What is the Symbionese Liberation Army?

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Jan. 24 2002 6:15 PM

What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?

Five former members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were charged last week with the 1975 murder of Myrna Lee Opsahl. What was the Symbionese Liberation Army, and what are they known for, other than kidnapping Patty Hearst?


The SLA was a group of Berkeley radicals led by Donald DeFreeze, an escaped convict whose nom de guerre was "General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume." The word "Symbionese" comes from the biological term symbiosis, the interdependence of different species. It suggests the union of classes and races.

The SLA adopted its rhetoric from Communists and South American revolutionaries. Members rejected their given names for new, "revolutionary" names. The group used a seven-headed cobra as its symbol. The SLA's slogan: "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people."

The SLA embraced Marxist French journalist Régis Debray's concept of "urban propaganda," according to Les Payne, co-author of The Life and Death of the SLA. "The concept called for selected violence—assassinations, kidnappings, bank robbery, etc.—aimed at capturing media attention and through it popular support." But unlike other radical groups of the '60s and '70s, such as the Black Panthers, the SLA weren't of real historical significance.

Here's a time line of the SLA's most noteworthy activities:

1971: Founded in the San Francisco Bay area by Russell Little and Robyn Sue Steiner. The group is a loose band of Berkeley radicals focused on prison reform, poverty, and race. Most members are middle- and upper-class whites.

1972: Donald DeFreeze, a convict in the California state penitentiary system, meets members of the SLA who are sitting in on meetings of an inmate group known as the Black Cultural Association. In December, DeFreeze escapes from prison and makes contact with SLA members in Oakland.

1973: DeFreeze takes over the Symbionese Liberation Army. SLA co-founder Robyn Sue Steiner flees to England when DeFreeze threatens to kill her. DeFreeze pushes the group toward violence.

In November,the SLA claims responsibility for the murder of Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland school district. According to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the SLA "mistakenly believed Foster wanted to require students to show identification on campus, which it believed analogous to a police-state tactic."

January 1974: SLA members Russell Little and Joseph Remiro are arrested for Foster's murder. Both are convicted; Little was acquitted in a 1982 retrial. Remiro, now serving a life sentence in San Quentin, is the only SLA member currently in prison.


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