David Gilbert is not as well known as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, his old comrades in the Weather Underground, but he does deserve notoriety: He is a convicted murderer and a revolutionary terrorist, who is now serving a life term for his role in the 1981 Brink’s robbery near Nyack, N.Y. He and his common-law wife, Kathy Boudin, both members of a group called the Revolutionary Armed Task Force, were in a van meant to be a getaway car for members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) who were robbing a bank. The robbers fled in the van, after killing a bank guard. When the police stopped the van, Boudin and Gilbert surrendered. Seeing that they were unarmed, the police put down their guns. When they went to open the van’s back door, however, other BLA members came out shooting, murdering police officers Waverly Brown and Edward J. O’Grady. (Brown was the first black officer hired by the Nyack force.)
In his self-serving and disingenuous memoir, Gilbert offers a manual for today’s advocates of armed struggle. Beginning with his participation in the famous 1968 Columbia University sit-in, in which he was a leader of the so-called praxis/axis, made up of students who sought to infuse their movement with Marxist revolutionary theory, Gilbert takes his readers on an exhausting trip through all of the revolutionary factional groups he later joined. Like Ayers, Gilbert became part of the Weathermen, a group whose members believed that the path to socialist revolution in America lay through an alliance of white students with Third World revolutionaries and black militants within the U.S.
The Weathermen set off bombs at various places, including police stations, the Pentagon, and other symbolic targets. Their project came to an end when some of them blew themselves up in a New York townhouse while making bombs they planned to use at Fort Dix in New Jersey, at a dance for new Army recruits. Did Gilbert and his surviving friends get discouraged by this failure? No, he tells us, they just made sure to make safer circuits: There were “crucial lessons that had to be learned about storing and handling explosives.” Nonetheless, their new cadre groups fell apart over arcane political and theoretical differences.
Gilbert then helped create a new group led by women, the May 19th Communist Organization, which offered support for the BLA, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party. The BLA was dedicated to working for revolution by robbing banks and, more important, killing police officers in a symbolic effort to show the “black nation” in America that it could do away with its local oppressors; it made its reputation in the early 1970s, when its members killed two teams of white and black policemen. Over the coming years, the BLA would murder over a dozen police officers in cities throughout the country.
Gilbert has made some good friends now that he is in prison serving a life sentence. One of the oppressed of whom Gilbert writes warmly and lovingly is a man who was named Donald Weems at birth, but who became Kuwasi Balagoon. The book has a prison photo of Gilbert with Balagoon, whom he refers to as his “comrade.” What kind of a man was he? Gilbert writes that he “exuded an incredible joie de vivre. He also wrote great poetry.” We learn only that he was “arrested and convicted for expropriations in New Jersey.” They spent their time “telling old ‘war stories,’” and readers learn that this “playful ‘uncle’” to other inmates’ visiting children was also at the Columbia University demonstrations in 1968. He was a revolutionary fighting for the “independence of New Afrika,” Gilbert writes, with whom he held “lively and rich” discussions of political issues. We do not learn what charges put Balagoon in prison. Perhaps Gilbert realizes that to acknowledge that he was one of the BLA armed terrorists who killed cops in the Brink’s robbery would not create much sympathy for the two inmates’ having such a good time trading their war stories in prison.
Like Gilbert, Balagoon believed his actions were just. As Balagoon wrote in his memoir, “Anyone not funded by an outside power must engage in acts of expropriation or collect ‘revolutionary compulsory tax’ to carry on revolution. No member of the B.L.A. has ever opened fire during an expropriation unless forced by a fool. . . . When the B.L.A. has assassinated police officers on purpose and by design we’ve issued communiques explaining why.
Gilbert’s book makes quite clear how he sees the murder of cops. The BLA’s struggle, he explains, was a “just” one, in which they had gone to war because it was “forced upon them by the murderous assaults on legal dissent”: “The BLA never shot anyone who wasn’t an armed professional and always took great care to avoid civilian casualties.” Police are not, in Gilbert’s eyes, protectors of the community in which they live, but members of an army representing a ruling class that is at war with the oppressed.
