In 1972, Ida McCray and then-boyfriend Allen Sims boarded LA-bound PSA flight 902 departing from San Francisco with McCray's infant son Atiba and two firearms. Once airborne, they proceeded to hijack the plane, with Mr. Sims first demanding to be flown to Algeria and then, upon being informed that the aircraft was not equipped for a transatlantic flight, to Cuba. The plane landed in Los Angeles, where the passengers were let off, before continuing on to Florida and Cuba, at Sims' and McCray's demands. No one was injured in the hijacking.
McCray was arrested 15 years later, in San Francisco, after Atiba turned her in. She had found her way back to the States, and was working as an office worker in Sacramento when her son Atiba turned her in. (Eight years prior, Sims had been extradited to Los Angeles and sentenced to 50 years in prison.)
At the time of the arrest, the LA Times reported that "steely-eyed" McCray spent portions of the flight chanting about revolution as the terrified in-flight crew looked on, that she pointed a gun at a flight attendant and demanded that she crochet a baby bonnet for her son, all the while giving the impression that she would "just love to pull that trigger," and that years later she tried to smother that same son with a plastic bag. McCray's uniform response to such allegations: "That's bullshit." Variously portrayed in the mainstream media as a terrorist, a fugitive, and a seriously unfit mother, McCray is currently a rehabilitation specialist at the San Francisco Sheriff's Department Women's Resource Center. McCray is also the founder of Families with a Future, an organization devoted to providing support for the children of incarcerated mothers. She agreed to speak with VICE to tell her side of the story.
VICE: You were 19 when you participated in the hijacking. What were your motivations? Was there a political rationale behind your and Mr. Sims's actions?
Ida McCray: We're talking about the late 60s and the early 70s when there was a fever in the country that's not here now outside of Occupy and Black Lives Matter. My motivation at the time unfortunately was not political. My motivation was being unable to dismiss someone that I was uncomfortable with. If you've ever been young that makes sense. Allen Sims was doing a lot of things that I wasn't in agreement with, but I didn't learn how to say "Fuck you" and "Get out of my life" at that age, because I was raised on being nice. He told me we were headed to Los Angeles. I didn't know he was going to hijack the plane until we were up in the air. Who hijacks a plane in a fox coat, suede dress, and some boots to go to the tropics? That's what I had on. I thought I was going to LA on the midnight express. Plane gets up to 40,000 feet in the air and he says he's going to blow this stewardess's head off. So I figured that I'd better try to help so he wouldn't feel that he had to kill anyone. Because I'm thinking that if he shoots this sawed-off shotgun that far up in the air, then everybody's going. That stewardess should have been thanking me because I saved her life. He was going to blow her head off and I said "No, don't do that. Let me help you."
This is pre-9/11 so security measures at airports were far less rigorous, but how did he get a gun onto the plane?
Oh, you could walk on the plane with anything! He had the shotgun and a .38. It wasn't unusual for people to be walking around with guns. I'm just thinking that we're going to LA, and I'm there with my baby, which was not his. And I thought I'd somehow get rid of Allen there. My motivation was that I was psychologically entrapped.
Some reports have said that you were complicit in the incident because you'd actually smuggled a firearm on board wrapped in your infant's swaddling clothes. Is that true?
That's bullshit. That's not what happened at all. Absolutely not. I was aware of the gun, but it was not even in my frame of reference that he would try to pull something like this.
I just held a woman's head with my gun so that she wouldn't move and so that there would be no bloodshed.
What were the circumstances under which you were arrested in 1987?
My son called the police on me because I made him wash dishes. I came home to San Francisco and he was taking advantage of my mother, who was taking care of him at the time. My mother was old. My son was on drugs and he was running in and out the house, stealing money from my mother. She eventually lost her home. I came back to help my mother with the children, and here he is, 16 years old. I say, "You've got to wash dishes. You've got to do this and that." And he wasn't used to any rules. So I called his father, and his father came down and whooped his ass. And my son jumped over the fence, called the police, and said "My father hit me. And oh, by the way, my mother's a wanted hijacker." So they forgot the damn child abuse shit and went for the hijacker. "Really? Your mother's a hijacker? Where is she?" "Well she's right here in Sacramento." So that's how I got busted. After 16 years of being "on the run."
What became of Mr. Sims?
I don't know because I really didn't give a fuck. We landed in Cuba, but you know, you have to understand about Cuba at that time, you were constricted. Because you couldn't buy food without being on someone else's rations. Because of the blockade from the United States to Cuba. And at that time the communists—Russia—was all in Cuba. So if you were there, you were incarcerated in a different way because of resources. Food, shelter, and clothing. We had a very minimal amount of food.
I'll give you an example. When I had my baby born in Cuba, I was 148 pounds. Now this might sound not unusual but 148 pounds and 5'9'', that's tiny. Especially being pregnant. I'm starving. I'm very, very hungry because of the food rations.
