When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined Minnesota freshman Rep. Keith Ellison for his recent swearing-in ceremony, the controversy over his taking the oath of office on the Quran overshadowed his earlier role in supporting a terrorist whose group tried to kill policemen and allegedly twice tried to murder Pelosi’s fellow San Francisco lawmaker Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
On Feb.12, 2000, Ellison joined Bernardine Dohrn, one of the founders of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground, and several other speakers at a fundraiser for recently arrested Kathleen Soliah, a.k.a. Sara Jane Olson.
Soliah – who along with a small band of Bay Area radicals took in Bill and Emily Harris and Patty Hearst, the last surviving members of the Symbionese Liberation Army following the May 17, 1974, shootout in Los Angeles – had been on the run since the three SLA “soldiers” were captured in September 1975.
Initially charged with planting pipe bombs under two police cars in Los Angeles in August 1975, Soliah was later charged in Sacramento for the murder of a bank customer killed in an April 1975 holdup after the victim’s son exerted pressure through the media to reopen the case. Hearst, in her 1981 book, “Every Secret Thing,” described the bungled robbery as an SLA operation in which she, Soliah, the Harrises and several others participated.
Soliah, arrested in St. Paul, Minn., in June 1999 and living under the name Sara Jane Olson, initially denied being Soliah or a member of the SLA. The upper-middle class doctor’s wife was described by friends – several of whom were members of the state legislature – as an actress in community theater, a gourmet cook and a soccer mom who read books to the blind. People Magazine even did an article on her, featuring her well-appointed Highland Park home, and casting her as a Martha Stewart-type homemaker.
But as the long-forgotten story of the SLA was resurrected in the media and as the Los Angeles district attorney began to present the voluminous evidence, stored for over 25 years, Soliah-Olson shed the Martha Stewart image and presented herself as the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt” and surrounded herself with SLA attorneys, ’60s radicals and their sympathizers.
On Feb. 12, 2000, Soliah-Olson and her supporters held a forum and auction fundraiser for her defense in St. Paul. Among the speakers was Keith Ellison, a local criminal defense attorney, activist and radio talk-show host.
His speech is still preserved on an archived copy of the now-defunct Soliah-Olson defense website.
Ellison, who frequently defended black gang members in his practice, linked the prosecution of Soliah-Olson to notable radicals Geronimo Pratt and Mumia Abu Jamal.
“For the people who want to incarcerate Sara Jane Olson, ain’t nothing changed,” said Ellison. “As a matter of fact, they want to settle scores with Sara Jane Olson and others who were fighting for freedom in the ’60s and ’70s.
“… And like many of my clients, Sara Jane Olson has a public defender. Do you understand what I’m saying? Because she cannot afford to pay for her defense all by herself. Do you understand what I’m saying? I mean, the reality is, Sara Jane Olson, basically – is a black gang member – as far as I can see.
“… I think, just like the people who want to come together and lock up Sara, we need to come together and free Sara. And all the Saras, because she’s not the only one.”
Ellison, crediting the speech given by Dohrn earlier that evening, continued.
“This is not about justice,” he said. “This is not about accountability, this is not about public safety. This is about symbolism. This is about making a point. This is about saying to you and to me that we are going to get you if you ever try to stand against what we’re about. We’re going to get you. And we’re going to lock you up and we don’t care how long it takes, we’re going to get you.”
Before finishing his speech, Ellison admitted his knowledge of the SLA was deficient:
“My point is that I remember the SLA. I was 12 years old when it hit the news in 1974. I remember the name, I remember the made-for-TV movie with Patty Hearst, who was ‘taken away by the SLA’ and by this black guy named Cinque, who strutted around and was real scary. And clearly these people were ‘bad to the bone.’ And as I began to read about the SLA, they were talking about rights for poor people. … I mean I’m not trying to say the SLA is – I don’t even know enough about the SLA to tell you about the SLA, but I can tell you what they stated … they were in favor of: It had to do with fighting poverty and fighting racism and stuff like that. I’m not even here to tell you how they did it, because I don’t know.
“… And so, I just want to welcome you for your contribution to the struggle and thank those of you who have been maintaining the struggle over the years, and say, “Hey, free Sara!”
Thirty-three months after Ellison’s call for Soliah-Olson’s release, she, the Harrises, and Michael Bortin, pleaded guilty to the shotgun murder of Myrna Opsahl, the bank customer killed in the SLA robbery. Soliah-Olson also pleaded guilty to placing pipe bombs under LAPD police cars. A fifth member, James Kilgore, was later captured in South Africa and sentenced for bomb possession and Opsahl’s murder.
