Twenty years ago Susan Sontag said, Let’s mourn together, but let’s not get stupid together. Her advice has been, in the main, unheeded.
The frenzied myth-making following the September 11 terrorist attacks ramped up remarkably for the “Twentieth Anniversary.” We just witnessed an orgy of patriotic displays, memorials and testimonials, heart-wrenching personal stories—all of it deflecting, all of it silencing serious inquiry and analysis, or deeper reckoning and alternative conclusions.
Note: there are no testimonials from the victims of US wars; there are no memorials to those who died in twenty years of invasion and occupation; there are no heart-wrenching personal stories from those tortured in US secret prisons; there is no open accounting of the vast profits reaped by the war profiteers. There’s no mention, of course, of the anniversary of the “other 9/11,” the violent overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile by the US CIA in 1973.
Perhaps we are hearing and seeing all that we see and hear from the wrong side of imperialism.
Op-Ed, LA Times: Andrew Cuomo’s act of clemency in New York reaches all the way to California
BY MIRIAM PAWEL
Andrew Cuomo, now embarked on his own defiant quest for some sort of redemption, used his final hours as New York governor to grant clemency to a man who had seemed destined to die behind bars.
Like all acts of clemency, it was both an affirmation of the power of redemption and an act with personal and political consequences, in this case stretching across the country to California.
It might seem a relatively safe gesture to enable a 76-year-old who has spent 40 years in prison with a spotless record to apply for parole. But the prisoner is David Gilbert, a former leader of the radical Weather Underground who was an unarmed getaway driver in a botched 1981 Brinks armored truck robbery that left two police officers and one security guard dead. Cuomo’s last-minute commutation of Gilbert’s 75-years-to-life sentence met with predictable outrage from the law enforcement community, who will oppose his release when he appears before the parole board.
Gilbert has attracted many prominent supporters over the years, none more fervent than his son, Chesa Boudin, who was 14 months old when his father and his mother were arrested after the Oct. 20, 1981, shootout in suburban New York. When Boudin could barely sign his name, he protested a decision to abolish the overnight trailer visits that gave him his only chance to get to know his father. “It doesn’t seem fair to take away these trailer visits after years of having them work so well,” the 10-year-old Chesa scrawled in a note to the prison warden.
That preoccupation with fairness became a trademark that eventually propelled Boudin to law school, to a job as public defender, to a crusade against cash bail. And then, the son of a man who represented himself at trial and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court made a move in some sense as revolutionary as his parents’ acts. He ran for district attorney in San Francisco, part of a wave of progressive prosecutors committed to ending mass incarceration and rectifying racial inequities that fill the jails with Black and brown men.
At his January 2020 inauguration, Dist. Atty. Boudin thanked his father, who “can’t be here today because he sits in a cage,” and his mother, Kathy Boudin, paroled in 2003 after serving 22 years for her part in the Brinks robbery; she, too, had been unarmed, sitting next to Gilbert in the getaway car. “You taught me that we are all more than our worst mistakes,” Chesa said, addressing Kathy, who sat in the front row. “Thank you for teaching me about forgiveness and redemption.”
Over the decades, Gilbert has become a mentor for generations of activists behind bars and beyond, respected for his intelligence and passionate commitment to progressive causes. He maintains an extensive correspondence with dozens of younger organizers. He agitated for AIDS education when the frightening, deadly disease first raged, co-founding a peer counseling program in two prisons. He wrote a book of essays, and then, at the urging of his son, a memoir titled “Love and Struggle,” about his years as a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, and his ill-fated turn away from peaceful resistance.
The most difficult conversation Boudin had when he decided to run for district attorney was in his father’s prison visiting room. “I was wary, even unhappy about it,” Gilbert wrote to me. “I’m skeptical about what one can accomplish in the money-loaded arena of electoral politics and at the same time I was concerned on a more personal level for him about the demands and stresses entailed. … I reconciled myself when I saw how he used that arena to get out much more widely a clear critique of the criminal justice system.”
That critique, deeply rooted in his own experience, has made Boudin a lightning rod in the national debate over criminal justice policy. He seems certain to face a recall election early next year, just halfway through his term. His father’s clemency is already being weaponized in that battle. (“This is what pure power looks like folks. You can kill without accountability,” the recall campaign tweeted in response to the clemency news.)
From childhood on, Boudin has lived with a foot in two vastly different worlds, raised in the intellectual salon of his adoptive parents, former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. “Every day I combine two lives,” he wrote in his college application essay, “one, immersed in the stability of privilege and the other, meeting the challenges of degradation. Oddly enough, wrestling with these worlds has extended my vision and generated a plethora of possibilities.”
That those possibilities would include a job in which he sent people to prison would not have seemed plausible. But in a 2004 letter to Gilbert on his 60th birthday, Boudin foreshadowed the throughline between his parents’ activism and his own. He had grown up infused with a deep tradition of “optimistic, open-minded engagement in local, national, and global politics,” he wrote. “It is this legacy that has done the most to place me in a position to continue your struggle for a better world while avoiding the kinds of mistakes that led to the murder of those three men and to your life behind bars.”
