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'Comrade John' By: Neil Hrab
The National Post | Tuesday, January 21, 2003


When on Nov. 8, 2002, John Pape was arrested by South African police at the request of the U.S. government, his friends and colleagues were shocked.

Dr. Pape seemed like a run-of-the-mill academic. An expatriate American, he worked as a researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He was married to another academic and was the father of two children.

Dr. Pape, however, had a secret.

His real name was James Kilgore. Over a period of about 30 years, Kilgore moved to Africa and used false identities to conceal the fact he was the last known member still at large of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a violent, far-left U.S. terrorist group.

Kilgore's status as a fugitive forced him to forsake his true identity. Instead, he followed those humdrum avenues in which academics routinely circulate their ideas. Under his false name, he acquired a PhD. His influence was widespread, including articles published through academic journals, reports written as part of a project backed by a Canadian-government-funded research centre and through such periodicals as Canadian Dimension (a left-wing magazine) under his nom de plume: John Pape.

In a 1976 interview, the SLA's leader, William Harris, described the group as follows: "The SLA was based on the need to develop a guerrilla front with the idea that armed actions along with above-ground political organizing educates and mobilizes people in support of revolution."

That revolution, according to SLA pamphlets, would involve the overthrow of "racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, fascism, individualism, possessiveness, competitiveness and all other institutions that have made and sustained capitalism." The SLA used a seven-headed snake as its symbol, representing its commitment to collective action in pursuit of revolution.

The SLA is remembered today for a spectacular series of violent acts, emerging suddenly from obscurity. The first of these took place on Nov. 6, 1973, when SLA operatives assassinated Marcus Foster, a school superintendent who lived in Oakland, Calif.

SLA members shot Foster to death as he tried to enter an assistant's car. The group had targeted Foster because of his support for the idea that high school students should carry ID cards.

The SLA's most shocking exploit involved kidnapping and gang-raping Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst media empire, in February, 1974. Hearst was later brainwashed into joining the group. A month later, SLA members staged a dramatic bank robbery in San Francisco. In May of that year, six SLA members died in a shootout with Los Angeles police.

The SLA broke up in the mid-1970s, but not before its members had bombed a police station and a courthouse, and attempted several other terrorist attacks using explosives. In 1975, an SLA member named Kathleen Soliah planted bombs under two Los Angeles police cruisers in an attempt to kill the vehicles' occupants. A judge punished Soliah in January, 2002, with a 20-years-to-life sentence for these crimes. (Like Kilgore, Soliah lived for many years under an assumed identity, Sarah Jane Olsen, in order to evade capture.)

The FBI kept a file on Kilgore for 27 years for three reasons.

The first is his alleged involvement in an April, 1975, SLA-masterminded bank robbery, during which a woman named Myrna Opsahl died. One witness said none of the six SLA members who took part in the robbery -- including Kilgore -- exhibited the least sign of compassion for Opsahl as she bled to death after being shot by Emily Harris, one of the SLA operatives. Last November, Harris pleaded guilty to the charge that she murdered Opsahl.

The second reason for the FBI's file on Kilgore is his indictment in 1976 for possession of a pipe bomb. (Kilgore quickly went underground around the time of the indictment.) Federal prosecutors also want to find out whether Kilgore was involved in a string of SLA bombings and attempted bombings directed against police in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- including explosions that destroyed three police vehicles. U.S. authorities documented these charges in early December, when explaining their request that South Africa permit Kilgore's extradition to the United States.

The FBI had one more reason to stay interested in Kilgore's whereabouts. In 1995, a TV station in Los Angeles alleged Kilgore was a possible suspect in the series of bombings attributed to the then-mysterious "Unabomber." KCBS in Los Angeles pointed out the Unabomber's attacks began in 1978, not long after Kilgore disappeared. KCBS claimed some authorities believed Kilgore resembled the composite drawing of the Unabomber the FBI was circulating at that time. These allegations fell flat when, in 1996, police arrested Theodore Kaczynski, a reclusive university academic, and identified him as the true Unabomber.

Kaczynski's life contrasts sharply with Kilgore's. Kaczynski carried out his campaign of mayhem while pretending still to be an academic; Kilgore created John Pape, his academic alter ego, in order to conceal his alleged past participation in acts of violence.

In striking contrast to his sensational former life as a revolutionary terrorist, Kilgore appeared every inch the average researcher employed at a university. (His African-American wife, Teresa Barnes, is also a unversity researcher.)

He wrote papers with such ponderous titles as Still Serving the Tea: Domestic Workers in Zimbabwe 1980-90, Black and White: The 'Perils of Sex' in Colonial Zimbabwe and Changing Education for Majority Rule in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

He gave public lectures opposing globalization. He co-edited a book (published in August, 2002), about globalization's effects on South African cities, with Dr. David McDonald, the director of the development studies program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. He also regularly submitted articles to more popular publications in South Africa and abroad -- including Canadian Dimension, a magazine of radical politics and economics featuring such writers as Judy Rebick, Rick Salutin and James Laxer.

