by Leonard Lehrman
Discussed in this essay: No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner, by David Gilbert. Abraham Guillen Press and Arm the Spirit, 2004, 282 pages; Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond, by David Gilbert, PM Press, 2012, 336 pages; Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, by Dan Berger, AK Press, 2006, 432 pages; Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, by Mark Rudd, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009, 326 pages.
“You just hugged a murderer.” What could I say in response to that? It had been a long road — in fact, many roads — leading to my finally meeting David Gilbert at Auburn Correctional Facility on August 4, 2012.
I knew about him mostly from research for my January-February 2007 Jewish Currents review of Susan Braudy’s Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left. That book came out shortly after Kathy Boudin had been paroled, having served twenty-two years for her role in the 1981 Brinks truck robbery. David Gilbert, her husband and the father of their son, Chesa Boudin, is still in prison for that crime, ineligible for parole until October 13, 2056. The question “Why?” has three parts: What did he do that put him there? Why did he do it? And why, unlike Kathy Boudin, is he still there?
Born October 6, 1944 in a family of middle-class Jews in Brookline, Massachusetts, David Gilbert describes himself in his 2012 memoir, Love and Struggle, as “not at all religious but very much Jewish in terms of heritage and culture.” With two older sisters, he was “steeped in the indignation and insistence on women’s rights” as early as the 1950s, and then “shattered” by the reaction to the Greensboro, North Carolina anti-segregation sit-ins of February 1960, which, along with the “Jewish values of compassion and social justice” that he had “imbibed,” he writes, made him “a passionate anti-racist activist.”
Gilbert entered Columbia College in 1962. There he joined CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), tutored privately in Harlem, missed the August 28, 1963 March on Washington (his father feared that if his son appeared there on TV it could hurt his business!), but was inspired watching Dr. King on TV. Then he heard Malcolm X speak at Barnard on February 18, 1965 (three days before Malcolm X’s assassination), which Gilbert called “one of the most formative experiences of my life.”
A charter member of the Columbia chapter of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society (he was described as “super-bright” in Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of that organization, edited by Paul Buhle), Gilbert in 1967 co-authored with David Loud the first anti-imperialist SDS pamphlet, “U.S. Imperialism,” as well as (with Bob Gottlieb and Gerry Tenney) “The Port Authority Statement,” a radical updating and response to SDS’s founding “Port Huron Statement,” which had appeared in 1962. After graduation, Gilbert enrolled as a sociology graduate student at The New School, but stayed in touch with Columbia, especially with two fellow Jewish radicals, Ted Gold and Mark Rudd, who were helping to lead the student strike there. (“I wasn’t on the Strike Coordinating Committee,” Gilbert writes, “although I did play an active role in the strike.”) The sole female member of that group, Rusti Eisenberg, recalled David Gilbert’s “exception[al] sensitivity and thoughtfulness” (as quoted in Mark Rudd’s memoir, Underground).
Rudd, later anointed by the media as the leader of the Columbia strike, acknowledges that it was Gilbert who had first convinced him to join the Independent Committee on Vietnam at Columbia. Gilbert, in turn, had been convinced to enter the Weather Collective by his roommate Ted Gold, whom I knew as a child, his father Hy Gold having been an editorial staff member with my father of The Intern, the organ of the Association of Interns and Medical Students, in the 1940s. I remember seeing Hy, Ted, and his younger brother at our home a few times in the 1950s, and at the 1963 March on Washington.
By 1970, SDS had splintered, and many of the most militant members, including Ted Gold, David Gilbert, Mark Rudd, Kathy Boudin, Bill Ayers, and Bernadine Dohrn, had gone underground, calling themselves Weathermen, or later the Weather Underground. The name came from a Bob Dylan lyric about not needing “a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The FBI was soon after them for a series of property bombings set off in protest against the continuing war in Vietnam and the oppression of African Americans, in particular the Black Panthers, who were being targeted by the FBI, murdered, and imprisoned. No one was ever killed by a Weather Underground bombing, but one graduate student died in an explosion set at the Army Math Building in Madison, Wisconsin in August 1970 by a group “totally unrelated to us,” Gilbert writes. “We had extensive discussions on how to do our best to see that other groups didn’t make such deadly mistakes, and on how to set a clear example on safety for the other armed struggle groups that were emerging.”
