Remembering Kathy Boudin

Three comrades on the life and legacy of a radical activist

Photo courtesy of Bill Ayers

(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)

Eleven days ago, on May Day, Kathy Boudin died following a seven-year battle with cancer. Born in New York in 1943 to a leftist Jewish family, Boudin was an activist and organizer who dedicated her life to building a world where harm is transformed via processes of accountability rather than reiterated through punishment. If you know of Kathy Boudin, you likely know this story, which has been amplified widely in national headlines: In 1970, as a member of the Weather Underground, the radical splinter faction of the activist organization Students for a Democratic Society, she survived the explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse that killed three of her comrades—which occurred when a bomb two of them were making in the basement went off—then went into hiding for 11 years. In 1980, Boudin gave birth to her son Chesa and began to reconnect with social movements, including the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which sought liberation and self-determination of Black people in the United States through armed struggle. The following year, she drove a getaway truck as part of a BLA robbery of an armored car carrying money for the Brink’s security company, which resulted in the death of a guard and two policemen. She served 22 years in prison.

There is so much more to the story: While reckoning with the harm her actions caused, Boudin never strayed from the values that motivated her connections with social movements. In Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she was incarcerated, Boudin redoubled her commitment to community. She worked with comrades on the inside to develop a peer-to-peer AIDS-education initiative; to create parenting programs for mothers who had been separated from their children; and to restore access to college programming in New York prisons after it was suspended in the 1990s. After she was released in 2003, Boudin co-founded the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign and received her doctorate from Columbia University, where she co-founded the Center for Justice. When I think about the poet and activist June Jordan’s “irrepressible wish” that “all of us will build that circle of our common safety that all of us deserve,” I think of Kathy Boudin—who loved “This Little Light of Mine,” who, while imprisoned, wrote books for her son that she read to him over the phone in serial installments, who practiced her politics of radical care at the scale of her life and, in so doing, brought whole communities along in the difficult, joyful work. As abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Where life is precious, life is precious,” and the three remembrances below by Boudin’s beloved comrades manifest the ongoingness of the precious space her living leaves us with.

Claire Schwartz

Kathy Boudin and I were friends and comrades for 53 years. Since it became clear that she was dying, I’ve been reeling from grief and wonder. The grief needs no explanation and exercises its own fury. It hits me anew each time I remember I won’t see or talk to Kathy again. The wonder—which I hope will someday overtake the grief—arises from realizing the full miracle of who Kathy was. For over five decades, we talked, agreed, disagreed, and ruminated. I had lots of time to learn from her. I only wish I’d been a better student.

Everyone deserves a second chance. This statement does not only describe what Kathy believed; it also reflects how she lived. Kathy maintained deep connections with people from every phase of her life and, as our friend Dave George says, she made you feel “like the most important person in the world to her.” That practice of care came from her bone-deep belief in building community among oppressed people and those who stand in solidarity with them; she knew that when we come together, we have the power to undermine and destroy structures of oppression.

Many remembrances of Kathy focus on the ways she took accountability for the deaths her actions caused. Less discussed—but just as crucial—is the fact that, unlike many radicals of the 1960s who reject the militancy of their past, Kathy never stopped challenging the violence of the state. Partly because of her years in prison, she understood that systems of violence operate on oppressed communities not only through racist structures of policing, but also through engineered hunger, poor healthcare, lack of housing, and limited access to education. Until the end of her life, Kathy had the utmost respect for the movements of Black and Brown people who resist that violence however they deem fit. She expressed that respect by working to advocate for the release of Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all the elders of the Black liberation movement who—horrifically—remain behind bars.

Kathy and I talked constantly about how we could effectively realize our values. What could we do to end mass incarceration? To be more internationalist? To build deeper solidarity with Palestine? To project a more profound understanding of gender oppression and to support the leadership of women and gender non-conforming people? To make sure that younger organizers—especially those coming out of prison—knew the history of liberation struggles that lay the ground for our work? Kathy would usually explore a question, turning it over, examining it from different angles; I’d impatiently search for an instant, concrete solution. As I said, I wish I had been a better student.

In 2013, Kathy and I—along with our friend Mujahid Farid and with the support of attorney and author Soffiyah Elijah—started the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign. At its core, RAPP refuses to exclude anyone serving prison time from the prospect of getting out. We fight for changes that are both radical and sensible, like basing parole decisions on who a person is now, rather than the crime for which they were convicted decades ago. In 2018, five years after his release from prison, we lost the brilliant, fiery Mujahid Farid. Eleven days ago, we lost Kathy. I am now the sole survivor among RAPP’s three formerly incarcerated founders.

RAPP is now flying with new leaders, schooled in their own and their families’ painful experiences of the brutalities of the prison system. The day before Kathy died, I came to her bedside with Dave George—who is now RAPP’s associate director—and the organization’s wonderful current director, Jose Saldana, to say goodbye. She summoned the strength to raise a clenched fist and breathe, “I love you.” Che Guevara couldn’t have said it better.

