We went on a trip to Buffalo, NY last month to speak with anti-imperialist political prisoner David Gilbert. We talked about his Jewish upbringing, what he learned from the Weather Underground, and how his thinking has changed over time. We highly recommend the show notes for this one!
Weather Underground Organization (WUO)
Black Liberation Army (BLA)
Kuwasi Balagoon (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
Mutulu Shakur (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
Sekou Odinga (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
May 19th Communist Organization
Marilyn Buck (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
Kathy Boudin (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
Judy Clark (imprisoned for the Brinks case)
Sam Bick: I’m Sam.
David Zinman: I’m David.
Sam B: And this is Treyf.
Sam B: Welcome back to Treyf, the only Jewish podcast with a host who may or may not be the heir to the Bic pen fortune.
David Z: Are you talking about yourself? Are you the heir to the Bic pen fortune?
Sam B: Well I mean, I put the uncertainty in our header to kind of sow confusion, so I don’t really want to answer in the affirmative or the negative.
David Z: I’m a little surprised this is the first that I’m hearing of it.
Sam B: Stay tuned, listeners.
David Z: But welcome back to the show, everybody.
Sam B: Yes, welcome! Thank you for tuning in to this April episode of Treyf podcast. It turns out this is episode 43, David.
David Z: That is true.
Sam B: It is springtime in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
David Z: Mhm.
Sam B: And I’m loving it.
David Z: Sam, I have some bad news for you.
Sam B: Yes, David?
David Z: So McDonalds..
Sam B: (laughter)
David Z: Clearly, your favourite company I guess? (laughter)
Sam B: (laughter)
David Z: Recently acquired technology from some Israeli firms and I think technically fall within the BDS framework that we often talk about on this show, so you might have to change your catch phrase.
Sam B: I take that back from the record, but the sentiment still stands.
David Z: Yeah, but you’re enjoying the springtime?
Sam B: It’s fantastic, and I got a bunch of new stretches for my back problems. I’m feeling great, I’m doing more glute-based exercises, because apparently your glutes are connected to your lower back.
David Z: Oh, Cool.
Sam B: Yep.
David Z: So what do we do on this show, Sam?
Sam B: Okay David, let’s start with the bare bones. We talk to people, we talk to each other.
David Z: Very true.
Sam B: What else do we do?
David Z: We talk about radical politics! And we are both Jewish.
Sam B: That is correct.
David Z: And sometimes we talk about things that are very specifically about Jewishness.
Sam B: Sometimes we don’t.
David Z: And this year, we decided to try something new with this new series approach to the podcast. We’re technically in the middle of our Fascism series right now.
Sam B: Yes, the first episode came out about two months ago and we have at least two or three more planned. However, something exciting happened in the last month and we kind of had to interrupt it.
David Z: Yeah. So one thing that we’re going to continue doing throughout this year that we’ve done in the past is that when the opportunities arise, we try to have conversations with people who we identify as movement elders. And an opportunity did arise.
Sam B: Yes, we had the pleasure to drive down to Buffalo to chat with David Gilbert, who’s a political prisoner and all around wonderful human being.
David Z: Mhm.
Sam B: And this is a particularly long episode so if you’re just pulling up into your driveway, or planning to get off the bus in several stops, maybe you shouldn’t be playing this right now?
David Z: Or you do you.
Sam B: (laughter)
David Z: But if you’re a longtime listener of the show, you probably remember us mentioning David Gilbert’s name before. He’s written several books including Love and Struggle, which we’ve specifically mentioned.
Sam B: So if you are a new listener, or if you’ve never heard of David Gilbert before, he was a member of a group called the Weather Underground (WUO). And if you hadn’t heard of this group before, you should check out an interview we did with Laura Whitehorn who was also a member of the group. There’s a phenomenal documentary on YouTube (about the group), and there’s also a great book written by Dan Berger. We have all of these references in the show notes so maybe read and listen to these things before continuing. But you can also continue if you want to.
David Z: Mhm. And David’s a political prisoner. He’s been in prison for over 35 years as a result of his participation in an action organized by a Black Liberation Army (BLA) cell that was targeting an armoured Brinks truck in 1981. The action went awry, it was one of a series of expropriations that was undertaken at that time for the Black liberation struggle. Unfortunately, this action led to the deaths of several people and there was a wave of repression against Black radicals that happened afterward.
