Barmy Liberation Army by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 20, October 2005]
Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst (dir. Robert Stone)
Screening on BBC2 on September 12th, Guerilla: the Taking of Patty Hearst is a feature from veteran liberal documentarist Robert Stone tracing the career of the Symbionese Liberation Army – a mainly middle class white student militia engaged in armed struggle in early 1970s California ‘on behalf of’ Black and working class Americans. Clandestine interviews with surviving SLA founders Russ Little and Mike Bortin, along with the views of prominent journalists covering the story, an FBI case officer and hostage negotiator, are expertly woven together with found footage of the most dramatic events and other material in a vivid, snappy narrative that captures the imagination while emphasising the wider context and drawing interesting parallels with the present.
The very first modern media circus followed the SLA kidnap of Patty Hearst – heir of the huge media conglomerate built by grandad William (‘Citizen Kane’) Randolph – and, in regularly ending her communiqués with: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the lives of the people”, her apparent ‘conversion’ to the anti-government cause. This was preceded and followed by generally botched SLA actions – assassinations, bank robberies, minor shoplifting – and when the initial ransom demanding exchange for imprisoned comrades also failed, the Hearst family agreed to distribute $4m dollars-worth of ‘food aid’ to the Bay Area poor. Even this ended in riots since the authorities were equally inept, and a vastly excessive SWAT shoot-out in South Central LA left most of the cadre dead.
Barmy Liberation Army
Bortin stresses the frustration of educated youth after the optimism of the 1960s – what with poverty and racism at home, the arms race, and especially Vietnam: “We grew up being told we saved the world from Hitler … but we’re now being Hitler”. Little concludes “The country was being run by criminals … I feel sad that I felt forced to extremes by Nixon and his thugs”. And while those from less sheltered backgrounds probably found the corruption of power less surprising, many others who turned to armed rebellion at that time managed without quite so much arrogance, pompousness and politically clueless sub-Maoist posturing as the SLA (not that the Black Panthers, MOVE organisation or Weather Underground, etc, ultimately fared much better). However, the SLA’s narcissistic fascination with media responses rather than organic links with struggle had more in common with later, equally futile, urban guerilla groups such as those in Europe – condemning them as grist to the Spectacular mill while also supplying their propaganda coup courtesy of the American princess.
Nevertheless Guerilla’s subtitle is for marketing purposes only, and the tedious celebrity autopsy of whether Hearst (who endorses this film) really was the brainwashed Stockholm Syndrome stooge she claimed is rightly avoided. The motivations for making the film included the 9/1 experience, the government use of ‘terrorism’ to erode civil liberties and the central role of the media in setting and pursuing agendas in this morass – and the coverage of the SLA’s exploits coincided with major technological and political developments in that industry (plus retrospective prosecutions have jailed several members since the film was made – including Bortin). As for the group itself, Stone thinks that their mistake was not taking “the moral high ground, like Gandhi”. But moral certainty and self-righteousness was precisely the fundamental flaw, as within all grandiose vanguards bolstering each other’s inflated self-importance. Whereas humility, integrity and ethical transparency measured collectively at, by and for the grass-roots can avoid both the delusions of bourgeois radicalism flirting with power and the fatal distraction with the vicissitudes of newsworthiness.