My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond
by David Gilbert
Oakland : PM Press 2012
Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond is a well-written, intellectually and politically exciting, and emotionally moving autobiography. Published by the alternative non-commercial collective PM Press, it presents a more balanced picture of Gilbert than has been portrayed in the U.S. mass media since his arrest in 1981. Most people have previously had the chance to hear Gilbert speak for himself only in Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s 2003 Academy Award-nominated documentary film, The Weather Underground.
Love and Struggle provides its readers with a sweeping history of the growth and development of the Movement of the 1960s that reflects the historical perspective of politically radical anti-racist and anti-imperialist activist/organizers of the 1960s. Gilbert explains how he—the son of a toy company production manager and scoutmaster who grew up in upper middle-class Brookline, Massachusetts in the 1950s, “went on to become an Eagle Scout and also to win the highest religious medal for Jewish scouts” and graduated with a B.A. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1966—ended up, at the age of 37, “handcuffed and getting worked over in the back of a police car” on the night of October 20, 1981; before being, subsequently, indicted, tried and convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 75 years-to-life in prison. Like Dave Dellinger’s autobiography, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter, Gilbert’s Love and Struggle documents the sweeping life changes experienced by many radicals of the time.
He recalls how the impact of Martin Luther King and the late 1950s/early 1960s Civil Rights Movement led him to approach religious leaders in Greater Boston’s white community about allowing the local NAACP chapter to set up anti-racist education programs for white people. A friend’s acquaintance with a Vietnamese exchange student inspired him to write an article in his school’s student newspaper in 1961 “saying America was in danger of getting drawn into a major civil war in South Vietnam, and on the wrong side at that,” while still a liberal anti-communist high school senior.
Love and Struggle then revisits Gilbert’s political, academic and personal life and the history of the New Left Movement of the Sixties after his arrival on Columbia University’s campus in the Morningside Heights/West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan . In one section, “The 1960s and The Making Of A Revolutionary,” Gilbert explains why he and other New Left anti-war and anti-racist activists, along with Black Liberation Movement activists, became more politically radicalized, anti-imperialist and militant in their political thinking and street actions during the decade; and he also describes how he went about organizing students into SDS chapters at Columbia, Barnard and the New School for Social Research prior to the historic Columbia Student Revolt that shut-down Columbia University in 1968. He recalls, for example, how, in the spring of 1965, anti-war student activists at Columbia “set-up literature tables on the main plaza on campus, and we’d be there all day discussing and debating with those who stopped by.” He incisively observes:
I don’t want to give the wrong impression that our great arguments immediately turned people around. It is rare indeed that someone will give up on presuppositions in the course of a discussion. Ideas don’t change that quickly, and ego makes it hard for most of us to readily admit we are wrong. Organizers who expect instant conversions will become overbearing. Instead, our educational work, planted seeds and helped people see there were alternative interpretations and sources of information, so that once events developed to create more stress—the war intensified and the military draft expanded—people had a way to see that something was wrong, instead of just becoming more fervent about escalations to `win.’”Given the decisions of university administrations at Columbia, Harvard and Stanford in 2011 to bring ROTC back to U.S. elite university campuses that had terminated their campus programs in response to late 1960s anti-ROTC campaigns of campus SDS chapters, Gilbert’s timely reference to his participation in a May 1965 anti-ROTC protest on Columbia’s campus may also be of special interest to 21st-century anti-war student activists:
“…We carried out a valuable early example of civil disobedience against university complicity with the war machine. This action was initiated by the civil rights group CORE, which planned to repeat an action done the preceding year, when a few of them sat-in to disrupt a Naval ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) ceremony…The administration moved the ceremony inside and when we marched to the door we were locked out, so people jammed up in the doorway and refused to disperse. The university called in the police, who started to pull people away, one by one…The cops twisted the tie around my neck, choking me, until, fortunately, it broke. They dragged me away and threw me down, ripping my jacket almost in half…