Sam B: And it’s really important to keep in mind that David is just one of many people who ended up doing time for this action, including several BLA members such as Kuwasi Balagoon and Mutulu Shakur.
David Z: And if you’ve never heard of the Black Liberation Army before, you might have heard of Assata Shakur, who was a member. It was actually a BLA cell who broke her out of jail. And there is way more to the history of the BLA than we can get to here. But we will post links to a lot of resources in the show notes today.
Sam B: So that’s a little bit about David, and I think it gives some context for the interview that’s coming. It’s quite confusing that both David and David have the name David, but we all got through it. (laughter) And so about a month and a half ago now, David and I drove down to a town just east of Buffalo, to a prison called Wende Correctional Facility.
David Z: Yeah, it’s a maximum security prison and we were given a small room to sit in with David, for just over an hour. So if you’re wondering what the background noise is, it’s because we are sitting with David in a prison.
Sam B: So without further ado, this is your episode of Treyf for the 24th of Nissan, 5779.
David Gilbert: My name is Dave Gilbert. I’ve been in prison, New York state prison, for thirty seven years now. Thirty seven and a half. I’m an anti-Imperialist political prisoner, which means that the situation that led to my being in prison came out of struggle against a range of social injustice. And it’s funny to define yourself as anti, anti-Imperialism, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression defines the current society. I am really pro-people, I’m for all people of the world and everybody to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. So Imperialism to me is the best way to sum up those structures of domination. Even though it involves male supremacy and homophobia and destruction of the environment. But in terms of a rapacious global economic system backed up by incredible violence, I think Imperialism is the best way to summarize it. And I’ve been anti-racist, anti-Imperialist for fifty years now, fifty five. I first became conscious in 1960 with the civil rights movement, so it goes back a ways.
David Z: So we have a lot of questions. We definitely want to talk about anti-Imperialism as a frame, and we’ll get there, but we want to start in Brookline, where you grew up. You know, you grew up in an upper middle class white family in the 1950s, and it was specifically a Jewish family.
David Gilbert: Yes, for sure.
David Z: And I’m wondering if you see a relationship between that part of your upbringing and your political trajectory that you were talking about?
David Gilbert: Sure. I mean of course there’s a relationship, and I’m not sure how to unpack it in a reasonable length of time. But my parents definitely weren’t Left, they were children of immigrants who had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were very principled decent people. They believed in community. My father was the Boy Scout leader in the community. My mother was a Girl Scout leader in the community, and they were ethical people. And so I grew up with the sense of community service. They, as children of immigrants who fled oppression – and then my father put himself through night school, working, and became an engineer and had a decent paying job – they were very loyal to America. And I wasn’t brought up with a critique. Except probably because of sensitivity to oppression of Jews, they did teach me racism was wrong and that you should respect all people. So I grew up, in a way, naive because I thought democracy, freedom and justice for all, equality, that’s what America was and I thought that was terrific. You know, before I could vote I was aware of different candidates and what their platforms were and all these things about really wanting to live in a democracy and make it work. And then my eyes got opened by the civil rights movement. The thing I remember is the Greensboro sit in and then that led to a wave of stuff, so I said woops, it isn’t quite equality for all.
David Z: During that time that you’re talking about, there’s been a lot written about the disproportionate amount of white Jews who were a part of different white Left formations at that time, and I’m curious what your take is on that.
David Gilbert: Sure. I mean, given Jews’ percentage in the population, I think in the white population it is something like 3 percent and if you went to SDS meetings it would be like 35 percent. And really I think, I mean this isn’t a scientific survey, but my impression is the more people emphasized anti-racism, because obviously there are a range of issues, the more the disproportionate amount of Jews were. So I think definitely there’s a link to Jews having, if not directly experienced racism and anti-Semitism, that overhanging our reality and our culture and our situation.
David Z: I’m trying to remember who it was, it was someone who was in the Weather Underground, it might have been Mark Rudd, wrote about how growing up in a family that had Holocaust survivors in it, or just talked about the Holocaust quite a bit, sort of prepared him in some psychological way for underground work. That there was some disconnect between living in mainstream American society compared to that upbringing that so emphasized those earlier struggles. Does that resonate at all for you?
