The Seven Forked Tongue of the SLA - Rolling Stone
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The Seven Forked Tongue of the SLA

The rules and regulations of the possible murderous gang, potential conspiracy that is the Symbionese Liberation Army

Grass snakeGrass snake

Grass snake

Mark Hamblin/Getty

“Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and that the gun must never be allowed to command the Party.” ——Chairman Mao

Pundits in San Francisco have taken to referring to the elusive Symbionese Liberation Army as the “Cobra Club” on the basis of its well-publicized seven-headed serpent symbol that lately has become about as familiar as the Jolly Roger that once scared the seacocks out of the shipping lanes.

It’s part of the public confusion over the SLA that leaves it portrayed variously as a street gang gone media crazy, a Seventies Bonnie and Clyde bunch, or even, as most of the authorities would have it, a full-blown left-wing conspiracy. On the other hand, a number of people with less media access see it as everything from the work of a convincing and compulsive double agent to an obvious CIA plot leading to an inevitable military coup of American society.

Hardly anybody takes the SLA at its word, maybe because the SLA would never leave to one word what could be said in a few dozen eye-straining pages.

Still it’s all there in a document called the “Terms of Military/Political Alliance” that police took out of the arson-charred SLA headquarters in a suburb east of Oakland last January 10th. “The Symbionese Liberation Army is not an organization or group,” the document said in part. “It materializes with the active grouping of the combat elements from different revolutionary organizations or groups and parties whose leadership have joined together in the Symbionese War Council. We follow the —continued principle that those who fight can talk, because political unity grows from military/political action against the common enemy.”

The “common enemy,” it turns out, is just about anybody who is not gung ho on the SLA’s side. But more of that later.

The common theory is that the SLA traces its origins back to the rise of prison activists in California, where more than 20,000 men and women are locked up in the world’s third largest prison system and kept under some of the worst conditions in civilized society. The SLA proudly admits its relationship to prisoners and has even alluded to its own beginnings back in the Black Cultural Association at the California Medical Facility (a penal institution in Vacaville) in 1972, but, like the American revolutionaries of 1776, the SLA sees its own origins as coming from a much longer chain of abuses, and views its own documents rather like a new Declaration of Independence.

“The Symbionese Liberation Army was born in 1963-64 in the hearts of all the races and people of this nation when we became aware of the fact that the American nation had suffered a military overthrow of the government and the constitutional rights of the American people,” an unsent SLA communique found in the house explained.

“The coup that occurred in ’63-’64 was not like those seen in South America and other countries where the military and the ruling class openly take power from the people and remove the constitutional rights of its people, because it was not necessary to so openly warn the American people, when it was clear that the American people were so conditioned that they would try themselves not to believe what they had seen and what had happened to them. The CIA, FBI and Secret Service and the military were well aware that it was no longer needed to apply the old type military coup on the American people, because they were aware that the majority of the American people were so racist and politically asleep that they would believe anything that was stated by the ruling class-controlled government and press.”

The point being, of course, that for the last ten years people have floundered around in frustration without being able to get on with the revolution that was obviously necessary to the members of the SLA way back then. Now the SLA has arrived to offer its guidance and superior awareness to a frustrated nation of people waiting to rise up under the banner of the seven-headed snake.

As far as is known, and despite coy allusions by the FBI and local police to a massive conspiracy, the Symbionese “army” numbers no more than a dozen people. That includes one black escaped convict who was in New Jersey scuffling to get by in 1963 and who, even after being sent to prison in 1970, was known more for his ego-tripping than for his politics. Donald David DeFreeze, who now calls himself “General Field Marshal Cin,” had no particular politics at all in the streets and no following in prison.

Aside from Cin, the core of the army (and maybe the entire army itself) is five white women, all radical feminists with various backgrounds in the prison movement. None were even so much as members of SDS or the old Venceremos organization which folded last year. One of them, Nancy Ling Perry, even admits to having worked diligently for Barry Goldwater in 1964 before moving on to begin her higher education at Whittier College, Richard Nixon’s alma mater.

