|San Francisco Bay Guardian
Burying the '60s in the 'T' word
The SLA, political memory, and how the real story of the 1960s is falling
victim to the war on terrorism.
By J.H. Tompkins
I REMEMBER THE summer afternoon in 1970 like it was yesterday. I was
standing with my friend Elena on a street in downtown Oakland. After three
years behind bars for killing an Oakland cop, legendary Black Panther leader
Huey P. Newton was about to be freed. A thousand overwound Black Panther
supporters had turned out to greet him - their campaign to "free Huey" and
the work of his legal team had won Newton a new trial. We craned our necks
and shifted our feet, and then suddenly there he was. The crowd roared, and
Newton tore off his shirt, raising his fist in the air and smiling as if
he'd just discovered how sweet life could be.
Years later, on the day Newton was murdered in West Oakland by the crack
dealer he was trying to rip off, Elena picked me up, and we drove to the
spot where he'd died. Newton had played a key role in shaping the political
and cultural life of the nonstop circus that came to be called the '60s, and
the influence he'd once had on our lives was part of what linked Elena and
I. We tried without success to find something worth talking about;
eventually Elena dropped a rose on the pavement and we left.
Newton had fallen a long way down - drugs were a problem, and his reputation
for violence, including his alleged involvement in the murder of an Oakland
prostitute, was not undeserved. He was once a courageous, visionary leader.
He also made serious mistakes, hurt people, and died a thug's death.
The only heroes who can't let you down are dead ones. Real people struggle
to survive; they fuck up, get scared, give in to confusion and self-doubt -
and there was a bumper crop of that back in the day. In fact, back in the
day, most of the people who were "activists" - and that was a whole lot of
people - weren't revolutionaries, or famous, or even what we would call
"radicals" today. They were just ordinary people, thrust into extraordinary
times, trying in all sorts of good and bad ways, with great successes and
great failures, to survive and build a better world.
I thought about that when alleged Symbionese Liberation Army associate and
longtime fugitive Sara Jane Olson (formerly known as Kathleen Ann Soliah)
was arrested in 1999, and again a few weeks ago when Olson, along with her
brother-in-law Mike Bortin and onetime SLA members Bill and Emily Harris,
faced additional charges for the murder of a woman during a 1975 bank
The recent SLA arrests have hit a community of veteran Bay Area radicals
like a time bomb. People are nervous - and for good reason.
The political climate these days is as ugly as it's been in a long time,
maybe since the 1960s. And in this climate the whole message of the '60s -
the legacy of a generation of idealistic people whose actions changed the
nation forever - is at risk.
A different world
Maybe you had to be there. Imagine a generation of young men and women, some
in their teens, poised to inherit a world gone insane. More than 50,000
American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had been fed to a
killing machine. Vietnam wasn't a count-dead-Americans-on-one-hand sort of
war: It was your friend down the block, your cousin, your brother, and you.
It was living in Vancouver, or in a wheelchair, or in a trench until you
were killed in action, just a name on a long marble wall.
Black Americans in the 1960s lived in a very different world, and white kids
didn't really understand. But after a while even the dullest mind had
questions. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, all shot dead -
speech wasn't free for everyone. Detroit erupted, and then Watts and Newark.
Politicians, civic leaders, priests, you name it - nearly every fucking
adult you knew lived in a web of lies and denial that insulated them from
the ugly racist reality.
Those days birthed social experiments as bizarre as they were forgettable
and hair-brained political solutions like you wouldn't believe. We were
kids, OK? - a fact, not an excuse. Extraordinary things happened, often when
you least expected it. A cop car surrounded by UC Berkeley students kicked
off the Free Speech Movement. Incredibly courageous, often desperate African
Americans demanded simple justice and equality and paid dearly, again and
again. There were dropouts, runaways, crash pads, Black Panthers, Brown
Berets, and hippie communes, more than you could count.
The '60s spawned freedom riders, the "outside agitators" who crossed racial
and class barriers - some died for it - to fight for civil rights in the
South. In 1967 the Black Panther Party picked up legal manuals, Mao
Tse-tung's Red Book, and shotguns to institute citizen patrols of the
vicious police occupying West Oakland's black community ("Niggers with
guns!" - the wail of a terrified cop). And there were the clear-thinking
students who in 1963 in Port Huron, Mich., founded Students for a Democratic
Society and jump-started an organized flow of damning, socially flammable
truth that grew wider, deeper, and more combustible and wouldn't go away,
that still won't go away, simply because it was and is true.
There was surprise and frantic fun. You partied like there was no tomorrow,
because really, who knew?