David Gilbert: It’s an interesting point and I can see it. It’s not the way I experienced it growing up. And again, I grew up with this tremendous commitment to democracy and then I wanted to make America live up to its ideals. And so no, there was no sense until a long time of struggle and heavy repression that something like an underground would be appropriate. But the Holocaust is obviously one of the most horrendous things in history and is a tremendous trauma for anybody who feels at all related. It should be for everybody who feels a sense of humanity but particularly for Jews, we’re aware of that. There were two types of conclusions that people took. One is, we have to have ours at whatever cost. And that’s what led to Zionism. The other was, the greatest evil in the world is racism. And the imperative for us is to oppose racism. For whatever reason, that’s where I was at. That’s how I understood it. The lesson was anti-racism, anti-oppression, and passionately so. So I think yes, the trauma of the Holocaust and the lesson for many of us, that racism is worst evil and most dangerous phenomenon in the world, had an impact and led to a disproportionate number of Jews – I say disproportionate, not enough. It should be everybody, everybody who wants to be a human being should be anti-racist. But in terms of the movements, yes.
Sam B: So in your book, ‘Love and Struggle,’ and also in the writing that I’ve read of yours, you talk about your sisters and you talk about your parents, and so you already talked about this a little bit. But I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on the role that Zionism played growing up. I know in the book you talk about something that happened with your sister when you were I think in your…
David Gilbert: Well that was later.
Sam B: Yeah, later. But growing up what was….
David Gilbert: Well I grew up, you know we weren’t Orthodox but we did have a kosher home and I went to Hebrew school and I learned, and I had no reason to doubt it, that Israel was a shining democracy, the only democracy in the Mideast and had made the desert bloom, which turns out not to be true. Many of these areas had been blooming already, but this fit with my belief in democracy and my being implicated in Western values so I had no reason to doubt it. We weren’t organized Zionist or marching for things, although you know my parents bought Israel Bonds for me, I had Israel Bonds as my bar mitzvah gifts. And that’s how I was brought up and that’s what I believed. Actually, it was before the 1967 war than I started to have a little doubt and my oldest sister who is six years older than me went to visit Israel, and when she came back she said: I was really surprised, the way they treat the Arab citizens of Israel is the way they treat Blacks in this country. People get followed around, they can’t go on certain beaches, boom boom boom. So it’s around 1960. So that was the first thing that led to some doubt. But back then we still didn’t use the word Palestine, it was sort of Arab citizens of Israel, and the takeover of the land and what all that meant, I wasn’t really aware of that. Because my sister, who incidentally in the ’67 war she went the opposite way, becoming rabid Zionist. And I said to her, you know they dropped napalm on people, you know what that means. And she said war is war. So even though she was the one who had clued me in that there was a problem with racism, when the sort of push came to shove, for whatever reason she identified with Israel. But the point of me becoming anti-Zionist was the ’67 war. Because that was such a dramatic and violent event, so much land was seized. And as with every war, the aggressors always have their weapons of mass destruction, or their Tonkin Gulf incident to excuse it. But by this time we were identifying with the national liberation movements around the world. In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, people who had been colonized were rising up to take back control not only of their governments but of their economies. So in that framework I was ready to identify not with Israel, but to identify with the people that they were occupying and taking over. So that’s the point, and it wasn’t before then, that I became consciously anti-Zionist. So what, I’m already 23 at that age, and I became politically conscious at 15.
David Z: So in ‘Love and Struggle,’ you write about seeing Malcolm X speak at Barnard just three days before he died.
David Gilbert: Yes.
David Z: And you write about most of the audience’s questions were about Black anti-Semitism.
David Gilbert: Right.
David Z: And in preparing for the interview and re-reading the book, it was just so wild that today in 2019, this framing and this narrative is still so front and centre.
