Interview With David Gilbert (02/04/1985)

QUESTION: On October 6, 1983 you were sentenced to a minimum of 75 years and a maximum of life in prison. How do you feel about facing life in prison?

I certainly don’t like being in prison, but it would be worse if I had lost my commitment to fight a system which is such an incredible destroyer of human life and dignity. As for the 75 years, well imperialism isn’t going to last that long. Nor do I think I will spend my natural life in prison. A revolutionary can be killed, inside our outside, but if we are talking about 30 or 40 years time – very important political changes, even revolutionary changes, are bound to take place over that time.

QUESTION: The people charged with the October 20, 1981, “Brinks Robbery” were labelled in the media as “terrorists” and “cold-blooded killers.” How do you define yourself?

It makes sense that the police agencies and establishment media would label us this way: any system of tyranny must discredit those who build resistance to it, and must try to separate such revolutionaries from the people who suffer under this system. Actually, the media charges turn reality on its head: propagate the big lie. This government and the business interests it serves are the great cold-blooded killers and terrorists of the world. When you grasp the reality of all the people who die of hunger, disease, abuse and the wholesale terror against people’s movements around the world, then the human response is to find the ways to fight U.S. imperialism as effectively as possible.

QUESTION: What in your view was the October 20th action all about?

It was an attempted expropriation. That means taking money from those who amassed wealth by exploiting the people and using that money to finance the resistance. Every revolution has had to use expropriation as a method of finance. You’re just not going to get donations from the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. This particular expropriation was under the leadership of the Black Liberation Army with white revolutionaries participating in alliance with them. The BLA communique after the action said that the funds had been intended to build the army, and for nationalist programs, especially for you in the Black community.

QUESTION: What was the day of capture like for you? Were you abused?

The cops were in a rage. They’re used to just rolling over people without anyone fighting back. They tried to make me talk and beat me off and on for about 3 hours. Then they stuck the barrel of a shotgun into my neck telling me to talk. Later the ‘bad cop’ came in to tell each of us that we were going to get the chair. He was followed by the ‘good cop’ – in this case an FBI agent – who said that the first one who ratted would get a big break.  

QUESTION: What was that like for you?

It really helps to know that you’re fighting for a just cause and that there is no way you’re ever going to talk; that takes a lot of the internal tension out of the situation. While I was beaten and Judy Clark had been knocked down, torture was used on two New Afrikan (Black) men. There is a difference between brutality and torture: the latter involves a systematic and more or less scientific infliction of pain. They broke Sam Brown’s neck in two places and then denied him the needed surgery for 11 weeks – until after he had turned informer. That can all be documented by medical records. Sekou Odinga, captured in Queens on October 23, 1981, walked into the police station without a scratch. He was taken out to three months in hospital including intravenous feeding. The cops systematically worked on his pancreas, put cigarettes out on his body, and other things of course. Sekou never wavered.

QUESTION: Many people say that they can sympathize with your goals but they abhor your tactics.

Well, I really wish there were a way to defeat imperialism without the pain and bloodshed. Our generation tried to “shake the moral conscience of America” in the 60’s. I think the clear lesson from Vietnam, from the bloody overthrow of Allende in Chile, from the COINTELPRO campaigns against the Black movement here and the criminal attacks on Nicaragua today is that you have to be able to fight and ultimately defeat imperialism’s force and violence to achieve any real change.

QUESTION: But what about the deaths that day? Two policemen and a Brinks guard were killed. Some social activists feel that no goal justifies the taking of a human life.

First, to be clear, the purpose of an expropriation is not to hurt or punish individual police or guards. The goal is to get away as quietly and cleanly as possible with funds for the struggle. The story of the combatants charging out shooting at the Brinks guard is a pure propaganda creation. In more private moments, the FBI analysts know and even state that the consistent practice of the BLA was not to come out shooting but to try to disarm the guards. The only fire by revolutionaries that day was in response to a clear threat of fire. People have been conditioned to be sensitive to certain types of deaths but not others. When a policeman is killed we are bombarded with the images of a human tragedy. But the police shootings of Third world people (and occasionally poor whites) are every day events, almost always treated as routine and acceptable. Today the N.Y. City police are outraged that there is even this one 2nd degree manslaughter charge for their shotgunning 66 year-old Eleanor Bumpers. The cops just never do time for their violence against the people.

The greatest killer of all is the violence of social conditions. But it is almost completely hidden from our view. Many people are barely aware, to take just one example, that Black infant mortality is twice as high as for whites. Why do these babies have to die? The conditions of oppression and colonization of Black people will never be overturned without an ability to break the power and violence of the police.

QUESTION: O.K., social violence far exceeds the costs of any revolution to end it. But doesn’t that mean anything goes? Isn’t there a danger of becoming like the oppressor?

