Written from the maximum-security prison where he has lived for almost 30 years, this enlightening memoir chronicles the militant career of David Gilbert, a radical activist whose incarceration is due to his involvement in the 1981 Brinks robbery, an attempted expropriation that resulted in four deaths. From his entry into the world of political activism as the founder of Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia University to his departure from public life in order to help build the clandestine resistance to war and racism known as the Weathermen, Gilbert relates all of the victories he has achieved and obstacles he has encountered during his struggle to build a new world. In telling the intensely personal story he is stripped of all illusions and assesses his journey from liberal to radical to revolutionary with rare humor and frankness. A firsthand glimpse into the terrors and triumphs of the 1960s and beyond, Love and Struggle is as candid and uncompromising as its author.
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About the Author
David Gilbert appeared in the Academy Awardnominated film The Weather Underground and is the author of No Surrender. He is incarcerated in the Clinton Correctional in Dannemora, New York. Boots Riley is the former leader of the Coup, a music group declared “the best hip-hop act of the past decade” by Billboard magazine. He formed a new group, Street Sweeper Social Club, with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. He lives in Oakland, California.
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Love and Struggle
My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond
By David Gilbert
PM PressCopyright © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved.
Whack. "Talk, motherfucker, talk!"
(How the hell did I end up here — handcuffed and getting worked over in the back of a police car?)
POW. "Who else was involved and where are they headed?"
(Good, at least some of the comrades got away.)
Whomp. "Tell us."
(Cops always go for the balls; that used to happen when I got jumped at demonstrations too. Sure, it's a sensitive spot, but if you see it coming you can usually protect with your legs and thighs. So why is it their favorite target, some hang-up about emasculation?)
Whack. "Talk if you know what's good for you, goddamn it!"
(Surprising that they're hitting me in the face too. Aren't they worried about visible signs of the beating? Are they so enraged that they're not thinking? Or do they feel that the car crash that ended the chase gives them cover for any bruises?)
... It's October 20, 1981. The little drama of my "interrogation" follows the much bigger one of a Brink's armored car robbery that went terribly wrong: Unexpected gunshots at the scene; someone who just happens to be looking out a rear window at an otherwise deserted and obscure spot sees the sloppy switch of vehicles; the escape truck gets caught at a red light, by the entrance to the NY Thruway, as police come in to set up a roadblock; a shootout; a car chase on unfamiliar streets; a crash, relatively mild but enough to stop the car, as our Honda can't quite negotiate a sudden right-angle turn. Maybe at that point revolutionary ideals call for a shootout, but I don't have a gun and wouldn't be effective if I did. So it is capture instead. The time is late afternoon. I don't remember exactly, maybe four-thirty or five ...
The beating continues in the station. Now I'm up against the wall, with my hands cuffed behind my back. But my adrenaline must be flowing, because it seems like I can see the punches start long before they land, enough time at least to cross my legs when they're going for my nuts and to bob and weave a bit, so they don't hit quite as directly when going for my head. Can't do much about the body shots. With all the adrenaline, I feel the impact but not the pain — that won't come until a day or two later.
Someone brings grim news: a wounded officer has just died. Now I know this is as serious as it can get. The cops in the room, understandably, are livid. I'm also thinking about consequences. For someone who's defied the law for many years, I'm surprisingly ignorant of its specifics. I'm thinking now that I could be charged with "accessory to murder" and guessing that could mean something like seven to ten years in prison.
Now a cop bursts in with a shotgun, while another shouts, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" The barrel is jammed into my neck, right under the Adam's apple. "Talk, goddamn it! Who else was involved? Where are they headed?" (They wouldn't really splatter my brains against the station wall; that would be too much of a scandal, right?) In any case, talking is not an option for me. When I say nothing, he slams the barrel across my face, opening a half-circle cut on my left cheek.
No one plays "good cop" until the FBI guy comes. He's in a suit, calm and rational. "You can get the death penalty for this." (I don't think New York State has a death penalty.) "The first one who talks is going to get a big break." (The first? No one will rat.)
