A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who were the Symbionese, and were they ever liberated?

May 21, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

The SLA has been in the news recently with some new charges being brought against members of the group. One thing I've always wondered is who the heck are the Symbionese? Have they since become liberated? Where is the fabeled land of Symbionia?

I'm sorry, but there is no nation of Symbionia, liberated or otherwise. But before we get to the real meaning of Symbionese, let's have a little background on the Symbionese Liberation Army, OK?

It all started with Donald "Cinque Mtume" DeFreeze, who was serving a term of five to life for robbery and a police shootout when he was transferred to Soledad prison on Dec. 11, 1972. He escaped soon after and lit out for the Bay Area, where he eventually connected up with Patricia "Mizmoon" Soltysik, a radical activist not then under police scrutiny. Together, they fleshed out and codified what eventually became the Symbionese Liberation Army. Soon, they moved to East Oakland, where they gathered up the rest of their "army"--Nancy Ling Perry, Thero Wheeler (himself an escapee from Vacaville prison), Russell Little, Willie Wolfe, and Bill and Emily Harris. This group quickly established a name for itself in the leftist community by burglarizing the homes of other leftist groups, taking guns and other sundries.

DeFreeze explained "Symbionese" in the manifesto Symbionese Liberation Army Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program: "The name 'symbionese' is taken from the word symbiosis and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body." Murder, kidnapping, bank robbery and ripping off your neighbors notwithstanding, of course.

In The Cobra Symbol/The Seven Aims of the SLA, DeFreeze explains the significance of the SLA's seven-headed cobra symbol: "The emblem of the Symbionese Liberation Army is 170,000 years old, and is one of the first symbols used by people to signify God and life." Later on in the manuscript he says, "The seven memberships of our federation are men and women who are black, brown, yellow, red, white, young and old." I guess that being both yellow and old gets you a double membership.

Finally, in The Seven Principles of the SLA, DeFreeze gives the meaning of each head in Swahili, Spanish, and English. You'll recognize these as being the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the African-American year-end celebration, first celebrated in 1966:

  • Umoja-La Unidad-Unity - To strive for and maintain unity in our household, our nation and in the Symbionese federation.
  • Kujichagulia-La Libre Determinacion-Self Determination - To define ourselves, name ourselves, speak for ourselves and govern ourselves.
  • Ujima-Trabajo Colectivo y Responsibilidad-Collective Work and Responsibility - To build and maintain our nation and federation together by making our brothers' and sisters' and the Federation's problems our problems and solving them together.
  • Ujamaa-Produccion Cooperativa-Cooperative Production - To build and maintain our own economy from our skills, and labor and resources and to insure ourselves and other nations that we all profit equally from our labor.
  • Nia-Proposito-Purpose - To make as our collective vocation the development and liberation of our nation, and all oppressed people, in order to restore our people and all oppressed people to their traditional greatness and humanity.
  • Kuumba-Creativo-Creativity - To do all we can , as best as we can, in order to free our nation and defend the federation and constantly make it and the earth that we all share more beautiful and beneficial.
  • Imani-Fe-Faith - To believe in our unity, our leaders, our teachers, our people, and in the righteousness and victory of our struggle and the struggle of all oppressed and exploited people.

What a lovely bunch of coconuts.

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