Former Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist James Kilgore doesn’t have much to say about his controversial past to local audiences. But put him in front of a friendly audience on faraway soil, and he’s hard to keep quiet.
That was the case a few months ago, when the University of Illinois faculty and staff member made an author’s appearance at Burning Books in Buffalo, N.Y. The 80-minute-plus Q&A session, which was recorded and is on the Internet, included Kilgore discussing how he was drawn to revolutionary politics and criminality in the mid-1970s, his 20-plus years as a fugitive where he lived in two U.S. states and several foreign countries, the time he spent in prison, and his post-prison and parole life as a political activist in Champaign-Urbana.
Kilgore was in Buffalo to hawk his book, “Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time.” But the bookstore host said Kilgore also used his time there to pay a prison visit to David Gilbert, a fellow radical. Gilbert was among a handful of revolutionaries convicted of participating in a 1981 Brinks armored car robbery in which two police officers and a Brinks guard were shot and killed. Now 72, Gilbert is serving a sentence of 75 years for murder.
Kilgore made big news locally in 2015 when The News-Gazette reported that the multi-convicted felon had joined the UI faculty and staff after being released from prison in California. His parole was transferred to Illinois because Kilgore wanted to move here to join his wife, Teresa Barnes, also a member of the UI’s faculty.
(Barnes made news locally in May when she complained to Athletic Director Josh Whitman about what she called “racist music” played at UI sporting events.)
Efforts by some members of the UI Board of Trustees to terminate Kilgore’s affiliation with the university failed, although not before a significant community controversy.
The effort to terminate Kilgore’s role with the UI was led by trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy, who is a candidate for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination. He said Kilgore’s past made him an inappropriate hire that showed disrespect by the UI for the state’s taxpayers.
Now 69, Kilgore told the bookstore audience he is most animated by issues involving incarceration, suggesting that too many members of minority groups, the mentally ill and those with substance abuse problems find themselves behind bars.
He said he was enraged several years when Champaign County Board members began discussions about building a new jail and threw himself into a local organization opposing the measure.
Kilgore said his reaction was, “Hell, no, you’re not building a jail here. I didn’t come out of this prison system (in California) to sit here quietly and watch you spend $20 million building jail cells here.”
Efforts to build a new or expanded county jail have fallen short, due in part to efforts by Kilgore and his associates to lead opposition. But he complained that “they’re still trying to build this jail” and “they come with different iterations of it.”
* * * * *
The SLA was one of the most violent of the leftist radical groups of the 1970s. Despite its avowed support for black Americans, it first drew wide attention in the California Bay Area when members assassinated Marcus Foster, the black superintendent of the Oakland schools. It subsequently drew nationwide attention when, in 1974, it kidnapped 19-year-old newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and held her for ransom.
The story took an even stranger turn when Hearst joined with her captors to declare war on American society. The crackpot group, led by escaped convict Donald DeFreeze, was both murderous and semi-suicidal. Six of them, including DeFreeze, died after being cornered in a house in Los Angeles, where a lengthy shootout occurred. Refusing repeated requests to surrender, most of them died when the house they were in caught fire and burned to the ground.
Kilgore was not associated with the SLA until after the fire, although he became an enthusiast who robbed at least two banks, planted bombs aimed at killing police officers and destroying buildings, and was involved in the murder of mother of four who was a customer at one of the banks he and his associates robbed.
Asked how he became involved in radical politics, Kilgore responded with a joke.
“Let’s see if I can remember back that far,” he said.
He attributed his growing radicalism to the war in Vietnam, remembering that in February 1970 protesting students at the University of California at Santa Barbara burned down a Bank of America branch.
“I wasn’t there, but I probably would have been if I hadn’t been home sleeping,” he said.
* * * * *
Kilgore recalled that he was at a later protest where those in the crowd tried to burn down the makeshift Bank of America facility established to replace the structure that was destroyed. Recalling that some in the crowd tried to catch an individual who threw a Molotov cocktail, Kilgore said he and a friend protected the bomber from those chasing him, whom he characterized as “football players.”
“We sort of stood the football players off. … I don’t think I was that scary. But long-haired hippies sometimes scare people,” he said.
Kilgore said he and his friends were “kind of walking a tightrope about whether to stick with non-violence” and that the “notion of non-violence became progressively more difficult to swallow in the face of those violent acts by the government” fighting a war in Vietnam.
