10 bizarre facts about the Symbionese Liberation Army

The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a radical militant group from California that burst onto the scene in the 1970s, infamous for their dramatic actions and bizarre ideology. Their most notorious act was the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst, which captivated the nation and revealed the group's strange and extreme nature. Here are ten facts about the SLA.

A Dramatic Motto

The SLA's motto, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people," is one of the most over-the-top slogans in revolutionary history. It perfectly captured their penchant for dramatic and violent rhetoric.

Assassination Based on a Mistake

The SLA's first major action was assassinating Marcus Foster, the first Black superintendent of schools in Oakland, because they wrongly believed he supported mandatory ID cards for students. This tragic error highlighted their reckless and misguided approach.

Patty Hearst's Transformation

Kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst didn't just endure captivity; she was brainwashed by her captors and took on the revolutionary name "Tania." She even participated in bank robberies, showing how the line between victim and perpetrator can blur in extreme situations and illustrating a textbook example of Stockholm Syndrome.

The Grandiose Leader

Donald DeFreeze, also known as Cinque Mtume and "Field Marshal Cinque", was the leader and co-founder of the SLA. Despite his revolutionary rhetoric, DeFreeze had a long criminal history and there are suggestions he may have been an informant or agent provocateur working with law enforcement and intelligence agencies before and during his involvement with the SLA. His FBI wanted poster noted that he was fond of plum wine. DeFreeze committed suicide by shooting himself in the head during the climactic shootout with police on May 17, 1974 in Los Angeles.

Privileged Revolutionaries

Despite their revolutionary rhetoric about overthrowing capitalism, racism, and fascist oppression, the SLA's membership was comprised mainly of young, white, middle-class men and women from solidly middle-class backgrounds. This stark contradiction between their radical ideologies and their privileged origins made the SLA's claims of being a vanguard for the oppressed seem highly ironic and disingenuous.

Incoherent Political Theories

The SLA's writings and recordings were a jumble of contradictory political theories. One analysis described the SLA's manifesto as "a confusing amalgam of revolutionary rhetoric, Maoist theoretical discourse, and anti-establishment diatribes." They attempted to merge anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-capitalism into a single, often incoherent message.

Shootout and Flames

In a dramatic 1974 shootout with police in Los Angeles, six SLA members, including their leader Donald DeFreeze, died when their hideout was engulfed in flames. This fiery end marked a devastating turning point that effectively destroyed the group's short-lived existence as a revolutionary force.

Continued Criminality

Kathleen Ann Soliah's life is tale of radical activism, fugitive years, and suburban camouflage. From the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) to hiding Patty Hearst, her story twists through notoriety and normalcy. Wanted for attempted murder in a failed bombing plot, she lived publicly in Minnesota under a new identity as Sara Jane Olson, starring in theater and authoring a cookbook. After mistaken prison release and re-arrest, she continued civil disobedience, arrested in 2020 for blocking a highway.

Food Ransom Demand

The SLA's ransom demand for Patty Hearst involved distributing millions of dollars worth of food to the poor. This unusual stipulation highlighted their unique blend of criminality and misguided altruism.

The Name's Origin

The name "Symbionese Liberation Army" is a curious mix of the word "symbiosis" and revolutionary jargon. DeFreeze, the group's leader, concocted the term "Symbionese" to describe a new symbiotic relationship among different oppressed groups, merging their struggles into one united front against the establishment.

The SLA's mix of radical ideology, dramatic actions, and sheer weirdness makes them one of the most fascinating and perplexing terrorist groups in American history.

Previously: "I'm sorry, I'm a coward. I didn't want to die." Patty Hearst interview, animated