Anyway, when he touched down, no, he wasn't arrested, but he went off and he got arrested later on in Cuba. Because he was a nut. Later on, he left Cuba and went to the Bahamas. That's where Interpol got him and extradited him back to California where he got 50 years.
That word, "terrorist," is new. One person's terrorist is another person's revolutionary.
Once you got off the plane were you just like, "Fuck you. I never want to see you again, you crazy person," or did you maintain contact?
You know, he was extremely intelligent. He told them where to fly. How to fly. He wasn't a dummy. Where to land. How things were going to be. You know, he commandeered everything. I just held a woman's head with my gun so that she wouldn't move and so that there would be no bloodshed. It sounds kind of funny, but that's what happened. So he would feel that he was backed up, and so he would feel that he wouldn't have to kill anybody to gain control on the airplane. From there we went to Miami, and from Miami we were going to Algeria. Turns out we can't make it to Algeria so he said "OK, Cuba then." That's how we wound up in Cuba.
From his point of view, as far as you know, was this a terrorist act or some political statement for him?
I never understood the man's thinking. But that word, "terrorist," is new. One person's terrorist is another person's revolutionary. It wasn't a word that was commonly used then. At the time several people had hijacked planes to Cuba because Cuba was an asylum for many Black Panthers and others who were not part of the system.
Did he make any statements during the hijacking?
Not that I could hear, because he was in the cockpit.
Many young women probably know what it's like to fall in love with the wrong person, to find themselves trapped in a relationship with someone they know isn't good for them, or just isn't a good person, period. Yours is an extreme case, but what was that process of "waking up," as it were, like for you?
He ruined my life, but the waking-up process did not begin immediately. Even maybe 20 years ago I would have said that my crime wasn't so different from other women who are considered political prisoners. They just don't admit to it. When you're in love with someone, you want to do what they're doing because you've got to be a loyal female, right? Like a bulldog. Just fighting for your man.
I was brainwashed by my family never to air your dirty laundry in public, so it wasn't in my makeup to challenge him publicly. I was a good little Catholic girl. The waking up process has spanned decades, but it's brought me to where I am now, working for women who have experienced domestic violence. I started an organization called Families with a Future to help incarcerated women see their children because when I was incarcerated my heartbreak was the fact that I was torn away from my children. My breasts bled milk. FWAF has since evolved into an organization that helps victims of domestic violence.
How was prison otherwise?
Prison is a place where it's like being among the living dead. You get directions from someone about when to go to the bathroom, when not to go to the bathroom. They tell you when to go to sleep, when not to go to sleep. Prison is torture because you're watching women being abused by guards who give them babies or take them into the mop closet to perform oral sex for cigarettes. Women have sex with the guards for amenities. It's normal. When women go to prison they're called horrible names. Bitches. Whores. Everything. And there's no structure for filing grievances because the United States has turned its back on the "bad mother," the "bad woman." Prison is just a microcosm of society.
What are your relationships with your five children like now?
I gave birth to five children. There are two children I don't speak to. And they don't want to speak to me. Because children of incarcerated parents resent that their mother wasn't around. They don't care why you went to prison. They don't care if you went to prison for selling drugs or selling yourself. You just weren't there when they needed you there. The bond was broken. And I'm not different from anyone else who's gone to prison. The US government along with local criminals has been complicit in the destruction of the black family and black communities nationwide. I don't think the black community will ever be able to repair itself.
Do you experience any cognitive dissonance now working for the government?
It was very difficult for me to be here after being locked up so long. I went through PTSD every single day. I still do. I see the guards come by with their guns and I still shiver. But I can tell these women the truth. I'm not saying, "Go out and blow up the government." I'm saying, "Go work on yourself. Work on you. What's happened to you was not fair. It was wrong. But you've got to work through it so you can be there for yourself, and so you can help your children navigate the insanity that's called America."
The point is to try to remain human no matter what people do to you. There are going to be people who are fucked up. There are going to be men who are fucked up. There are a lot of fucked up women. There are a lot of fucked up cops. But people are people whether they come from Beijing or Nepal or wherever. You have to work on keeping your humanity no matter what, and my goal is to avoid becoming anesthetized. I had a girl in here at work a few weeks ago who shouted at me, "Go back to slavery!" And I'm looking at her thinking "I've never gotten out of slavery. What are you talking about?"
But the important thing is that people are not their crimes. People are not their charges. People are not what's written in the newspapers. In order to connect yourself with other human beings you have to hear their story. And you'll find that everyone's story is basically the same. You want to be loved. You want to be nurtured. You want to be treated with respect. You want the opportunity to grow. The highest thing another human being can do is help another human being. I know it's not the story you wanted to hear, but I've never been violent. I've always been a peacemaker.