One afternoon forty years ago this week a ragged group of urban revolutionaries holed up in a Compton bungalow and went to battle with the LAPD. By nightfall, the house was a hollowed-out shell, gutted by fire and pockmarked by thousands of bullets. Inside were the remains of six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army – the SLA – which had kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst some three months earlier.
The SLA was led by Donald DeFreeze, a Soledad Prison escapee who called himself General Field Marshal Cinque. There were fewer than a dozen members in the group; young radicals who patterned themselves after South American revolutionaries. The SLA’s manifesto was a mish-mosh of Maoist slogans, black liberation rhetoric and utopian goals along with a catchy slogan: “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”
In addition to the kidnapping, the SLA committed two murders and several bank and retail store robberies, from Oakland to Los Angeles. The group taunted law enforcement with taped “communiques” that were sent to radio stations, including one in L.A. When the FBI raided the station looking for clues, the incident was broadcast live, a bizarre bit of real-life theater. The SLA made ransom demands on the Hearst Corporation, commanding it to feed the homeless, and the publisher complied by setting up a foundation which did. But Patty Hearst remained a captive, and in one message revealed that she had become a member of the group and had a new name: Tania. The SLA’s last hit was a botched robbery at a Hawthorne sporting goods store, in which Hearst acted as lookout and provided cover for her comrades by firing into the store.
It was that robbery that led police to the SLA’s South L.A. hideout, a house they had taken over at 1446 East 54th Street. Police, the FBI and other law enforcement personnel moved in on the property, and a teargas canister was fired into it. The suspects responded with gunfire, and soon the neighborhood became a war zone. A colleague who was there described a scene of panic, with cops firing into the house, nearby residents fleeing their homes and everyone running for cover. When my friend took refuge behind the open passenger door of his mobile unit, bullets shattered the window above his head. The whole firefight was broadcast live on TV. Check out the video to see some of the chaos .
Eventually the house caught fire and police let it burn. When the flames went out, investigators found six bodies. Everyone wondered if Patty Hearst was among the dead. Turns out she wasn’t. More than a year later, Hearst and another SLA member were arrested in San Francisco. In time all of the group’s survivors went to prison, including several fugitives who managed to evade capture for years. President Carter later commuted Hearst’s sentence and President Clinton pardoned her.
Another house now occupies the lot where the SLA hideout once stood. There’s nothing to indicate that this was the scene of a battle with “General Cinque’s” army.??