You won't find "Symbionese" in the dictionary.
But the group behind the name, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was clear about what it wanted to do. According to FBI Special Agent in Charge, Larry Mefford, "Their intention was to topple the United States government."
Some speculate the word "Symbionese" came from "symbiosis," referring to the need of working toward a common goal.
And the group did bring unlikely coalitions together: "It was born among a very, very small group of prison inmates at San Quentin and a couple other places, who had actually nothing to lose when they got out by doing what they were doing. And they attracted some largely white and middle-class kids," says Larry Hatfield, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who has kept tabs on groups like the SLA for years.
Hatfield says the SLA had its hand on the pulse of the time: "The government was viewed then, truly, as an enemy of the people by a wide range of people in California … in the Bay area in particular. The SLA actually grew out of that." But, he says, the group "went farther than almost everybody else did."
The SLA first gained notoriety for the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. The kidnapping and ensuing media frenzy catapulted the SLA to center stage as the nation watched law enforcement and her family effort her release. The story took a bizarre turn when Patricia Hearst transformed from kidnap victim to SLA member.
In a 1981 interview with Barbara Walters, Hearst explained that her will was broken "by being kept blindfolded and in a closet, and threatened that I was going to be killed, and interrogated — because by then I had been interrogated — and being taken to the bathroom and having people watch me… that's pretty much torture."
Hearst also said in the 1981 interview that she "joined" the SLA because there was no other choice: "[SLA member] Cinque had come to me, and he said that in liberation movements throughout the world oftentimes what happens is they give a prisoner the choice, to either fight or die, which is, to join the people's forces or be killed. At that point, he did say that I could either be released or join the Symbionese Liberation Army. But I didn't believe him at all, and I still don't believe he ever would have done that, not ever."