Merciless System Pursues 60s Radical

The Punishment of Sara Jane Olson

Revolutionary Worker #1129, December 2, 2001, posted at

On June 16, 1999, Sara Jane Olson was driving her minivan near her home in Minnesota, when it was surrounded by police and FBI agents. Sara Jane Olson was arrested on a decades-old warrant--charged with having been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the 1970s and planting bombs under LAPD police cars.

The case of Sara Jane Olson hit the headlines. On October 31, Sara Jane Olson pled guilty to two counts of attempting to explode a bomb with intent to murder--and then stepped out of the courtroom and told the press she had pled guilty to something she did not do. She said she would be unjustly convicted in today's post-September 11 climate.

On December 3, she returns to court to see if she will get any trial at all.

The story of this case starts over 25 years ago.


On May 16, 1974, police surrounded a modest home in the Black community of Compton, California. Inside were six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). All day and night, as millions of people watched on TV, an army of LAPD, FBI, and California Highway Patrol poured gunfire into the house. Finally the police set the place on fire and let it burn. No one inside survived.

The SLA was a small radical organization formed in 1973 by Black former prisoners and a committee supporting the radical prison movement. The SLA emerged at a time when the revolutionary movement of the '60s was ebbing. There was intense debate over revolutionary strategy--where Maoist revolutionaries argued that proletarian revolution would require a mass armed uprising of millions; other trends argued for different forms of urban guerrilla warfare and small group armed actions; and some in the movement rejected armed struggle altogether.

The SLA carried out a series of armed actions--including the highly publicized 1974 kidnapping of ruling class heiress Patty Hearst, forcing her family to distribute free food to poor people in California. The case made headlines, especially after Hearst joined the SLA and participated in an armed bank robbery.

After the merciless police massacre of SLA members in Compton, a protest and memorial rally was held in Berkeley. A speaker at this rally was Kathleen Soliah, who spoke about her friendship with Angela Atwood, one of the SLA members murdered by the police. Kathleen had become active in the antiwar movement and a supporter of the Black Liberation struggle while studying at UC Santa Barbara. After this speech, Kathleen Soliah became a target of the FBI.

In August 1975, the LAPD said they found two unexploded, homemade bombs underneath police cars. They accused the SLA of planting them in payback for the massacre 15 months earlier.

In September 1975, FBI agents arrested SLA members Bill and Emily Harris in San Francisco. Patty Hearst and her roommate, Wendy Yoshimura, were also arrested. The FBI were also looking for Kathleen Soliah and, when they didn't find her, they put her on the top of the list of "most wanted" fugitives, claiming she was a member of the SLA.

Kathleen Soliah had escaped, gone underground and started a new life as Sara Jane Olson. She settled into a middle class life in the Twin Cities suburbs of Minnesota, got married, raised kids and became involved in local amateur theater productions. Even though her face remained plastered on post office walls, she dared to continue progressive activity. In the 1980s she participated in the movement against South Africa's apartheid and became a volunteer at a political bookstore.

The Persecution of Sara Olson

"The people who run this system are completely unforgiving."

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

Today in the current post 9-11 climate of "anti-terrorist" hysteria and repression, the authorities are determined to make an example of Sara Jane Olson and lock her up for the rest of her life.

Faced with possible life in prison, Sara Jane Olson has refused to renounce the radical politics of the '60s. She points out that the authorities have little evidence to back the charges against her--and says she was neither a member of the SLA nor involved in planting any bombs on police cars.

Many of Sara Jane Olson's friends in Minnesota have publicly rallied to her defense, helping to fund her legal costs, and traveling to California to stand by her side. There have been support events in the Twin Cities, L.A., the Bay Area and San Diego. In Los Angeles, the National Lawyers Guild has supported her.

In the press, this case has been twisted to serve the post-September 11 climate of: "be fearful and suspicious of everyone." The SLA is portrayed as "a terrorist cell"--and Sara Olson offered as proof that "terrorists" could be living right next to you, even in an affluent Midwestern suburb. Her case is often paired with denunciations of Bill Ayers, who recently wrote a memoir of his days in the Weather Underground in the '60s-'70s. One headline declared: "End to Tolerance for Unrepentant '60s Radicals."

Sara Olson has said she doesn't expect any kind of "fair trial" in such a climate. A relentless prosecution of Sara Olson is being carried out by the court system and her case has become a full-blown railroad.

Flimsy Evidence in a 26-Year-Old Case

After the police arrested Emily and Bill Harris in 1975, they carried out an illegal search of their apartment--without a warrant. Police claimed they found bomb-making materials in a locked closet, similar to the devices found under LAPD cars. And they claimed their spies had seen Kathleen Soliah visiting that apartment. There is no evidence that Soliah lived there or knew what was in its closets.

One of the pieces of evidence used to link Kathleen Soliah to the alleged bombs is the claim by police that a clerk said she bought a pipe. But this clerk told Soliah's father that the cops told him exactly who to identify.

A government witness against Olson is Patty Hearst, who was expected to testify that Olson was a member of the SLA. But Patty Hearst, who renounced the SLA in exchange for a presidential pardon, herself admits that she is not a credible witness.

Wendy Yoshimura's diary said Olson was not in LA the day the bombs were planted, but that journal has "disappeared" from police evidence lockers.

In short, the authorities have little evidence and their case is full of suspicious police tactics.

Courtroom Injustice

The authorities tried to strengthen their case against Sara Jane Olson by adding accusations of "conspiracy" to the bombing charges. Charging "conspiracy" means authorities can introduce evidence of things done by "co-conspirators." Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild calls this an attempt to infect the jury with information that Sara Jane Olson had nothing to do with--including actions that took place even before the time that the cops say Olson joined the SLA.

After September 11, the judge hearing this case said he would allow descriptions of alleged "terrorist acts" as a justification for the illegal searches the police carried out in this case.

Prosecutors have withheld evidence and documents from the defense. But they have also worked to whip up the climate around this case. Sara Olson's two lead attorneys, Shawn Chapman and Tony Serra, posted dozens of court documents on the defense website--to expose the injustice of this case. The addresses of two cops were in the document. The authorities cynically charged this web posting was a plot to endanger those cops. Sara Olson's lawyers were arrested and proceedings were held by the State Bar. Though all charges were dropped, this contributed to the railroad atmosphere around this case.

Sentence Without Trial?

On October 31, Sara Olson pled guilty, then stepped out of the courtroom and told the press she was not guilty but had accepted a plea bargain because she had no hopes of justice in this climate. The judge freaked out and ordered Sara Jane Olson back into court for a special hearing that the press called "unprecedented." He said she could not be allowed to plead guilty in court and then claim innocence in public. He said that "public confidence" in the judicial system demanded that she retract her public claims of innocence.

Since then, Sara Jane Olson has filed new motions demanding to withdraw her guilty plea and go to trial. In court papers she said, "After deeper reflection, I realize I cannot plead guilty when I know I am not." She added, "I am not second-guessing my decision as much as I have found the courage to take what I know is the honest course."

While this was all going on, Sara Olson participated in a Los Angeles protest against the war in Afghanistan.


The case of Sara Jane Olson is now at a crucial point. On December 3, a judge will decide whether Sara Jane Olson has a right to the public jury trial she is demanding. If she is refused a trial, she is expected to be sentenced, without trial, to 20 years to life. The District Attorney is already saying that Sara's "lack of remorse" will be seen as grounds for denying parole.

The authorities have dredged up this case to portray the resistance movements of the '60s and '70s as criminal and "terrorist." They are persecuting Sara Jane Olson for her politics then and for her stand now. It is an attempt to impose unjust verdicts on the past and on the future.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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