"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 February 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
When Activists Attack!


i've been going to sort of odd rock shows lately.  calexico played with lambchop 
and the crowd was old, balding and into hippy dancing.  it was 
sort of scary and unnerving.  and it wigged me out a bit.

Twenty-five years ago this week,

the Symbionese Liberation Army

temporarily rescued Patty Hearst

from a life of tedious bourgeois

rebellion. One day, the

19-year-old, UC Berkeley

sophomore was aggravating Mom

and Dad via halfhearted,

post-hippie fornication with a

fatuous gold-digging

intellectual named Steven "Let's

Burn Another Fatty" Weed; two

months later, brainwashed or

converted, depending on whom you

ask, the newly minted

revolutionary was brandishing a

sawed-off automatic and helping

her righteous comrades battle

jive-ass capitalist Enemies of

the People by robbing small

neighborhood banks and sporting

goods stores staffed with

minimum-wage-earning, pig-agent



Kidnapping the granddaughter of

the visionary vulgarian who

invented yellow journalism was a

sure-fire guarantee of frenzied,

all-caps coverage. And indeed,

over the course of Hearst's

20-month, heiress-cum-terrorist

odyssey, she appeared on the

covers of the nation's

newsweeklies with greater

frequency than any other

newsmaker of that era, Richard

Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, and Evel

Knievel included. But while

Hearst's tabloid-ready tale of

.30-caliber celebrity violence

and titillatingly interracial

fuck-The-Man! sex was the SLA's

greatest publicity stunt, it was

far from the army's only one.

Indeed, everything the ragtag

crew of rebels did was informed

with the unerring instinct of

natural-born flacktivists:

Nominally versed in the writings

of jail-house polemicist George

Jackson and Regis Debray, whose

book Revolution in the

Revolution offered urban

guerrillas For Dummies-style

insurrection instruction, they

were also the world's first

TV-raised terrorists, with an

intuitive talent for concocting

the dramas that the news

industry demanded.


Start with the group's

compellingly mysterious name,

which had Archie Bunkers

everywhere cursing the obscure

African nation of Symbia when,

in fact, no such place existed:

"Symbionese" was simply a

euphonious neologism, derived

from the word symbiosis and

meant to evoke the group's


constituency of runaway

convicts, dissident lesbians,

and upper-middle-class Che

Guevara manqués. Then

there were the group's own

personal names - Cinque, Tania,

Teko, Zoya, Kojo, Fahizah. Could

Quentin Tarantino himself have

come up with a cooler collection

of monikers? Add to such

mackadelic appellations a

cartoonishly over-the-top slogan

- Death to the Fascist Insect

That Preys on the Life of the

People - and a

seven-headed-cobra logo that

remains unaccountably

unappropriated by today's

retailers of recreational

transgression, and you have an

expertly branded cast of

characters that was definitely

ready for prime time.


[last night i went to a friend rock show and the crowd there was odd too.
much younger and seemingly drawn to the club out of obligation
more than anything.

Young, attractive, integrated in

a reassuringly restrained style

(although Cinque, the group's

black leader, was unable to

successfully recruit any other

blacks), it was perhaps

inevitable that the SLA would

migrate from its original

stronghold in Berkeley to Los

Angeles. They were the

revolutionary group as invented

by Aaron Spelling, a

soap opera-ish cadre of

gun-toting, partner-swapping,

disguise-wearing drama queens

who would have raised no

suspicions had they filled a

vacancy at Melrose Place.

Unfortunately, the group set up

camp in South Central, where six

of them were ultimately

surrounded in a small house by

more than 500 Los Angeles police

officers and FBI agents and a

seemingly equal number of

reporters and TV cameramen.


All those who believe that the

era of lurid, gruesomely

protracted newz-snuff began with

Reginald Denny should watch the

footage of the shootout that

ensued that evening. For more than

two hours, shows like Happy

Days and Little House on the

Prairie were preempted as the

cops pumped more than 9,000 rounds of

ammunition into the little

house in the ghetto, until it

exploded in flames and its

inhabitants all burned to death.

While Hearst and two other SLA

soldiers were not there for the

deadly conflagration, the

incident essentially marked the

group's demise. And now, two-and-

a-half decades later, despite

the SLA's unprecedented talent

for attracting media attention,

it's all but forgotten. Why?

Part of the reason, no doubt, is

the element of buffoonery that

often marked the group's

exploits. Among the 14 corporate

oppressors it singled out for

assassination was an individual

who would have been an easy

target for even the most novice

hit man: But unbeknownst to the

SLA (despite its diligent

intelligence efforts), the man

had died from natural causes

more than a year earlier.


The food giveaways that the SLA

required as ransom for the

kidnapped Hearst were also

colored by an aspect of black

comedy. While Cinque and his

cohorts initially called for the

distribution of US$70 worth of

groceries to every poor person

and ex-con in California, an

outlay that would have cost

Randolph Hearst anywhere from

$100 million to $400 million,

the actual giveaway ended up

being relatively modest and

incredibly disorganized. At four

distribution points around the

Bay Area, approximately 9,000

people received boxes of

crackers and cans of tomato

juice. A few unlucky recipients

were injured by frozen turkeys

tossed from the distribution

trucks. (Ronald Reagan, then

governor of California, added to

the bathos by displaying the

kind of compassion toward the

poor that would later get him

elected president: He hoped the

free food would engender "an

epidemic of botulism" among

those who accepted it.)


