In a few short weeks, most likely by the end of November, David Gilbert, former member and a theorist of the Weather Underground, will be free after 40 years in New York State prisons. With his freedom the debate will linger about the existence of political prisoners in the US.
Gilbert was in the getaway vehicle from the infamous Brink’s robbery in 1981 in Nyack, New York. During that robbery and in its immediate aftermath, two Nyack police officers and a security guard from the Brink’s armored car were killed. He and several of his fellow revolutionaries were apprehended shortly after the robbery took place, a robbery that was discovered by chance by a person gazing out of their window near the armored car heist. Gilbert was defiant when apprehended and at his trial and was given a sentence that would have meant he would have been eligible for parole in 2056, in what would have amounted to a death sentence. He killed no one during and after the robbery. New York law states that an accessory to this kind of felony is as culpable as those who committed murder during the crime. The revolutionaries in this robbery planned to fund revolutionary activities. Photos of Gilbert in police custody following his apprehension show his swollen and bruised face. The Brink’s robbery was an action carried out by white leftist revolutionaries and Black leftist revolutionaries.
Gilbert has been a model prisoner during his imprisonment, serving other inmates. The US, however, never sought rehabilitation after the bipartisan-driven murder of between three to five million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, with over 58,000 from the US dead and Cold War anti-communism in place. No post-World War II reparations were ever provided to those nations in Southeast Asia.
As one of the last acts of disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Gilbert was granted clemency, and he became eligible for parole, which was granted in late October 2021. Perhaps the former governor’s action in Gilbert’s case was earth shaking because the power of police, especially through their unions, is almost unbeatable. A society moving farther to the right needs police to not only enforce mundane laws, but act as a bulwark against rebellion and positive change of any kind.
To understand the Weather Underground, one must understand the Vietnam era in which it arose and its underpinnings in the early 1960s history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS began as a mildly liberal organization much in the spirit of reform movements since the beginning of this nation. Its aims were a more integrated society with opportunities for all and a less militaristic foreign policy. Its founding document, the Port Huron Statement (1962), was a kind of extension of the Declaration of Independence written by idealistic young liberals of the time, including then-activist and protester Tom Hayden.
What happened to SDS is a kind of mirror of the antiwar movement that grew across this nation and around the world as the aggression and expansion of the war in Southeast Asia grew. Mass media played a role in all of this, and by the end of the decade of the 1960s, the Vietnam War became a garish nightly violent spectacle on the three major news outlets of that time. As the war expanded in intensity and viciousness, so did the radicalization of some in SDS with a break finally coming in 1969 with the growth of SDS’ most militant wing. Most who took part in protest during the Vietnam War era did so within the acceptable parameters of protest of the existing society and their aim through protest was to reform the existing social, economic, and governmental systems. The vast majority of protesters returned to the fold and lived lives within the system once the Vietnam War ended.
Some of the radical militants went underground and began a bombing campaign and organizational campaign that missed taking the pulse of the larger society in which the Weather Underground radicals lived. When participants in the 1969 Days of Rage entered high schools in Chicago, they found students didn’t know what the hell was going on and the radicals’ dream for an expansive movement fell flat on its face. The radicals faced the antipathy of much of the working class and middle class that was reflected in the vicious attack by construction workers on protesters in lower Manhattan only days after the Kent State massacre in Ohio on May 4, 1970.
Earlier that year when a bomb factory on West 11th Street in the Greenwich Village enclave of New York City exploded in March 1970, killing some of its occupants, a plan had been in the works to bomb a dance at Fort Dix in neighboring New Jersey, an act which would have heightened the antipathy toward radicals in the US.
As a comparison, readers may recall some sentiments toward the murdered antiwar student protests at Kent State University with the slander “They should have killed more!” The “they” referred to the murderous elements of the Ohio National Guard and their right-wing political propagandists.
The Weather Underground had been careful prior to their lethal bomb factory debacle of 1970 not to kill innocent civilians and chose symbolic property targets. The entire New Left of the time did not condemn the Weather Underground, but soon after the New York explosion, they fell out of favor with many. Scanlan’s, a short-lived magazine, recounted some of the acts of resistance in the US to the viciousness of the Vietnam War.
When the military draft ended in 1973, many left the antiwar movement. In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, the peace movement was mostly absent with many protesters exhausted from years of antiwar protest. Some from the antiwar movement went on to live mainstream lives, while many continued the tradition of protest.
By the time of the Brink’s Robbery in 1981, carried out by former members of the Weather Underground and Black revolutionaries, the US had turned to the hard right politically and Ronald Reagan occupied the White House. The nation had moved to the far right and the culture wars of the 1960s and early 1970s had given rise to vibrant, but rear-guard left actions against war and inequality. To think that there was a mass base for radicalism in 1981 was somewhat like Waiting for Godot. Indeed, the ascendancy of the vicious right-winger Trump to the highest political office in the US, followed by the neoliberal Biden, tells much of where the world, and in particular the US, has moved since the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and other movements for social change.
I don’t know what the world will look like to David Gilbert as he takes his first steps outside of the prison walls. The movement to incarcerate masses of people in the US who no longer mattered to either the economy or society was just getting underway when he entered prison many decades ago. The debate between endless incarceration and rehabilitation seems to no longer matter to most. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, there were 2.3 million people in all US prisons in 2020. The ethos of revolution holds that the mole of revolutionary action is underground and waiting for the spark that will ignite a critical mass to action. I don’t know if that is a reality as the greed and meanness of the few exploits and destroys the world and is close to bringing us to our knees.