David Gilbert is not as well known as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, his old comrades in the Weather Underground, but he does deserve notoriety: He is a convicted murderer and a revolutionary terrorist, who is now serving a life term for his role in the 1981 Brink’s robbery near Nyack, N.Y. He and his common-law wife, Kathy Boudin, both members of a group called the Revolutionary Armed Task Force, were in a van meant to be a getaway car for members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) who were robbing a bank. The robbers fled in the van, after killing a bank guard. When the police stopped the van, Boudin and Gilbert surrendered. Seeing that they were unarmed, the police put down their guns. When they went to open the van’s back door, however, other BLA members came out shooting, murdering police officers Waverly Brown and Edward J. O’Grady. (Brown was the first black officer hired by the Nyack force.)
In his self-serving and disingenuous memoir, Gilbert offers a manual for today’s advocates of armed struggle. Beginning with his participation in the famous 1968 Columbia University sit-in, in which he was a leader of the so-called praxis/axis, made up of students who sought to infuse their movement with Marxist revolutionary theory, Gilbert takes his readers on an exhausting trip through all of the revolutionary factional groups he later joined. Like Ayers, Gilbert became part of the Weathermen, a group whose members believed that the path to socialist revolution in America lay through an alliance of white students with Third World revolutionaries and black militants within the U.S.
The Weathermen set off bombs at various places, including police stations, the Pentagon, and other symbolic targets. Their project came to an end when some of them blew themselves up in a New York townhouse while making bombs they planned to use at Fort Dix in New Jersey, at a dance for new Army recruits. Did Gilbert and his surviving friends get discouraged by this failure? No, he tells us, they just made sure to make safer circuits: There were “crucial lessons that had to be learned about storing and handling explosives.” Nonetheless, their new cadre groups fell apart over arcane political and theoretical differences.
Gilbert then helped create a new group led by women, the May 19th Communist Organization, which offered support for the BLA, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party. The BLA was dedicated to working for revolution by robbing banks and, more important, killing police officers in a symbolic effort to show the “black nation” in America that it could do away with its local oppressors; it made its reputation in the early 1970s, when its members killed two teams of white and black policemen. Over the coming years, the BLA would murder over a dozen police officers in cities throughout the country.
Gilbert has made some good friends now that he is in prison serving a life sentence. One of the oppressed of whom Gilbert writes warmly and lovingly is a man who was named Donald Weems at birth, but who became Kuwasi Balagoon. The book has a prison photo of Gilbert with Balagoon, whom he refers to as his “comrade.” What kind of a man was he? Gilbert writes that he “exuded an incredible joie de vivre. He also wrote great poetry.” We learn only that he was “arrested and convicted for expropriations in New Jersey.” They spent their time “telling old ‘war stories,’” and readers learn that this “playful ‘uncle’” to other inmates’ visiting children was also at the Columbia University demonstrations in 1968. He was a revolutionary fighting for the “independence of New Afrika,” Gilbert writes, with whom he held “lively and rich” discussions of political issues. We do not learn what charges put Balagoon in prison. Perhaps Gilbert realizes that to acknowledge that he was one of the BLA armed terrorists who killed cops in the Brink’s robbery would not create much sympathy for the two inmates’ having such a good time trading their war stories in prison.