On March 6, 1970, however, an explosion at a townhouse on West 11th Street, where the Weather people (not including Rudd and Gilbert, both elsewhere at the time) had been building bombs, killed Ted Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, while Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin escaped. Henry Fonda’s ex-wife Susan Wagner, who lived next door, gave them shelter, after which they left and went underground. In a heartfelt speech thirty-nine years later, Hy Gold tells of the agony of that moment, and his belief that Ted had gone to the townhouse to dissuade the others from making those bombs.
Since the appearance of the 2003 film The Weather Underground, with trenchant interviews of, among others, Mark Rudd, David Gilbert, and Naomi Jaffe (a former flame of David’s, and “a first-rate Left intellectual,” he writes), at least two hundred people have written to David in prison, and he does try to correspond faithfully as best he can, aided by Jaffe from her home. I have several typewritten letters from him, all of them most encouraging (“keep shining brightly”), and numerous emails from Naomi. (The address at which to write him is David Gilbert, 83A6158, Auburn Correctional Facility, PO Box 618, Auburn, NY 13024; those interested can reach Naomi via email.)
Like Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers, David Gilbert came up from underground in 1977-80 (and Kathy Boudin considered doing so), as the FBI’s COINTELPRO’s abuses became widely known and the U.S. government, in line with President Carter’s amnesty for draft evaders, dropped nearly all the charges against them in lieu of allowing defense attorneys the process of “discovery” (pre-trial questioning of witnesses) which could have allegedly endangered “national security.” Unlike the others, however, two years after coming clean, David decided to go back underground Kathy, in order to help comrades in the Black Liberation Army (some of whom were Black Panthers) in clandestine operations.
One of these, a Brinks armored truck robbery, which they called a revolutionary “expropriation,” took place October 20, 1981. Unlike the operation that had successfully and bloodlessly freed the unjustly imprisoned black militant Assata Shakur on November 2, 1979 from a New Jersey prison (Cuba gave her political asylum), the Brinks truck robbery went terribly wrong, culminating in shootouts and the deaths of four people, including Nyack, New York’s only African-American police officer, Waverly Brown. Gilbert, Boudin, Judith Clark, and a number of their African-American friends were apprehended, the men were beaten, and all were indicted for felony murder, which involves full legal responsibility for all deaths that occur, regardless of who actually did the shooting.
When Mark Rudd, now above ground, heard of the robbery, arrests and convictions, he yelled over the phone at David, who had called him collect from prison in the spring of 1981: “What [one can easily imagine the expletive] did you think you were doing?”
“Well, someone had to keep the revolutionary underground going,” came the answer.
It took another twenty-four years (not thirty-four, as Rudd writes on page 308 of his memoir, though it may have felt that way) before Rudd could bring himself to make contact again with Gilbert, whom he describes as “my twin self in 1966, my moral hero who didn’t want to be a good German . . . the self-sacrificing revolutionary guerrilla, forever loyal to a heroic idea of using cleansing, pure, logical, revolutionary violence to stop the greater violence of the system.” David Gilbert, writes Rudd, “might have had a career as a respected professor, talking a great game about revolution. But he believed in throwing in his lot with the oppressed of the world, no matter what the consequences.”
And what consequences! John Castellucci’s 1986 detailed account, The Big Dance, concentrates on those who died in the Brinks robbery and creates an unsympathetic impression of the defendants, which may never be erased or even ameliorated in the public’s mind. Correcting its many inaccuracies would, Gilbert writes, take “a book in itself.” The only one he chose to focus on with me, as well as in his memoir (p. 198), is the assertion that he had opposed Boudin’s breastfeeding their baby Chesa, which Gilbert had, in fact, enthusiastically supported.
Chesa, whom they had left with a sitter on the day of the Brinks truck robbery, would eventually be raised by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, become a Rhodes scholar, an expert on Venezuela, a lawyer, and an excellent speaker (I heard him at the late, lamented Five Towns Forum). It was in part to try to answer his son’s questions that David finally wrote Love and Struggle, his earlier book, No Surrender, being a collection of political essays.
