David Gilbert’s Path from Terrorist to Non-Violent Resister
David Gilbert, U.S. political prisoner for nearly 40 years, is serving a 75 year to life sentence in New York State prisons. Last month five Nobel Peace Prize laureates and multiple interfaith religious leaders, including the chief ministers of four U.S. Protestant denominations, signed a November letter calling for his release. In 1981Gilbert participated in the “expropriation” of $1.6 million from a Brinks armored van at a Nyack, NY shopping center. Two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed and Gilbert with two other veterans of the Weather Underground were apprehended at a roadblock that night. Although unarmed as the driver of a getaway van, Gilbert and all other participants in the action received lengthy sentences.
Seeds of remorse for the victims’ families and regret for his participation in the action were planted at his trial. In his 2014 book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond he described a disturbing incident during the trial. “Trying to show that life sentences didn’t deter revolutionaries, I declared that the issues that motivated us to fight—the depth of racism in the US and the millions of people killed each year by the economies and wars imposed by imperialism—were much larger than three lives. I meant the three of us facing life in prison.” He goes on to note, “But when I said ‘three lives,’ I caught a glimpse of a woman in the court who flinched as if I had struck her. Only later did it dawn on me that she was a relative of one of the men killed on October 20, thinking, feeling, that those three lives were the ones I was dismissing so cavalierly.”
In 37 years of incarceration, David has led an exemplary life. Soon after one of the other Brinks action participants died of AIDS in prison, Gilbert started an HIV/AIDS education outreach program. One former prisoner recently wrote, “It was at Dave’s urging that I took the HIV/AIDS Peer Training Class which he had developed. It changed my life and that of so many family and friends at that time and up to this very day.” Under Gilbert’s patient encouragment, Jerome Wright enrolled in college classes while incarcerated and became an HIV/AIDS peer trainer. The older white man with “an undying commitment to not only bring out the best in people” is credited with turning Wright’s life around. He sums up David’s impact on his life here, “The person who, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me–along with literally hundreds of other young people–become a productive and contributing member of society is still in prison today.”
The letter appealing to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begins with these words, “The extraordinary October 3, 2020 Papal Encyclical calls for ‘a better kind of politics’ based on rethinking social charity and justice approaches to the death penalty, and ‘forgiving not forgetting.’ We write with those sentiments in mind, aware that inordinately long prison sentences are designed more for punishment and revenge than rehabilitation and remorse.” One of the letter co-signers, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had previously written his own letter in support of David Gilbert’s release. He wrote in his letter, “our common beliefs in renewal, rehabilitation, and positive change all provide a foundation which makes it possible for Governor Cuomo to grant freedom.”
Another noteworthy supporter of the 76 year old’s release during the spread of COVID among U.S. prisoners is newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Son of David and Kathy Boudin, the Rhodes Scholar campaigned for the position of the City’s chief prosecutor by arguing that prison sentences should be used only as a last resort. An article this year in Mother Jones magazine reported, “during the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January.” In the same article District Attorney Boudin laments the dangers threatening his father and other elderly and COVID vulnerable persons as the pandemic spreads. “They are not a public safety risk,” he stated. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”
The aging revolutionary has not changed his forthright advocacy for revolutionary change in the U.S. In a podcast interview last year, he continued to describe himself as “an anti-imperialist political prisoner”. He then went on to say, “It’s funny to define yourself as anti-imperialist, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression define the current society. I’m really pro-people. I’m for all people of the world to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. To me, imperialism is the best way to sum up those structures of domination.”
While it was the U.S. civil rights movement of African Americans that opened Gilbert’s eyes politically at age 15, internationalism and international solidarity shape his political positions today. In the same interview last year he cited where he finds hope. The wisdom of his response indirectly makes a powerful case for his immediate release. “Love can defeat hate. That our sense of humanity is bound up with everybody else and with the natural world. And this can be awakened in everyone if there’s a chance, and there’s an opportunity. And if we create a world where people have a chance to develop their creative powers, we can solve all kinds of problems. So yes, I’m anti-Imperialist as I said at the beginning but that means that I’m for humanity and for nature and we have that potential.” During 37 plus years of reflection, study and writing in the “involuntary monasticism” of prison, David Gilbert has changed and our country and the world would benefit from granting this revolutionary change agent the freedom to tell us how and why.