American radical organizer, author and prisoner David Gilbert was a founding member of Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society and member of The Weather Underground Organization. Following eleven years underground he was arrested with members of the Black Liberation Army and other radicals following a botched armored car robbery in 1981. He is now a well-known prisoner serving time in upstate New York.
David Gilbert grew up in a Jewish family in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Inspired in his teens by the Greensboro sit-ins and other events of the American Civil Rights Movement, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) at age seventeen. He entered Columbia University in 1962. In his junior year he helped to found the Independent Committee Against the War in Vietnam [ICV] and later the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. He travelled regularly to Harlem while working as a tutor, and saw Malcolm X speak at Barnard College in February 1965, experiences he describes as formative. Known by the late ’60s primarily as a young theorist, publishing articles in New Left Notes and other movement publications, he went on to play an organizing role in the April-May 1968 Columbia student strike.
As Columbia SDS grew during the Spring 1967 term, Gilbert tended to return to the Columbia campus only to offer a “radical education” counter-course for Columbia SDS freshmen and sophomores in a lounge in Ferris Booth Hall. Most of his activism was centered downtown at the New School for Social Research or at the New York SDS Regional Office.
Gilbert’s father was a liberal Democrat who worked as a manager in a toy company and Gilbert was still just a left-liberal Democrat, politically, when he entered Columbia College in the fall of 1962. But by the fall of 1965, Gilbert was speaking on the sundial against the war in Viet Nam at ICV rallies, was a revolutionary communist and New Left radical on a political level, somewhat bohemian culturally and very intellectual, morally passionate and earnest. He always seemed to be in a pleasant and enthusiastic mood. He also seemed to be one of the New Left activists around campus who knew the most about any politically relevant subject. As an orator and agitator, Gilbert was also quite good. And as a day-to-day organizer, Gilbert was very hardworking.
Students for a Democratic Society
After graduating from Columbia in June 1966, Gilbert spent most of his days and evenings during the fall of 1967 downtown attending grad school at the New School, building an SDS chapter there or attending meetings at the New York SDS Regional Office. He and other New York Regional SDS activists were both working to build SDS and attempting to build an “adult,” non-student Movement for a Democratic Society [MDS] of ex-student radical professionals who had left the campus scene, for meaningless off-campus 9-to-5 jobs. In addition, Gilbert spent his spare-time studying Marx’s Das Kapital book and writing New Left theoretical papers on imperialism and U.S. domestic consumption, consumerism and “the new working-class.” In October 1967, Gilbert looked somewhat like Marx, himself, having grown a long beard.
In 1969 SDS split into different ideological factions and the Weathermen emerged, its purpose being to build up armed struggle amidst young white Americans in support of the Black Panthers and other militant groups and also oppose the war in Vietnam via actions that “Bring the War Home.” Gilbert joined this group in 1969 with his friend Ted Gold, who in early 1970 would die in the infamous New York City townhouse explosion that killed three Weather members. The group’s participants went into hiding at this point, and the organization was renamed the Weather Underground.
Exactly what Gilbert did in the Weather Underground between 1970 and the group’s demise around 1975 is not known. Not on the group’s coordinating committee (the Weather Bureau) he did act as a regional leader, spending at least some of these years in Colorado. The Weather Underground committed several bombings and actions in this period against government and business targets. As support for the group began to wane on the left the pace of actions lessened and some members of the Weather Underground reemerged. Most were not proscecuted or did not serve time in prison despite having been sought by the police for years; police misconduct was the cause of many charges eventually being thrown out of court (see: COINTELPRO). Gilbert did not emerge, however; he and his partner Kathy Boudin remained active even following the birth of their son Chesa Boudin in August 1980.
Revolutionary Armed Task Force
In the late 1970s or early 1980s Gilbert and other white activists took the name RATF (Revolutionary Armed Task Force), declaring their solidarity with the Black Liberation Army (BLA). In 1981, this group participated along with several members of the BLA in an attempt to rob a Brinks armored car at the Nanuet Mall, near Nyack, New York. While Gilbert and Boudin waited in a U-Haul truck in a nearby parking lot, armed BLA members took another vehicle to the mall, where a Brinks truck was making a delivery. They confronted the guards and immediately began firing, almost severing the arm of guard Joe Trombino and killing his co-worker, Peter Paige. The four then took $1.6 million in cash and sped off to transfer into the waiting U-Haul. The truck was soon stopped by police, who were looking for black, not white, perpetrators, and therefore did not suspect Gilbert and Boudin. Officers questioning the couple were then attacked by BLA members who emerged from the back of the vehicle. Two police officers, Waverly L. Brown and Edward J. O’Grady, died in the shootout. Gilbert fled the scene with other RATF and BLA members but was later caught by police, tried, and sentenced in 1983 to 75 years for three counts of felony manslaughter. His extremely long sentence for participating in this action (especially when compared to Kathy Boudin’s 20-years-to-life, from which she has been paroled) may be due to his decision not to participate in his trial, not recognizing the authority of the state to try him.
Life in Prison
Gilbert co-founded an inmate peer education program on HIV and AIDS in the Auburn Correctional Facility in 1987, and a similar more successful project in Great Meadows Prison in Comstock following his transfer there.
He has published book reviews and essays in a number of small/independent newspapers and journals which were collected into the anthology No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner (Abraham Guillen Press) in 2004. He has also published longer single pieces on the topic of misleading AIDS conspiracy theories and white working class political consciousness. In 2012, he published Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond.
The 2003 documentary The Weather Underground featured interview segments with Gilbert, raising his profile beyond those in the small political prisoner support network who have been following his progress since his incarceration. The DVD release of The Weather Underground features a longer interview with Gilbert as an extra.