—Laura Whitehorn

Laura Whitehorn, Kathy Boudin, and Mujahid Farid

Photo courtesy of Laura Whitehorn

I don’t remember exactly how I met Kathy Boudin 36 years ago at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, but there was no mistaking her. The media had bombarded us with the tragic news of the Brink’s robbery. Here, though, is what I remember: I was 23 years old and sentenced to 50 years to life. I was extremely depressed. Kathy entered my life and changed everything. She had beautiful, hypnotizing, blue eyes and a calm, caring presence. We would meet up in the yard to sit under the tree or on the grass, where we would talk—often about the difficult work of taking responsibility for harm we had caused—write poetry, or just enjoy being outside. When I was with Kathy, I felt like the most important person in her life.

At Bedford Hills, Kathy dedicated herself to our community. During the holiday season, depression is at its height. Many women feel disconnected from their loved ones. Kathy saw an opportunity. She suggested that every unit construct a tree out of stock paper, magic markers, and crayons, and that each woman tape pictures of her loved ones onto one branch of this “Tree of Life.” Working together with love and respect to claim a space was empowering. When officers would give us flack about putting the tree on the wall, we took it down, stored it in someone’s cell for a bit, and then put it up again in the prison dayroom for everyone to see. As the faces of our loved ones looked on from the tree, we would cook our favorite meals. The unit filled with the aroma of arroz con pollo, red beans and rice, collard greens, turkey, fried chicken, salmon patties, macaroni and cheese, potato salads, cakes, and pies. We had pitchers of iced tea and Kool-Aid and virgin piña coladas. The nights were always lonely, locked in a cell. But that day, we ate in community—sharing the meals that our mothers or grandmothers had made, as we gave thanks for life, our families, and each other.

Kathy taught us that community is vital. At Bedford Hills, she developed programs for the parenting center. She worked to ensure educational opportunities. She gave us the courage and capacity to realize we could reinvent ourselves by recognizing the harms our crimes have caused and making amends in meaningful ways. I never thought of myself as competent enough to attend college. But Kathy encouraged me to go, and I got my bachelor’s degree and made the dean’s list. She told me I could write, and I now have several published articles.

Kathy’s legacy will live on through the work we are doing to abolish prisons and make resources available to people who are directly impacted by violence—including the violence of incarceration—so that meaningful transformation can take place. We carry Kathy’s life forward as we fight to close Rosie’s (the women’s facility at Rikers Island); as we advocate to end housing discrimination against people with criminal backgrounds; as we work inside and outside of prisons to bolster mental health treatment, prepare community support for parole, draft bills to release our elders, and restore TAP and Pell grants for college. We remember Kathy when we remember that we are not our mistakes, and that most of all we have our sisterhood.

RIP my sister, comrade, friend. I love you and I miss you very much.

– Roslyn D. Smith

Roslyn D. Smith and Kathy Boudin

Photo courtesy of Roslyn D. Smith

Kathy Boudin and I met in 1966 when we were organizers in Cleveland with the Community Union, a loosely linked national network of grassroots groups determined to create a new and more participatory democracy by mobilizing citizens of disenfranchised communities into a powerful social and political force. I was 20 years old; Kathy was 21.

Our mantra was, The people with the problems are the people with the solutions, and our buttons read Let the People Decide and Build an Interracial Movement of the Poor. We believed—and held to it—that legitimate and just social change must be led by those directly impacted, by people who had been dehumanized or marginalized, pushed down, and locked out. In fact, we believed that struggling in the interest of the most oppressed held the key to fundamental transformations—internal and personal, as well as social and collective—that would ultimately benefit everyone: We’re all better off when we’re all better off. That was our theory of change.

Kathy was our most effective organizer. She brought enormous energy and her mighty, hopeful spirit into the most difficult and sorrowful situations. She also brought genuine concern for other people’s lives and a natural ability to build authentic relationships rooted in solidarity, not “service”; respect and mutuality, not ostentatious acts of “charity.” Her comfort zone was the grassy grassroots—when we organized a ten-day march from Cleveland to Columbus to demand more generous support from the state for poor children, for example, Kathy was always on the clean-up crew, always on food preparation, always volunteering for the unglamorous work that kept the Movement moving.

Kathy chose the mighty life she lived, found joy and purpose in the struggle, and lived out a precious dialectic: loving her own life enough to appreciate the sunset and the sunrise, to enjoy dinner with friends, to take care of the babies, or to take a walk in the woods; loving the world enough to put her shoulder on history’s great wheel when history demanded it. To be loved by Kathy—to love her—lit up the whole sky.

Kathy died just as she had lived: fighting for life, surrounded by love, intrepidly building community and casting those invisible but sturdy threads in every direction, connecting family and friends, colleagues and comrades, neighbors and strangers.

Kathy is dead.

But fire doesn’t die. Light and heat and love and desire go on and on.

And so does she.

Rest in Power, Sister/Comrade.

– Bill Ayers

This piece was adapted from an article in Truthout.

Laura Whitehorn served more than 14 years in federal prison. She co-founded Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) and edited The War Before by the late Black Panther political prisoner and organizer Safiya Bukhari. She is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Roslyn D. Smith is a Program Manager for V-Day, a nonprofit organization that seeks to end violence against women and girls. She draws on her personal experiences of long-term incarceration to advocate for criminal justice reform. 

Bill Ayers is a distinguished professor of education and a senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, where he taught courses in interpretive and qualitative research, urban school change, and teaching.