David Gilbert

These 40 years

Box 2001
Dannemora, New York 12926

A big hello and warm greetings to everyone. I have not been the most accessible of alums as my unlikely path took me from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League to the barred cell of a maximum security prison.

At Columbia, I loved the sense of grounding in a broader community that was also a fertile terrain for learning about and in turn educating and organizing against racism and the war. The strike was a high point for me because we within an elite institution would not accept a “business as usual” that was so damaging to lives in Vietnam and Harlem. By the end of 1968, my passion for social change was my full-time vocation. In the wider world I felt some continuities with lessons from Columbia: the centrality of the war and racism, the energy of students and youth, a role for militancy. In March 1970, like many of us, I was shocked and shaken by the tragic death of vibrant SDS organizer Ted Gold.

For most of the 1970s I was part of the Weather Underground and did my best to focus attention and build resistance to the pillage of the Third World and lethal racism at home, while always taking great care not to harm any person. Later I worked as an ally of Black revolutionaries. On October 20, 1981 an attempt to take funds from a Brinks truck went terribly wrong, resulting in a shoot-out and disaster. A Brinks guard and two police officers were killed. Although I had been unarmed, I was sentenced to 75 years to life under New York’s felony murder law, which gives any participant in a robbery full legal responsibility for all deaths that result. Nothing about the government’s many illegal and murderous attacks on the Panthers and others that drove previously nonviolent activists to armed resistance was permitted in the trial.

My son, Chesa, was 14 months old when I was arrested. The difficulties and challenges he faced made me more aware of the even greater pain for the families of those killed. In grappling with my role in this tragic loss of life, I came to recognize that my judgment had been clouded by my desire to prove myself as an anti-racist militant at “the highest level”. Even the most idealistic motives can get distorted by ego and machismo.

In the 1980’s when the combination of official neglect and prisoners’ homophobia meant that little was being done to stem the emerging AIDS epidemic, I pioneered in creating a comprehensive prisoners’ peer education program on AIDS, which also provided support for those already infected. While there is no way to tally exact numbers, our direct prevention work along with the other projects we helped inspire, succeeded in saving many, many lives. For many years I was a teacher’s aide, tutoring over a hundred prisoners working to achieve their high school equivalency diplomas. In my interactions with others in prison, I’ve tried to counsel and live mutual respect and nonviolent resolution of differences. AIDS, tutoring, and my political writing were my main activities through 2000. More recently, I’ve enjoyed many lively correspondences with a new generation of activists.

Prison is a telling example of how much this society is based on oppressions of race, class, gender and sexuality. Our 1968 commitment to social change is still totally relevant today. Despite incarceration, I am very fortunate to have a lot of love in my life, as many family and friends have stayed in close touch despite the prison walls. Chesa has been a special blessing; always a loving son, he has grown up to be a compassionate, thoughtful, accomplished young man.

- by David Gilbert
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