Saturday, March 10, 2012

Films To While the Class Struggle By- What Is The Left? - “Guerrilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst”

DVD Review

Guerilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst, Patty Hearst, Cinque, Bill and Emily Harris and other members of the SLA, 2004

Some films reviewed in this space are offered with the idea that viewing them will given the reader, especially the younger reader or those who are not familiar with the tumultuous events of the period, a fairly positive sense of what it was like to live through the turbulent 1960s and the early 1970s, the high water mark for the last time that we had the “monster” of American imperialism on the run, or so we thought. A prime example of that type of review was one that I did a while back on the Black Panthers. Another more recent one was the animated/ documentary film footage provided in Chicago 10. Other film reviews are offered to be more thought-provoking or just plain provocative. The film under review, Guerilla: The Taking Of Patty Hearst, is of the latter type.

This film does a good job of presenting the actual events around the kidnapping of the Hearst newspaper heiress Patty Hearst by the upstart and then unknown Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in the waning days of the militant leftist movement with the practical (in American terms) withdrawal from Vietnam War, through archival film footage, interviews and commenting by surviving members of the organization, reporters who covered the event, officials who were involved in the investigation and others with something to say about the matter. The startling, and perhaps sometimes bizarre train of events is well documented: the inexplicable murder of the Oakland Superintendent Marcus Foster; the kidnapping of UC/Berkeley college student Hearst; the ransom demand of food for the hungry of Oakland in exchange for her release that ran amok; the abrupt change in the case with the apparent adaptive conversion by Hearst to the SLA cause, a serious of robberies including one in which a teller was killed; the massive, seemingly never-ending, on-going hunt for the SLA in the aftermath of that action: the widely viewed in real time police assault on an SLA “safe-house” that netted the leader, Cinque: the off-handed capture of new leaders Bill and Emily Harris and Patty Hearst; and, the subsequent trials, including Patty’s commutation of sentence. All in all, if you want a refresher course on the case it is all there for you.

However, above I characterized this as a thought-provoking film, and for my purposes that means what are the lessons to be learned from the experience, if any. I have tried to telegraph that concern by the phrase in the title “What is the left?” and by the way I presented the story line in the last paragraph. So what is my problem some thirty odd years after the dust has settled on the case, which also preoccupied me at the time as well. Just this. Was the defense of the SLA a matter of a leftist's duty to those of us on the left who take such matters seriously?

Among the things that this reviewer stands for, in addition to adherent to the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and their progeny can be summed up in the slogan of the old Industrial Workers Of The World (IWW, Wobblies)- “an injury to one, is any injury to all”. I, thus, stand in that tradition, that of the old Communist Party-led International Labor Defense and of later groups like the one I support today, the Partisan Defense Committee. The premise underlying that slogan is that it is very much in the interest of the international working class and of the left that we defend, and defend vigorously and with all the resources we are able to muster, every individual militant and group that falls under that umbrella. Going back to that period I defended, for example, such groups as the Weatherman (Weatherpeople?) and other guerilla-oriented organizations on the American left, whole-heartedly fought under the banner of the United Front Against Fascism to defend the Black Panthers against the governmental onslaught that they faced, and the brothers and sisters of what became known as the Ohio Seven. I did not defend, nor call for the defense of the SLA.

Why? Not of the leftist groups listed above were exactly popular in the broader population so that is not the question. The serious question that I faced at that time was this- Who are these people? Weathermen I knew, some of its sympathizers personally. I knew their political history, where they came from and their foibles. Panthers, after the thaw in their heavy black nationalist period when whites could again talk to young blacks without having to watch their backs stayed at the commune that I lived in back in those California days. And were gladly welcome. Believe me I knew who they were and where they came from. I could go on and on about the local collectives, communes, etc. that sprouted up like wheat in those days.

But as the late Hunter S. Thompson noted toward the end of his drug-crazed saga of weirdness and blow back, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, there was a point in the very late 1960s where one could sense that the victory that seemed so near, and so righteously fought for, was slipping away. I might have held onto the dream a little longer that others, and than I should have but there you have it. And that is the point. Others who faced that same sense that we had “lost” or that exemplary actions or whatever would turn things around started to get a little crazy. To speak nothing of isolating themselves and staying isolated from the harsh realities of Nixon’s America. Some went to the country or the commune, others dropped away. Still others went back to the ancient tradition of nihilism.

That is the way that I looked at the actions of the SLA. The group had no known history, as a group. When it surfaced it had all the verbiage of anti-imperialism that many students and leftists spouted at the time. Hell, I had a girlfriend then who, in the end, was nothing but a garden-variety pacifist who had the whole lingo down better than I did at the time, a time when I was just turning to Marxism. Hell, in some towns in this country you couldn’t get anywhere on campus, even campaigning for some useless bourgeois candidate on the make without the obligatory “right on” or other gesture signifying the language of “youth nation”.

Moreover, on the Patty Hearst action and subsequent bank robberies seemed well beyond the pale. Especially the logic of kidnapping Patty on the basis of her biological relationship to her family. Left politics cannot work that way. If they get in our way that is one thing, the Hearst kidnapping is another. Nothing was right here. I will not belabor the point but this organization seemed like nothing so much as one of those nihilistic groups that Dostoevsky castigated in the mid-19th century or like the remnants that turned bandit and lumpen after the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1905. To finish up. Would I help the authorities in their manhunt for the group? Hell, no. Did I defend them, like some others did by hiding them out or raising monies for their defense? No. But let me tell you this. At that time I was not sure that I was right, I was queasy about placing them outside the left. Reviewing this film still makes me feel I made the right decision. But I am still queasy about it. You probably will be too.

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