This piece was originally published in Sevendays, 15 March 1976.
It tops the evening new, headlines the morning newspaper, and provides a source of endless gossip for commentators. In column inches and airtime over the last weeks, it probably equals the Presidential primaries, traditionally the most overexposed topic during an election year. What is it that makes the Patty Hearst trial such a media spectacular?
Part of the answer lies in the intrinsic appeal of the story – the kidnapping of a Hearst heiress by a revolutionary organization, a series of dramatic bank robberies, a nationally televised holocaust, claims of conversion versus charges of brainwashing, F. Lee Bailey in the courtroom.
But the trial is more. It is a morality play, teaching the lesson that revolutionaries are murderers, rapists, and anti-American terrorists; that feminists are men-haters; that the criminal justice system allows a defendant a fair trial; and that political struggle outside the legal system inevitably leads to defeat.
Thus, whatever the outcome of the case, the government can’t lose. If Patty Hearst is acquitted, it means that she successfully resisted trading her soul to a revolutionary devil; if she’s found guilty, she didn’t resist hard enough. Hearst’s trial is, in essence, one more bicentennial event, a reaffirmation of the American legal system and the economic interests that it serves.
The particular function of the trial and the accompanying massive media coverage has been to exploit people’s worst fears and prejudices about the left by presenting the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) as synonymous with the progressive movement in this country. In fact, although the SLA did exist – it wasn’t simply a creation of the government – it represented only the left’s most insecure and unstable elements.
The trial comes at a time when the legitimacy of the government and multinational corporations is at its lowest point since the Depression. As the American empire continues to weaken, we can expect a flood of messianic cults proposing slick panaceas. We live in a social system that encourages consumer fads and planned obsolescence, and the left is not immune to this pressure. Look, for example, at the conversions of Rennie Davis from an antiwar leader to a disciple of Guru Maharaj Ji; of Jerry Rubin from a media revolutionary to a devotee of psychological faddism; and of Eldridge Cleaver from a street fighter to a defender of the Pentagon.
The suicidal tactics of the SLA were a reflection of its desperation and lack of organic ties with a people’s movement. In the name of love for the masses, the SLA’s actions demonstrated contempt for ordinary people by assuming that they are not aware of the injustices in society and need to be propelled into activity through spectacular acts of adventurism. The result was terrorism, which is quite the opposite of revolutionary violence or a coherent, revolutionary strategy. It is not surprising that the SLA is now serving as a vehicle for anti-left propaganda from both the mass media and government.
What about Patty Hearst? It is clear that her background of spoiled privilege has not saved her from being a victim of this society’s sexism and alienation. With little sense of her own identity and potentialities, her life has been a journey of dependencies, usually on men – from her powerful parents to her teacher-lover, from the SLA to her lawyers and psychiatrists.
Yet there has been an occasional flash of recognition that her own special situation is related to a larger system of oppression. Pathetically but defiantly she identified herself as an urban guerilla before her father’s lawyers snooped down and began remaking her into a little girl and a snitch.
Patty Hearst is in the select company of the six percent of all defendants in criminal cases that can afford a legal defense and jury trial. Her co-prisoners are mostly poor and third-world people who are awaiting trial in jail because they do not have enough money to make bail. Unlike Hearst, most will be forced to engage in plea-bargaining and take the rap for a lesser offense, as do about 70 percent of all criminal defendants; moreover, they do not have the option to return afterwards to San Simeon.
A few miles away from San Francisco, four Blacks and two Latinos – the San Quentin Six – are being tried for murder and conspiracy stemming from events surrounding the assassination of George Jackson in 1971. All these defendants have experienced severe repression in the prison system; defense efforts have been plagued by lack of money; five of the defendants, denied bail, are shackled and chained like slaves during trial; and the local and national media have all but ignored what may be the most significant prison trial in U S. history.
Unlike Hearst, however, the San Quentin Six are continuing to struggle for justice. While the prosecution has directed its efforts toward discrediting the prisoners’ rights movement that has developed over the last several years and, specifically, the ideas of George Jackson, the defense has taken the initiative and is trying to use the trial to inform the public about prison conditions. The defendants themselves have continued to press for prisoners’ rights, to oppose racism in prisons, to develop alliances with white inmates, and to connect their insistence on self-determination inside the walls with other such efforts on the outside. No wonder that the government and media corporations prefer to divert our attention to the lessons of the Patty Hearst Trial.
Update, 2015: Patty Hearst was convicted of bank robbery in 1976 and sentenced to seven years in prison. She was on bail pending an appeal, then back in prison in 1978. In 1979, President Carter commuted her sentence to 22 months served; and in 2001 President Clinton granted her a pardon. On her release from prison, she married one of her bodyguards. All the key members of the SLA ended up in prison or dead in a shoot out with Los Angeles police. For the mixed results of the San Quentin Six trial, see Karen Wald, “The San Quentin Six Case: Perspective and Analysis,” Crime and Social Justice no. 6, 1976. For a thoughtful, well-researched history on the social and political context of these cases, see Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).