Biting the bullet

The Patty Hearst kidnap saw the revolution go live on TV for the first time. Phil Hoad on a new film that tells the real story
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The Independent Culture

On 17 May 1974, as six people were perforated by gunfire in a house in Los Angeles, the news media made an evolutionary leap. A crowd of 10,000 had gathered in South Central to watch the siege - members of the infamous revolutionary cadre, the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) were holed up inside. But millions more were watching the footage going out to TV sets around the nation, just as they'd been hooked on the spectacle that had unfolded over the weeks after the SLA kidnapped the society heiress Patricia Hearst.

On 17 May 1974, as six people were perforated by gunfire in a house in Los Angeles, the news media made an evolutionary leap. A crowd of 10,000 had gathered in South Central to watch the siege - members of the infamous revolutionary cadre, the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) were holed up inside. But millions more were watching the footage going out to TV sets around the nation, just as they'd been hooked on the spectacle that had unfolded over the weeks after the SLA kidnapped the society heiress Patricia Hearst.

The SLA affair was, says Robert Stone, the director of the new documentary Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst, a media landmark.

Live video feeds in news reports had only recently become possible, and the SLA siege - the Los Angeles police (LAPD) having finally located some of the renegade organisation - was simply the first thing to happen on it.

"You saw the transition in the role of the media from a news service to an extension of the entertainment industry, which is really what it is now," explains Stone.

The build-up to the drama's fiery centrepiece was laid in previous weeks. The 19-year-old Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of the news magnate William Randolph Hearst, was plucked from her Berkeley college apartment in February; the SLA declared Hearst Corp an "enemy of the people" and Patty a "prisoner of war". They demanded $4m in food aid for California's poor by way of ransom. But, bizarrely, Hearst appeared to go over to her captors' cause and, in a bizarre set of taped communiqués over the intervening weeks, denounced her family, her Ivy League boyfriend and the American way of life.The media cast the soap opera as the spiriting away of an American princess and lumped the SLA with Charles Manson and the rest of the post-hippie-era "circus macabre".Again, says Robert Stone, this over-simplification set the tone for media coverage to come.

Stone says his interest was crystallised by September 11; his office was a block down from Ground Zero. He mentions the thousands of people who flocked to watch the jumpers. "I was watching something unfold that most people were experiencing as a news event. It got me thinking about what terrorists are trying to achieve by pulling off what is a media spectacle."

The SLA obsessed about the importance of good presentation. In retrospect, their monikers (their de-facto leader Donald DeFreeze, who died in the seige shoot-out, went by the name of General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume - "Fifth Prophet"), their sloganeering (motto: "Death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people"), their snappy seven-headed snake logo, gun-toting Che-chick glamour, and all-round counter-culture swagger, all gave them perfect credentials for the style-mag lionisation.

But the SLA forgot about their signature symbiosis (of all races and classes - hence their name), and got caught up instead in a deadlock between image and reality. They were glued to the screens with the rest of the American public, watching their own personal movie unfold, says Stone.

But Russ Little, a founding SLA member who was convicted (but later acquitted) of murdering Marcus Foster, a schools superintendent, is sceptical about the influence of the media on the SLA, saying that the group dynamics were responsible. "There was already a well-established tendency for [SLA member] Nancy Perry to look to DeFreeze as a warrior prophet and for him to accept that," says Little.

As the Hearst kidnapping gained momentum, ideals seemed to disintegrate. There had always been a naive recklessness to the SLA along with the ideology. In 1973, the group murdered Foster, on the grounds that he was planning to introduce "fascist" ID cards at Oakland schools (in fact, he had tried to oppose them). After the siege, the remaining SLA members robbed a bank in Carmichael, California, shooting Myrna Opsahl, a mother-of-four who was depositing church receipts.

Stone suggests they'd been reduced to living out their own Bonnie and Clyde fantasy, and the SLA fable does seem to contain some dark, violent correlate of the American Dream. When the fugitive heiress was captured with two other SLA members in September 1975, she listed her profession to police as "urban guerrilla". Yet, months later, she reversed the taped condemnations of the capitalist lifestyle she had made and claimed she was a victim of a traumatic kidnapping. This was the line taken in her 1982 book Every Secret Thing and in Patty Hearst, the 1988 Paul Schrader film based on it. She had to serve 21 months for her part in an earlier bank robbery, but her sentence was commuted by President Carter and she was eventually exonerated by Bill Clinton; the society heiress and American sanctity were restored.

Stone says he deliberately holds off reductive psychological explanations. What is clear that Hearst's participation is far from simple and that she wasn't merely passive: the security footage of her brandishing her sub-machine gun speaks for itself and - one thing Guerrilla omits - she was also the getaway driver in the Carmichael heist. Stone says that Hearst (who endorses his film) may have eased up on the Maoisms but is still left of centre.

The SLA saga set radical American politics back a great deal. The killings lost the group the public sympathy they had hoped to engage, tarred less vociferous socialists with the same brush and almost justified President Nixon's law-and-order platform. Stone's in no doubt that the SLA hydra ended up biting its own heads off. "That's no way to change anything. You should take the moral high ground, like Gandhi. Otherwise it plays straight into the hands of the right."

Little, more than 30 years later, is regretful: "I feel sad that I felt forced to extremes by Nixon and his thugs, and ended up with dead friends and nothing to show for it except media headlines and prison time. [The SLA] could have just quoted from Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States, about the sordid history of the Hearst family but they were too busy making up titles and talking trash to the FBI."

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