The interrogation, beatings, and psychological warfare go on well into the night. My main thought is how to get through this with the minimum damage. No spitfire bravado from me; I'm certainly no tough guy, and I try my best not to inflame them any further. But it's also important to be firm because any sign of wavering encourages them to ratchet up the pressure. So my only response — to all of this, for hours — is "I want to see a lawyer." I figure they may have some concerns about messing up their legal case by denying me access.
At one point I make a mistake. The pressure is great about where those who escaped may have headed, and I say, "Well, you have my ID," and they go rushing off to check the address. It's a phony ID that has nothing to do with any place I've lived or operated, and I figure that they have it anyway. But then it occurs to me: What if by a bizarre quirk of fate a comrade goes to that neighborhood — I don't know where people hang out — and the heat from my remark leads to his or her getting spotted? (Fortunately, nothing came of this.) As an experienced revolutionary I should know: never tell them anything, no matter how innocuous it may seem.
As tense as things are, I'm spared any anxiety at all about whether to talk. That's a bedrock principle, one based on the reality that, however bad a situation is, ratting throws others into that same cauldron. So my focus is completely on bobbing and weaving — physically and psychologically — trying to minimize the damage I sustain. It's not even defiance or resolve; it's just that talking is never even an option that enters my mind. Perhaps that foundation gives some firmness to my refusal, even if it's devoid of bravado. It also helps that I'm not feeling any physical pain. As I will later learn, from what happens to two of the Black comrades, there is a big difference between beatings, even with death threats, and systematic torture. The latter involves maximizing the pain and anguish that the victim feels.
At around ten-thirty the interrogation finally ends as I'm taken out to be fingerprinted. Kathy (Boudin) and I, each surrounded by cops, get a glimpse of each other in the hall, and we exchange a longing look, which in that fleeting moment speaks volumes: most of all, our anguish about our year-old son, who is at childcare with a neighbor; also a recognition of the seriousness of our situation, and an affirmation of our love.
How the hell did I end up in such dire straits?
Missing the Wink
America is a democracy "with liberty and justice for all," based on the principle that "all men are created equal ... with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." That's what they taught me, and it sounded beautiful. Still does. I fervently embraced these ideals and fully accepted them as the reality in our country. I thought that everyone had the same benefits and opportunities I had in upper middle-class Brookline, Massachusetts: a secure, comfortable home; food, clothing, and medical care; a good public school system, where the vast majority went on to college; an expectation that each of us would end up making a good living in a profession that afforded considerable self-esteem. Somehow I missed the wink that the "all" referred only to white males with money. When the myths were later exploded by the eruption of the civil rights movement, I became deeply upset. The entire impetus for my becoming politically conscious and active was to get America to live up to its ideals of democracy for all.
How could I have been so stupid or, to put it more charitably, naïve? Beyond the typical childish assumption that the whole world is an extension of one's immediate experience, I was especially susceptible to such idealism due to my family upbringing. Bea and Sam Gilbert were not only devoted and loving parents, but also decent and ethical people. They weren't Left or radical by any means — in the first presidential election that I followed, in 1952, they voted for the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. And they were very patriotic toward a country that offered children of immigrants great opportunities. Each of my four grandparents had fled the anti-Semitism of a different Eastern European country, and my parents had lived the often-told but still inspiring story of immigrants who grew up in poverty. They had jobs at an early age, and my father worked his way through night school to become an engineer. I still remember some of the family stresses from not being able to make ends meet — until I was five, in 1949, when my dad got a good-paying job as production manager for Hasbro Toy Company.