“Afterward, Columbia threatened to suspend the `ringleaders,’ but we were able to rally a lot of support…Some liberals wanted to reduce all organizing to defense of the right to dissent; but we maintained a balance, building a coalition on those terms while continuing to speak out against having the military on campus. And there was a tendency for students to get pumped up about how they had been subject to `police brutality.’…But I knew from my civil rights work that our bruises were minor compared to what was done routinely in Harlem…”
In the following section, “The Most Sane/Insane of Times,” Gilbert looks back in a self-critical way at the 1969/1970 period of New Left Movement history. During this period, the Weatherman faction attempted to mobilize anti-war youth to “bring the war home” to Chicago in the October 1969 “Days of Rage” protests; the Chicago 8 Conspiracy Trial began; Black Panther Party organizers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated; and Gilbert’s best friend, former Columbia SDS Vice-Chairman Ted Gold, and two other members of the Weatherman faction were accidentally killed in a West Village townhouse explosion, while building bombs to target a military base, possibly including civilians. Living in a Weatherman collective in Denver at the time, Gilbert provides readers with an interesting sense of how members and leaders of the Weatherman faction reacted on a political and emotional level to the shock of hearing the news about the deaths of their three comrades.
Love and Struggle’s next section, “Underground,” provides an exciting and vivid recollection by Gilbert of what it was like to be a member of the Weather Underground Organization [WUO] whose members were being hunted by the FBI. He also discusses the internal political differences and divisive debates that contributed to the demise of the WUO by the late 1970s.
The last four sections of Gilbert’s autobiography tell of his life in the nearly 35 years since the collapse of the WUO. He recalls his aboveground life as a furniture mover and Men Against Sexism activist in Denver in the late 1970s; some of the political, emotional and psychological reasons that he chose to resume his underground lifestyle in 1979; his return East and involvement in underground activity in support of the Black Liberation Army [BLA]. Stating that “I deeply regret the loss of lives and the pain for those families caused by our actions on October 20, 1981,” Gilbert also engages in self-criticism and self-analysis about the political appropriateness of his decision in 1979 to begin working in a clandestine way as an ally of a BLA unit “on such a high-risk tactical level with so little knowledge of the political context.” He cites “my corruption of ego” as possibly influencing the political choices he made after the collapse of the WUO, when he “was anxious to reestablish myself as a `revolutionary on the highest level,’ and `as the most anti-racist white activist.’”
Gilbert also describes, in an emotionally open way, how he reunited underground with fellow WUO member Kathy Boudin and their decision to become parents while underground. His account of how they prepared for the birth of their son in August 1980, how he felt at the time of his son’s birth and during the first year of his life and the sadness of his separation from both after his and Boudin’s arrests (she was released in 2003 after serving 22 years) are some of his most moving passages.
Some readers who were politically active in the Movement of the 1960s and 1970s may have a different political view of U.S. white working-class people’s historical revolutionary potential or the primacy of internal national liberation struggles within the US than what Gilbert presents in Love and Struggle. But there’s so much great political and psychological analysis of both U.S. society and the inter-personal dynamics within the U.S. left movement in this fascinating book—which also resembles an exciting mystery novel in some parts—that Love and Struggle should be required reading for everyone interested in 1960s and 1970s U.S. Movement history and how this history relates to current struggles.
Since David Gilbert has already been a political prisoner for more than 30 years he (as well as over 60 other U.S. political prisoners) should finally be released by U.S. state and federal government officials in 2012. In the North of Ireland, Italy and Germany, most of the political activists of the 1970s and 1980s who were involved in armed actions similar in nature to the one Gilbert was involved in were generally released from prison by the early 21st century. So why shouldn’t Love and Struggle author Gilbert and the BLA members who are also still imprisoned now also be released by the government authorities in the United States? For as Gilbert concludes in Love and Struggle’s “Afterward” section: “The book ends here; the struggle of course continues…with love and for the unity of humankind.”