Michael Finney's Last Flight

When Michael Robert Finney, a member of a black militant group called the Republic of New Africa, hijacked a Trans World Airlines flight to Cuba nearly twenty years ago, he saw himself as a freedom fighter against racism in America, an angry young man whose destiny was shaped by historical forces beyond his control. To authorities, he was simply a fugitive, a murderer, the most recent air pirate to commandeer a passenger jet.

In November 1971, only three days before Finney and two partners diverted the TWA jet from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Havana, D.B. Cooper, destined to become a legend in hijacking folklore, had parachuted out of a 727 he'd commandeered in Seattle, carrying the $200,000 he'd demanded as ransom. That was the golden age of air piracy, when airliners were being hijacked every few days, prompting a revolution in airport security. With the advent of X-ray machines and metal detectors, "skyjacking" soon went out of vogue.

Although the FBI continues to receive tips about his supposed whereabouts even to this day, the infamous D.B. Cooper was never found. The whereabouts of Michael Finney, however, are much easier for federal agents to pinpoint. Once he arrived in Havana, there was no turning back. He can't go home again, unless he wants to go to prison. So he remains suspended in Cuba's political time warp, like someone who has strayed into a Graham Greene political thriller and can't get out.

Nearly two decades after his arrival on the island, Finney lives in a modern but run-down apartment near downtown Havana, which he recently began sharing with Estela, his Cuban companera, and their two-year-old daughter Antar Ra. He owns things that are, in Cuba, considered luxuries: a two-cylinder Polish compact car; a color television set. He works as an English-language radio announcer, a coveted job in a nation undergoing a severe economic crisis. By American standards, of course, his lifestyle is modest, even Spartan. But Finney does have one thing in abundance: time to think.

Even Cuba's famous rum doesn't dim the nostalgia that haunts expatriate life. Finney shakes his head incredulously when he recalls the hijacking. "It's amazing that I'm alive. It's like a friend of mine said - if I had been born five years earlier or five years later, this never would have happened," he says with a smile that betrays equal parts amusement and sadness. It is a smile he wears often, like the ultradark sunglasses he keeps on, even in this cool, dim Havana hotel bar. When he tells his story it's as if he's talking about something that happened to someone else, somewhere else. And of course, in a way, that's true.

He still carries a snapshot of the Michael Finney he was back then, at age twenty, before he became an international fugitive. The proud father in the photograph, cradling his infant daughter in his hands, smiling a typical new-parent smile, has no inkling that his life is about to undergo a drastic change.

"As human beings, we are very much products of our times," says Finney. "And those were times of sweeping rebellion among black Americans that affected millions of people. Many were killed, incarcerated. Many became frustrated or joined the mainstream. Others probably became drug addicts. But it was the most widespread, deep-seated black rebellion in the history of America."

Finney grew up in San Francisco, and like many Bay Area youths of the Sixties, became politicized at an early age. He says his father was a pioneer, San Francisco's first black police officer. Michael was a pioneer, too - after attending a Roman Catholic school for the first six years of his education, he was among the first San Francisco students to be bused, from the predominantly black Balboa High School district to Lincoln High School, located in a white, affluent neighborhood. The kids, Finney recalls, were greeted by racist graffiti: "The only good nigger is a dead nigger" and "Niggers, go back to Africa." He says his first act of civil disobedience was his refusal to recite the portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that promises "liberty and justice for all" because he didn't believe it applied to blacks.

"I got into political activism in my high school years," Finney recalls. We had a black teacher, an English teacher, who tried to foment a group that she called SIR - Students for Interracial Relations, which she recruited me into." But as busing continued, Finney says, the racial polarization at his high school became acute, and SIR lost its relevance. "There were clashes and fistfights, a lot of fights. The cops had to come to school - that kind of thing."

At the same time, says Finney, the Black Panther Party was emerging. "I was a teen-ager at Lincoln when the Black Panthers invaded the Sacramento legislature - armed," he says. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated when Finney was seventeen, it seemed to vindicate the words of another assassinated black leader, Malcolm X: "I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense; I call it intelligence." That same year he attended The Mock Trial of Huey Newton. In the middle of the play, Bobby Seale and a group of other Black Panthers walked silently into the theater and stood in the back.

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