Ding Dongs and Twinkies Part 1: Patty Hearst & the Twinkie Murders Through the Eyes of Paul Krassner

Radical left politics went haywire in the 1970s. By that point the big names, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, were long gone. The FBI had decimated the Black Panthers. Anti-Vietnam War protests – and indeed the war itself – had grown nastier, with events like the killing of students at Kent State. The dizzying parade of names and organizations from this era could fill volumes. One group from this time that I’ve never really understood is the Symbionese Liberation Army.

I was too young at the time to know about them or their most infamous event, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. No doubt my mother, who followed the Watergate hearings religiously, paid closer attention. My only memory of the Watergate hearings was that they preempted my cartoons. Maybe the Patty Hearst trial coverage did, too. I can’t remember. Today, I still watch cartoons, but as an older person with leftist proclivities, I gained a fascination for such things as the Symbionese Liberation Army. I always thought the name sounded goofy. What does “Symbionese” mean? Is it a nationality? Apparently, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. Someone wrote The Straight Dope asking the same question. In response, they quoted from the SLA’s manifesto:

The name ‘symbionese’ is taken from the word symbiosis and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body. – Donald “Cinque” DeFreeze, cofounder of the SLA.

Loving harmony, replete with killings and kidnappings. Right.

Paul Krassner, founder of the legendary satirical underground magazine The Realist, wrote extensively in the 70s about two major political upheavals that rocked the San Francisco Bay Area, and indeed the country: the Patty Hearst abduction and trial and the assassinations of SF Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. His thoughts and some of his original writings from that period appear in his new book put out by PM Press as part of their Outspoken Author series: Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials Plus… Krassner’s writing style cuts through the bafflegab that often obfuscates otherwise serious or deadly happenings. So his take on these events make them clearer and more accessible. His story includes an amazing array of names and places, but the one thing I got out of the Patty Hearst chapter of the book was that the SLA was batshit crazy.

Donald DeFreeze, known also as Cinque Mtume, was an escaped convict who became radicalized while in prison and founded the SLA once on the outside. The SLA’s symbol was a seven-headed cobra, each head representing the seven tenants of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. As Krassner points out, the SLA was basically “a group of white men and women led by an African-American,” DeFreeze. Nonetheless, they declared themselves a black radical organization.

Their first order of business was to assassinate popular, up-and-coming black politician Marcus Foster, Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, in November 1973. The SLA claimed they killed Foster because he planned to create student ID cards, which they considered fascistic. They also claimed that Foster supported having police on school campuses. They were wrong on both counts. So here we have a self-professed radical black organization killing one of the first prominent black officials in Oakland, a city that had long been Republican, white, and racist despite its diverse population. SLA was off to a grand start.

SLA’s abduction of Patty Hearst, in February 1974, and her subsequent, alleged allegiance with her abductors, was a story so bizarre that only a satirist like Krassner could properly cover it. He reprints in the book an imaginary interview of Patty Hearst he wrote for Crawdaddy, written a couple months after the one-year anniversary of her abduction. It’s quite brilliant. Informed by popular, underground theories at the time, it reads like a genuine interview. It even fooled the FBI, which promptly dispatched agents to have a friendly chat with Krassner about his knowledge of Hearst’s whereabouts. ABC’s Harry Reasoner is quoted on the back of the book saying that “Krassner not only attacks establishment values, he attacks decency in general.” Law enforcement agencies love having friendly chats with folks like that.

Patty Hearst famously changed her name to “Tania” and participated in several SLA activities, including two bank robberies. The search for her turned from a rescue operation to an arrest of a fugitive from justice. She was finally captured 18 months after her abduction and put into jail to await trial. Krassner writes that Hearst was initially to be represented by radical attorneys Vincent Hallinan and his son, future SF District Attorney Kayo (Terence) Hallinan. They planned a simple defense involving involuntary intoxication and amnesia. But then her uncle, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., felt it better if an establishment attorney defended her, to better protect the family name and prestige. So he advised the family to hire F. Lee Bailey. Writes Krassner:

He had defended a serial killer (the Boston Strangler) and a war criminal (Captain (Ernest) Medina of My Lai massacre infamy), but he said he would not defend Patty Hearst if she were a revolutionary. You’ve got to have standards.

Bailey, of course, would go on to form part of the Dream Team that successfully beat back the murder charges against O.J. Simpson. Much later, he would be disbarred in Florida and Massachusetts due to misconduct.

Whereas the Hallinans would have set up a defense where Ms. Hearst would not have had to plead the Fifth or be interviewed by psychiatrists, Bailey went instead with the Stockholm Hostage Syndrome defense for her actions. This defense required her to engage heavily with psychiatrists. Krassner points out that she went from being kidnapped and drugged by the SLA to being kidnapped and drugged by doctors. He also added this haunting observation:

The message of the trial was clear: Destroy the seeds of rebellion in your children or we shall have it done for you.

Such observations on the trial not only highlight the sad ironies of the proceedings, but also give it perspective. I particularly liked when Krassner called F. Lee Bailey “Cinque in whiteface.” And he wasn’t just speaking figuratively. He documents that there was more behind DeFreeze than appeared on the surface, and that the SLA was an establishment fabrication to discredit black radical organizations and to target black leaders, like Marcus Foster. The FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO – the unit in charge of subverting and destroying radical organizations, especially black ones – was shutdown in 1971, before SLA’s rise. But it had long shadows.

SLA as a CIA fabrication gone amok makes far more sense than any other reason for their existence. The details are complex and intriguing. As I read this chapter, I thought about recent charges by anti-police violence protesters of plainclothes police officers infiltrating the demonstrations in recent weeks. Some have claimed that such officers instigate vandalism and do other things to discredit the demos. It’s easy to poo-poo such thoughts as nutty conspiracy theories, until you remember the history of what took place in the not too long ago. Krassner’s documented accounts of how this was done in the past give such theories historical legitimacy.

Patty Hearst, of course, would later be found guilty of bank robbery and faced seven years in prison. President Jimmy Carter ultimately commuted her sentence after just under two years. She then went on to appear in several John Waters movies.

The next chapter deals with the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk, The Twinkie Murders. This I’ll discuss in Part 2.

© 2015, gar. All rights reserved.


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