Their main moral influence on me came from the ethical lives they lived. They weren't self-righteous toward others, and they practiced what they preached to their children, from not smoking to the importance of community service. My dad was "Mister Boy Scouts" in our neighborhood, a scoutmaster for many years and also the director of our temple's youth league for teenagers. My mom was both a den mother for Cub Scouts and the leader of the local Girl Scout troop. Their attraction to scouting was not to the more militarist aspect but instead was rooted in a love of nature and a wish to provide positive activities for kids. When our rabbi complained that weekend camping trips kept the scouts away from services, my father responded, "They're closer to God in the woods than in the temple." In fact, they started taking me camping when I was just one year old. A true son of both my parents, I went on to become an Eagle Scout and also to win the highest religious medal for Jewish scouts, the Ner Tamid. Religion was a foundation in our household, too, not as a rigid set of ritual prescriptions but rather as a core of ethical teachings summed up by the "Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
While not at all activists, my parents taught me, unambiguously, that racism is wrong, that all people should be treated with respect. These values grew out of their experiences being Jewish following the Holocaust. My very first piece of creative writing, when I was ten or eleven, described the wonderfully accomplished and worthwhile life of a man named Carl, and ended with: "But none of the above ever happened because Carl was killed, as a young boy, in a concentration camp." The message I heard loud and clear was that racism, all racism, is the greatest evil of all. This sensibility was central to my later readiness to respond so full-heartedly to the emergence of the civil rights movement. Three other factors also played important roles: religious bigotry, proto-feminist sisters, and rock 'n' roll.
As a kid, religion was important to me because it offered a set of ethical teachings and a purpose in life beyond crass self-interest. I worried about the many friends who didn't abide by the dos and don'ts, and I was upset by the blatant hypocrites who piously went to services each Saturday and then conned and cheated in business dealings all week. But it was finally religious bigotry that drove me out of the temple.
Brookline, almost all white, had three main social strata that broadly correlated with religious background. A small enclave of upper-crust Protestants lived in mansions. The mainstay of the population was upper middle-class, small business owners and professionals, and Jewish. There was also a more working-class, predominantly Catholic neighborhood, which filled the bulk of Brookline's quota for the military draft. The rich kids went to private schools, so I had little contact with them. But there were a number of Catholic kids in the public schools, and several of them became my friends.
The Hebrew School teacher who was in charge of the youth services, Mr. Ross, was a bigot. Both in classes and at our services, he railed that Catholic doctrine was ludicrous. "How could God possibly be born of woman?" and "How can one God be three?" and on and on and on. I didn't want to hear it. They had their religious belief, and I had mine, but my Catholic friends weren't idiots to be constantly put down. When I was thirteen, some months after my Bar Mitzvah, I was at a service when Mr. Ross started one of his rants. I whispered my complaints to the friend sitting next to me. While Mr. Ross didn't hear what I said, he bridled at the disruption: "Anyone who doesn't like the way I run the services can leave." I didn't yet have the courage or confidence to stand up to him, to speak out, but I wasn't going to sit there while he attacked my friends. So I thought about it for a couple of minutes and then walked out. That was it for me, and I never went back to organized religion.
My parents argued, quite reasonably, that it was a shame that Mr. Ross was bigoted, but he didn't represent Judaism. But I guess that by the age of thirteen I already had a strong stubborn streak. In any case, there was too much hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness in all religions for me. I would try to live up to the ethical ideals, but not be beholden to any religious authority. I guess I was becoming a bit of a rebel too — largely due to the influence of my big sisters.
As the youngest of three children and the only boy, I undoubtedly got preferential treatment (years later my mother told me that with each successive child she became more confident and relaxed), but it didn't feel that way because my sisters teased me mercilessly, even if still lovingly. Ruth was six years old than me, and Brenda three and a half. They were my mentors, and I admired them. Since Brenda was closer in age, she played with me more, and she was one of the best athletes on the block. I remember our neighborhood football games and her ability to run right through my attempted tackles. In that situation I looked up to her literally as well as figuratively.
Ruth, and especially Brenda, were more rebellious than I was, and they did their best to make sure that my goody-two-shoes devotion to morality did not lead to my growing up to be a stuffed shirt. They instilled in me that great American value of always rooting for the underdog. Long before any political consciousness, we sided with the Indians on TV instead of the cowboys, even though they always lost; and we always found playing them, or the robbers against the cops, more interesting and fun. We didn't watch much TV or have a lot of elaborate toys. My sisters were very creative, and the way we played was to invent our own games and to act out various fantasy stories.