To Gilbert, such murders are but “armed resistance” to the oppressors. To call such acts “terrorism” is simply a ruse employed by the rulers to justify government attacks against them; and the courts that tried him and Balagoon are “illegitimate.” He has the nerve to compare his plight to that of Lech Walesa and Solidarity before the fall of Communism in Poland, and relates that in his American “gulag” (as Ayers calls the prison system), he has won a lawsuit allowing contact visits with his family and child, watches color TV, writes books and articles that get published, and gives television interviews. There is a photo of him throwing his son in the air during a visit; Gilbert does not wear prison garb. Some gulag.
Gilbert’s memoir follows a long string of similar memoirs by others in his circle. One of them, Susan Rosenberg, was inexplicably pardoned by Bill Clinton on his very last day in office, although she too was a proud advocate of revolutionary terror. As George Russell wrote in an essay about her in a recent issue of Commentary, these memoirs are part of an “ongoing effort to rehabilitate and give moral stature to some of the most hard-bitten American political gangsters of the 1970s and ’80s by wrapping them in the garb of political dissidents.”
Gilbert’s book fits that description. But unlike the others, his has a more insidious purpose. While Bill Ayers tried to portray himself in his own memoir and in interviews — conning even the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker — as a noble anti-war activist, Gilbert is up-front about being a Marxist-Leninist Communist revolutionary. He proudly takes the “national liberation” position — i.e., the view that revolution will be conducted in the imperialist heartland by people of color, who are most oppressed — rather than the traditional “class” line, that the white working class will be the motor of revolution. He means for his book to inspire young activists, for whom he says he is a “mentor,” and help them avoid repeating the useless steps he took on the way to settling on the path of “armed struggle.”
The importance of the book is apparent when one looks at the many blurbs that fill its first pages. Robin D. G. Kelley, a very left-wing black historian at the University of Southern California, writes that Gilbert is “speaking to a new generation of activists” and showing them that “speeches and demonstrations alone do not make change.” Kelley praises Gilbert for “a bold act of solidarity with the world’s oppressed.”
The actor Peter Coyote sees Gilbert as a man of “deep thought” who exposes “the reality we all share.” Other blurbs are from popular rock-‘n’-roll artists, including Zack de la Rocha, lead singer for Rage Against the Machine, and Boots Riley, a prominent singer at OWS encampments and a partner of Rage guitarist Tom Morello in a new rock protest group, Street Sweeper Social Club. Gilbert makes Riley “sit back in awe of what our heroes did,” a man who with the Weather Underground “heard the symphony of revolutionary thought and action from around the world, and instead of simply applauding . . . jumped up on the stage of history, and banged out a tune.” He hopes readers have the same reaction to the book as he did — that of getting “caught up in the romantic fervor.” One could have this reaction, if one thought killing police officers trying to thwart an armed robbery was romantic.
Bill Ayers, who was Gilbert’s partner in the Weathermen and who helped raise Gilbert and Boudin’s son, says that Gilbert “speaks up with hope and a simple clarity,” despite the fact that he is “suffering thirty years of hard time in several of America’s most brutal dungeons.” He is angry that Gilbert has been subjected to “a decades-long campaign of demonization and misinformation.”
At least Gilbert pulls no punches about what he and his comrades really believe. He is hopeful that today’s young people will not repeat “the classic opportunist errors” of those who do not understand that the force for revolution lies in the world’s oppressed peoples of color. He believes that “the most basic divide is still between imperialism and the oppressed majority of humankind in, and from Africa, Asia, Oceana [sic], and Latin America.” He still holds a “deep commitment to revolutionary change,” as do all those who blurb his book and see him as a hero whose story should inspire activists today.
How strange that in the 21st century, an unapologetic committed revolutionary can become a hero to anyone in America, and that others are trying to carry his word and his example to today’s new movements. And one wonders, How long before Gilbert himself is freed, either by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, or by President Barack Obama? After all, they would only be following precedent.