America went through dramatic changes in the '60s, some of them lasting. And
powerful reactionary forces are still anxious to change things back after
all these years.
Today the legacy of the '60s is under attack. Public dialogue on
complicated, important questions - globalization, militarization, democracy,
nationalism, cultural differences, you name it - has been stunted. Basic
social concern - the human impulse to care for others - has been labeled
political correctness, a thought-stopping punctuation mark masquerading as a
noun. The federal government is choking on prayer, and foreign policy is now
defined by a biblically inspired binary, good versus evil.
How is it possible that the nation is capable of forgetting the ugly,
antidemocratic history of the Central Intelligence Agency? If America had
even a short memory, rather than none, we'd be better off. But believe it or
not, the CIA - its history of spilled blood, treachery, and drug dealing
overshadowed only by its ability to lie about it all - is suddenly cool in
post-Sept. 11 culture. If that DJ job falls through, join the CIA: soon you
could be in Uzbekistan, torturing the natives.
On Jan. 30, 2002, S.F. Gate columnist Mark Morford, in a report since
confirmed elsewhere, wrote that Attorney General John Ashcroft had directed
the Justice Department to spend $8,000 on heavy blue drapes to cover two
statues of partially naked women that sit in the department's Great Hall.
Ashcroft heads up the country's Justice Department. There is - how can I say
this strongly enough? - cause for concern.
Talk about easy targets.
The SLA was the hapless crew of self-styled revolutionaries that made
headlines, if little sense, in the mid '70s. The group was foolish,
pathologically self-important, arrogant for no reason, and terribly wrong -
which is exactly what a lot of the East Bay's graying radicals told me last
week. And the closer they once were to the SLA, the louder they said it.
The SLA first surfaced in 1973 to claim responsibility for the senseless
assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster. Nobody had any
idea who these people were or why they'd just killed a popular black
educator. A communiqué said only that the group was out to eradicate "the
fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people."
Activists were horrified by Foster's murder, and most leftist circles hurled
criticism at the new group. A few months later the group reappeared,
kidnapping 19-year-old Patty Hearst from her Berkeley apartment. She was a
member of one of California's wealthiest, most-storied, and most reactionary
families. An army of federal agents descended on the Bay Area, and the
fabulous, unforgettable saga of Patty Hearst was under way. She was held -
ransom or death - until she denounced her father and joined the revolution.
The SLA invented a world of their own that, had it not collided with the
real world, would have just been hilarious and surreal. It issued threats,
orders, and edicts in a style that combined a Stalinist lack of humor and a
Norma Desmond feel for life on Earth - and this was a group that paid
attention to detail. Each soldier was given a new name and a cabinet post;
the group had an anthem and a logo, too - as if Spanky and Our Gang had
organized a game of Let's Play Terrorist. Hearst called herself Tania and
was shown on TV toting a carbine in a bank robbery. People tuned in,
following the action and looking forward to the next show. I was driving in
Oakland when KSAN-FM announced Hearst's walk to the wild side; I nearly
crashed the car.
"My first thought when I heard about the Marcus Foster killing," Calvin
Welch says, "was that they were FBI agents. I mean, what the fuck was this?"
Welch is a longtime community activist who now works with San Francisco's
Council of Community Housing Organizations. He's passionate and practical
when he talks about local issues. "Then came the kidnapping of Hearst," he
says. "That was just so bizarre. I laughed. I mean, was this a movie or
"At that time I was at KPOO-FM, and we got communiqués from the SLA," Welch
says. "And we had to decide if we were going to turn them over to the FBI,
who were a very real presence, because we ran a draft counseling service.
"The FBI and the SFPD frequently came around to our house and threatened us
with crazy things like accusing us of transporting people to North Vietnam.
They lied, stole, kicked your ass, and you didn't want to deal with them.
And then, with the SLA thing, you couldn't turn around without hitting a
spook. It was just insane."
Dan Siegel, now an attorney and the president of Oakland's school board, was
a student leader in the '60s and a familiar face in radical circles in the
years that followed. "The SLA was so strange," he says. "Think about this:
they killed the last decent school superintendent Oakland had until [current
incumbent] Dennis Chaconas was hired.
"But if you were around radical circles then, you could see how this kind of
thing developed - as wrong and crazy as it was. And I've heard it said that
almost everyone knew someone connected with the SLA."
He's right on that score, though few people will air it in public. And who
can blame them? The SLA's legacy is nothing but trouble. In those days its
members were too visible, too stupid, and after the Hearst kidnapping they
attracted an army of government agents.
