Before they were washed up, I "palled around with some terrorists," including Weather Underground leader David Gilbert, a close friend and comrade of Bernadine Dorhn and Bill Ayers, whose limited association with Barack Obama has been unsuccessfully used for an election-tipping cudgel for months.
So close a friend was Gilbert, in fact, that Ayers and Dorhn raised his son after he and the boy’s mother, Kathy Boudin, were imprisoned for the robbery of a Brinks armored truck and the killing of a security guard and two policemen in Nanuet and Nyack, New York, on October 20, 1981. Before he chose the general course of action that landed him permanently in the slam, I lived with Gilbert in Denver for more than a year. I’ll get to back that.
As others have observed, palling around with terrorists has a long and sordid history in America. Just take the six decades I’ve been alive. Venerated Senators and Representatives made common cause with the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk, whose murders were the ultimate backstop for maintaining American apartheid. That system, you may recall, rested on ruthless white rule over the portion of the United States which allegedly lost the Civil War. It reinstituted slavery in a visible but widely ignored form, and for 90 years it destroyed every civil right of African-Americans, enforcing this with terror, including lynchings and other murders.
Fast forward to Henry Kissinger, the architect of raining terror on Cambodia, a policy that led to tens of thousands of dead civilians and contributed to the ascendance of the previously minuscule Khmer Rouge. Their astounding butchery and terrorism against their own people was not enough to persuade the United States to stop supporting them in their effort to keep control of Cambodia’s U.N. seat after their cross-border aggression was defeated, government overthrown and genocide stopped by Vietnam. Not to mention Kissinger’s role in Indonesia and Chile.
Ronald Reagan continued the hoary U.S. policy of supporting (and installing) surrogates who were expected to and trained to and funded to keep the populace in line in the interests of American corporadoes, as the much-quoted Marine General Smedley Butler pointed out nearly 75 years ago. With or without fake elections, terror was the preferred technique for this keeping-in-line process in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, causing guerrilla movements to arise.
Palling around in Guatemala in the early 1980s, Reagan praised the human rights record of President Efrain Rios Montt and sneaked relabeled military equipment past Congress, even as Montt’s specially trained (by you-know-who) military wiped out entire villages of unarmed indigenous people, thousands of them, in its terrorist war against guerrilla insurgents. When guerrillas acceded to power in Nicaragua, terror tactics, including torture, were taught to their opponents, the contras, by the Reagan administration, which also supplied them with weapons. This effort was financed by selling U.S. weapons to the Iranian government, which was at war with Saddam Hussein, to whom the U.S. also sold weapons, including the ultimate in terror weapons – nerve gas and anthrax, as well as nuclear precursors.
Palling around in Argentina in 1981, the often-besotted Jeane Kirkpatrick, the neoconservative U.N. Ambassador at the time, drank toasts to the generals who dropped their political opponents from airplanes into the South Atlantic and stole their children. She asked these paragons of torture, murder and terror to help "restore" democracy in Nicaragua by providing the contras with training and money. Already engaged secretly by the CIA since 1977 to spread their "dirty war" to Central America, the Argentine generals sent elements of the notorious Batallón de Inteligencia 601 to Honduras, where they ran their contra training camps.
I could go on. But many who have read this far already know these stories and more. If this is your first encounter with such news, you won’t have to search far to find dozens of other examples. You could start with our government’s own documents and other material at The National Security Archive. You’ll discover that high-level palling around with terrorists is not an occasional aberration in the United States but a tradition.
At this point some readers no doubt want to go all definitional on me. What is terrorism, anyway? Distinctions, it will be said, must be made between the official actions of leaders of nation-states and those of non-state organizations. That game is as duplicitous as the "no moral equivalence" argument of the empire-mongers who, to support America’s "interests," clink glasses and make financial arrangements with big-time murderers in various armies and presidential palaces. However, for the benefit of those who demand that such distinctions be discussed and measured, let me just say that the Weather Underground’s outrageously wrongheaded attacks nearly 40 years ago were magnitudes removed from U.S.-sponsored terrorism and the lethal campaigns of radical anti-abortionists, right-wing militias and cells like Tim McVeigh’s. To say this does not, let me not be misunderstood, justify or excuse what the Weathermen did.
Which brings me back to where I started.
I first met Dohrn and Ayers at the national convention of Students for a Democratic Society in 1967 and subsequently when I was an "outside agitator" – visiting relatively small college campuses and tactically advising local SDS chapters. I had previously met Gilbert and future Weather Undergrounder Mark Rudd, both of them organizers of the preeminent student strike at Columbia University in 1968. By that year, the 8-year-old SDS was at the height of its national influence. But already rumbling was the internecine process that would shatter it and from which would emerge the rump organization to which SDS is eternally wed in the public’s mind: the Weather Underground.
