The Columbia University Center for Justice titled the obituary of its cofounder “Kathy Boudin: A Great Life and a Great Loss.”
Not until paragraph three does the reader, after first learning of “her lifelong work as an activist, organizer, teacher, and champion of social justice,” encounter an indirect reference to Boudin’s murder conviction.
“In 1981, trying to raise money to support Black revolutionary organizations, Kathy and her partner David Gilbert participated in the robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, NY,” the obituary explains. “Though Kathy and David were not armed and did not personally hurt anyone, three men were killed. Kathy and David were arrested and sentenced to decades in prison.”
The parts not factually incorrect massage words in such a way as to distort the truth. If she “did not personally hurt anyone,” participated unarmed, and merely intended “to raise money to support Black revolutionary organizations” (and not to support the drug habits of those involved), why did she plead guilty to murder? With all that and the reliance on the passive voice (“three men were killed”), it tempts one to find — at least one looking for it — yet another example of the injustice against which the Center for Justice cofounder long labored.
But that does not accurately summarize Kathy Boudin, who died on Sunday at 78 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
What plagues the obituary plagued Kathy Boudin, who imagined that subscribing to a political outlook, rather than one’s actions, determined whether or not one fell into the community of decent, good people. This fault, equating morality with ideology, enabled her to do wrong while believing herself forever in the right.
Boudin grew up in the Greenwich Village townhouse whose exterior appeared on The Cosby Show to convey the opulence of the Huxtables. Her great-uncle played a major role in America’s fledgling Socialist Party and later its fledgling Communist Party. Her father counted Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Soviet spy Judith Coplon as clients. An uncle was the journalist and Soviet agent I.F. Stone. She attended the famous Little Red School House, where she counted Angela Davis as a classmate and dated an orphaned son of the Rosenbergs. If this background largely determined her life, sharing a birthday with Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, and Malcolm X, and dying on May Day, made it seem less like the product of environment and more like fate.
The communist political commitments dutifully absorbed from her family, and their decidedly un-proletariat status, ensured a strange mix of class warrior and class arrogance.
Early-1960s Students for a Democratic Society activist Dick Flacks, interviewed by this author 15 years ago, noted about the wealthy SDS activists like Boudin: “One thing about that kind of background is that even if you’re converted to belief in social transformation and you’re against upper-class privilege, it’s real hard to overcome your deep training as a member of that class that you have the right to run the world.”
As a student, Boudin sought to run her campus.
“I was surprised by three things which should be changed,” she wrote home during her college days at Bryn Mawr College. “The maids, all black, are underpaid and not organized; no one reads The New York Times; and there is not enough awareness of the civil rights movement.”
As detailed in the book Family Circle, written by classmate Susan Braudy, Boudin interviewed the maids and brought a list of demands to the college president, who responded that their working conditions did not concern the students.
“Funny that you say that, because I am very concerned about their working conditions,” Boudin replied, according to Braudy. “The maids are grotesquely underpaid and are an extension of the slavery system.”
The result of Boudin’s protest? Bryn Mawr eliminated maids.
Rather than reflect upon the unintended consequences of her activism, Boudin delved further into a confrontational politics in Students for a Democratic Society and then Weather Underground. She participated in Chicago’s Days of Rage that paralyzed a Democratic state representative helping to keep order. As part of Weather Underground, her cadre nicknamed itself “The Fork” in homage to the utensil the Manson Family plunged into the stomach of Leno LaBianca. On March 6, 1970, she emerged from a shower covered in soot and dust in the ruins of a Greenwich Village townhouse that she turned into a bomb-making facility with several of her Weather Underground associates. They intended to unleash a nail bomb at a soldier’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Instead of maiming and killing less fortunate men and their dates, the explosion killed a classmate of Boudin’s from Bryn Mawr whose upbringing included a deer park, goose pond, servants, and a 100-foot-high windmill; a fellow red-diaper baby from Columbia University; and a friend made through the Students for a Democratic Society’s Economic Research and Action Project in Cleveland. Their incessant slogan “bring the war home” took on a very literal meaning in Greenwich Village.
Three dead friends sparked no epiphany. She spent the 1970s playing violent revolutionary. Here, placing a bomb in the U.S. Capitol; there, participating on the periphery in the plot to bust out Assata Shakur from prison. By 1981, when any 1960s revolutionary took on the characteristics of Hiroo Onoda to outsiders, Boudin ran out of luck shortly after dropping off her toddler son (now the district attorney in San Francisco) with a babysitter. She and Dave Gilbert, Columbia classmate and best friend of one of the townhouse dead, had agreed to serve as the white cover for black robbers. “A mile away,” Bryan Burrough explains in Days of Rage, “the ex-Weathermen David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin were waiting behind a department store in the switch vehicle, a U-Haul trailer.”
The sight of the armed, coked-up black men, fresh from stealing $1.6 million and killing one Brink’s guard and wounding two others, entering the trailer alarmed women living in the neighborhood. When the police arrived, Boudin pleaded with them to put down their guns. The U-Haul’s passengers then caught them off guard, killing two cops, including Waverly Brown, the first African American member of the Nyack, New York, police department. The sneak attack, made possible by Boudin, meant Brown could not even fire a return round.
Like the black maids whose jobs she killed, the privileged white woman again caused suffering for the people she paternalistically aimed to help.
Whereas her comrades did not recognize the legitimacy of the court trying them, Boudin relied on the legal royalty in her family to plea-bargain her way to 22 years in prison as her co-conspirators served a decade or more longer. After Boudin’s 2003 parole, Columbia provided her a teaching position and the school also hosted her ironically named Center for Justice. The state of Vermont hired her as a consultant for their women’s prisons. Journals affiliated with Harvard and Yale published her work.
How many convicted murderers, in the history of mankind, enjoyed such post-prison privilege?
To her credit, Boudin earned a master’s degree behind bars, helped inmates suffering from AIDS, and, according to the Columbia obit, friends, and her statements to parole officials, felt remorse for her crime. Aside from eschewing lawbreaking during her years as a free woman, she did not, as some of her fellow Weathermen did, attempt to trade her criminality for media attention or book advances.
Columbia’s printed eulogy describes a woman “forgoing the comforts and privileges available to her.” Boudin, however, took advantage of those comforts and privileges in ways almost impossible to fathom, which in a sense vindicates the belief underlying her life’s misguided cause. The rich, white, and connected in fact do receive advantages unknown to the poor, black, and disenfranchised. Her activism failed to persuade. The preferential treatment she received from the legal system vis-à-vis her black comrades and post-prison academic sinecures did.
And if Kathy Boudin’s life does not convince one of this double standard, just ask her fellow Brink’s robber and cancer patient Mutulu Shakur. One can do so by writing to him through the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which currently houses him in the medical unit for the incarcerated located in Lexington, Kentucky.
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