People can come to new and enlightened political awareness, revolutionaries are made not born, but it is apparent that none of the known members of the SLA “materialized” out of “combat elements from different revolutionary organizations or groups and parties……”

Instead, it should be clear that the SLA is something born brand –- off-the-wall -– new, not something created out of the debilitated and depressed Movement that began fighting itself and fading with the beginning of the Seventies. The remnants of that Movement who are still around, in fact, are feeling the paranoia generated by the SLA in the Bay Area. Even if the SLA does not have one or more provocateurs in its midst, it might as well have, because police have so far used the atmosphere created by the SLA as an excuse to hassle people in Berkeley on a scale that hasn’t been seen since 1969. They even pulled off a raid on a Black Panther Party precinct headquarters in a frightening re-run of the deadly attacks made by police on the Panthers at the end of the Sixties. The raid netted 15 startled workers in the Panther campaign to win five seats on the Oakland City Council next year. All charges were later dropped.

Regardless of such consequences, the SLA apparently thinks of itself as being at the spearpoint of a revolution just waiting to happen among the “oppressed people” of the United States. As usual, groups like the SLA use the term “oppressed people” for their own purposes and without any more than a generally understood definition.

Few thinking people in this country doubt that there are, indeed, oppressed people in the United States who need defense, leadership and maybe even a revolutionary vanguard to lead them. The SLA, in documents written over the last year in the little suburban bungalow they called the “liberated zone,” sees itself as not just a little cadre of guerrillas, but as an all-encompassing “Symbionese Federated Republic” that will meet periodically in the “Symbionese War Council.”

So you want to join the SLA? First, according to their own documents, there are a few rules:

“…No membership in the Symbionese War Council is finally approved until the organization or group’s represented officer has proven himself or herself through revolutionary combat action within the past 12 months prior to consideration for membership.”

“…No member of the Symbionese War Council can elect or select himself or herself to a position such as the head of a government or people’s council. The Symbionese War Council is totally an Alliance of War against the Common Enemy. The people themselves shall have and hold the only right to select and elect their government and government heads of state.”

“…A successful military force is a necessity for actualizing political goals and must be held as a priority. Therefore, the true assistance in the supplying of military equipment, materials, finances and personnel is of utmost importance, since these forces have fully committed themselves to open and total warfare against the common enemy, and members of the Symbionese War Council must understand this clearly.”

“All members of the Symbionese War Council and the Symbionese Liberation Army must clearly understand that our commitment is total and our goal is the total freedom of all oppressed people and the destroying totally of the common enemy. Therefore it is held that any restraining of supplies or other war materials, etc. for reactionary reasons or political chess games with the enemy by any member in the Symbionese War Council or the Symbionese Liberation Army shall be held as a full and total violation of this alliance pact and compromising with the enemy and freedom and life of all oppressed people, and therefore is punishable by death.”

Soldiers in the SLA may also expect the death penalty for the infraction of the usual military rules such as desertion of a comrade, spying, killing a comrade, disobeying an order with the resulting death of a comrade, spying or informing, and “the leaving of a cell unit or base camp without orders or deserting.”

SLA hopefuls should also be prepared to abandon use of all “un-medically proscribed” (sic) drugs. “This rule relates to such drugs as heroin, speed, peyote, mescaline, reds, pep pills, whites, yellow jackets, bennies, dexies, goof balls, LSD and any other type hallucinary drugs (sic).

“However, permission is granted to the use of only two types of relaxing drugs or alcohols. They are marijuana and beer or wines and any other such alcohols. This permission is granted when approved by the officer in command and with very restraining use only. No officer may grant the use of any of these said drugs or alcohols to the full number of forces under his or her command. If this permission is granted, only half the force will be allowed to take part. The other half will stand post and guard duty.”

Messing with that rule and a list of others including “cursing at a comrade or the people,” or “disrespectfulness to a comrade or those in command or the people,” is reason for “penalty by disciplinary action.” Some examples of “disciplinary action” include “digging of holes and other types of digging, removal of arms for a week, the full suspension of tobacco for a week and other actions.”

Within the circles that the dozen or less members of the SLA traveled in Berkeley, such proposals for an eventual guerrilla army to represent and lead in the defense of oppressed peoples had often been thought of, and from time to time even proposed. What always hung it up was that there was no political base, no party or organization on which to found and secure the existence of a fighting cadre.

In numerous organizations in Berkeley in the last year, strange, vocal people popped up randomly at meetings to say that the organization’s stance was not “militant” enough, that its members were talking too much and acting too little and that the time to begin the revolution was right now, if not a few years ago. They drew stares, polite rejections and plenty of paranoia from people who had been burned before by police provocateurs.

