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ON CALIFORNIA

SLA a Weird Bunch That Missed the Boat

January 24, 2002|Peter H. King

SACRAMENTO In its issue dated Feb. 4, 1974 — SACRAMENTO

In its issue dated Feb. 4, 1974--interestingly enough, the very date of Patty Hearst's abduction from her Berkeley apartment by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army--Time magazine reported a bulletin from the culture front. The notorious "Generation Gap" of the 1960s had gone missing.

The magazine cited an academic study in which 1,000 American high school students and their parents were surveyed, first in 1965 and again eight years later. In the 1960s, responses had split sharply along generational lines. The follow-up poll, however, had found what Time called "a convergence of outlook" on everything from civil rights to partisan politics.

The article went on to quote a dance instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--no, this is not made up--who noted a surge of interest among 1970s collegians in such old-fashioned steps as the rumba, waltz and tango.

"These dances," concluded MIT's professor of fandango, "serve as a contact point between generations. Kids are now interested in what their parents experienced. Everything their parents did is no longer looked down upon."

A year later, as Hearst was busy taking part in bank heists and other revolutionary "actions" with her captors, Time offered another update from the American dance scene. There was a "hot" new step--the "hustle." Yes, the disco era had arrived, wrapped in rayon and mounted on platform heels.

At the risk of dabbling in footnotes, let me underscore here what these cultural morsels culled from back copies of Time suggest about the SLA, so recently returned to the front pages: The weird, violent saga of this group was not a part of that frenzied period described, with less than perfect chronological accuracy, as "the '60s."

Rather, the SLA was a product of the 1970s, a distinction I believe might be worth exploring for a moment. The middle 1970s were an awkward time. I speak as someone who started college in 1973, who came to San Francisco as a green reporter in the summer of 1976.

To come of age in the 1970s was to be nagged by the realization of having just missed out on history-making times. Reporters I worked with in the Associated Press bureau told stories of wading through Berkeley demonstrations in gas masks, of interviewing Black Panthers and the like. I wrote about the explosion in custom van enthusiasts.

The '60s had produced Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Byrds. We got stuck with the brothers Gibb. The youth of the 1960s set out to stop a war. We were dispatched to whip inflation, now!

I suspect that members of the SLA might have felt cheated in a similar way. By the time they arrived on the scene, the revolutionary fires of the 1960s had all but expired. The big events--and the massive crowds that came with them--were over.

When Hearst was abducted, the draft already had ended, Woodstock had given way to Altamont, and the national focus was on Watergate. By the time of Hearst's capture, 20 months later, Nixon had been pardoned, the last U.S. helicopter had flown off the embassy roof in Saigon, Eldridge Cleaver was promoting a line of codpiece trousers and Tom Hayden was gearing up to run for U.S. Senate.

"We felt a revolution was going to happen," Emily Harris wistfully told The Times two years ago. "By 1972 and '73, we realized the world wasn't going to change."

Still they muddled forward, a band of Miniver Cheevys, born too late. To some veterans of the 1960s, the SLA seemed to be a peculiar, off-key bunch. They unleashed lethal violence on a promising school superintendent in Oakland and a Sacramento churchwoman delivering collection box proceeds to a Carmichael bank--the latter murder, of course, is what led to the arrests of last week. Their slogan of "death to the fascist insect" sounded like a parody of '60s radicalism, a straight line, maybe, for "Laugh-In."

Dan Siegel, a prominent Berkeley activist in the 1960s, recalls being spirited to a meeting in 1975 with Bill and Emily Harris and Hearst at their hide-out. They wanted to talk to Siegel, freshly graduated from law school, about negotiating their surrender--and maybe a book deal to boot.

"They were incredibly naive and simplistic," said Siegel, who now serves on the Oakland school board. "They had an attitude or view of the world that reminded me of people who didn't read the newspapers, or hadn't any sense of history. They actually believed that by carrying out these so-called revolutionary activities they were going to draw great support from a majority of the working class and poor people."

Siegel said that at one point the SLA put out feelers to fugitive members of the Weather Underground, who by that time had quit their bombings. The response, he said, was emphatic: "The Weather Underground said, 'Hell no. These people are nuts.'"

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