Interview #1: David Gilbert
Interview #1: David Gilbert
Biography [from Certain Days]:
David Gilbert is a longtime anti-imperialist. He became active around the civil rights movement in 1960, and later organized against the Vietnam War. He spent 10 years as part of an underground resistance to imperialism. Working as an anti-racist ally of the Black Liberation Army in 1981, David and others were captured in connection with an attempted expropriation (theft for political reasons) of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, NY.
David was sentenced to 75 years to life and is currently being held at Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in New York State. In 1986, David became active as an advocate and educator around AIDS in prison after his codefendant Kuwasi Balagoon died suddenly of AIDS while still in custody.
He is the author of No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner (AK Press) as well as Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond (PM Press) He is also the subject of a mini-documentary, “Lifetime of Struggle,” which is available from Freedom Archives (freedomarchives.org). He reprinted his 2014 calendar article as a pamphlet (featuring an interview with Bob Feldman), “Our Commitment Is to Our Communities: Mass Incarceration, Political Prisoners, and Building a Movement for Community-based Justice.” Kersplebeded also just published David’s booklet, “Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically”.
Write to David c/o:
David Gilbert #83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187
Question 1: Can you tell me about a particularly inspiring experience in anti-racist activism for you?
David Gilbert [DG]: My earliest inspiration came from seeing media coverage of the heroism of the civil rights movement – the 2/1/60 Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, the freedom riders (integrating interstate buses) attacked by howling mobs, Black people marching to register to vote getting set upon with police truncheons and dogs. These scenes not only gave lie to America's claim of “freedom and justice for all,” but also showed a nobility of purpose way beyond anything I'd experienced in my white suburb and then at college.
But in terms of my own direct participation, the high point was the strike at Columbia University in the spring of 1968, when students seized 5 buildings and shut down that elite and (at that time) 99% white institution in solidarity with Harlem and Vietnam. I won't attempt to tell the story of the strike; (for a good, brief account, see Dan Berger, Outlaws of America, pp. 47-52), but it was breathtaking to be part of something so large, militant and spirited.
The context for our actions was, of course, what was happening in the world. On 1/31/68 the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, with attacks in almost every major city there, showing that the U.S. invasion would never subdue them. On 4/4/68 Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, and the response was Black uprisings in over 100 cities. These burning issues of the day had concrete expression locally, as the university was very much an institution integral to white supremacy and the war. In addition to it's standing as a major slumlord, Columbia had recently moved to seize scarce public park land in Harlem in order to build a new university gym. People from the community would have access – to just 15% of it and only via a back door. Students who had been awakened by the civil rights movement began to ally with community opposition to the gym. At the same time, campus activists exposed how Columbia was conducting research to contribute to the U.S.'s criminal war.
The strike could be so successful only because of years of persistent organizing around both racism and the war, including a long train of requests, demonstrations demanding that Columbia end these travesties. Those efforts evoked only repression, which set off the strike. On 4/23/68 members of the Student Afro-American Society seized the first building; then other students took over 4 more. Four days later, the university called in the NYC police, who severely beat many protesters and arrested over 700. But the strikers never wavered, and the university never re-opened that semester.
Of course there was a kind of high from such strong and effective collective action and the culture of community and resistance that went with it. The inspiration was on several other levels, especially from shutting down an elite institution in solidarity with people of color within the U.S. and globally. That the cause combined Harlem and Vietnam helped us to understand that white supremacy at home and global domination are two aspects of one system. The support for the demands by a wide majority of students was based, in part, on the patient but persistent organizing over the preceding few years. The immediate issues showed how people will often become most engaged with local expression of the big, national and global, issues of the day. The Columbia strike also became inspiration for scores of other campuses to intensify their efforts against racism and the war.
Question 2: What would you say to younger, anti-racist activists in this political time and place?
DG: Let's be frank, the forces of destruction in play today are frightening: multiple wars, global poverty, nuclear danger, environmental catastrophes-in-the-making. And, we're up against a mega-powerful and super-ruthless ruling class. At the same time, our situation is far from hopeless: this system is inherently unstable; history takes many unpredictable twists and turns; the vast majority of humankind have a fundamental interest in revolutionary change. Given what's at stake, there's no choice but to struggle, as intelligently and persistently as we can. When we fight we have a chance to win.
While it's only natural for those of us who care about people and nature to be angry at the wanton damage being done, anger is not enough to carry us through the long struggle ahead. We have to be fully conscious that our foundation is in identification with and love for the oppressed, the vast majority of humankind. That doesn't mean romanticizing or overlooking problems, but it does mean that the needs and aspirations of the oppressed are always our basic reference points, the soil from which our resistance sprouts. At the same time as we prioritize programmatic work against the range of oppressions, we have to pay attention to how these forces play out within each of us and work open-heartedly to change that. We will face many discouraging moments, not only repression but also internal issues of ego, splits, even some betrayals. Throughout that we need to always stay grounded in that identification with and love for oppressed people, and the vision of the better world that's possible.
Question 3: What is your greatest hope for the next generation of anti-racist activists?
DG: What I said in 2) above kind of frames my response here. It would be utopian to say that within a generation we can achieve a just society, where all human potential flourishes. But let's hope/work for the oppressed to be making major strides toward reshaping the world in a humane and sustainable way, and that our efforts have helped large numbers of white people to rejoin the rest of humanity.