David Gilbert: Well, we have a new round of it. I mean maybe we should, we’ll get to talk about that, I mean all the attacks on Ilhan Omar, it’s become this incredible cudgel against opposing Zionism by charging anti-Semitism. Back then it was a little bit of a different framework because Jews, clearly not all Jews or even most Jews, but relative for a white ethnic population, more sympathetic to civil rights. There was a significant amount of Jewish support for civil rights. And I think there was a conscious strategy to break that off. Oppressors rule by creating divisions and maintaining divisions among the oppressed because the vast majority of people have a fundamental interest in a very different type of social system. And the vast majority of people are oppressed in one way or another. And so when there’s some unity forming, and we know COINTELPRO – one operation against especially the Black movement but the Left that we’ve been able to get documentation on – one of their main strategies was to create divisions and very antagonistic divisions among people. We found out later that Norman Podhoretz had written an article, I think as early as ’63, about (how) this is such a major problem. And he had been a liberal or social democrat who became a neo-conservative and helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan. So whether this was his own initiative or a more developed strategy, I don’t know. But there was a conscious effort to break off liberal Jewish support for the Civil Rights movement and it played on the fact that many Jews were racist too, or even those of us who were trying to be anti-racist weren’t free of the things we got brought up with. And of course very uptight about, for good reason, any showing of anti-Semitism. But what an experience it was because here was this gift, I had never seen anybody speak as clearly about the nature of the world and what needs to happen. And he’s there saying, it’s not white versus Black, it’s oppressed versus oppressor. That’s how we have to understand the world. And it happens that most of the oppressors are white and most of the oppressed People of Colour. But you’re not biologically bound by that. I forget the phrase he used, he said, he pointed to John Brown as a white that he supported and liked. And then people laughed at him when he said I’ve been up all night because my home was firebombed and I had to get my family out. And people said, oh he’s just making that up to look dramatic. And of course three days later he was killed.
David Z: So I’m just thinking about the alliances that you’re talking about that were trying to be broken at that time. And you know, a good portion of your outside political work was based on an approach of sort of formal allyship with revolutionary Black, Indigenous, People of Colour groups. And I’m wondering if your politics around this have changed over time?
David Gilbert: Yes. I think fundamental to social change is allying with People of Colour within the United States and people in the Global South, globally. And for those of us, even those of us who are consciously anti-racist, there are a lot of lessons to learn because the culture is so deeply ingrained that we grew up in. Exactly how you form allyship and what Third World leadership, or People of Colour leadership means, there’s not a clear blueprint on that. You know, you don’t become ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am’, you have to have your political understanding. Although a lot of my political understanding developed from studying and appreciating what the national liberation struggles were doing and what the Black struggle was doing in the US, or Native American. Of course a lot has changed. The most dramatic thing that’s changed is national liberation struggles haven’t been able to build socialism by and large. And that is something that takes a lot of in-depth analysis that I’m not going to try to do here except to say it’s a combination of how powerful imperialism is, and especially its stranglehold on the world economy. And if they don’t like a country they can cut off finance, because all finance goes through the US dollar and the US banks. And then they say, look at how messed up that economy is. They’re doing that to Venezuela now. But I think that also the model that national liberation led by a vanguard party could lead to socialism has internal weaknesses too. I still think the main confrontation in the world is between Imperialism – corporations and banks and governments and military of the rich countries and their allies or stooges in the Third World – and the people of the world. So I still think that’s the main contradiction but national liberation struggle as a form of struggle hasn’t been adequate. There’s a lot to say about that but just to say and what’s influenced my own politics, I think we learned we had to pay a lot more attention to patriarchy and sexism and homophobia and obviously environmental issues have become… you know we were a little bit aware of environment, certainly me with my Boy Scout and outdoors and camping experience was aware of it, but we didn’t understand in 1968 what an overriding political and social issue. So I think in terms of how my politics have changed, yes we have to pay a lot more attention to the range of oppressions that overlap in terms of the structure of the system. We have to understand that we grew up in this society so we have to struggle with sexism in ourselves or homophobia in ourselves or arrogance or class elitism for those of us who had the benefit of college background. And I think in terms of model of organization, which is one area where we probably still have some differences, the vanguard party and Democratic centralism which sounded good in theory, and you know, we adopted from the Third World national liberation struggles, I have to say it doesn’t work. And I think there’s a lot of experimenting that was going on and the one place that was going on was Venezuela, which has now been wrecked, in terms of building cooperatives and having community councils and assemblies and much more grassroots democracy participation. So there’s a fair amount of experimentation, I think the women’s movement pushed to develop something in a less hierarchical form. But I think given what we’re up against, people still have to be highly organized, there’s a role for leadership. So I would say those are questions that I still don’t have clear cut answers for myself. And just looking at what people are doing and what we can learn from.
David Z: So one of the things I admire a lot about your writing is you do a lot of reflection and talk about the ways that often you made mistakes in the past, as well as the aspects of the struggle that continue to be relevant inspiring.