The memoir is both searing and stirring, if at times frustrating. Unlike Dan Berger’s highly recommended 2006 Outlaws of America, dedicated to the author’s grandmother “and for David Gilbert — compassionate souls, learned teachers, and lovers of life,” Love and Struggle does not have an index, though the two-page glossary of sixty-three (!) acronyms is quite helpful, even indispensable. The book is also purposely vague on details and personnel involved in the various Weathermen actions (as was David Gilbert in person with me). The story of Chesa’s conception, breech birth, and naming — born feet first, he was given a Swahili name meaning “dancing feet” — is lovingly and movingly told. Likewise his report about the remorse David felt when he realized that his court statement, discounting the relative importance of “three lives” — meaning those of himself and his fellow prisoners — might well have been misunderstood as denigrating the significance of those law enforcement officers who had died in the shootouts. Gilbert’s regrets and sorrow, like those of Kathy and Judith Clark, are real and genuine, and have been expressed repeatedly.
I started writing to him in 2007, when I learned he was at Clinton Correction Facility in Dannemora, New York, an hour or so south of Montreal, where I was performing that summer. I hoped to visit him as well as another inmate, Carl Berk, who had come to know a relative of mine while at another prison, and who was now publishing his poetry in Jewish Currents. Naomi Jaffe wrote to me about all the details involved in visiting, and I ended up seeing Carl, but not David: Carl, who was serving a life sentence for shooting his wife and a policeman he caught in bed with her, kept me longer than expected by telling me the long story of his crime and trial. Having been told to leave the prison and reenter in order to see David, I tried to do so, only to be told that it was now too late, I would not be allowed to see David this visit. Nonetheless, I’m glad I saw Carl, who died of a heart attack at 72 on January 6, 2012. One of his three daughters is writing a memoir about him.
A few years later, David was moved to Auburn, in western New York. In August 2012, I was concertizing in that area, and was at last able to arrange a successful visit. David and I began with a hug, and found ourselves embracing each other at least three more times in the course of the two and a half hours we spent talking. This brilliant man was so full of love and idealism that it was impossible not to feel with and for him. His openness, frankness, and genuine interest in my various cultural and political researches moved me deeply.
So why is he still in, while Kathy Boudin is out? The main reason for the differences in sentencing for essentially the same crime, felony murder, stems from the way they pleaded at trial. Kathy’s attorney father Leonard Boudin and his legal team had persuaded her to plead guilty to one count in exchange for a sentence that would enable her to leave prison during her lifetime. David Gilbert and Judith Clark, however, described themselves as political prisoners, in solidarity with members of the BLA who had committed the robbery and murder (the white confederates were supporters, renting and driving the getaway vehicles), and disputed the right of the government to try them anywhere but in an international court. Despite the urging and valiant efforts of attorney Arthur Kinoy, they would not compromise. (No Surrender is the title of David’s first book, though he later wrote: “The title wasn’t at all meant to invoke a military stance . . . it was insensitive of me to not think about how the title would be perceived, and I later wrote an apology for that.”)
I see David Gilbert as a man who fought for people to have better lives and has served ample time in atonement for his mistakes and crimes. He has been a pioneer in peer counseling and AIDS education for prisoners since 1987, one year before Kathy Boudin and other women prisoners started “AIDS Counseling and Education” (“ACE”), which became a model, he writes, for “similar projects at a few of the men’s prisoners closer to New York City.” (The year is misstated as 1998 instead of 1988 on p. 127 of No Surrender, which David wrote me to “please note,” because “I never got to proofread the manuscript.”)
Gilbert deserves to be released while he can still contribute to society, just as much as Leonard Peltier, Lynne Stewart (one of David’s attorneys, recently granted compassionate release from prison), Mumia Abu Jamal (a correspondent who has blurbed David’s book, and about whom David has written extensively, including some haikus), Chelsea Manning, and Jonathan Pollard. The campaign for the release of David Gilbert and five ex-Panthers has been endorsed by academics, civic leaders, community organizers, and a few Nobel Peace Prize winners. It has been accurately described as “an extraordinary show of support for freeing people whose incarceration resulted from struggles against injustice.”
So what could I say to his laconic parting words, “You just hugged a murderer”?
“You’re not a murderer,” I replied, “and we will work to get you out.”
Leonard Lehrman, a long-time Jewish Currents contributor, has researched, created, composed, and performed musical works on Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman,Sacco-Vanzetti, and the Rosenbergs. His “SUPERSPY! The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical,” opens at the Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street in New York City on February 7th.