Chesa Boudin Did Not Lose . . . We Did

Chesa Boudin. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

Long gone are the days of any pondering clash between science and faith; genetic blessing or acquired gift; studied skill or mere open eyes. Not rare at all, occasions abound when the answer to this hunt stares if only we looked straight ahead. Like shooting stars, they are fleeting chance, an opportunity to clutch the gift and to grow or to close our eyes and lose the reach of hope and possibility. This is the story of Chesa Boudin.

I do not count angels on the head of a pin or belong to the cult of any personalities. As an anti-war activist, organizer, VISTA social worker and attorney of almost 40 years I’ve had a rare chance to walk the streets of challenge and the courts of dare. I have also been arrested a half dozen times, indicted in two countries, imprisoned in one and am currently banned by four international states.  This does not make me better, or stronger or wiser. . . let’s just say seasoned.

Though my tactics and voice have varied depending on the fight and its venue, there is a steadfast understanding that has empowered my journey since my nose was first bloodied years ago by cop baton when, as a 16-year-old, I and others tried to seize the Brooklyn Bridge to say no to Vietnam. At its core, since the first slaver ship, small pox blanket and noose which hung women because we feared witches, this is a country of systemic and avarice greed, one in which the powerful, and those who envy or aspire to them, feed on people of color, on communities of poverty, on cadres of dissent. Nowhere is that more palpable and overarching and demanding of deep-seated fundamental change than it is with the criminal “justice” system. And that is why Chesa Boudin has been relegated to mere historical footnote of what might have been, instead of an imaginable pathway of what we could become.

Who is Chesa Boudin? His grandfather Leonard, an idol of mine, was born into a socialist family, married a wife of poetry and became brother-in-law to legendary leftist journalist I. F. Stone. Very much the Clarence Darrow of his generation, over the course of his 50-year battle for equality, justice and the right to dissent, his clients were a veritable who’s who of those despised for the arrogance of their voice and the daring of their step; among them Julian Bond, Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock, William Sloane Coffin and Daniel Ellsberg. During the height of McCarthyism, he represented those hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to prove their fidelity to the United States; along the way he toppled the provision of the Taft-Hartley Act that compelled union leaders to swear under oath that they were not Communists. Among his other ground-breaking civil rights cases, he prevailed in the Supreme Court against a law that held those who refused to be drafted could by routine fiat alone be stripped of citizenship. He represented Cuban interests in the United States for over 30 years and the Central Bank of Iran during the hysteria of the Iran hostage crisis.

Although adage would have us believe the proverbial apple never falls far from the tree, in the case of Chesa Boudin, his mother Kathy stretched the limbs of her father’s principled resistance to a new, far more militant and deadly level and for it paid a dear, life-defining price.

An early member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Venceremos Brigade, an organization of young internationalists who showed solidarity with the Cuban revolution by joining its workers in challenging US policies towards Cuba, Kathy quickly escalated her personal challenge to the very ails and ills which, one day, her son would campaign against in becoming District Attorney of San Francisco: the pursuit of equality and justice, and the end of the carceral state.

At the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 Kathy was jailed for setting off stink bombs in hotels and telephoning bomb threats. Not long thereafter she co-founded the Weather Underground helping to organize and participate with it in the1969 Days of Rage during which a few hundred revolutionaries fought battles with cops, setting off small bombs. A year later she and fellow Weathermen were in a Greenwich Village townhouse when a bomb they were making went off, killing three, with Kathy and a comrade escaping naked going underground for more than a decade. It is alleged that while underground, she participated in numerous bombings including one where she planted an explosive device in a women’s bathroom at the United States Capitol and another where she helped set off a bomb at the Pentagon. Eventually splitting off from the Weather Underground, Kathy formed an alliance with the Black Liberation Army (BLA) where it is alleged, she assisted in bank robberies and the jailbreak of Joanne Chesimard also known as Assata Shakur who had been convicted in a cop-killing and today lives with political asylum in Cuba.

In 1980 Kathy had a baby with fellow revolutionary David Gilbert, named Chesa Jackson, after Chesimard and another revolutionary, George Jackson. One day she dropped her then year-old son Chesa off at day care and went with Gilbert and members of the BLA to Nyack, N.Y.  to rob a bank. Not long thereafter Kathy and David were in police custody for their role in the robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead. Imprisoned for more than twenty years Kathy spent her decades behind bars acting as a fierce determined advocate for women in prison, in particular working to facilitate reunification with their children. She became synonomous with the evolving concept of restorative justice — bringing people harmed by crime into contact with those responsible for it in an effort to find a way forward in peace.

Eventually granted clemency, parole and released from prison in 2003, Kathy continued with her labor of love in developing and implementing restorative justice programs inside prisons, in particular for those who had spent decades entombed for crimes committed as children. She also lobbied for the release of ageing prisoners, to reform the parole system and worked to create meaningful healthcare programs for prisoners returning home.

After obtaining her PhD from Columbia’s Teacher College in 2007, seven years later she and Dr. Cheryl Wilkins, a former fellow inmate, helped found the Center for Justice at Columbia University which focuses on causes and consequences of mass incarceration and in so doing seeks transformation of the criminal justice system and to address its day-to-day damage to persons, families and communities. As part of her efforts, Dr. Boudin’s articles have been published in The Harvard Education Review, Journal of Corrections Education, Women and Therapy, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, and Liman Report of Yale Law School. She was the editor and co-author of the book, Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison. 

Kathy passed this past May 1st at age 78 with her son Chesa and her life partner David Gilbert, who had been released from prison some six months earlier, by her side.

And what became of Chesa after the arrest of his parents? Separated but never parted in soul or inspiration from one another, at fourteen months of age Chesa was adopted by their dear friends and comrades, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, themselves revolutionaries of an earlier time. Now a retired law professor, Bernadine Dohrn was a co-founder of the Weather Underground and as such on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in the early 1970’s for several years. Bill Ayers, a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was also a leader of the group designated a domestic terrorist organization and himself a fugitive wanted by the FBI on anti-war bombing charges which were eventually dismissed due to government misconduct. Later he became internationally renowned for his scholarly work in education reform and curriculum.

This fraternity of four comrades in purpose and, at times, arms raised Chesa in a partnership built of love and ideal and regular unbroken visits to prisons throughout New York State, as he grew from toddler to teen to political tempest himself.  Though his parenting took on challenges far too many have faced from afar in a carceral society, and often alone, nevertheless for Chesa it was one that never wanted for the love of a smile, the warmth of a touch, the inspiration of tomorrow.

Even as a child, one does not make the long regular weekend drive across a state by car or bus to far off prisons typically buried in isolated rural communities to visit a parent without profound lasting impact. It may be subtle, it may be hard, it may be one of pain or at times even joy, but rest assured impact and life informing that journey is indeed.  Imagine what goes through the mind of a prisoner offspring over decades of passage as they themselves grow and watch their parents age in custody, leaving friends behind to spend one weekend with mom another with dad: separate jails but the same prison.

As attorney and inmate, myself, I’ve seen dozens of Chesa Boudins of all ages, skin tone, faith and gender struggle to traverse security hurdles in prison visiting rooms to spend precious few hours with their caged mother or father. Some have crossed that threshold wrapped in shyness, a few intimidated by self-tears and still others gleeful but quickly hushed by strident cops . . .  told to walk, not to run, as they raced for their weekly embrace with parents; those they knew not at all in calm moments of retreat.

No matter what their diversity or comport, during visits the children of prisoners become very much captives themselves, always aware of their controlled setting with its watchful eyes of guards; told where to sit, what to do . . . when to take their turn and roll of quarters to the vending machines that serve their getaway lunch for the day. For the fortunate few, they get to pose for a photo shoot with their prison parents before a sculpted prettied-up wall of hearts and flowers or woods, wrapped in one and others arms, with broad often tailored grins as they know their time together will soon end with the sudden shout-out of “visits up.”

To be sure, studies on offspring recidivism rates among the sons and daughters of prisoners who evolved from the pathway of child to adulthood in state and federal visiting rooms are not missing. That discussion, although essential to the tomorrows yet to come, is not one for here and now where the question has per force become who and what is Chesa Boudin and what has his recall cost society as a whole.

Although the son and grandson of revolutionary figures who rejected the ease of opportunity and privilege that came with their race and education to challenge structural inequality and injustice, albeit through different means of militancy, it is obvious that many of Chesa’s contemporaries spent their youth very much beneficiary to that very edge growing up in playgrounds, parks and high school plays. Yet for Chesa from his earliest days his was a struggle to find love and comfort far from his parents no doubt looking for answers as to why the separation, even while receiving the boundless love and support of his adopted family.

For some, perhaps many children who have lost their parents to prisons built largely of non-violent, often drug offenses that keep rural America employed and urban America shattered, the loss of a mother or father all but guarantees an ever-expanding scrapbook of family prison reunions. To be Black, to be brown to be indigenous, to be poor, to be dissident remains the linchpin of a prison industry that begins with the beat cop, moves to true believer prosecutor, and ends with the thrice daily scream of count-time, count-time.