Still, in some ways, SLA members weren't much different from anyone else:
Joseph Remiro, the Vietnam vet who, with Russell Little, was arrested for
the Foster murder, was active in the hugely influential Vietnam Veterans
Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization. My friend Edward knew Pat
"Mizmoon" Soltysik at UC Berkeley, and two friends at the post office where
I worked knew Angela Atwood.
Guns and trouble
The factors that created the SLA were part of the intense, often very
strange political brew that emerged in the early 1970s in the Bay Area.
Increasingly, prisoners and ex-prisoners - most of them black or Latin -
were becoming part of the scene. Their status as "heavy," stemming from a
connection with street life and conflicts with police, was further enhanced
by their race. It was a fact that nonwhite Americans had powerful, bitter
experience that brought them to the struggle - but this truth, in the hands
and heads of largely white, generally middle-class radicals, generated
thinking that was sometimes so fuzzy it would have been great comedy had it
not had tragic consequences.
Then there was the debate around guns and the use of violence. It started
back in 1967, when members of the Black Panther Party marched onto the floor
of the state assembly in Sacramento carrying empty (and perfectly legal)
weapons to protest a proposed law to restrict their right to bear arms. It
was quite an event, and crucial to understanding the changing world of
radicals and revolutionaries.
In 1969 the Weatherman faction of SDS was formed, advocating that the
struggle take a more militant, sometimes violent turn. By the early 1970s
Venceremos, a prominent group led by ex-Stanford professor Bruce Franklin
that believed America's black and Latin populations were increasingly ready
to use arms against the government, was active in the Bay Area.
The SLA, like Venceremos, was consumed with the romance of black and Latin
culture, and its members were impressed with themselves for brushing up
against prison machismo. In 1972, when future SLA members met a convict
named Donald Defreeze, they were at a disadvantage: heroic, misguided
notions of armed violence combined with a self-concious and confused
understanding of race so crippling that when they looked out at the world
they couldn't see beyond themselves.
Defreeze, renamed Cinque, became their leader. They followed him into a
Timing is everything
The recent SLA arrests jolted people who had thought that part of history
was far, far behind them.
First there was the saga of Olson, linked to an alleged SLA attempt to blow
up a Los Angeles police cruiser in 1975 and arrested in 1999 after nearly 20
years in hiding. She'd evolved into a progressive soccer mom - not deep
cover, just a sign of the times. Last fall she made headlines while
stumbling through a depressing series of legal blunders and errors of
judgment, during which she copped a plea, tried to renege, and wound up
sentenced to 10 years in prison. Then, on Jan. 16, 2002, Olson, her
brother-in-law Michael Bortin, and the Harrises (who had each already served
8 years in jail for robbing the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with Patty
Hearst in 1974) were arrested and charged with the murder of Myrna Opshal,
during a bank robbery in Carmichael in 1975. Fired with personal ambition
and pushed by Jon Opshal, the dead woman's son, Michael Latin of the L.A.
District Attorney's Office had badgered the Sacramento District Attorney's
Office for five years to reopen the case.
It wasn't an easy fight. Olson's brother Steven Soliah had been tried for
the robbery in 1976 and acquitted. The evidence was old and shaky; nobody
wanted to try the case. But Litwin and Opshal persevered, and when the
events of Sept. 11 triggered a remarkable shift in the political climate,
suddenly the SLA was back in the news.
To many people, the timing of the arrests was too perfect to be
"The thing is," says attorney Susan Jordan, who was initially associated
with Olson's defense, "the prosecutor is cynically taking advantage of the
events of September 11. Fear of terrorists is being twisted around and used
against the defendants. Things were simpler in 1975. We didn't have the kind
of terrorism that we have today. The fact is that '70s terrorists were rank
amateurs, new to violence, who didn't know how to use it."
Barbara Lubin, a lifelong activist and the head of Berkeley's Middle East
Children's Alliance, puts it more succinctly: "Hasn't anyone heard of the
strategy of going after weak links?"
By any standard, the SLA is an easy target. Jon Opshal wants vengeance and a
chance to right old wrongs. The political right, on the other hand, sees an
opportunity to further redevelop the social and political landscape.
The long-gone and much-maligned SLA may seem irrelevant, but a conviction
would set a troubling precedent in the event of future actions against other
Over the past few weeks, I spoke with many people, including medical
professionals, teachers, artists, lawyers, and community activists. The
arrests troubled all of them, and many expressed concern about the timing,
in light of the political climate.
This didn't mean they'd talk on the record. Even veteran activists who have
seen a lot of trouble in their lives don't want to go near this one.