David Gilbert: Right. Good, Thank you.
David Z: And I know that you’ve written about having at different times fallen into what you described as white interventionism. And I’m wondering if you can share some of those reflections for people now?
David Gilbert: Yeah, I mean we have a general principle about allying. And realistically, radical or revolutionary Third World groups are going to know more about their situation and what needs to be done, and probably about political and social change overall than we know from our background. But it doesn’t mean you’re subservient, you’re an active engaged political person. So there’s a general thing about allying with People of Colour organizations under their leadership. That principle, how you implement it in a complex reality, there is no blueprint that I know of. I mean, we can identify errors. And just to identify two errors that I was personally involved in: I think WUO, it was a time when all the radical and revolutionary Black groups were nationalists and for good reasons they didn’t want whites in their organization because there’s a history of unconscious cultural manipulation and that got played out in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). But as an independent white revolutionary organization, at some points we sort of lost direction. Which is common, and it’s not that we had to be merged into one organization but it would have been healthier if we’d had more dialogue and learned more from what they were doing. And in reaction to that, the model I had in the formation that led to this bust (1981 Nyack Brinks Case), it was sort of like a service station mentality, just give us the orders and ours is not to reason why. So you know, some people in the movement like to think of themselves as dialectic. But many times we’re just negating one error with the opposite error. So the way to correct for what Weather did wrong, of getting too separated from those struggles and then succumbing to some degree of white and male supremacy, was to work with a revolutionary Black organization and be under their leadership. And sort of not to have political discussions about the strategy or what was appropriate about one’s role or whatever. It was just sort of okay here, this is what you do in this moment. So it’s like a service station, can I put gas – I don’t know if they still do this – can I put gas in your car or wash your windshield? It was that mentality, not a political alliance where you’re getting leadership but there’s a political dialogue and give-and-take. And that also can lead to disaster.
Sam B: So just to switch gears a little bit. David and I have noticed that a lot of anti-racist work and organizing in the recent past, five or ten years, has really been focused on anti-Fascist organizing. And I was wondering if this something you’ve seen before, or kind of how you’re understanding it?
David Gilbert: I mean racial scapegoating was always central to US politics and especially after the ’60s, and the advances of the ’60s, I mean that was Nixon’s whole Southern Strategy. But it’s at a high pitch now. So there’s a greater danger of Fascism because a combination of frustration of a wide range of whites who feel they got screwed by neo-liberalism and the way that’s being mobilized. I mean, we on the Left criticized neo-liberalism from the beginning, going back to the ’70s when it was arising. But of course we’re not given much of a voice in society. And now the Right has capitalized on it. And the classic approach is racial scapegoating. I mean, immigrants aren’t taking people’s jobs, downsizing and mergers and automation and exploiting Third World labour is taking people’s jobs. But because of the history of white supremacy and the way a majority whites have bought into it to some degree, it’s very easy to do racial scapegoating. And in a way, it’s easier for people to take out their frustration on someone who’s weaker than them. You can get some satisfaction by stomping on immigrants whereas if you take on the banks and corporations and the military and government, you end up in here. So what’s characterized as the Left, or Hillary Clinton or something like that you know, represents neo-liberalism. So there’s a range of frustrations. And the economy and environmental catastrophe is going to get a lot worse. So those frustrations are going to get worse. So I think there’s a real danger about Fascism. Which was always there. The mainstream ruling class probably would prefer to rule by passivity and manipulation. But if push comes to shove, and eventually the businesses just came over to the Nazis, they prefer Fascism which is still pro-corporate than Socialism which would wipe them out as a class. So they’ve always allowed the far-right to exist, as irrational as it is, as a small potential force. And then of course a lot of the more direct forces of repression like police and people in the army are allied with those. And that’s capitalism’s fallback if things unravel and there’s a danger that could be Socialism. So Fascism is more of a danger, anti-Fascism is a little bit more on the agenda. There’s still a trap there. As righteous as it is who oppose Fascism, to shout them down and to have them go back to the into the woodwork, we don’t want to get boxed into this boxing match between the far-left and the far-right. Because the main enemy is Capitalism. The broad ruling class who’s creating the economic conditions fanning all these frustrations. And if it’s the extreme Left and extreme Right having boxing matches, most people aren’t going to sympathize or care. We need to be coming out with an economic program that speaks to some of these frustrations. Now dangerous, or tricky to do. I won’t say dangerous, tricky to do because there’s a history of white union organizing that sold out People of Colour, that consolidated white privileges. But there are ways to do it that ally with the people who are most oppressed or even that have struggles that are leading around this. Justice for Janitors or 15 dollar minimum wage or environmental justice. So I like it whenever the fascists are shouted down or surrounded by so many counter demonstrators they go back. But I’m saying our main job is to oppose Imperialism, oppose Capitalism, and to develop a program that gets at least some sectors of white workers, as strong as the tradition and history of white supremacy is, to see that their interests really lie with allying with People of Colour and people in the Global South.