There is all the difference in the world between reactionary violence and revolutionary violence. Imperialism’s violence is terroristic in that it is usually directed against large numbers of people, especially civilian populations; torture is a standard weapon; a main goal is to terrorize those who might otherwise resist; the ultimate purpose is to maintain intolerable conditions of exploitation and social suffering. Revolutionary violence is the opposite; it must be strategic and focused on mobilizing the oppressed and breaking the repressive apparatus of the state; we must set very clear standards that express the humanism of the struggle.

QUESTION: What was the specific political position you took at trial?

Kuwasi Balagoon and Sekou Odinga took the position of Prisoners of War as fighters in the Black Liberation struggle. They argued that the U.S. had colonized New Afrikan people. The U.S. colonial courts have no legitimate jurisdiction over New Afrikans. There is an internationally accepted right to fight colonial and racist regimes. Judy Clark and I took the position of anti-imperialists, fighting in solidarity with the Black Liberation struggle. We recognize that U.S. imperialism is a criminal and anti-human system, and we wouldn’t accept the legitimacy of its courts.

QUESTION: Tell me something about the people who were charged with you.

We are all people who have fought for human rights and against the tyranny of this system all our adult lives. Sekou Odinga and Kuwasi Balagoon were part of the Panther 21 case (IN April 1969 the police charged 21 N.Y. Black Panthers with a giant conspiracy to commit bombings. After a lengthy trial, a jury acquitted them of all charges. But the arrests and the drain on resources, along with other government attacks, had decimated the N.Y. Black Panther chapter). Judith Clark, Kathy Boudin and I all got involved in the Civil Rights movement in the early 60’s and the anti-war movement of the mid-60’s. We’ve been anti-imperialist activists ever since.

QUESTION: Many people I talk to have broad movement sympathies from the 60’s, 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.  

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 Klaners gunned down five anti-klan demonstrators in front of T.V. cameras: they never served a day for these cold-blooded murders. On the other hand, Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt has done some 13 years on a life sentence despite evidence in FBI files that proves his innocence.

QUESTION: Kathy Boudin mounted a legal defence and eventually made a plea bargain for 20 years to life. How do you evaluate this?

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 misdemeanours; that’s it. Or, 8 of the 11 cops who beat a hand-cuffed Michael Stewart to death. D.A. Morgenthau gave them immunity from possible murder charges to testify at a Grand Jury. Later, the same D.A. wouldn’t give the Black youths whom Bernard Goetz shot in the back immunity, and Goetz was cleared of all attempted murder and assault charges.

QUESTION: Were you, Judy and Kathy part of the Weather Underground Organization?

Historically we came out of the Weather Underground. In the early 70’s the WUO represented a very positive trend of militancy against imperialism and alliance with national liberation struggles – particularly Vietnam and Black liberation. Large numbers of white youth identified with the 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 national liberation struggles and a retreat from militancy. The FBI never was able to break the underground. But the WUO did eventually fall apart from its own internal political problems. Those of us associated with October 20th were trying to learn and apply the lessons from the history of the WUO. While we undoubtedly made mistakes, we express and continue the heart of what’s needed for historical advance: alliance with national liberation and willingness to fight imperialism.

QUESTION: Some critics saw the WUO as the politics of white guilt. These people saw October 20th as a deadly extension of those politics.  

Calling it “guilt” comes from an upper class world view. There is nothing guilt-ridden about identifying with and loving oppressed people – especially when they have been blazing the trail towards humane social change. It is part of reclaiming our basic humanity which the history of white supremacy has distorted. We will never stop the exploitation of white working people nor end the oppression of women without allying with national liberation struggles. That’s because we have to root out the sickness in our own society as well as link-up with those who are fighting imperialism the hardest. So it is a question of basic justice but also the only route to a humane, socialist future for our own people.

QUESTION: Were there mistakes involved in October 20th?

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 any detail, many issues are still being grappled with. But broadly, there is the error of interventionism, sort of a pretence of being special or “exceptional” white individuals acting within the New Afrikan Independence Movement, without our 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. This is a tricky point because some leftists use it in an unprincipled way to attack all existing armed struggle. In the early stage it is necessary to start very small, with the goal to build to something larger. But all revolutionary armed struggle must, from the beginning, be guided by clear political terms with the goal of building mass participation in the struggle against imperialism. Another issue is that we failed, I think, to pay enough attention to issues of revolutionary character. Those who engage in armed struggle can come under intense pressure from the state. You can’t be in it for some kind of ego-trip. you have to be deeply committed to oppressed people.

QUESTION: What about the demand for land and independence for a Black nation? A lot of people find that kind of hard to imagine.

Well, that 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 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. Every such struggle has involved some land base.

QUESTION: Did October 20th show that armed struggle can’t work in the U.S.?  

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 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.

