In the wake of the June 14 attack upon Republican congressmen in Alexandria, Va., commentators including Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald and Peter Bergen and David Sterman of CNN have asserted that the left-wing domestic terrorism we last saw in the 1970s is making a comeback. They draw parallels between the crime committed by James Hodgkinson, the 66-year-old shooter from Belleville, Ill., and those committed by notorious radical organizations such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
But one man does not a resurgence make. Hodgkinson’s crime appeared to be politically motivated, but he’s different in many ways from the left-wing domestic terrorists who came before him more than 40 years ago.
An article in the New York Times about Hodgkinson’s background portrays a man with a criminal history who at one point attacked a niece. Much has been made of his leftist politics, which seemed to be expressed no differently than the way thousands of others do — he joined anti-Trump Facebook groups, gathered with a small protest group on the streets of Belleville and volunteered for a political campaign.
Unlike the well-known left-wing domestic terrorists that the recent opinion columnists refer to, Hodgkinson acted alone. The power of leftist groups of the past resided in their groupthink.
Take, for example, Camilla Hall, a Minnesota native and a member of the 1970s SLA. For years, Camilla led a quiet life as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. She worked for a few years as a county welfare officer, assisting unwed mothers as young as 13 years old. She quit in 1970 out of frustration over the endless cycle of poverty and welfare and the red tape she encountered when trying to help the young women. She then moved from Minnesota to California, spending about a year in Los Angeles before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. When she was discovered to be a member of the SLA — shortly after the April 15, 1974, Hibernia Bank robbery in which Patricia Hearst, the SLA’s famous hostage, also took part — everyone she knew expressed surprise. But Camilla had found, albeit quietly and without her family’s knowledge, like-minded souls who were similarly frustrated by what they saw as government inaction and indifference toward the poor and minorities.
Camilla’s background and experiences were much like those of her comrades in the SLA and members of other radical left-wing groups of the time. She was college-educated and came from a solid middle-class background. She did not have a criminal record. If anything, her age set her apart — she was 29 when she died at the hands of Los Angeles police in May 1974, which made her “old” in comparison with the other SLA members.
The most radical, violent left-wing groups, like the Weather Underground and the SLA, came at the end of more widespread and generally nonviolent protest against the Vietnam War, the Republican presidency and the fight for civil rights. U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been going on for more than a decade when the SLA formed in 1973. Richard Nixon had been president for more than four years. The Civil Rights Act had passed eight years before.
Groups like the SLA embraced Maoist and Marxist principles and admired revolutionaries such as Che Guevara. They read books like Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” a call to arms to colonized people around the world to encourage a violent quest for independence from oppressors. I don’t think Hodgkinson was responding to a “call to arms” with a goal to inspire revolution. I think he was a lone gunman guided by his own twisted vision.
Perhaps today’s left-wing terrorism will be different. Perhaps there will be no “slow build” of nonviolent protest led by figures emulating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe today’s political protests will jump right into violence. Maybe James Hodgkinson was the start of something, but if he was, that something is already looking much different from what we’ve seen in the past.
Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato.