The Lost Year of the SLA
It was just past sundown in San Francisco’s Mission district, the center of the local Mexican-American community. As the streetlights blinked on, two men walked along the main boulevard, Mission Street, past a row of cheap cocktail lounges, take-out restaurants and auto supply stores.
The pair strolled up to a bar and, finding it nearly deserted, walked in. The only customers were three middle-aged blue collar workers, slouched in familiar comfort on their stools at the long wooden counter. A tattered pool table sat unused in the back. The jukebox next to the front door was playing Frank Sinatra.
The two newcomers ordered beers and took an empty corner table. William Harris, a short, muscular ex-Marine lance corporal better known as General Teko of the Symbionese Liberation Army, had requested a rendezvous to say farewell to Patty Hearst. But his kidnap victim-turned-comrade was absent. She held too many regrets and harbored too much bitterness for any final courtesies. She never wanted to see Harris again.
Instead, Steve Soliah had come, as her boyfriend and surrogate. “We’re leaving town,” he told Harris. “We’ll be gone by the end of the month. Probably drive to Oregon, get some new IDs from a friend of mine there, and then we’re headed back east.”
Hearst and Soliah hoped to settle in Boston, where they planned to find jobs and resume a lifestyle without tension and violence. patty wanted to join a feminist group and enter community organizing, and both wanted to rethink their future.
Harris listened to Soliah without interruption. After a few minutes of silence and small talk, Bill explained that he and his wife, Emily, would be staying on.
“We’re not giving up. We’ll find other people to help fight the pigs.” Though his army had now dwindled to two — their support group melting away along with Patty — Harris said that rebuilding the SLA remained his only priority.
It was the second week of September 1975. For Bill and Emily Harris, their 19-month odyssey with Patty had apparently come to an end. But Bill was resigned to her departure; he offered no argument or protest.
The two men finished their beers, stood and shook hands. They set up no plan or codes for further communication. They did not expect to see each other again.
One week later they were all in jail.
Steve Soliah Arrived in Berkeley in December 1971. At 23, he was a college dropout and a political neophyte. He had been a football and track star as a teenager, growing up in Palmdale, California, a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, northeast of Los Angeles. He left home at 19 and enrolled at Humboldt College, a small campus set in the redwoods of northern California. He put three years into sociology but quit school just shy of a diploma when his track team eligibility ran out.
His older sister, Kathy, then 24, was a serious political activist living in Berkeley. She had been an English major at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1970, when students had burned the campus branch of the Bank of America to the ground during a week of violent protest.
The confrontation made a decisive change in the social awareness of Kathy and her boyfriend, James Kilgore. Kilgore, then 23, had an uncanny ability to add two-digit numbers as fast as a pocket calculator, and had come to the seaside Santa Barbara campus to study economics.
Jim set up his girlfriend’s brother in the house painting trade, a part-time gig Jim had learned and passed on to Steve. Steve was hardworking but unambitious. He liked the jock life, and though he felt a vague dislike for the war in Vietnam, he preferred dope smoking, beer and partying to political discussions. He was a lukewarm and bored visitor at the study group that Kathy and Jim began in 1972 for their apolitical friends.
That circle included Angela Atwood, a 23-year-old, New Jersey-born graduate of Indiana University, who worked with Kathy as a waitress at a San Francisco restaurant. Angela became an enthusiastic member of the discussion group. Within a year. Atwood fell into increasingly vitriolic circles, finally joining a small group of whites who visited black prisoners in state jails.
Kathy and Jim felt that Angela had succumbed to the unreasoning and abrasive rhetoric of her new friends. They were tolerant but disappointed by the change. “It’s a phase she’ll outgrow,” Kathy said to the others. But a year later, following the arrest of Joseph Remiro and Russell Little, whom Kathy and Jim had met through Angela, they realized she had become a loyal soldier of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had assassinated a school superintendent in neighboring Oakland.
Kathy, Jim and Steve followed news of the SLA and the Hearst kidnapping closely, their political interest inextricably merged with their personal fears about Angela’s safety. As they sat in a Berkeley house in May 1974, watching the telecast of the shootout in a Los Angeles ghetto that killed Angela and five other SLA members, they felt saddened, outraged and helpless.
As a tribute to Atwood, and in commemoration of her murdered companions, the Soliahs and Kilgore organized a rally in Berkeley’s Ho Chi Minh Park. The rally was Steve’s first political work. He phoned friends, pinned posters on campus bulletin boards and helped set up the equipment. The memorial attracted several hundred people — and the notice of the three surviving SLA members.