David Z: I mean, I think it’s probably an appropriate time to tell anyone listening who isn’t familiar that you actually wrote a book about the history of the US white working class…
David Gilbert: Yes.
David Z: And part of the way that it’s often romanticized by certain elements of the Left, certain ways that it’s sold out People of Colour. And part of that book focused on Imperialism. And I’ve noticed that there’s been a notable retreat from internationalism on the part of the organized Left, at least in the US and Canada, with more of a focus on domestic concerns. And so Imperialism doesn’t seem to be talked about as much.
David Gilbert: It’s a horrible retreat and it’s going to be self-defeating in the long run. And I know when I rant and rave, I’m in touch with a lot of younger activists and when I rant and rave about internationalism, well the people who would write me or visit me are somewhat aware of this stuff. But they say it’s very hard to engage people because it seems so distant. But you know, the US is engaged in seven wars right now. There are at least seven countries where the US is doing drone bombing strikes. There’s this regime change juggernaut that’s going against Venezuela and with Nicaragua and Cuba in their sights. Now I know historically the old Left had made an error of being an apologist for Stalin so people don’t want to repeat. But you don’t have to be an apologist for the regime to say US hands off. You know Saddam Hussein was a bad enough ruler, and incidentally the US and CIA helped put him in power and gave him chemical weapons to use against Iran, but it’s not that the US intervention made things better for the people of Iraq. And it’s not even an issue that it’s a complete disaster! Libya’s a complete disaster. They’re selling people into slavery, it’s ruled by competing militias, the education and health care that was available, the public life for women, its all gone. And you can go down the list, Yemen, and Somalia, and every place the US has intervened has created this incredible level of human misery and destruction. And yeah, the military industry is a big source of jobs. Although for the amount of investment it’s not high intensive employment, you’d be much better if was invested in health care or environmental remediation. It’s really about a trillion a year they spend on the military and on all war, if you think what could be done with that..
Sam B: So after you left WUO and moved to Denver, you started Men Against Sexism, the group, or you were involved in the formation of that group. And there’s been a good amount of writing about the ways that the Weather Underground and the broader anti-Imperialist Left failed to prioritize challenging Patriarchy, often opposing efforts led by women in the movement. And you write about that in Love and Struggle. Can you talk a bit about your journey on this issue and what the work of challenging Patriarchy has looked like for you inside for the last, thirty-seven and a half you said? Thirty-six and a half?
David Gilbert: Thirty-seven, yeah.
