James Kilgore

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James William Kilgore (born July 30, 1947) was a student activist at UC Santa Barbara in the 60s who later became involved with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). After the arrest of the core SLA members in 1975, Kilgore went underground for 27 years. He lived most of that time in Southern Africa under the pseudonym John Pape where he worked as an educator and researcher. He was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa in November, 2002, extradited to the United States and subsequently served six and a half years in prison. During his incarceration he wrote several novels. The first of these, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, was published a month after his release in 2009 by Umuzi Publishers of Cape Town. He now lives in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

Early Years[edit]

James Kilgore grew up in California, graduating from San Rafael High School in 1965. During his high school days he was an honor roll student and an active athlete, participating on school basketball, baseball and golf teams. He attended University of California at Santa Barbara where he played on the college volleyball team and subsequently became active in student politics during the anti-war protests of 1969 and 1970. During these years he met Sara Jane Olson (nee Kathleen Soliah) his partner at the time and later political associate in the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army[edit]

After graduating from college, Kilgore and Olson moved to Oakland, California where he became involved in various political activities. He also visited a number of political activists who were in prison, including Willie Brandt, convicted for his role in anti-war bombings in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1974 Kilgore became connected to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped Patricia Hearst. According to Hearst’s memoir, Every Secret Thing,[1] Kilgore, Olson and other friends of theirs assisted Hearst and her compatriots, William and Emily Montague (nee Harris) to escape the F.B.I. after six members of the group were killed in a shootout with police on May 17, 1974. Hearst also reported that Kilgore took part in a number of crimes in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974 and 1975, including a bank robbery in Carmichael, California where a customer was killed. Hearst, Harris and Montague were arrested in September 1975. In 2002, Kilgore, along with the Harris, Montague and Olson were indicted for their participation in the Carmichael bank robbery mentioned by Hearst.[2] Hearst was not indicted. The defendants, including Kilgore, subsequently pleaded guilty to second degree murder and all served time in California state prisons for this offense.Kilgore was released in 2009, the last of the defendants in the case to leave prison.[3]

Underground Years[edit]

After the arrest of Hearst and the others, Federal authorities charged Kilgore with possession of an explosive device and he went underground. He remained on the run for 27 years until November, 2002 when he was arrested in Cape Town, South Africa. According to reports by British journalist Gavin Evans,[4] during his time as a fugitive, Kilgore constructed an alternative identity as Charles “John” Pape” and worked as an educator and researcher in Zimbabwe and South Africa. During that period he married Teresa Barnes and the couple had two children. He also lived in Australia for two years where he enrolled in Deakin University and eventually earned a Ph.D. in his new name, writing a dissertation on the history of domestic workers in Zimbabwe. Evans reported that Kilgore moved to South Africa in 1991 where he became the Director of Khanya College in Johannesburg, a small institution which prepared black youth for university. In 1997, he and his family moved to Cape Town where he took a position as co-director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), a unit affiliated with the University of Cape Town which specialized in education for union members. Upon his arrest a number of people in South Africa came forward to claim that Kilgore was a changed man. South African activist Trevor Ngwane noted that everything Kilgore “did in South Africa showed that he had broken with terrorism as a method of struggle, preferring the hard patient slog of building among ordinary workers, in the trade unions and among working-class youth. He exchanged his guns and masks for pen and paper. He stopped living between the cracks and in the night; he built a new life, took care of his family and contributed to the struggle of the workers.”[5] Other statements of support for Kilgore came from The South African Municipal Workers Union, Khanya College, The University of Cape Town, The Nelson Mandela Foundation and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. US authorities had a very different perspective. US Attorney General John Ashcroft noted that the arrest of Kilgore proved that “terrorists can run and they can try to hide overseas, but in the end we will find them and bring them to justice.”[6] Kevin Ryan, US Attorney in the San Francisco Federal Court where Kilgore was charged, echoed Ashcroft’s sentiments, "The arrest and prosecution of James Kilgore, the last of the fugitive SLA members, represents the Department of Justice's commitment to bringing terrorists, be they domestic or foreign, to justice. We will never forget their acts, and the passage of time will not diminish our resolve or our vigilance."[7] After being extradited to the US, Kilgore served six and a half years in prison in California, pleading guilty to both the possession of explosives charge and for his role in the bank robbery in Carmichael.

