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.