Friday, June 20, 2008

The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert--Part 1

What follows is part 1 of a 1991 interview with jailed former Weather Underground activist David Gilbert.

U.S. political prisoner Gilbert is currently in his 27th year of a 75-years-to-life sentence for a “felony murder” conviction stemming from his involvement in an attempted expropriation of a Brink’s truck in Rockland County, New York, in 1981.

In the 1960s, Gilbert was the founder and first chair of the Columbia University Independent Committee on Vietnam (ICV) anti-war student group and was also one of the founding members of the Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter which led the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt.

Years later, Gilbert joined the underground and, after ten years of active resistance, was captured in 1981 in the wake of the armored car robbery and shoot-out with police. Gilbert is currently imprisoned in Clinton State Prison in Dannemora, New York, where he has been an activist around AIDS issues and prisoners’ rights. Since this 1991 interview, he has written a book of essays, No Surrender, and appeared in a film, The Weather Underground.

(The following interview originally appeared in the June/July 1991 issue of New York City’s Lower East Side alternative newspaper The Shadow )

Q: How did the Columbia Independent Committee on Vietnam get started?

David Gilbert [DG]: We started in March 1965, about a month after President Johnson began the regular bombings of North Vietnam—LBJ had bombed North Vietnam earlier, after the rigged Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, but we were fooled into seeing this as a one-shot outburst—I was sure that some of the more established campus groups and leaders would form something. But when nothing happened after about a month, I called together a small group of people who had long been troubled by U.S. policy toward Vietnam.

Q: Did anti-war sentiment predominate on campus?

DG: Not by a long-shot. Back then it was almost unheard of to question the government on foreign policy. Initially, the vast majority of students accepted what the government and media told them. But it was also a wonderful time of new openness and ferment: students’ social awareness and moral sensibilities were blooming due to the Civil Rights Movement.

The first thing the Independent Vietnam Committee [ICV] did was set up literature tables on Low Plaza. We’d be out there for hours and hours each day debating the war—debating, rather than discussing, because most students opposed us. But there was definitely a burgeoning anti-war sector, and events themselves were changing people rapidly. By 1968, more than two-thirds of the students at Columbia University opposed the war.

Q: What was the relationship of the ICV to Students for a Democratic Society [SDS]?

DG: SDS was a national organization. Their work included support for the Civil Rights Movement, organizing in poor communities, and actions against apartheid. With the benefit of a little more-developed analysis they had a few months earlier—December 1964—put out a call for an April 17, 1965 march on Washington against the war. When the systematic bombing started in February, interest in the march mushroomed, and it ended up with, for then, a tremendous size of 20-25,000. Columbia, incidentally, sent 650 people, despite it being spring vacation—the largest single delegation in the march.

Those of us who started the ICV really liked SDS because it combined the issue of the war with a program against racism and also had some sort of vague socialist perspective. So we started a small SDS chapter at Columbia. Still, there was such energy and awakening around the war that we felt we had to put our main effort into the ICV to provide a vehicle for the broader range of anti-war views and energy.

By 1967, so many students were seeing the connections between the war and the underlying nature of society that SDS became the main organization, at the same time raising the level of militancy—e.g., by disrupting CIA recruiters.

(end of part 1)

To view part 1 of a video of a 1998 interview with David Gilbert, you can click on the following link:

Next: The Anti-War Movements, Now and Then: A 1991 Interview With U.S. Political Prisoner David Gilbert—Part 2