Fiction Writing[edit]

During his period of incarceration Kilgore wrote a novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now, which was published in South Africa, in June 2009, about a month after his release. Ohio University Press re-published it in 2011. He has subsequently published two other works of fiction which he drafted in prison: Freedom Never Rests: A Tale of Democracy in South Africa and Prudence Couldn’t Swim, a crime fiction story set in Oakland, California and Zimbabwe. His fiction has generally received favorable reviews.[8] Adam Hochschild, award winning historian noted that “too few writers have Kilgore’s wide-angle vision. This promising first book, vividly rooted in his own experience, leaves me eager to read more by him.” Well-known South African-based reviewer Percy Zvomuya, himself a Zimbabwean, called Kilgore’s fiction debut “A fascinating book . . . cleverly written, not overly sentimental and manages to capture the vibe of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. Most Zimbabweans will recognize themselves in the novel; their mannerisms, their quirkiness and, well, their "Zimbabweanness" pour out from the pages...one of the most important books about Zimbabwe.” 2008 American book award winner, Frank Wilderson commented: “The book is fast-paced and funny, extolling two literary virtues often missing on the Left. It is a good read—the work of a great storyteller. But it is also an invaluable object lesson—the work of a committed activist.”


Since his release from prison in 2009, Kilgore has lived with his family in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois where he has worked at the University of Illinois as well as becoming active in local social justice campaigns.[9] He has played a role in efforts to halt the building of a jail in Champaign County and has written a number of articles for online and print platforms such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Truthout, Counterpunch, Dissent, Radical Teacher, and Critical Criminology.[10] He has also carried out a research project on electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system and was a keynote speaker on this topic at the Confederation of European Probation conference in Germany in 2014.[11] His first non-fiction book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, was released by The New Press in August, 2015.[12] Kilgore’s employment status hit the headlines in the spring of 2014 when the University of Illinois refused to renew his contract as a lecturer and academic hourly employee, largely because of his background. The withdrawal of his employment offer prompted a protest from faculty members and beyond.[13] Over 300 faculty members at the university signed a petition to have Kilgore’s employment restored and the American Association of University Professors wrote a letter of protest.[14] In November 2014, the university’s Board of Trustees voted not to ban Kilgore from further employment, thus opening the door for him to be re-hired. He began working again in January 2015.[15]

Additional Information[edit]




  1. ^ Patricia Hearst, Every Secret Thing, Pinnacle Books, 1982.
  2. ^ James Sterngold, “4 Former Radicals Are Charged In 1975 Killing in Bank Robbery,” New York Times, January 17, 2002 at: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/17/us/4-former-radicals-are-charged-in-1975-killing-in-bank-robbery.html accessed July 10, 2015.
  3. ^ Don Thompson, “Former SLA Member James Kilgore Paroled,” at: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Former-SLA-member-James-Kilgore-paroled-3162180.php accessed July 10, 2015.
  4. ^ Gavin Evans, “Patty Hearst, The Symbionese Liberation Army and Me,” The Times London February 10, 2010, at: http://www.accessinterviews.com/interviews/detail/patty-hearst-the-symbionese-liberation-army-and-me/194511 accessed July 7, 2015
  5. ^ Patrick Bond, “Activists pay tribute to fugitive ‘John Pape’”, Green Left Weekly, November 27, 2002 accessed at: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/26285, March 7, 2011
  6. ^ “And Then There Were None,” London Telegraph cited in Sydney Morning Herald, November 12, 2002, at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/11/1036308630109.html
  7. ^ SF Gate, Former SLA Member James Kilgore Paroled,” May 11, 2009 at: http://articles.sfgate.com/2003-02-22/bay-area/17478315_1_james-kilgore-pipe-bomb-fugitive accessed July 23, 2015.
  8. ^ “Reviews,” at: http://weareallzimbabweansnow.com/index_files/Page626.htm accessed July 22, 2015.
  9. ^ https://programsnotjails.wordpress.com/
  10. ^ For list of references see: Prison Legal News, “Articles by James Kilgore at https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/author/james-kilgore/ accessed August 13, 2015.
  11. ^ “Electronic Monitoring, Offenbach, Germany, “ December 8, 2014 at: http://cep-probation.org/knowledgebase/electronic-monitoring-offenbach-germany-2014/ accessed August 13, 2015.
  12. ^ http://thenewpress.com/books/understanding-mass-incarceration
  13. ^ Colleen Flaherty, “Professor With A Past,” Inside Higher Education, May 8, 2014 a: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/05/08/contract-renewal-adjunct-criminal-past-raises-academic-freedom-concerns-illinois accessed July 10, 2015.
  14. ^ http://www.news-gazette.com/pdf/2014-04-22/aaup-kilgore.html
  15. ^ Inside Higher Education, “James Kilgore, Adjunct with a Past, Rehired at Illinois,” December 8, 2014 at: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/12/08/james-kilgore-adjunct-past-rehired-illinois