out of the past, back in prison

Sara Jane Olson was released on parole and was expected to return to St. Paul after serving six years in a California prison. She had plead guilty to conspiring to put pipe bombs under police cars in retaliation for the shootout that left members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army dead. But after criticism led to review of the terms of her release, corrections officials announced they’d made an error and released her a year too early. She was stopped in the airport, on her way home to Minnesota.

Her lawyer said “This is entirely a result of police pressure.”

I don’t know much about the case – basically, just what I read in the papers – but I remember my surprise, learning an “ordinary housewife” living in St. Paul for over two decades had been a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, a fringe group made famous for robbing banks, kidnapping Patty Hearst, and dying in a televised massacre. Nine thousand rounds were fired before the house burned to the ground. One of the dead radicals – one whose body had to be identified by dental records – was friend of slahouse.jpgKathleen Soliah, who was later implicated in a plot to bomb police cars, and still later took up a new life and a new name in St. Paul.

I wondered about what it was like for those who only knew her by her new identity to try and put those two very different people, those two different times together. There is a lot about now that reminds me of then – we’re in the midst of an unpopular war (one that is actually more unpopular, according to opinion polls, than Vietnam was during the days of violent protest), we are deeply divided on political and cultural issues, and we’re subjected to the same counter-intelligence practices engaged in when a different -ism was the vast, vague, never-ending enemy of us all.

But the tenor of the times was different. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where students battled police regularly in the streets. It turned deadly when a crude bomb blew up Sterling Hall and a graduate student working in his lab was killed. After that, it felt as if there was a stark choice – withdrawal from the conflict or upping the ante, believing only violence could lead to change. The SLA took that second choice.chicagoprotest06.jpg

The news of the arrest of Kathleen Soliah, aka Sara Jane Olson gave me the first inkling of a story that turned into In the Wind. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that another issue shouldered its way into my imagination: the strange symmetry between the surveillance society of the Vietnam War years and the current assault on civil liberties. In fact, Sara Jane Olson’s trial was set to begin in the fall of 2001; she stunned supporters when she took a plea deal. She believed that she would not get a fair trial.

The world is full of stories, ones that we only glimpse in passing. It’s interesting how some of them take root and, after some dormant period, start to push up shoots. Though my story took a very different shape than the news that planted the seed, it seemed fitting, somehow, that Olson would be released a few weeks before the book. Now it seems as if she and her family will have to wait.

photos courtesy court tv and danny.hammontree


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