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Graying Radicals Are Facing New Ire in America

Recent arrests in the 27-year-old SLA robbery are raising concerns for other ex-activists.

January 28, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON and GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Their hair is thinner and their girth broader. Their lifestyles tend more to the minivan and gardening than to any utopian fantasies favoring the overthrow of what they used to call Amerika.

Oh, and there's one more thing the graying lions of the radical left share in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the arrests of four former members of the bumbling, trigger-happy Symbionese Liberation Army: a growing disquiet that it could be open season on countercultural figures of the Vietnam era, whether they were involved in serious crimes or not.

The long-buried divisions that tore at society 30 years ago, they fear, are resurfacing. "At what point do they say, 'We better start rounding up the old activists?'" worried John Buttny, 63, a onetime member of the Weathermen organization, who now lives outside Santa Barbara and works for a member of that county's Board of Supervisors.

Since the terror attacks, Buttny's old FBI file has been circulated by political enemies to the local media. "I have often remarked to friends that the '60s were nowhere near this repressive," said Buttny. He now recalls almost fondly how, as a young radical in Boulder, Colo., he used to joke with FBI agents when they came to buy his left-wing literature.

Karl Armstrong, who spent eight years behind bars for blowing up a U.S. Army research building in 1970 at the University of Wisconsin, killing a researcher, is now facing a boycott of his sandwich shop, Radical Rye, in Madison. "I thought it was unfair," he said of the boycott called by a conservative radio talk-show host. "But I figure it's all just part of the karma."

And then there's Weathermen stalwart Bill Ayers, who admits in his new book, "Fugitive Days," to playing a role in blowing up a restroom at the Pentagon in 1972. Ayers, who is married to former radical Bernardine Dohrn, canceled his book tour after Sept. 11 and issued a statement defending the work as "a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms."

"It would be preposterous," said Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, "to use [the book] now to suggest that any of the Vietnam-era protesters would endorse acts of terrorism such as those we witnessed."

Dohrn, once dubbed by J. Edgar Hoover "la pasionara of the lunatic left," has been the focus of a protest by alumni at Northwestern University, where she teaches law. Some have threatened to withhold financial support if she isn't removed. Law school dean David Van Zandt has so far stood behind her, saying she has expressed an "abhorrence for violence."

Some of the old radicals say they can't understand the arrest of the SLA members last week, all these years later, unless there is a political agenda attached.

"I assume [authorities] didn't prosecute before because they didn't have a case," said Marshall Berzon, once part of a Weathermen collective in Boston that was arrested en masse and accused of shooting up the Cambridge, Mass., police station three decades ago. "There is a significant segment of the population today that lumps people like William and Emily Harris in with John Walker [Lindh] and Osama bin Laden."

Fellow activist Mark Rudd, accused by the FBI of leading the riots at Columbia University in 1968 and who spent seven years underground, said he is confused by the SLA arrests these many years later. "They were living openly, right?" said Rudd, who now teaches at a community college in New Mexico.

Prosecutors say there is nothing suspicious about the arrests now. They say the investigation of Sara Jane Olson in connection with a plot to blow up Los Angeles police cars provided new evidence on the 1975 Carmichael bank robbery.

However it came about, Rudd is right. William and Emily Harris were not hiding in some bunker or donning sunglasses when they went to the market. Hoping their radical pasts had receded in the cultural rearview mirror, along with the mod shirt and white man's Afro that William Harris once sported, they had settled into numbingly normal lives.

Emily Harris, now known as Emily Montague, lived on a quiet street in Altadena and worked as a computer analyst. Her former husband has worked as a private detective in San Francisco and at times as an investigator for the district attorney's office. He was driving his two sons to school when he was arrested for a robbery that netted $15,000 and took the life of Myrna Opsahl, who had been depositing church receipts during the 1975 robbery.

Fellow defendant Michael Bortin has owned a hardwood flooring business in Portland, Ore., for 20 years. His sister-in-law, Olson, married a doctor and lived as a Midwestern housewife while on the lam for more than two decades. Olson, who was sentenced Jan. 18 to 20 years to life for her role in the police car bomb plot, will also face murder charges in connection with Opsahl's death.

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