In fact, most members and leaders of the 400 autonomous local SDS chapters disagreed intensely with the Weathermen and rejected their blatant coup d’organisation and elitist leadership. They were even more were adamantly opposed to the Weathermen’s campaign of bombings: for moral reasons (the possibility people would be killed despite advance warnings); and for strategic and tactical reasons, most notably that the campaign would be counterproductive and alienate the vast majority of Americans rather than persuade them of the need to seek profound changes in business- and government-as-usual. Part of the original message of SDS, after all, had been that principled activists do not seek change by divorcing tactics, strategy and morality from each other.
Within months of the dissolution of SDS after its final national convention in 1969, the bombings began. Soon, in a Greenwich Village townhouse, three Weathermen killed themselves while making nail-studded dynamite bombs they meant to plant at a soldiers’ dance at Fort Dix and in Butler Library at Columbia University. Two others, including Kathy Boudin, escaped. The Weathermen issued communiqués and their own manifesto, blew up what it considered relevant targets and, like the rest of the left at the time, shed members and splintered.
By late 1976, it was washed up. Many Weathermen "surfaced" and turned themselves in to the cops. Charges against most were either dropped because of longstanding government misconduct, some of it having been exposed by the 1975 Church Committee, or pleaded to lesser crimes for which relatively mild sentences were handed out.
It was during this time that David Gilbert re-emerged in Denver where my first wife and I lived in a collective house of 11 people, an ecletic mix, including gays, feminists and minority activists committed to a range of left-oriented political and cultural change. Several of us were members of the New American Movement – a national organization that included Barbara Ehrenreich – which had spun itself out of the remnants of SDS after the ’69 split. Persuasive, intellectually sophisticated, and with a hearty smile and easy way about him, Gilbert made himself known to us. Soon the house consensus was that we should accept him into the collective because he claimed to have renounced his former Weather ways but not his passion for political and social change.
For the next 14 months, he was the center, almost daily, of one ideological and tactical argument after another. Some of us soon came to believe Gilbert was on a recruiting mission. Decibels and tensions rose and the collective gradually broke apart. In late 1979, Gilbert left Denver headed, he said, for Arizona. In fact, he had all along been part of a Weather splinter group calling itself the Revolutionary Armed Task Force.
The next time I heard his name was when the FBI knocked on my door the morning of October 29, 1981, eight days after he, Boudin, and several other members of the RATF and the Black Liberation Army were arrested for the Brinks robbery, shootouts and murders. It took agents three days of interrogation before they believed the truth, that I was one of the last people Gilbert would talk to about any plans to knock over an armored car.
In 1983, Gilbert and two others were convicted and each given three consecutive sentences of 25-years-to-life. Today, Gilbert is barely into his second 25 at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2056. All but one of the other Brinks robbers either were shot to death or sentenced to long terms. Boudin, however, took a plea and got 20 years to life. She was paroled in 2003. On the day of robbery, she had left Chesa, her and Gilbert’s 14-month-old son, with a baby-sitter while she drove one of the getaway vehicles. When the sentence was pronounced, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, who had surfaced in 1980, became Chesa’s legal guardians.
In 2002, Chesa became a Rhodes scholar and in 2005 interned on the foreign policy team of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as part of research for his master’s degree at Oxford University. You can read The New York Times piece about him here, an acid-tongued criticism of the Times piece and Boudin here, and something he recently wrote here. He has also written a book, The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions--100 Answers.. Earlier this year he traveled to Central Asia.
You can see David Gilbert in the award-winning 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, read an early prison interview with him here, link to his writings and to his 2004 book, Never Surrender, here.
Judge for yourself. There’s no doubting Gilbert’s commitment, his persistence and his passion despite 27 years in the cells of various prisons. He’s still an organizer behind bars. Nonetheless, he was dangerously wrong in 1969 when he joined the Weather faction, just as Dohrn and Ayers and the rest were wrong. His stupid, deadly actions in 1981 speak for themselves, even though he never pulled a trigger that day in New York.
Neither Weather’s terror tactics nor "revolutionary expropriations" led to a single positive result. Indeed, they made domestic resistance to U.S. plutocracy and imperialist war even harder. Exactly as many of us had said that they would do when those who would become Weathermen first began making their arguments. They acted, to use their own terminology, on a foundation of false consciousness. As we have seen in this year’s election campaign, their actions so long ago still benefit the rightwing propaganda machine today.
But many of them have been incarcerated for their actions. That’s something which can’t be said of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger (honorary chair of the McCain campaign) and others among the high-and-mighty. The time these terrorists serve for their crimes will amount to zero when all is said and done.