"I never trusted the SLA, and the last thing I want is the FBI asking me
questions," one activist told me. At the end of another frosty call, when I
joked, "So I'll buzz you later to set something up," the sound of the
receiver crashing down was painful.
A woman I first met 32 years ago through a friend in the Weathermen shouted
at me that the SLA was fucked, that she was sick of talking about them, and
that everyone should "get over it." And then there was the Revolutionary
Communist Party, which decided it wasn't talking to strangers, a category
that included me.
"It gets harder and harder for me to believe that the government doesn't
have ulterior motives when they go after any political people," Lubin says.
"Look what our government routinely does, look at Chile and Central America,
and please, look at Iraq, where over a million children have died since the
embargo began. The question is, How paranoid do you have to be before you're
A moment of glory
I hate it when people dismiss activists with generalizations like "spoiled
rich kids." What's wrong with a rich kid trying to do something
extraordinary rather than settling for whatever it is rich kids normally do?
The discarding of social privilege to live a life with meaning is an
American tradition, and a fine one at that.
I tried with no luck to reach Patty Hearst recently to pass along my
thoughts on this matter. Though she was indeed spoiled and rich, there was a
time long ago when Ms. Hearst experienced a moment of transcendence that
most us can only dream of. On April 3, 1974, after two months in captivity,
Hearst ditched the straight life, stepped forward, and exposed and publicly
humiliated her father, who, through his wealth and media empire, had heaped
insult and indignity on countless others. Her performance included this:
"Dad, you said you were concerned with my life and ... the life and
interests of all oppressed people in this country, but you are a liar in
both areas.... You are a corporate liar.... Tell the poor and oppressed of
this nation what the corporate state is about to do.... Tell the people that
[the energy crisis] is nothing more than a means to get approval of a
program to build nuclear power plants.... Tell them how law-and-order
programs are just a means to remove so-called violent individuals from the
community ... in the same way that Hitler controlled the removal of the Jews
from Germany" (SLA communiqué 40374).
It didn't last, but it was perhaps the one shining moment in the dismal
history of the SLA.
Hearst claims to be anxious to testify against her old friends. She was, she
says, a victim of Stockholm syndrome, which causes captives to identify with
their captors. Perhaps it's true. But hell, I saw Berkeley students attacked
by rioting cops and radicalized in an instant. Besides, she gave her
occupation as "urban guerrilla" when she was finally arrested.
Still, the birthright she reclaimed is working out - as birthrights like
hers tend to do, buying not just a presidential commutation of her sentence
but later also a presidential pardon. The Harrises served eight years,
Hearst just two. Now she's set to testify against defendants charged with a
crime she has admitted to taking part in. But no matter what happens now,
the heir to the Hearst fortune won't go back to jail.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine less-favorable conditions for the
defendants' day in court. They're up against time, mistakes, and the
awesome, all-consuming power of the T word. Although the prosecutors claim
existing physical evidence has become more useful with the help of new
technology, people close to the case say that in fact it is the same
evidence that Sacramento prosecutors have had for years.
The defendants are people who have long since left the SLA part of their
pasts behind. "I am a friend of Bill Harris," Lubin tells me, "and I don't
justify the killing in the bank robbery at all. But the Bill Harris who I've
known, who's been there for me as a friend, and who I care about a lot,
well, I can't believe the state went ahead with this. And for god's sake,
Sara Jane Olson is a respected person in her community."
It's tough to blame the Opshal son who lost his mother in the shooting. But
public opinion post-Sept. 11 has taken a turn so aggressively reactionary
that it recalls the red-baiting inquisitions of Joseph McCarthy. Let's face
it: 2002 is a bad time to be labeled a terrorist. The onetime SLA members
and their associates have paid for at least some of their sins, and all have
forged new, productive lives. The turn of events is a kind of worst-case
scenario for everybody.
Recently my cousin and longtime pal Sharon and I were talking about the
past - back when we hung out with the same people and had the same politics.
"I've had people ask me if I regretted all the time I spent as an activist
and all that," Sharon said, rolling her eyes. "I can't believe it. The fact
is that I don't regret a thing; those years were great."
Non-'60s people (the world breaks down into us and everyone else, of course)
hate hearing '60s people rhapsodize, so I won't do it other than to say
this: The '60s were full of challenge, and although I'm not a revolutionary
now, in my heart, I'm still a revolutionary then. You believed you could
change the world and yourself in the process, and that was liberating. The
politics were confusing, we made mistakes, and at the end of the day, the
fact is that we were right and the other side - racists, politicians,
corporate vultures, and the rest - were wrong. It was a great time to be
You could never tell what was going to happen next. Something could fall on
you from a tree or come loping through your front door with a gun aimed at
your heart. That's how it was during my first unforgettable brush with the
FBI. It was September 1970, and my best friend, who was attracted to the
Maoist Revolutionary Union, and I, who hung out with former Weathermen,
moved from Berkeley to Richmond, bringing with us two dogs and a 19-year-old
postal worker named Sarah whose political activities were limited to driving
a truck painted like an American flag.
