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.
Tell me something about the people who were charged with you.
David Gilbert: We are all people who have fought for human rights and against the tyranny of this system all our adult lives. Sekou Odinga www.prisonactivist.org/pps+pows/sekou-odinga/ and Kuwasi Balagoon [who died in Auburn Prison, New York on December 13, 1986] were part of the Panther 21 case. (In April 1969 the police charged 21 New York Black Panthers with a giant conspiracy to commit bombings. After a lengthy trial, a jury acquitted them all of charges. But the arrests and the drain on resources, along with other government attacks, had decimated the New York Black Panther chapter). Judith Clark, Kathy Boudin [who was released on parole in August 2003], and I all got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the early ‘60s and the anti-war movement of the mid-‘60s. We’ve been anti-imperialist activists ever since.
Many people I talk to have broad movement sympathies from the Sixties, but such people found your refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the courts to be a very, well, outlandish position and perhaps needlessly self-sacrificing.
Gilbert: I think that is a sign of the repressive power of the courts, you know, that it does seem so outlandish for us to state openly and honestly how we view them. If you study who goes to jail and who doesn’t it becomes crystal clear that the courts definitely aren’t about justice and equality. For example, in North Carolina, Ku Klux Klanners gunned down five anti-Klan demonstrators in front of T.V. cameras; they never served a day for those cold-blooded murders. On the other hand, Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt [ who was finally released in the late 1990s] has done some 13 years [as of 1985] on a life sentence despite evidence in FBI files that proves his innocence.
Kathy Boudin mounted a legal defense and eventually made a plea bargain for 20 years to life. How do you evaluate this?
Gilbert: Of course her sentence, in terms of how the legal system usually works, was incredibly harsh. It’s one sign, as were the sentences the rest of us got, of just how politically motivated the courts were in this case. Even going through the legal procedure and plea bargaining, she got a life sentence for a first conviction and on a felony murder (i.e., indirect involvement). Meanwhile, a gang of white teenagers stomped to death Black transit worker Willie Turks, who was unarmed. One of these thugs got a manslaughter conviction, two others got misdemeanors: that’s it. Or, D.A. Morgenthau gave 8 of 11 cops who beat a handcuffed Michael Stewart to death immunity from possible murder charges to testify at a Grand Jury. Later the same D.A. wouldn’t give the Black youths whom Bernhard Goetz shot in the back immunity, and Goetz was cleared of all attempted murder and assault charges.
Were you, Judy and Kathy part of the Weather Underground Organization?
Gilbert: Historically, we came out of the Weather Underground. In the early Seventies the WUO represented a very positive trend of militancy against imperialism and alliance with national liberation struggles—particularly Viet Nam and Black liberation. Large numbers of white youth identified with that militancy, spirit and direction. But the WUO also had serious problems and eventually played out the same basic history of the white left in general: an abandonment of solidarity with the national liberation struggles and a retreat from militancy.
Were there mistakes involved in October 20th?
Gilbert: Definitely. In response to criticisms and struggle, Judy and I tried to analyze some of the problems from the vantage point of white anti-imperialist freedom fighters. I don’t think this is the place to go into detail, many issues are still being grappled with. But broadly, there is the error of interventionism, sort of a pretense of being special or “exceptional” white individuals acting within the New Afrikan Independence Movement, without taking real responsibility to build our movement. Also there was too much of a belief that military action by small groups itself could spur a political movement. (end of part 2)
(Columbia Daily Spectator 4/2/85)
Next: 1968 Columbia Student Strike Leader Dave Gilbert: A 1985 Interview—Part 3