After the SLA made its appearance with a blizzard of stiffly worded communiques, several activists in Berkeley harkened back to those righteously angry people who had been putting them down in meetings last summer. The names and faces of the SLA seemed familiar. And when virtually every radical group in the Bay Area condemned the SLA’s actions as ill-conceived and ill-timed, the SLA promptly responded in their next communique by sneering at their radical detractors as “opportunists.” The more-revolutionary-than-thou SLA tolerates no criticism from those who have not seen the light.

But the second major problem that always hung up such proposals for immediate action was the lack of immediate willingness and preparedness among the people themselves. Stable political institutions of the American republic and its democratic rights –- however they may have been aborted and abused -– still hold a —Continued continued popular place in the American mood. Sudden, violent revolution by a few might mean not only suicide for them, but also a reactionary wave that could screw up the long years of work by everybody else politically left of Attila the Hun.

The SLA disagreed that either problem was much to be concerned about. It largely kissed off the question of a political base or some kind of unified party by offering to fight for anybody who’d join the “army.”

“The Symbionese Federated Republic is not a government [emphasis of the SLA], but rather it is a united and federated formation of members of different races and people and political parties who have agreed to struggle in a united front for the independence and self-determination of each of their races and people and the Liquidation of the Common Enemy.

“…The Symbionese Federated Republic is not a party [emphasis of the SLA], but rather it is a Federation, for its members are made up of members of all political parties and organizations and races of all the most oppressed people of this fascist nation, thereby forming unity and the full representation of the interests of all the people.”

The “Goals” of the SLA made that point even clearer:

“1. To unite all oppressed people into a fighting force and to destroy the system of the capitalist state and all its value systems. To create in its place a system and sovereign nations that are in the total interest of all its races and people, based on the true affirmation of life, love, trust, and honesty, freedom and equality that is truly for all.”

Eventually, the “Goals” go on, there will be a “Symbionese Federation of Nations” and a federated council formed of a female and male member of each “People’s Council or Sovereign Nation” which will organize trade and mutual defense pacts.

The goals include intentions to defend the cultural rights of all people, put the control of industries and institutions in the hands of the people, to restore “constitutional rights to freedom, liberty, equality and justice and the right to bear arms”; to create a system whereby the aged are cared for with respect, love and kindness; to tear down prisons; give women equal rights; return the land to the people; and generally to “destroy all forms and institutions of Racism, Sexism, Ageism, Capitalism, Fascism, Individualism, Possessiveness, Competitiveness and all other such institutions that have made and sustained capitalism and the capitalist class system that has oppressed and exploited all of the people of our history.”

As for the question of whether the people in general, or even just the people already committed to revolutionary change, are ready just now to rush off into that battle behind the seven-headed snake, the SLA itself leaves little choice on the matter.

“…Under the strategy of the SLA it is totally clear that [by the] egotistic claims of many leaders and organizations everytime one falls apart, [but] they fail to understand that the people always organize to fight the enemy, and when leaders fail to start the fight, then the people fall apart from that organization.

“…This is totally anti-revolutionary, for within the true purpose of revolution there is only two deep purposes, to destroy the enemy and free the people [SLA’s emphasis], this in itself means the need for an army of the people that fights the enemy.”

You don’t have to join the “army” and carry a machine gun and rob banks and stuff, but, in the SLA’s view, if you’re really committed you must at least sign up for one of the SLA “Tactical Support Units.”

“…The choice is yours alone, to be and show yourselves as lovers of the people and our children and true to your word revolutionaries or as egotistic opportunists and lovers of the group and organization and enemies of the people.”

That’s a reasonably clear message – you’re with us, or you’re an enemy of the people. The purpose of these “Tactical Support Units,” of course, is to support the “combat forces” of the SLA. You have a choice. You can join the “Mobility Unit,” which is responsible for moving around “supplies and military personnel and the necessary equipment needed to safely move said personnel and supplies.” Or the “Medical Unit” which doctors the “combat units.” Or the “Armorment Unit” (sic) which repairs old weapons and invents new ones (please note that the SLA prefers its bullets to be laced with cyanide). Or the “Provision Unit” which supplies food and medical supplies. Or the “Communication Unit” which operates radios and other forms of communications gear and builds “jamming and monitoring equipment and personnel to jam and monitor enemy communications.”