Kilgore attained sufficient credibility as an academic that he participated in a two-year-long study of municipal service delivery in South Africa. The project started in January, 2000, and ended this past August. It involved a coalition of scholars from Canada and South Africa. The project received funding from a variety of sources, including the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. (IDRC is a public corporation created by the Canadian government to study pressing social and economic problems in the Third World. It makes grants to institutions, not individual academics.) The International Labour Resource and Information Group (where Kilgore worked) contributed important research to the study; an IDRC document evaluating the municipal services project describes the ILRIG as "very active in supporting" its goals.

Although he has yet to give a thorough explanation of his years on the run, a 1998 article he wrote (as usual, under the name John Pape) for the Comparative Education Review reveals some details. In the article, Kilgore claimed he relocated to Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, from the United States in 1982. He identified himself as a socialist and informs readers that when he started his job as a secondary school teacher in Zimbabwe, his "objective was to help forge a socialist education system."

But upon arriving, Kilgore found, to his chagrin, that Zimbabwe's victorious revolutionary forces had left in place the "colonial" school system and Eurocentric teaching curriculum built by Zimbabwe's former British masters. Nevertheless, despite what he referred to as his "initial disillusionment," Kilgore persevered as a teacher, and found it a rewarding job. He recalled that, compared to the United States, "where students commonly lack enthusiasm," his Zimbabwean students often complained "when I neglected to give them enough homework." Kilgore put his time in Zimbabwe to good use -- he wrote a PhD dissertation on Zimbabwean employment conditions and learned Shona, a language indigenous to that country.

However, it was not until 1991, when he started his job with Khanya College in South Africa, that his "revolutionary zeal [was] rekindled," as he wrote. In 1998, he obtained the position he held until his arrest -- projects co-ordinator with the International Labour Resource and Information Group (ILRIG), at the University of Cape Town. (After his arrest, the ILRIG set up a defence fund in his name.)

Kilgore's writings evince a pronounced interest in inequality. His academic articles focus on the inequalities between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe that prevailed while that country (under the name Rhodesia) was first a British colony and then an independent country ruled by the white minority. In a 1990 article, he expressed disappointment that, even though Zimbabwe's old white rulers had been pulled "down from their throne" after 1982, their military defeat at the hands of black guerrillas "has not erased whites' virulent racism." Kilgore found that black majority rule did not mean an end to inequality; moreover, the new black elite permitted many of the old inequities to persist. He seemed disappointed by this -- "such exploitation of blacks by blacks," he wrote in 1993, "may seem surprising in a country where such an intense military and political struggle against a racist system took place."

His 2002 book (titled The Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa) explores different policy measures inspired by globalization and how these are heightening inequality. The introduction, co-written by Kilgore and a colleague, describes these measures as not only a "threat to [South Africa's] poor" but as a danger to "the whole notion of a democratic transformation in South Africa."

In his more popular writings, Kilgore looked at other aspects of inequality, including the differences in power between the rich and poor in his adopted home of South Africa. In a 1999 article for Canadian Dimension, he worried that too much of the "South African manufacturing sector is still based on producing high-end consumer goods for the wealthy." A 2002 article he wrote for a South African union periodical applauded efforts by leftist groups to change that country's economic system to favour "production to meet the needs of [average] South Africans." He gave support to the left's desire to limit forms of financial "speculation" associated with economic globalization, especially currency trading.

Jean-Marc Fleury, IDRC's director of communications, remembers being "extremely surprised" when he heard of Kilgore's arrest. The revelations about John Kilgore's past ensure, he says, that Kilgore "will always stand out among the people" with whom IDRC has had contact. Fleury has worked at IDRC for more than 25 years and cannot recall a similar situation. He has not met Kilgore, but knew about him. Fleury recalls how, after Kilgore's arrest, other participants in the municipal services study expressed concern that IDRC might not fund an add-on project to the original one. IDRC in the end did decide to fund the new study.

Kilgore's arrest left many of his colleagues and friends stunned. South Africa's national metalworkers union, with which Kilgore enjoyed warm ties, issued a statement protesting his arrest, saying, "Comrade John is not a terrorist. He has served South African society with goodwill and vision."

Union activists lambasted South Africa's media for portraying Kilgore as (in their words) a "wrinkled and dangerous terrorist fugitive bent on violence and mayhem." Commenting after Kilgore's arrest, a representative of the Western Cape Congress of South Africa Trade Unions said Kilgore's scholarship made "a huge contribution towards the workers' struggle in South Africa."

South Africa permitted James Kilgore to be extradited to the United States in late December. He will go on trial in California later this year. According to a spokesman, Kilgore wants to return to South Africa after serving any prison sentence he might receive.




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