The following interview was put together by an exchange of letters from December of 1984 through February of 1985 and through six hours of face-to-face discussion with 1968 Columbia Student Strike Leader David Gilbert in Auburn Prison in New York State on January 27, 1985. Gilbert ( www.prisonactivist.org/pps+pows/davidgilbert/ ) is still a U.S. political prisoner in 2007 and is currently imprisoned at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. This 1985 interview first appeared in the “Broadway” section of the Columbia Daily Spectator on April 2, 1985.
On October 6, 1983, you were sentenced to a minimum of 75 years and a maximum of life in prison. How do you feel about facing life in prison?
David Gilbert: I certainly don’t like being in prison. But it would be worse if I had lost my commitment to fight a system which is such an incredible destroyer of human life and dignity. As for the 75 years, well imperialism isn’t going to last that long. Nor do I think that I will spend my natural life in prison. A revolutionary can be killed in or outside, but if we are talking about 30 or 40 years time—very important political changes, even revolutionary changes are bound to take place over that time span.
The people charged with the October 20, 1981 “Brink’s Robbery” were labeled in the media as “terrorists” and “cold-blooded killers.” How do you define yourself?
Gilbert: It makes sense that the police agencies and establishment media would label us this way. Any system of tyranny must discredit those who build resistance to it, and must try to separate such revolutionaries from the people who suffer under the system. Actually, the media charges turn reality on its head; propagate the big lie. This government and the business interests it serves are the great cold-blooded killers and terrorists of the world. When you grasp the reality of all the people who die of hunger, disease, abuse, and the wholesale terror against people’s movements around the world, then the humane response is to find ways to fight U.S. imperialism as effectively as possible.
What, in your view, was the October 20th action all about?
Gilbert: It was an attempted expropriation. That means taking money from those who amassed wealth by exploiting the people and using that money to finance the resistance. Every revolution has had to use expropriations as a method of finance. You’re just not going to get donations from the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations.
This particular expropriation was under the leadership of the Black Liberation Army [BLA] with white revolutionaries participating in alliance with them. The BLA communiqué after the action said that the funds had been intended to build the army, and for nationalist programs, especially for the youth, in the Black community.
What was the day of capture like for you? Were you abused?
Gilbert: The cops were in a rage. They’re used to just rolling over people without anyone fighting back. They tried to make me talk and beat me off and on for about 3 hours. Then they stuck the barrel of a shotgun into my neck telling me to talk. Later the “bad cop” came in to tell each of us that we were going to get the chair; he was followed by the “good cop”—in this case an FBI agent—who said that the first one who ratted would get a big break.
What was that like for you?
Gilbert: It really helps to know that you’re fighting for a just cause and that there is no way you’re ever going to talk; that takes a lot of the internal tension out of the situation.
While I was beaten and Judy Clark had been knocked down, torture was used on two New Afrikan [Black] men. There is a difference between brutality and torture; the latter involves a systematic and more or less scientific infliction of pain. They broke Sam Brown’s neck in two places and then denied him the needed surgery for 11 weeks—until after he had turned informer. That can all be documented by medical records. Sekou Odinga www.prisonactivist.org/pps+pows/sekou-odinga/ , captured in Queens on October 23, 1981, walked into the police station without a scratch. He was taken out to three months in the hospital including intravenous feeding. The cops systematically worked on his pancreas, put cigarettes out on his body, and other things. Of course Sekou never wavered.
Many people say that they can sympathize with your goals but they abhor your tactics.
Gilbert: Well, I really wish there were a way to defeat imperialism without the pain and bloodshed. Our generation tried to “shake the moral conscience of America” in the Sixties. I think the clear lesson from Viet Nam, from the bloody overthrow of Allende in Chile, from the COINTELPRO campaigns against the Black movement here and the criminal attacks on Nicaragua today [in 1985] is that you have to be able to fight and ultimately defeat imperialism’s force and violence to achieve any real change.
But what about the deaths that day? Two policemen and a Brink’s guard were killed. Some social activists feel that no goal justifies the taking of a human life.
Gilbert: First, to be clear, the purpose of an expropriation is not to hurt or punish the individual police or guards. The goal is to get away as quietly and cleanly as possible with funds for the struggle. The story of the combatants charging out shooting at the Brink’s guard is a pure propaganda creation. In more private moments, the FBI analysts know and even state that the consistent practice of the BLA was not to come out shooting but to try to disarm the guards. The only fire by revolutionaries that day was in response to a clear threat of fire.
People have been conditioned to be sensitive to certain types of deaths but not others. When a policeman is killed we are bombarded with the images of a human tragedy. But the police shootings of Third World people (and occasionally poor whites) are every day events, are almost always treated as routine and acceptable. Today the New York City police are outraged that there is even this one second degree manslaughter charge for their shotgunning 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs. The cops just never do time for their violence against the people.
Okay, social violence far exceeds the cost of any revolution to end it. But does that mean anything goes? Isn’t there a danger of becoming like the oppressor?
Gilbert: There is all the difference in the world between reactionary violence and revolutionary violence. Imperialism’s violence is terroristic in that it is usually directed against large numbers of people, especially civilian populations; torture is a standard weapons; a main goal is to terrorize those who might otherwise resist; the ultimate purpose is to maintain intolerable conditions of exploitation and social suffering. Revolutionary violence is the opposite; it must be very strategic and focused on mobilizing the oppressed and breaking the repressive apparatus of the state; we must set very clear standards that express the humanism of the struggle.
What was the specific political position you took at trial?
Gilbert: Kuwasi Balagoon [who died in Auburn Prison, New York on December 13, 1986] and Sekou Odinga took the position of prisoners of war, as fighters in the Black Liberation struggle. They argued that the U.S. has colonized New Afrikan people. The U.S. colonial courts have no legitimate jurisdiction over New Afrikans. There is an internationally recognized right to fight colonial and racist regimes.
Judy Clark [who is still imprisoned at Bedford Hills Prison in New York] and I took the position of anti-imperialists, fighting in solidarity with the Black Liberation Struggle. We recognize that U.S. imperialism is a criminal and anti-human system, and we couldn’t accept the legitimacy of its courts. (end of part 1)
(Columbia Daily Spectator 4/2/85)
Next: 1968 Columbia Student Strike Leader Dave Gilbert: A 1985 Interview—Part 2