Forty years ago today—May 17, 1974. On that day, a shoot-out with SWAT team officers in Los Angeles left six members of the notorious Symbionese Liberation Army dead, including St. Peter, Minn., native Camilla Hall. The three remaining SLA members—including the famous hostage/“urban guerrilla” Patty Hearst—collected a few more sympathizers and continued to hide until they were finally captured in September 1975.
Forty years have passed, yet the SLA continues to inspire heated comments and controversies. The latest flare-up is currently in progress. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, James Kilgore—a convicted former SLA member—did not have his adjunct contract renewed for Fall 2014. Many claim this is because his association with the SLA came to light in a local newspaper article earlier this year. Never mind the fact that when he was first hired, Kilgore told administrators of his past, which included involvement in a bank robbery in which a woman was shot and killed.
But media attention can be a powerful thing—it can take on a life of its own, like a wildfire. Were administrators content to keep Kilgore on the faculty as long as news of his past stayed contained within the academic community? Now that word reached a wider audience, did they feel the need to cave to public pressure?
This is not the first example of the SLA and other similar groups rising up from the past. In 2008, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers was surprised to find himself as the star of an anti-Obama campaign ad. He had once been in the same room as Obama, which of course certainly made Obama suddenly “terrorist friendly,” right? Ayers also was denied emeriti status upon retirement from the University of Illinois, which many claim was a punishment for his past political actions.
And those of us in Minnesota remember the spotlight that surrounded Sara Jane Olson’s arrest in 1999 and the continued media attention that came during her trial, conviction, prison sentence and parole.
What’s most interesting is reading comments from the public about these stories. As of this writing, there are 88 comments to the Inside Higher Ed story on the Kilgore situation. It’s as if the SLA had been active just yesterday, not 40 years ago. The arguments in the comments section are heated; it’s very clear on where some people stand on the story. It becomes a larger story about crime, responsibility, redemption, rehabilitation and paying your dues.
Why do you think the SLA and Weather Underground continue to attract such attention?