The Dilemma of Sara Jane Olson

With an October trial in the offing, prosecutors had every intention of proving that Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson was a domestic terrorist who helped plant bombs under police cars 26 years ago.

On June 29, several dozen people gathered in a windowless room in San Francisco's Mission District to hear ex-federal fugitive Sara Jane Olson talk about why she is on trial for the attempted murder of two Los Angeles police officers 26 years ago. The literature table at the event was festooned with information about the horrible conditions in America's prisons and copies of Olson's cookbook, Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes. Olson was in town to raise money for her legal defense fund.

Flanking Olson was a large photograph of Warren Wells, a former member of the Black Panther Party who had passed away that morning while serving a life sentence in prison. Behind the podium was a large maroon banner: "Defend and Support Sara Jane Olson -- Free All Political Prisoners."

Olson was indicted in 1976, in Los Angeles, for conspiring to plant bombs, which did not explode, under two police cars. She said that she is not guilty and that her trial, scheduled to begin Oct. 15 in Los Angeles, is a show proceeding, produced by law enforcement officials with a grudge against her and the generation she represents.

Stuart Hanlon, a member of Olson's defense team, took the microphone to say that Olson was not anywhere near Los Angeles when the bombs were planted and that "the prosecution is political to its core." According to Hanlon, Los Angeles' law enforcers have fabricated evidence. They are, he claimed, trying to frame Olson because she was -- and is -- a political dissident. The System, said Hanlon, wants to make an example of Olson in order to show young people that "if you attack the foundations of government, you will be pursued to the ends of the Earth."

Or at least to St. Paul, Minn., which is where Kathleen Ann Soliah, a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who went underground in 1975, was captured two years ago. During the intervening years, Soliah had mutated into Olson, an upper-middle-class mother of three who has been variously portrayed in the national press as a soccer mom and as an unrepentant radical leftover from the 1960s. In many ways, say her defenders, it is really the '60s that are on trial. The real problem, they assert, is not political activism; it's persecution by paranoid law enforcers.

Curiously, the values and beliefs of Olson's criminal defense lawyers will be on trial, too. All but the youngest of them have a deep, abiding affection for their youth, when they defended many political radicals, including members of the SLA. The defense team intends to portray Olson's past behavior as the actions of a humanitarian, left-wing idealist, hoping to distract a jury from boxes and boxes and boxes of evidence demonstrating, at least in her prosecutors' minds, that she actively supported multiple acts of terrorism.

To help prove that Olson was a terrorist, the prosecution is calling as its star witness the heiress to a vast media fortune, a B-movie actress who was once an international symbol for what went wrong with the 1960s: Patricia Hearst, aka "Tania." To show Olson was an idealist, the defense will attempt to bring the spirit of the '60s into the courtroom, to re-create it as a positive era in U.S. history, a time when a tide of civil rights movements and anti-war demonstrations changed society for the better.

But last week history intervened in this carefully choreographed legal battle. In the wake of the terror bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it now seems very likely that Olson -- who is, after all, an alleged conspirator in terror bombings -- will seek to have the start of her trial delayed. Prosecutors are adamant that the trial, already long put off, start as scheduled. And whether the televised trial starts next month or next year, a question will hang over the courtroom: After Sept. 11, 2001, can anyone who ate with, lived with, and financially supported known terrorists be seen as well-intentioned or, in any sense, innocent?


Much has been written about Patty Hearst and her association with the SLA, a good deal of it coming in the form of self-serving, conflicting accounts by SLA members.

But certain facts stand out as historical benchmarks. In March 1973, Donald DeFreeze escaped from Soledad Prison in Monterey. DeFreeze, 31, found refuge with prison reform activists in Berkeley. Renaming himself Cinque Mtume (Fifth Prophet), DeFreeze, an African-American, organized a half-dozen or so white, middle-class radicals into the Symbionese Liberation Army, a "focoist" organization. (Focoists, such as Che Guevara, argued that the violent actions of a small band of revolutionaries can inspire the masses to rise up and overthrow a capitalist state.)

On Nov. 6, 1973, the SLA slew Marcus Foster, the school superintendent of Oakland, in a fusillade of cyanide-tipped bullets. Cinque then issued the first of a series of SLA communiqués, explaining that Foster had to be killed because he wanted to issue identification cards to high school students and unveiling the SLA's slogan: "Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys Upon the Life of the People."

On Feb. 4, 1974, DeFreeze and his band kidnapped Patricia Campbell Hearst at gunpoint from her Berkeley apartment after repeatedly bashing the face of Stephen Weed, her boyfriend, with a wine bottle.

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