22 February 1974: riots break out at the “Patty Hearst ransom” food handouts

On this day in 1974, people rioted at food distribution centres in San Francisco, set up as part of a ransom payment for kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.

The "Symbionese Liberation Army" (SLA) was rag-tag group of idealistic losers, led by ex-con Donald DeFreeze. DeFreeze claimed to want all of the world's multifarious leftist factions to unite, and the world to live together as one in peace, man. Unfortunately, he wasn't above beating, raping and killing people to achieve his version of peace.

On 4 February 1974, the SLA abducted 19-year-old Patricia Hearst, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, from her home. She was targeted because she was the granddaughter of publishing tycoon Randolph Hearst. The SLA kept her confined to a cupboard for days, while physically and sexually abusing her, before finally demanding a ransom.

The original intention was to exchange her for two of their fellow losers, who were in prison for the killing of Marcus Foster, superintendent of Oakland's schools. But the authorities weren't having that. So the SLA decided to ask for the poor of California to be fed.

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The Hearst Corporation created a food distribution programme called "People In Need", and ordered $2m worth of food. Not everyone was happy with this response, however. Official bodies shunned the handouts, claiming it was giving in to terrorism. Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, remarked "It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism".

The first handouts began on this day in 1974 in San Francisco. Huge crowds of people turned up – too many for the disorganised distributors to cope with. Food was thrown from the backs of lorries and from windows, and fighting broke out among the recipients, the organisers and the police. One police officer was stabbed and a member of the public was knocked unconscious.

Nevertheless, food continued to be given out for another month, with no sign of Patty being released – the SLA claimed the food being handed out was of poor quality. Then came a twist. On 15 April, Patty Hearst was caught on CCTV wielding a machine gun in an SLA bank robbery, and she became a wanted criminal. She was captured on 18 September, and in March 1976 she was found guilty of armed robbery.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. 

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