As has been widely reported, Kilgore became associated with the SLA after the Los Angeles fire in which most of its small numbers of members were killed.
The three survivors — Heart and two of her original kidnappers, Bill and Emily Harris — were in the Bay Area, and they contacted Kathleen Soliah, Kilgore’s girlfriend, and asked for help.
“My partner at the time had personal connections with them. So we ended up being the people they ran to,” he said. “We decided to protect them from the kind of fate that befell their comrades.”
Later, Kilgore said, he embraced the group’s violent tactics, engaging in what he described as “guerilla activities.”
Kilgore was circumspect about the wide array of his violent criminal activities, never fully describing them to his audience. He referred, without any elaboration, to discuss the death of Myrna Opsahl, the mother of four whom the SLA murdered during a Sacramento bank robbery. Harris, Kilgore and other members of the SLA robbed banks to get money to finance their criminal activities.
Without explaining what specifically he regrets, Kilgore said would not repeat the choices he made.
* * * * *
Referring to the SLA crime wave, Kilgore said “that wasn’t a step I would probably do again. I don’t think the actions, the philosophy and the orientation of what happened and the results of it were positive.”
He said the SLA operated in “panic mode” and lacked the “organizational strategy” of groups like the revolutionary Weather Underground, led by former UI-Chicago education professor William Ayers. Kilgore attributed part of the SLA’s violence to the pressure of being the subject of a national search for Hearst.
“Virtually every day, the national news led with, ‘Where is Patty Hearst today?'” he said. “It was really a high-profile situation.”
Referring to a “woman who was killed,” Kilgore said “that was a horrible tragedy and mistake born of that kind of panic and not really thinking carefully and clearly about what you are doing.”
Kilgore described the SLA’s activities as “small-group violence” aimed at provoking others with similar ideas to take up the revolutionary cause of overthrowing the U.S. government. But he said it is a failed strategy.
He also said he had “big problems with the whole strategy of armed struggle.”
“I think there is something inherently undemocratic about military struggle. To expect leaders of an armed struggle to bring a democratic regime into reality is contradictory,” he said.
After Hearst was arrested by the FBI in September 1975, Kilgore and Soliah fled California. He said he lived “a year or two” in Seattle, where he wrote articles for an underground newspaper under a false name. Kilgore lived “for about five years” in Minnesota and was determined he was “going to remain politically active” even though he was a fugitive.
Eventually, he moved to Africa, where he lived in Zimbabwe from 1982 to 1991 and then went to South Africa. Packed in there was a two-year stint in Australia.
Working as a teacher and living under a name stolen from a deceased Seattle baby — Charles Pape — Kilgore married, had children and became active in a liberation movement aimed at putting those countries’ black majorities in charge of their governments.
He said he’s disappointed with how politics have progressed in those countries, describing them as “quite corrupt and undemocratic.”
* * * * *
Kilgore was arrested in 2002 South Africa and brought back to the California to face a variety of federal and state criminal charges, including murder and illegal possession of explosives. He served separate tours in federal and state prisons.
The federal penitentiary where he was held “was much more relaxed than a state California institution.”
“I was free to associate with whom I wanted to associate,” he said.
He said the state prison was divided by race. Whites who mixed with blacks and vice verse were subject to physical reprisals. He said his choice was “either to follow the rules or get hit” and that he often interacted with people unlike him.
That included, he said, “learning how to talk with someone who has as swastika on their forehead.”
After being released from prison in 2009, just prior to moving to Champaign-Urbana, Kilgore said he felt “quite determined to fight against mass incarceration.”
But he said that movement needs to join up with other efforts — anti-poverty, housing for the poor, global warming — to become more effective.
“The movement against mass incarceration has to slide in that direction,” Kilgore said.
During the Q&A with the audience, Kilgore was asked again to reflect on his violent past. He acknowledged his regret but said “I never felt like I wanted to renounce being someone who was involved in the struggle for social justice.”
“But I definitely think I needed to re-think how I did this because it was disastrous on many levels. … It also was not politically effective,” he said.
Referring to a “whole lot of terrible consequences” of the SLA’s activities, Kilgore described one as providing “fuel for the right-wing to initiate a backlash.”Now, Kilgore said, he’s dedicated to “bring(ing) about positive change through popular education.”
After his long discourse, the session adjourned so Kilgore could sign copies of his books.
“I’m not tired,” he said. “But I think people are tired of hearing me.”
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 217-351-5369.