QUESTION: What is the worst part of prison?

Separation from loved ones; the difficulty in being politically productive; the level of control and restriction over every detail of you life; the constant presence of force and threat of violence; the cut-off from nature.

QUESTION: Are there any redeeming features?

Maintaining your dignity and principles; striving to find ways to be politically productive; the love of family, friends and comrades that shines through the walls; the examples of humanity and creativity among prisoners.

QUESTION: Do you ever get to see your wife or your son?

As you know, Kathy is at Bedford Kills with a 20 to life sentence. We can write each other and do so regularly. We’re not allowed to visit each other. We are permitted to talk on the phone, once every 6 months. Chese visits me periodically, as the distance involved allows. The visits with him are great. He’s a very spirited and loving kid. As I’ve said, I’ve been very fortunate that love with family and friends has really shone through. It’s a real source of strength for me, and, well, I hope and feel that I’m giving something to them in those relationships too.

QUESTION: You’re in a maximum security prison. Do you get any special treatment?

Yes, there are special restrictions on me and a handful of other prisoners. I’m not allowed into the shops and the school. Since these are basically the only full programs available here, it is quite a limitation. The restrictions are political, applied to myself and BLA comrades as well as a couple other people they see as potential organizers.

QUESTION: What about physical harassment?  

So far that hasn’t been a problem for me here. Actually I get a lot less hassles than some guys who don’t have outside support. Outside support is very important for the safety and well-being of prisoners.

QUESTION: What are prison conditions like these days?

Basically, the trends are bad now. You know the political climate; they have the public whipped up about the state’s version of “law and order.” So the prison authorities basically feel they have a green light to take back, step-by-step, the modest gains made in the 70’s. Also, prisoner unity and consciousness is at a low point, reflecting the ebb of social movement in society at large.

QUESTION: Who is in prison and what are the causes of crime?

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 backgrounds. Prison is a tool of repression against those rebellious and unruly elements among the colonized people’s (Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, Mexican) and those among the poorest whites. Here, the population seems to be about 40-45% Black and 35% 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. Capitalism is basically about the individual out to make money regardless of whom he hurts – and being willing to use force and violence to back it up. The people who do that on a large scale are the most powerful and “respected” members of our society. But when someone from a poor community does that, on a small scale, he or she is a terrible criminal. So the criminal can’t see what s/he did wrong – except getting caught. S/he then experiences all the illegal acts of the police, D.A’s, judges and jailors in their efforts to convict and punish people. The guardians of “law and order” are the most systematic violators of the law going – not to mention serious violations of international law like the invasion of Grenada and attacks on Nicaragua. So the program of the right can only make the problem worse in the long run. The criminal nature of the system means there is no basis for rehabilitation; instead the prison system produces more embittered criminals. Strengthening the state repressive apparatus means reinforcing the colonial and class relationships at the base of the problem. I don’t know exactly what a left program on crime would be. The left can’t respond by romanticizing who prisoners are. There are a lot of people here who play negative roles in the oppressed and poor communities, as well as some very good and decent people. A real program to end crime must be tied to a struggle against the social and economic structure; it should start with busting the big criminals at the pinnacles of society (my “trickle-down theory”) and must also involve a struggle for more humane and collective social values.  

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 100’s 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 and Tim Blunk were arrested in New Jersey. What are your feelings and assessment of the series of arrests?

First, my love and strong solidarity goes out to any one 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.

QUESTION: How do you define the movement people now in prison? What should be done about their situation?

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 status and commensurate treatment under the United Nations guidelines. I would urge people reading this to build support for and to demand political status and ultimately 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.

QUESTION: One last question. 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.  

I’m sure that those who lived in ancient Rome, or under the Egyptian Pharaohs, or in the reign of the Ming Dynasty, these empires looked eternal also. The U.S. empire will fall like all empires before it. The harder question is our ability to prevent massive destruction and to replace this system with a qualitatively more humane and cooperative – a socialist – society. That’s part of why it’s important to be building a vital revolutionary movement with clear principles now. Revolution here isn’t imminent from the perspective of an individual’s life-time, there is a long term struggle ahead of us. But in terms of the pace of world history, things have been moving very fast since the end of World War II with the rise of national liberation struggles. 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, and its economic power will be undermined. Internally, the U.S. built its great wealth and empire by taking over the land and labour of whole peoples; Native American, Black, Mexicanos. These internally colonized people, especially in the context of a U.S. military power over-extended abroad, will develop strong national liberation struggle within the border. 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.

QUESTION: Well, what do you think (Columbia and Bernard students) (or young people) should be doing today?

I think the most dynamic feature right now 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 or good about our own self-worth and humanity if we’re denying it for every one else. Our outlook and commitment must relate to the conditions and aspirations of the vast majority of mankind – 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.

 

   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *