Shortly after entering Columbia University in 1965, David Gilbert became the founding chair of the school’s Vietnam Committee. He also joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which began five years earlier. By the fall of 1966, he was inspired by the impact of the Black Panther Party on the national scene, and had witnessed the upsurge of militance among Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Asians. These movements have exerted a major influence on his actions ever since.
In 1968, he recalls, the university announced its plan to erect a gymnasium on the site of a public park, a favorite recreation area for Blacks from Harlem. In response, David helped to lead the student strike that opposed the plan. Some faculty members supported them, and so did Coretta Scott King, who led a march to the campus from a pre-arranged Vietnam rally in Central Park. Although the authorities promised to halt their plans, they eventually reneged on the promise.
David’s life took another turn in late 1969. That was when he joined the Weather Underground, a group that thought nonviolent actions weren’t enough to end the racial and class divisions of an imperialist society. Unfortunately, this led to what he calls today “our sickening and inexcusable glorification of violence, which grievously contradicted the humanist basis of our politics and militancy. We thereby handed effective ammunition to all who wanted to discredit our priority on third world struggles and our move to armed struggle.
“To this day,” he argues, “almost all history’ about the Weather Underground makes the mania of those six months the whole story, without looking at our correcting of that error, and the ensuing six and half years of solid and humane anti-imperialist action.
“We were white middle class kids,” he explains. Witnessing saturation bombings of Vietnam and the murder of Black Panthers they admired, he and others “felt compelled to leap into armed struggle. Instead of admitting our fear and inexperience and developing a suitable transitional strategy, we psyched ourselves up by glorifying violence.” As David sees it, this led to sectarianism and a hierarchical movement, rather than building a movement at all levels, with equal participation and decision-making by everyone.
“After the accidental explosion of bombs that killed three of our beloved members on March 2, 1970, we began to place the highest priority on avoiding civilian casualties, even when we did 20 bombings. One of these included the bombing of the US Capitol Building after the US expanded the war in Indochina by invading Laos in February 1971.”
They also bombed the New York State Prison headquarters after the September 1971 massacre at Attica, as well as Kennecott Copper Company on the anniversary of the bloody coup against democracy in Chile. During our recent interview, David noted that the 30th anniversary of that revolt and massacre is coming up, and expressed hopes that all who believe in human rights – even those within the prison industrial complex – will do something to commemorate it.
Identifying with Humanity
Since 1981, David has been in prison. His crime: driving the getaway vehicle after an attempt to rob a Brinks armored truck in suburban New York. At the time, the idea was to expropriate money to finance the work of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). But when police caught up with the group, two officers were killed in the resulting confrontation. Two days later a BLA member died in a shootout.
Although David wasn’t armed and, thus, might have defended himself in court on a technicality, he opted not to take that opportunity. Instead, he identified himself with people of color and declared himself “a prisoner of war.” In the end, he was convicted of both robbery and murder, and received a sentence of 75 years to life without the possibility of parole.
Imprisoned for the past two decades, most recently in Attica, he has written and worked for prisoners’ rights, including AIDS education. Although he’s seen some improvements in the prison system during that time, he says some of the gains have been lost recently, especially under the ownership of private corporations. He also has strong opinions about movements for social change in the world beyond his prison bars.
In a 1991 interview with Bob Feldman, for example, he voiced disappointment “with the three positions I have seen most frequently in the Left press: 1) War for oil; 2) War to maintain the high level of military spending crucial for the domestic economy; and 3) war as a way for the US, a declining economic power, to maintain its importance relative to Europe and Japan.” Although he believes that each argument is a valid way to analyze the roots of conflict, none directly addresses what he defines as the central problem – capitalism. But he also goes beyond that. “As human beings, we can never accept the depreciation of human life because the people happen to be Iraqi or El Salvadoran or Angolan,” he says. “If we maintain our sense of identification with humanity, especially the majority of human beings who live in the Third World, we won’t…lose either our moral bearings or our sense of humanity.”
For years, David has maintained that the real problem resides in a culture that divided human beings into races and classes. When we talked, he added that the recent protests against corporation globalization, as well as efforts around the world to challenge imperialism’s divisiveness, raise hopes that a new society, one that treasures all human beings, can still be created.
During the interview, I also asked his opinion about the violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Although I partially agreed with what he said, the remarks raised some questions.
“The occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza were seized in the 1967 war in clear violation of international law,” he explained. “But don’t forget that Israel itself was built on what was Palestinian land before 1948. So, settling for a State in just the West Bank and Gaza was a major compromise by the Palestinians in the first place.
“But Israel introduced so many settlements and security posts there, that even that land would be more like parceled-out Bantustans. Yet, the image in the media is that the Palestinians are the violent ones, even though they have suffered 85 percent of the deaths. We are told that it is the Palestinians who are completely intransigent.”
I agree with his condemnation of Israel, and would add that one of the causes is the fact that the US provides so much military aid. However, when I suggested to David that the Palestinians are also violent and ought to employ the methods of nonviolence, he disagreed.
Since this comment came near the end of our time together, I didn’t push the matter. Hopefully, we’ll discuss it further through the mail and in future visits. But when I think back to his comments about how the Weather Underground romanticized violence during its early stage, I begin to suspect that he may also be romanticizing the violence of the Palestinians.