The focus on the SLA in Soliah-Olson’s trial distracted attention from her own violent history before and after coming into contact with the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst. Over a year before the SLA came into existence, Soliah, her brother, Bortin and Kilgore were questioned in connection with a bomb factory discovered in a Berkeley garage. Bortin and a second man were arrested in connection with the bomb lab and convicted and sentenced for possessing an ammonium-nitrate bomb. Based on information developed by the Alameda County district attorney, the pair was suspected of 10 bombings in 1971 and one in 1972, the latter involving a tack-grenade bomb – housed in a beer can – tossed into a bar across the street from the San Francisco Hall of Justice frequented by police officers and court personnel.
During the latter half of 1974, when the Harrises and Hearst were hiding out on a Pennsylvania farm, Kathleen Soliah, her brother, Kilgore and Bortin were setting off bombs in the Bay Area under the banner of the New World Liberation Front, a name announced in the first SLA communique after the Harrises and Hearst came under the protection of Soliah in June 1974.
Vin McLellan and Paul Avery, in their 1977 book “The Voices of Guns,” documented more than 10 Bay Area bombings by Soliah’s NWLF in late 1974 and 1975:
- Aug. 6, 1974: Bomb failed to explode at Burlingame office of General Motors Acceptable Corporation;
- Sept. 3, 1974: Bomb exploded in the San Francisco office of Dean Witter and Company;
- Sept. 13, 1974: Bomb exploded at the Palo Alto office of Dean Witter and Company;
- Sept. 28, 1974: Bomb exploded in a warehouse of an ITT subsidiary in San Leandro;
- Oct. 2, 1974: Bomb exploded in a women’s restroom of the ITT-owned Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco;
- Oct. 30, 1974: Bomb exploded at the Los Altos Hills home of retired ITT president Robert Halleck;
- Nov. 6, 1974: Seven meter maid three-wheeled motorcycles blown up in a Berkeley parking lot;
- Dec. 19, 1974: Bomb exploded in the San Francisco office of General Motors Corporation;
- Feb. 3, 1975: Bomb exploded at the San Jose office of General Motors Corporation;
- Feb. 4, 1975: Double bombing at Pillar Point Air Force Radar Station near Half Moon Bay and the Vulcan Foundry in Oakland;
- Feb. 6, 1975: Pipe bomb exploded at KRON-TV station in San Francisco;
- Aug. 4, 1975: Three NWLF fire bombs exploded in the carport of the Woodside home of Charles de Brettville, chairman of the Bank of California, a director of Pacific Gas and Electric, Shell Oil, Western Union and Safeway Stores, Inc;
- Aug. 14, 1975: The NWLF claimed credit for bombing of an Emeryville police cruiser.
By February 1975, the Bay Area was averaging one bombing every 16 days. The NWLF was linked to more than 70 bombings by authorities, mostly in Northern California.
McLellan and Avery wrote:
“The NWLF messages had a standing invitation to other groups to adopt the name, and there were apparently one or more independent ‘NWLF’ units that became active in bombings – but according to Hearst’s FBI confessions, it was Bill Harris and the ‘second team’ who were behind most of the two dozen NWLF bombings over the following nine months. (‘The Harrises were the g*****n NWLF!’ said one Patty-briefed source, mixing admiration and exasperation.)”
After the FBI dragnet that caught Hearst and the Harrises failed to capture Soliah in September 1975, she and Kilgore continued setting off bombs under the name of the NWLF. On Feb 12, 1976, 24 years to the day before Ellison’s plea to “free Sara,” authorities say Soliah and Kilgore set off a bomb at the historic Hearst Castle on California’s central coast, causing $1 million in damage. The pair were identified from photographs by tourists who escaped the blast. The NWLF communique that followed demanded the Hearst family contribute $250,000 to the defense of the Harrises.
The following night, a deputy sheriff patrolling near Woodside in the south Bay Area was shot by two gunmen as he investigated suspicious activity beneath an electric transmission tower adjacent to the freeway. The officer interrupted the pair’s efforts before the bomb they were setting could be exploded. The NWLF took credit for shooting the officer.
One of the NWLF’s better-known targets in 1976 was then-San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
In 1995, Feinstein, by now a U.S. senator, testified at Senate hearings on terrorism where she explained why she carried a concealed weapon:
“Because less than 20 years ago I was the target of a terrorist group. It was the New World Liberation Front. They blew up power stations and put a bomb at my home when my husband was dying of cancer. And the bomb didn’t detonate. … I was very lucky. But, I thought of what might have happened. Later the same group shot out all the windows of my home.
“And, I know the sense of helplessness that people feel. I know the urge to arm yourself, because that’s what I did. I was trained in firearms. I’d walk to the hospital when my husband was sick. I carried a concealed weapon. I made the determination that if somebody was going to try to take me out, I was going to take them with me.”
Last week, Ellison was named to the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over civil liberties, immigration and the courts. He said he would like to see a ban on racial profiling and will work to restore civil liberties he says have been rolled back by the Bush administration, Associated Press reported.
Jon Opsahl, son of the woman killed by the SLA, told WND: “It does seem to confirm that, unfortunately, intelligence and integrity are not prerequisites for political office in this country in general and in Minnesota in particular.”
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