[now i'm waiting for noisepop to throw my perception off again.
that tends to be a little industry, a lot of liquor, and a fair amount of posing.

However difficult it would be to

fashion a hagiographic biopic or

commemorative cafe out of such

stuff, what really condemned the

SLA to its current obscurity was

the same thing that garnered the

group so much publicity during

its heyday. Unlike the legions

of coffeehouse Marxists who

cluttered Berkeley's Telegraph

Avenue during the '70s, the SLA

favored violent action over

theory, killing over dialectic.

Its various declarations and

communiqués were perfunctory and

vague, puffed up with gassy term

paper rhetoric about guns,

unity, and "capitalist value

systems." But specific goals

were never clearly articulated,

and the group never attempted to

initiate any kind of

substantive, long-term community

programs, as the Black Panthers

had with their "breakfasts for

schoolkids" or their health

clinics for the elderly.

Instead, the SLA simply

committed crimes and attached

nebulous agendas to them. From a

TV news director's perspective,

this made the group pure gold:

Its superficial political

valence gave it a zeitgeisty

significance, but in the end,

the group was as rivetingly

disposable as any random fire or

triple murder, just one more

clown act in the burgeoning

media circus.


Today, of course, its influence

is everywhere - from the


vérité of Road

Rules to the TV-ready activism

of the latest crusader against

corporate oppression, the Biotic

Baking Brigade. It is made up of

loosely organized bands of

finger-waggling hissidents who

toss politically correct pies

(vegan only) at evil politicians

and corporate scalawags.

Recently, three members of the

group were convicted of

battering San Francisco Mayor

Willie Brown with a relentless

fusillade of cherry, pumpkin,

and tofu cream pies. And while

the debate regarding the

harshness of the penalty they

received has been brisk (their

defenders say they were merely

practicing a form of harmless

theatrical free speech; their

detractors say that if all it

takes is a little dessert to

make an overtly violent act

harmless then perhaps we'll soon

be seeing Tomahawk cruise

missiles slathered in Cool

Whip), what's obviously clear is

that pie-ing has replaced

flag-burning as the definitive

political act for those who

consider Michael Moore the Regis

Debray of his era.


The Biotic Baking Brigade has

specific reasons for choosing

its victims: Brown was hit in

an effort to publicize his

regressive policies regarding

San Francisco's homeless

population; other victims have

included unrepentant economic

deregulator Milton Friedman,

shady forest destroyer Charles

Hurwitz, and Douglas Watson,

head corn tamperer at

diabolical agribusiness giant

Novartis AG. But like the SLA,

the group appears to favor

mediagenic action over theory or

more organized efforts to effect

change. "No bosses, offices,

foundation grants, never-ending

consensus meetings, or CFLAs

(Confusing Four-Letter Acronyms)

are needed," a recent Biotic

Baking Brigade communiqué urges.

"Just Do It!"


[this year i'm working at it so we'll see how fun it is from the inside angle.

As poignant as it is to see one

more collection of well-meaning

anticorporate freedom fighters

unable to articulate their

opposition in anything but the

language of their oppressors, we

can't summon too much pity for

the Biotic Baking Brigade. While

on some level its operatives

appear to recognize that the

recent media coverage the

group's received has about as

much impact on the people

watching it as Jerry Springer's

end-of-show homilies do on his

audience, on another level it

seems depressingly eager to

trivialize itself to whatever

extent TV news directors demand.

Case in point: the group's

latest missive, which announces

the Biotic Baking Brigade's

plans to pie those "who are

responsible for the year 2000

computer bug (Y2K) mess." What,

one wonders, happened to San

Francisco's homeless people? Or

what's the fate of California's

old-growth redwood trees? It's

not as if Mayor Brown's

bum-rousting policies have

suddenly gotten less malevolent

or the Pacific Lumber Company

has started hugging trees

instead of clear-cutting them.

Is the Biotic Baking Brigade

simply moving on because it

understands the media's

insatiable need for new

scenarios and new victims? And

it knows that anything

Y2K-related is sure to pique the

interest of news directors and

editors? Or does it actually

believe a few tofu cream pies

will make the legions

of corporate ostriches who continue to

stubbornly ignore the Y2K

dilemma address their problems

with the attention they truly

require? In short, the Biotic

Baking Brigade has, in targeting

Y2K "technocrats," achieved a

level of inanity even the SLA

never attained. In protesting a

"problem" for which there is no

solution other than the myriad

ones that are already being

implemented, the group absolves

itself of even the notion of

having to do some kind of

follow-up work, and thus enters

the realm of pure, context-free,

dairy-free media spectacle. As

the fat cats dine on Biotic

Baking Brigade pie, the cathode

Olestra we downtrodden viewers

are left to feed on has us

feeling kind of queasily empty

inside - and longing for acts of

more substantive political

dissent, like the

sensationalistic kidnapping of a

beautiful young heiress.

courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]