One morning several weeks later, a large squad of FBI agents with guns drawn
and a pack of reporters in tow came charging up to our house and entered.
They were after a fugitive Weatherwoman who, they were sure, was living in
the small room behind our garage. A beefy posse of agents exchanged glances
and heavily trotted down the driveway and into the backyard - liberating
both dogs, who then raced into the yard of our next-door neighbor, an
elderly Lithuanian. She looked sweet, but she hated the dogs, and as was her
habit, she began to curse them. The pups liked to do their business in her
garden, and she wasn't happy about it - which is, I should add, critical
information with respect to this story.
The FBI, believing they were about to nail a Maoist-Weatherman conspiracy,
kicked in the back door, waking Sarah, who promptly burst into tears. They
dragged her, handcuffed and wearing a nightgown, out front. A few agents
ransacked our house - they found guns, drugs, and money and left them all
behind, which meant they were after something else that wasn't there. The
real action, however, was building outside.
An agent flashed a picture of the fugitive to curious neighbors, and then
they pointed to Sarah, which elicited no response. Finally they produced our
Lithuanian neighbor - who was not the nice, albeit high-strung, lady I'd
thought her but a first-class fink and provocateur. "She is definitely the
one," the old woman cried, pointing a crooked finger in Sarah's direction.
Cameras started to flash, and the ghost of a satisfied smile graced the face
of the agent in charge. He shoved Sarah out in front of him, and the crowd
leaned closer. "Is she the one?" he asked. "Are you sure?"
The old lady was sure, and to prove it, she pointed at the dogs, who were
pulling a small wire fence from the border surrounding some tulips. "She is
the one," the woman hollered in broken English, shaking her head violently.
"She is the one with the dogs, look, those dogs. She is the one."
Our neighbor stared venomously at the big shot, who, sweating nervously,
stepped back to huddle with a sidekick. They talked, compared Sarah with the
photo, looked around, and left. The same journalists later showed up for our
press conference, which was the first item on the 11 o'clock news. I
celebrated by taking LSD.
A modest proposal
I came across an article in a recent San Francisco Chronicle reporting that
President George W. Bush and several cabinet members were casually exploring
a timeline to overthrow Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. Most
extraordinary was the headline, which noted that this time the "U.S. would
have to go it alone." The piece was followed a few days later by the news
that Israeli premier Ariel Sharon had publicly considered in much the same
off-hand fashion whether or not in 1982 a sniper shadowing Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat should have just killed him.
Truth be told, things don't look good in the world.
They don't look good for the four ex-radicals, either. It's not clear when
the Carmichael trial will begin, but get ready for a roomful of ghosts - and
the possibility that a jury will ignore the lack of evidence, buy into the
war on terrorism, and send the defendants to jail for life.
If the SLA members killed a woman in a bank robbery, the passage of time and
the political context will never justify their actions.
But it's hardly fair. The SLA members, most of them, anyway, were sucked
into a political shitstorm started by others. Robert McNamara, William
Westmoreland, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger (to name a few) were guilty
of sending 50,000 American kids to their deaths and laying waste to Vietnam,
a country that was lovely, except where it was nothing but craters and
rubble. The men responsible for those crimes have never had to answer for
Nobody is in jail for the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.
Nobody is in jail for setting up Geronimo Pratt, fabricating evidence that
sent an innocent man to jail for more than 20 years.
Nobody is paying for all the police beatings, police shootings, FBI
harassment and surveillance, COINTELPRO operations, and dirty tricks that
were part of life in the 1960s. In fact, nobody's even talking about those
It's time that the United States stop blocking the U.N. from establishing a
new mechanism to bring those responsible for war crimes to trial. Of course,
that would mean that men like Henry Kissinger (and so many others) would
have to take responsibility for their actions. But it's time to settle the
Fair is fair: If Kissinger has to answer for his deeds, then the onetime
activists charged in the Carmichael case should do the same. We need
closure - something that can be entered into history and, settled, left
behind. This would, I think, be just - and when all is said and done,
justice is what the '60s was about.
J.H. Tompkins fought the war and the law during the late '60s and early
'70s. He wrote about his experiences for various outlets in the underground