When Chesa Boudin was married in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in November 2019, David Gilbert was in attendance as a larger-than-life cardboard cutout, greeted by Chesa and his two mothers as they walked him down the aisle. Boudin’s first child was born Friday. Perhaps a flesh-and-blood Gilbert will soon be able to embrace his son and grandson, freed by an unexpected act of clemency from that life behind bars.
Miriam Pawel is the author, most recently, of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”
PLEASE HELP:URGENT: You have only 24 hours to up-load a letter on behalf of granting parole for David Gilbert, who is 76 years old and has spent 40 years in NY State Prisons. His first parole hearing is fast approaching thanks to a sentence commutation by the governor. Please visit this website, learn about his case, and draft a letter to the parole board urging them to grant parole and allow him to come home.
This is a time of tears for those of us who knew and loved Malik Alim.
He’s gone, and a gaping, irreparable hole has been ripped in our hearts.
We’re stabbed, assaulted.
And we cannot stop the tears.
I knew and admired Malik for years as an organizer and an activist, a thinker and a doer, a reliable presence in the Movement—we said hello and chatted at demonstrations; we greeted one another with a hug at Movement gatherings. But something changed qualitatively a year ago when we began collaborating to create our little back-room podcast about freedom (Gratitude to Damon and Daniel for thinking that Malik and I could become a team). We may have looked—on several dimensions—like an odd couple, but we clicked, and somehow we found a unique synergy across our vast differences of age and race and background, and within our common dreams of a world that could be and should be, but is not yet. I learned from him every day—where to hold the mic and how to create studio conditions in a closet, for example, but also when to shut up and listen, and how to make our messages more educational and compelling. We mentored one another, and I learned from him and grew with him inch by inch.
We didn’t need a reminder—certainly not this unwelcome prompt—to tell us that life is fragile—precious—hanging by a thread. But, even so, there it is: a boisterous declaration that our moment in the sun is brief. Malik knew it too: his was a short life, true, too short, but a rich life nonetheless because he lived it fully and fiercely—with purpose and at full attention. He got up each morning, took care of his kids, connected with friends, did his good work, and loved his family and his community passionately. Day by day. Every day.
Malik’s passing is entirely upside down, out of order: no parent should be required to grieve their son; no young child should have their Papi torn away in a flash.
So the tears keep coming, but not tears alone—no—it’s also been a time of intense remembering, of intimate laughter and fervent embraces. Death took his life, but death did not end our relationships—with him or with one another. No matter how far back you go in memory, it’s in the work of his hands, in his curious and impatient mind, in his family and in each of us that we find Malik again. Those things are still unfolding, still in the making, still drawing from the deep well of his life. The past is done; and life is still unfolding.
The pain we share now is a measure of Malik’s impact and value in our lives, but we’re not broken—as long as we have not lost his place among us. We will always miss him, of course, but we can all choose to live deeper and more intentional and more committed lives—in honor of him.
I’m sending laser beams of Light and Love to Malik’s parents and siblings, to Kristiana, and to the mighty Ori and Yari—for their sake, we rise again.
David Gilbert was granted clemency by Governor Cuomo in one of his last acts, and the right, then, to go before the parole board!Chesa released this statement:I am overcome with emotion. On the eve of my first child’s birth, my father, David Gilbert, has been granted clemency. He served 40 years in prison—nearly my entire life. I am so grateful for this moment and am reminded of the many other families praying for their loved ones’ return.My heart is bursting, and it also aches for the families of the three victims. Although he never used a gun or intended for anyone to get hurt, my father’s crime caused unspeakable harm and devastated the lives of many separate families. I will continue to keep those families in my heart; I know they can never get their loved ones back.
Malik Alim, my friend and comrade, and for the last year my co-conspirator on the Under the Tree podcast, died Friday morning in a boating accident at Fox Lake, Illinois. We join his family and his comrades at the #LetUsBreathe collective, Chicago Votes, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, and the larger BLM and progressive movement in mourning this tragic loss to our community and the world.
Some details are sketchy, but this is what I think I know at this moment: The accident occurred August 20 around 10 am. His two small children were with him on a tube being towed by a power boat when the tube flipped over. The kids had life jackets on and popped up—and they weren’t physically hurt. Malik never surfaced. Kristiana Colon, his partner, was in the boat and went into the water for the kids. Malik’s body was recovered Sunday morning.
Malik, 28-years-old, was an inspirational organizer and activist, a spark of energy and hope.
I wanted you to know.
I am completely heart-broken.
Rest in power, dear Malik Alim.
Light and Love, and hold one another closer tonight, Bill
~~Under the Tree is, of course, suspended for now. We will plant a tree in Chicago in his memory as a gathering place to reflect on the work he did, and the work ahead. You can hear Malik Alim on most Episodes, but Episode # 38 (“Haiti on my Mind”) is the one we co-authored, and the inspiration for a lot of planning, including future Episodes and a trip to Haiti with Walter Riley. Listen to that one. Also listen to Episode # 15 (“Revolution is a Curatorial Act”) featuring Kristiana Rae Colon.