Monday, March 19, 2012

Memoirs: Knowing the Ending

Gilbert, David.  Love and Struggle:  My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond.  Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2012.
David Gilbert was a member of the Weather Underground, and his new memoir has appeared as a result of widespread interest in the 2003 documentary of that movement (which I reviewed here).  His memoir complements other fine discussions of that period, including Bill Ayers' Fugitive Days; Ayers' and Gilbert's lives ended up intersecting frequently, and their memoirs discuss many of the same events from similar perspectives.  I much preferred Gilbert's memoir.

An important element of the memoir genre is knowing the ending.  When you pick up a memoir, usually it's because you know the writer was famous for something   already.  I read Angela Davis' autobiography, recently, and I know that at the "end" she becomes a famous, well-respected professor who commands handsome speaking fees.  At the end of Fugitive Days, Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn get married, he becomes an education professor, they end up assuming a committed, prosperous, happy life.  It is ultimately a success story.  Love and Struggle is not that, for the ending is that Gilbert is writing from prison, where he has been for nearly three decades and probably will remain until he dies.

Gilbert's discussion of the years 1968-1980ish parallels Ayers' accounts, and others of the period.  An academically successful Jewish boy from a middle-class family channels his anti-racist and anti-war values into the Students for a Democratic Society's work against Vietnam.  When massive above-ground and non-violent protest have virtually no effect on the government's mass murder of the Vietnamese  people, and while groups like the Black Panthers experience severe government repression, with their leaders murdered by the FBI and city police, a group of SDS leaders decide to go underground and start armed revolution.  Together they blow up some things, try to draw attention to important causes, somehow manage not to kill anyone except three of their own, and all surrender a safe resurfacing with minimum prison time for any of them by the late 1970s.

The main contribution of Love and Struggle to this oft-covered domain is Gilbert's focus on race as the major tool of oppression; on the increased police persecution of anti-racist groups; the aforementioned murders of Black leaders; and on problems of racism even within Whites in the civil rights movement.  He also discusses factionalism within the Left, recounting how groups of revolutionary thinkers threw people out if they disagreed with a popular ideology, and warning against fractioning ourselves off too rapidly. 

I found his take on those years to be more humble than Ayers', and his discussion especially of the sexual promiscuity of those days more humanizing.  I guess that's the difference if your story ends up with prestige or in prison.

Around 1978, Gilbert's story takes a strong turn from the usual; he decided that even as a committed feminist and anti-racist, he was not doing enough above ground, so he returned to the underground as a militant with the Black Liberation Army.  Before discussing the sad events that followed, a disclaimer:  I do not now, never have, and never will advocate for violence against human beings, even if that violence has revolutionary ends. And I don't think that David Gilbert ever intended to hurt anyone, either--but actions in which he participated did hurt people.  His story is also a cautionary tale to any activists who don't think through all the ways in which people could be hurt by actions.

Anyway, while working with the BLA he formed a domestic partnership and had a baby with his partner.  Then, while preparing to resurface and seek a "normal" life, they both participated in "fundraising:" robbing $1.5 million from an armored vehicle.  The robbery went wrong, a shoot-out ensued, and three police officers were killed.  No, Gilbert didn't have the gun; but he was partially responsible for those deaths.  He admits it and expressed considerable regret.  

However, the ensuing trial was a mockery; he only attended most of it from a cage underneath the courtroom.  He was handed down a very long sentence, and remains in New York correctional facilities today.  He's continued work on AIDS and other important social problems while in prison; Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn were his son's guardians.

There were three major ideas that I took away from this memoir:
1)  Gilbert didn't participate in his own trial partially because he thought it was illegitimate, and he believed that political prisoners would be freed in the revolution to come.  But the revolution didn't come, and our (in)justice system is just as racist as ever, and political prisoners of all stripes remain behind bars, forgotten.  His actions in the case where the police officers died may have been wrong, but he was acting because he believed that nothing else could bring about justice.  Those of us outside did not fulfill his hopes for revolution, and we have not found another way to bring about justice.
2)  Gilbert has suffered a lot more than most white activists from the 1970s; he also has focused almost exclusively on the massive race-based injustice of our system.  
3)  Gilbert helped rob $1.5 million dollars from the rich to give to the poor, with the motive of justice.  He'll be in prison for the rest of his life.  Wall Street bankers, and Dick Cheney and other politicians, stole billions of dollars from the American people (via bailouts, deceptive lending practices, military contracts, basic corruption, etc.); they killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and citizens of Afghanistan; they kill people without healthcare every year; all with the base motive of greed, and not a one of them is in jail.  Our system rewards stealing with greed as the motive, and punishes redistribution with the harshest punishments imaginable; using laws written by the powerful for their own benefit.  David Gilbert is a dreamer and a visionary, and we on the outside must try to follow his dream, if not all his methods, towards a world of racial justice and self-determination for all.


  1. I like reading memoirs, I'll have to out Love and Struggle. Thanks for the recommendation, I don't think I would have ever heard of it otherwise.

  2. Cool! I will bring it to Writers Night Out if you want to borrow it.

  3. Will you be at the get-together this Thursday?