Or how about the “Intelligence Unit,” which is responsible for providing “means whereby the enemy is always two steps behind us, but never in front of us,” and does a lot of spying and infiltrating and even “forming of means to carry out security checks of SLA personnel.” An honest-to-God secret police of your very own.

Finally, there is the “Propaganda Unit,” which naturally, is responsible for slipping in good information to the people on the SLA and bad information on the “enemy.” This support unit should also keep in mind that the SLA founding documents charged it with “the misinforming, spreading of lies and forming of uncertainty in the enemy’s forces and personnel in local areas, announcing false information to the enemy, using rumors, information on corruption of government members and all possible means to bring about a war of nerves upon the enemy.” For pointers, hopeful members might contact Richard Nixon, care of the White House, Washington, D.C.

Even the SLA isn’t saying that it has all this elaborate network together already. They were, after all, interrupted in the planning stages at the little bungalow in the “liberated zone” (Concord, California) – by a blundering attack from the enemy police state last January 10th.

Still, let’s review what this vanguard body of a dozen or less has done so far to begin the second or third great American revolution:

On November 6th, 1973, they took responsibility for the ambush and murder of Oakland School Superintendent Dr. Marcus Foster, using a crossfire of shotgun blasts (both of which missed) and finishing Dr. Foster off with eight point-blank shots fired from two pistols. The bullets had been hollowed out and filled with cyanide (which, by the way, would not have killed Dr. Foster if the slugs themselves had not). Dr. Foster was the first black school superintendent of the Oakland Public Schools in which more than 50% of the students are black. He was loved and respected in the black community.

The SLA disappeared for a while after that until January 10th when two suspected members were caught by police as they wandered around, apparently lost, less than two blocks from the SLA’s “liberated zone” in Concord. A few hours later, the SLA members in the house set fire to the place to destroy the evidence and split. They botched it, though, and firemen quickly put out the blaze with hardly any damage to the wealth of documents (including several of those cited here) and other evidence left behind.

Nevertheless, the rest of the SLA did elude capture and on February 4th kidnapped Patricia Hearst, the 19-year-old daughter of newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst. For weeks after that, they kept the press full of their own lengthy communiques and succeeded in forcing Hearst to institute a food giveaway program to the poor which initially started disastrous riots, degraded poor people and finally became such a debacle that even the SLA demanded an end to it.

They followed that up with an announcement by tape from Patricia Hearst saying she had found a “new kind of love” and had joined up with the SLA. At first, this was doubted, since Patty Hearst could have been saying it all with a gun to her head, but on April 15th she offered further proof by accompanying eight members of the SLA in the robbery of a small neighborhood bank in San Francisco. This time, FBI spokesmen said from the pictures it looked like somebody might have had a gun pointed at her stomach. In the holdup, two men, one elderly, the other middle-aged, were shot and seriously wounded because they made the mistake of innocently walking into the bank as the people’s army was running out. The SLA escaped with $10,900 -– more than most of the retired community people who bank there earn in a year.

In all fairness to other revolutionaries who have been around for a while, it should be noted that history is not totally on the side of the SLA’s position.

Take V.I. Lenin, who around the turn of the century wrote on “Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder”:

“The petit bourgeois ‘driven to frenzy’ by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries,” he wrote. “The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, is liable to become swiftly transformed into submission, apathy, fantasy, and even a ‘frenzied’ infatuation with one or another bourgeois ‘fad’ –- all this is a matter of common knowledge.”

Chairman Mao, in the Red Book, discussed the need for alerting the masses to the struggle. “If we tried to go on the offensive when the masses are not yet awakened, that would be adventurism,” he said. “If we insisted on leading the masses to do anything against their will, we would certainly fail. If we did not advance when the masses demand advance, that would be right opportunism.”

Che Guevara, in writing on “Lessons of the Cuban Revolution,” pointed out that people must see the futility of maintaining civil debate when the forces of oppression remain in power against established law.

“In these conditions, popular discontent expresses itself in more active forms,” he wrote. “An attitude of resistance finally crystallizes in an outbreak of fighting, provoked initially by the conduct of authorities.

“Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

What the SLA must face, it seems, is not the question of whether they think the possibilities of peaceful struggle have been exhausted, but whether the people they presume to represent think so, and whether any but a few will buy the line of the nonexistent Symbionese Federation.

In This Article: Coverwall


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