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.
What about the demand for land and independence for a Black nation? A lot of people find that hard to imagine.
David Gilbert: Well, they may be at this point, but it’s certainly not harder to imagine than European settlers coming here and taking over a whole continent from the Native Americans, importing millions of Africans as slaves, conquering half of Mexico. There have been sweeping changes before in history. There can and will be sweeping changes on the side of justice.
I am a supporter of the national liberation position. That position holds that Blacks or New Afrikans have been so systematically oppressed as a people and that white supremacy is so deeply embedded in America that the only route to complete freedom is through independence, through a national liberation struggle.
Did October 20th show that armed struggle can’t work in the U.S.?
Gilbert: Not at all. You have to understand that revolution is not like an instant pancake mix—you know, three easy steps, just follow the instructions on the back of the package. Revolution is a very complex and difficult process. Setbacks will occur. That’s not to excuse mistakes; they must be analyzed and overturned. But, if the general direction is righteous, the movement collectively can learn and advance from setbacks.
There is a very important history and continuity of armed struggle for Black liberation and for Puerto Rican independence. In the past two years [1983-1985] there has also been a very positive development of anti-imperialist actions here in relationship to Central America and South Africa. Armed struggle isn’t a substitute for mass activism, but it can play a leading role in showing the nature and the vulnerability of the enemy. It is essential to forging the ability for waging the protracted struggle ahead of us.
Who is in prison and what are the causes of crime?
Gilbert: That’s a big and complex issue. There are a couple of generalizations that I can make. The biggest common denominator on who ends up in prison is people from poor background. Prison is a tool of repression against those rebellious and unruly elements among the colonized peoples “Black, Puerto Rican, Native Americans, Mexicans” and those among the poorest whites. Here, the population seems to be about 40 to 45 percent Black and 35 percent Latino. And it is very, very rare for someone with money to go to jail.
The other main generalization is that the worst you can say about prisoners is that they tend to apply the values that predominate in capitalist society to their own socio-economic situation.
In the months of October and November 1984, there were three different sets of sensationalized arrests of revolutionaries. In a pre-dawn raid, 8 New Afrikan activists were rounded up by hundreds of New York Police and FBI agents. On November 4th five activists with alleged connections to the Melville Jackson unit and the United Freedom Front were arrested in the Cleveland area. Then on November 30th Susan Rosenberg [who was eventually pardoned in 2001] and Tim Blunk [who was released in the 1990s] were arrested in New Jersey. What are your feelings and assessment of the series of arrests?
Gilbert: First, my love and strong solidarity goes out to any under attack by the state in this way. I know it can be intense and also that people of principle will stand strong. I definitely hope that all revolutionaries being sought by the police remain free and that a resistance grows and flourishes.
I don’t know exactly how all the various individuals define themselves politically and I certainly don’t want to speak for them. Actually, it is important that the means are developed for such comrades to have a louder voice and broader dialogue. Beyond the hardships involved, the situation reveals that we are not just dealing with a few “crazy” individuals, as the media would have us believe. We are talking about real movements, committed to fighting imperialism, with real roots in history and, more importantly, a very crucial potential for the future.
How do you define the movement people now in prison? What should be done about their situation?
Gilbert: There are a range of people now in prison in the U.S. for political reasons: the prisoners of war from the national liberation struggles, anti-imperialist resistance fighters, Grand Jury resisters, draft resisters, busted sanctuary workers. Real justice means freeing all those imprisoned for fighting against oppression. Until that is achieved, there should be recognition of our political statuses and commensurate treatment under United Nations guidelines.
I would urge people reading this to build support for and to demand political status and ultimate release for all captive revolutionaries. This is not only to aid the individuals involved but even more importantly to build the consciousness of a need for a fighting movement against this cruel and blood drenched imperialism.
Sometimes when you talk it sounds as though you think revolution is imminent. Many people consider the idea of revolution in the U.S. farfetched to say the least. Some would say that, whatever the validity of your goals, you are on a quixotic quest.
Gilbert: I’m sure to those who lived in ancient Rome, or under the Egyptian Pharaohs, or in the reign of the Ming Dynasty, those empires looked eternal also. The U.S. empire will fall like all empires before it.
You see, U.S. imperialism seems invincibly powerful, but the sources of its great strength are also the basis of its ultimate weakness. The U.S. rakes in fabulous wealth from Third World countries around the world. But in an era of national liberation, the U.S. will increasingly find its military might over-extended and drained around the globe.
Its economic empire is also based on taking over the land and labor of whole peoples: Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicanos. But these internally colonized people, especially in the context of a U.S. military power over-extended abroad, will develop strong national liberation struggles within the borders.
Within the oppressor nation (i.e. among white Americans) there is an important class contradiction, as well as the oppression of women. The rulers have been able to submerge class conflict with the wealth and power extracted from oppressed nations. That basis will be breaking down, and we will be dealing with conditions of severe economic dislocation and unjust wars.
Well, this all is perhaps too schematic. We’re not trying to write an essay here. The point is that this powerful empire has been built on giant social contradictions which are beginning to crack open.
Well, what do you think Columbia and Barnard students should be doing today [in 1985]?
Gilbert: I think the most dynamic feature right now [in 1985] is the government’s mobilization for war in Central America and the need to stop it. To really stop such imperialist wars, we are going to also have to deal with fundamental structures within the U.S.: internal colonialism and racism, class rule, male supremacy.
On a broader level I want to appeal to students to get back in touch with a basic humanism. The Reagan reign is a rallying call to a terrible cynicism and callousness. But, you know, we can’t feel very full of good about our own self-worth and humanity if we’re denying it for everyone else. Our outlook and commitment must relate to the conditions and aspirations of the vast majority of human kind—the oppressed. If you honestly look at the systematic violence of social conditions and analyze the structures and powers enforcing that…Well, I think that the only fully humane conclusion is revolutionary.” (end of interview)
(Columbia Daily Spectator 4/2/85)
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