still believes, that, as Fahizah (Nancy Perry) wrote in January. "…. . .all members of the SLA understand that politics are inseparable from struggle, in fact politics have no meaning without armed combat and information units to give politics a purpose."

Yet it is still difficult to understand what were or are the politics of the SLA. In their communiques, in their actions and in their own backgrounds, there is a feeling and a hatred of social injustice. They wrote of a "time to destroy and a time to rebuild." Yet it was rage without political program. They died courageously, perhaps, but still alone. The massive and obviously unnecessary overkill police used against six people was the most significant media message of all. None of their rhetoric-laden communiques issued after the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst could have so clearly explained the brutal repression on which the SLA declared war.

The SLA used as at least a partial model for itself the Tupamaro guerrillas of Uruguay. A Tupamaro leader had said it first in 1972, but Fahizah expanded on it a little and attributed it to SLA member "Bo" (believed to be Russell Little) when she wrote last January: "There are two things to remember about revolution: We are going to get our asses kicked, and we are going to win."

Even through the television, you could hear the L.A. cop in command give the order to "Cease fire! Cease fire!" The shooting stopped, but the waiting fire trucks did not move toward the blazing yellow bungalow where bullets still occasionally exploded from the heat. Held back by the police, they just quietly watched it burn.