To Chesa Boudin this turnstile of injustice was not an abstract academic debate or high school field trip: it was a life defining virtual education in real time and damning place of a carceral system that perpetuates, indeed, all but guarantees a race and class-based distinction sculpted to accompany the journey of generations of American youth not through personal opportunity or drive, but simply by dint of birth.

The grandson of a legendary litigator and progeny of reviled revolutionaries spent decades among the sons and daughters of persons of color; the poor; the despaired; the despised; the disaffected growing up behind the walls of prisons as they struggle to remain a weekend family detached, if only briefly, from the pain and reality of their weekday life of loneliness counting the hours until once again, they could meet and hug.

Many who have traveled and will yet navigate that aching journey are left embittered and lost; though Chesa Boudin was not. Yet let us not overly romanticize those soft moments when he and his mother made smoothies together in the visit trailer when he made trips to see her at Bedford prison. To be sure, for all these momentary escapes from the loneliness of his nighttime bed, Boudin the child and Boudin the adolescent walked away from his own 20-year sentence with a clear and unbroken understanding of a carceral system built of inequality, poverty and indifference. To him the answer was not to rob banks or build bombs but to become an advocate who would blast away at systemic evil through a fundamental recast and application of laws, by the redirect of law enforcement priorities and through a struggle to take the office of District Attorney from the detached courthouse steps to street corners of need.

It is naïve to believe that a single prosecutor, a solitary judge, or a stand-alone legislature can of its own device and drive bring about a recast of a dangerous damning criminal justice system that has torn away at the very heartbeat of this country since its earliest days. And though there have been periodic spates of enlightenment, perhaps even moments of decency, where the gatekeepers of liberty struggled to find creative and necessary alternatives to carceral America, far and few between have been any changes of meaningful, let alone lasting consequence.

There can be little reasoned debate over what immediate steps can and must be taken to begin to break a non-stop generational recycle of prison cells from parent to child to children yet to come.

Bail for nonviolent offenses is, for most, little but an often-nominal tease to young women and men forcibly separated far from family and community not because they are guilty but because they are poor. Central booking proves to be but an expensive and, by design, intimidating cog in an entirely unnecessary process proven much more efficient and humane with the issue of a ticket to appear. Prosecuting drug offenses may bring a smile to the “moral” self-righteous who enjoy escape on holiday with cognac and credit card but does nothing to meet the needs of tens of millions who suffer daily from the pain of economic disillusion and social abandon. Filling prison bunks with the broken bodies of those who welcome a seasonal respite from the winter freeze of homelessness does nothing structurally valuable but guarantee employment for many who more than once were themselves but a bad-cop encounter away from that very cell-block because of color and nothing more. Mandatory minimums and over-charging crimes may bully pleas from those denied their day in court, but do nothing to vindicate the presumption of innocence or the lofty, but entirely disingenuous, ideal upon which it is based. Community grounded support, housing and reentry is the sole effective linchpin for a productive alternative to recidivism; an economic process driven by the need for numbers and not “rehabilitation.” Bigger and more proficient guns will surely make death by cop more predictable, but does nothing to address the overstuffed and misdirected coffers of police abuse and budgets better spent on help and health and not handcuffs.

Today in the United States there are almost two million people entombed in more than five-thousand state, federal and local prisons and jails. Nearly seventy million Americans have criminal records, many of whom continue to bear the badges and incidents of the carceral state denying them jobs, licenses and opportunities to move up and on often because of dated and inconsequential convictions. In this past year alone state and federal governments spent more than one hundred and eighty billion dollars on law enforcement and prisons.  Per capita, the US is sui generis indeed as it spends far more on jailing people than seeing to their basic healthcare or education.  As a reformer committed to a revolutionary approach to social and criminal justice, Chesa Boudin has come and gone not simply as a detached echo in the wilderness preaching of stained bars and failed cells, but as a prosecutor who dared to struggle . . . dared to win . . . and for it has paid. Others are sure to follow . . . no doubt to be dispatched by cop and politician campaigns alike, not all that different from those regressive talismans that would blame our environmental crises for the daring of our breath.

As a country and a culture, we must make certain fundamental choices about who and what we are and where we wish to go and have the steadfast commitment, capacity and courage to weather the tsunami of blowback all but certain to ensue. There is simply no choice.

Ultimately, one transformational challenge confronts carceral America: will we dare to break off and pursue revolutionary approaches to address age-old endemic problems of social, economic and racial injustice or continue to blindly embrace generations of failed criminal justice policies anchored upon a tattered system of prison gulags with millions of our future, many among them our best and brightest, out of sight. . . out of mind?

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.