I'm not sure why they were rebels, but I suspect it had to do with their early feminist consciousness before the reemergence of the women's movement, before the "second wave." My parents firmly believed that the girls should be educated and have the ability to have successful careers, but that encouragement to achieve was encased within the traditional message that their prime goal was marriage and children. The professional degrees were in case their husbands died. But to my sisters, this was an impossible mixed message: on one hand to excel, and on the other to catch a husband — at a time when men were turned off by smart, challenging women. In retrospect, I feel the stress from this tension engendered their strained relationships to our mom and dad — who in so many ways were wonderful parents.
But for me, it meant that in the late 1950s, as I moved into adolescence, I was steeped in their indignation and insistence on women's rights. This was before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published. The book they relied on to teach me was Ashley Montagu's The Natural Superiority of Women. Some of it was kind of crude, in the war-of-the-sexes mode, but a lot was refreshingly iconoclastic, and my admiration for my sisters meant that I took it all seriously. Their frustrations with the way society limited women also led, I believe, to the general identification with the underdog, which they so deeply imbedded in me.
My sisters also introduced me to popular music. In the early 1950s, Ruth was a big Eddie Fisher fan, which was a bit risqué relative to my parents' devotion to classical music. But then Brenda brought me, at the age of ten, right into the birth of rock 'n' roll in 1954. I remember listening with rapt excitement to "Rock Around the Clock," "Silhouettes on the Shade," and "A Rose and a Baby Ruth." Brenda was crazy about Elvis, and she enlisted me to call into radio stations to request "Love Me Tender." My loyalty to her made me an Elvis fan too, but Chuck Berry and The Coasters stirred me even more. Their songs had a more exciting beat, and I delighted in Berry's saying openly that school was a drag and his telling Beethoven to "roll over." The sexual innuendos were thrilling too. For me, and I suspect for many in my generation, our love of rock 'n' roll played an important role in our ability to identify with the Black struggle as it erupted.
Excerpted from Love and Struggle by David Gilbert. Copyright © 2012 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
An Appreciation Boots Riley 1
Missing the Wink 14
Illusions Replaced by a Dream 18
The 1960S and the Making of a Revolutionary 23
Columbia and the Black Struggle 25
Assault on a Black-Jewish Alliance 29
Black Education 30
Black Power 31
National SDS 42
Local Action 42
"Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many 45
Kids Did You Kill Today?" Strike! 46
Women: Relationships 51
Women: Politics 55
Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll 61
Political Theory 65
The Weapon of Theory 72
Revolutionary Youth Movement 75
From Protest to Resistance 86
Equal Rights and Unequal Power 92
First Bust 95
Affinity Groups 98
Revolution in Our Lifetime? 102
Making Choices 105
A Seismic Fault Line 110
The Split of SDS 113
The Most Sane/Insane of Times 119
Breaking and Brawling 127
Fighting in the Streets 132
Rocky Mountain High 134
On a Life Trip 140
The Panthers in Denver 142
County Jail 144
War Council 147
The Townhouse 149
Weather Declares War 161
High on Youth Culture 164
New Morning 166
Status and Hierarchy 185
Democratic Centralism 189
The Doldrums 192
Kathy Boudin 198
Prairie Fire 199
Organization Man 205
Hard Times 210
Things Fall Apart 217
A Mile High: Aboveground in Denver 229
Back to Brookline 236
Rebuilding My Life in Denver 238
Adams Street 240
Men Against Sexism 241
El Comité 243
My Two Worlds Collide 249
Sexist Dog of the Century 251
Back Under 257
Dancing Feet 265
Back Above, the Hard Way 271
Trial by Trial 278
Climbing Mountains 286
The Rock Is a Hard Place 296
Daily Life 305
Facing Life 310
Heading up the River 317
Five Pages on Twenty-Eight Years 323
Glossary of Acronyms 329
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