Sam B: That’s a double question, I’m sorry. (laughter)
David Gilbert: Yeah there’s a lot, there’s a lot to unpack there. Yeah, WUO and the anti-Imperialist Left was definitely still very sexist, very male supremacist. Although certainly not as bad as the overall society. But for people who sided with the oppressed, it was still a tremendous blind spot. And compared to other Left (groups), I’ll say we had definitely stronger women’s leadership but it wasn’t really translated into.. You know, there are two levels when you want to struggle against sexism on the Left. One is how people interact, and your relationships, human relationships. And the other is your program. They’re both important and they would reinforce each other, but program if anything is even more important. I think we needed more of a Feminist influence on forms of struggle and forms of organization that were less hierarchical. So I think we had some internal struggle and in the later years started to have some program around women. So we were somewhat influenced. But early on, we tended to be dismissive of a white women’s movement that wasn’t anti-Imperialist. So it was really an unfortunate loggerheads because the two things go together. And there was really a bridge that developed which was the Women of Colour movement, the Combahee River statement and stuff like that. But we weren’t attuned enough to that, whether because we weren’t anti-sexist enough and also we were somewhat isolated. So when Weather fell apart, the analysis that I was wont to was that we fell apart because of white and male supremacy. That we weren’t strong enough an ally or didn’t continue to be a strong enough ally of Black and other People of Colour struggles. And we still had a male dominant culture and program, despite some changes that began. So when a friend of mine who, when I got to Denver – the person who’d been most receptive to my sort of position on anti-Imperialism and anti-racism among the small white Left community – started Men Against Sexism and invited me in, I did become a charter member. But I agonized for a while because I was still cautious about a group that was white and not explicitly anti-Imperialist. So this sort of division still existed and there was certainly a division between the sort of white Feminist Left and the People of Colour organizations in Denver. And after agonizing, I decided to do it because I needed to work on those issues. And it turned out to be a really good group and really helpful. And in the process of all of us talking from our hearts and about reality, it became anti-racist and anti-Imperialist too, so became a main source of white allies for the Chicano, Mexicano group in Denver. And I think the Feminist mentors we had said the most important thing you can do is solidarity like child care for women’s actions. And we did a lot of that. It was fun. It was good, challenging too, but fun. So those were lessons and later on when I was relating to the new wave of activism you know and I’m a prisoner and I’m writing people, I assumed that tremendous advances had been made in the movement from these struggles and lessons. And I was shocked at how backward things still were for at least the people that I talked to. I met someone who had been sexually assaulted and when she brought it up, she was the one who was ostracized. Men weren’t doing child care. So to the degree I had a voice to some segment of people, I tried to speak out about it, but I don’t know how much good it did. In prison, I began to understand how much homophobia is rooted in Patriarchy and male supremacy. That it’s not like we have oppression of women and we have oppression of gays. Because you know, guys joke with each other. And back then the joke was I’m gonna make you might B, I’m going to turn you into someone I can sexually exploit. And then I realized that guys were terrified of homosexuality because they didn’t want to be in the female position, which was an inferior position, which is less than human. So that was quite a lesson. Just how much there’s this terror that a guy might feel: I might be underneath it all gay, and that makes me like a female and that that’s totally inferior and subject to abuse. Twice I wrote, in those days there were prison newspapers, and I wrote about not the most hardcore feminist line but basically saying: what women want is what we want, respect. As a way to sort of get it across. And individual guys would say I really like what you wrote, but it didn’t have a major impact. And I’m not at this point an organizer in prison anymore. So you know, I’ll have talks with individuals but because I’m respected usually the individual will say something pretty decent but that doesn’t mean that that’s how he talks when he’s with a group. I had one friend who was close enough to me and respected me on other grounds where I spoke to him about it, and again he was reasonable with me, but then…
David Z: So talking about your time inside, there’s a book coming out soon (which I’m sure you know, but people listening might not know) which is a new expanded edition of Kuwasi Balagoon’s writing.
David Gilbert: Oh yes, yes! Wow.
David Z: And for people who don’t know, Kuwasi was a member of the Black Panther Party, he was part of the Panther 21 case, a member of the Black Liberation Army, one of your co-defendants in the Brinks case. And Kuwasi was also an Anarchist. You know, both of us are anarchists and I was wondering if your relationship with Kuwasi or your conversations had any influence on your politics?
David Gilbert: Yes. I mean first of all just asking about Kuwasi I have all these visions, he was such a life force. Such a vibrant, creative, spirited, loving, person. And he’d whistle to jazz tunes and did art, watercolour drawings, and he was just this incredibly spirited person. And you know we had some good dialogue. One thing we shared is we both wanted to stand up for the principles of fighting racism, fighting Imperialism, but analyze errors we made. You gave me a nice compliment about ‘Love and Struggle’ because that’s what I was trying to do, that there are lessons to learn from what we did right and lessons from what we did wrong, and Kuwasi was very much into that. We didn’t have long ideological discussions about Marxism-Leninism versus Anarchism. So I don’t know if I have more say than when I did at the beginning where it seems to me democratic centralism has led to excessive hierarchy which is destructive. And I know you can be an anarchist and very well organized, but a lot of tendencies haven’t been well organized and haven’t recognized leadership. So we grappled with that. Not in an antagonistic way, we went back and forth on that. So Kuwasi was a tremendous influence. And that I guess made me more open to Anarchism because maybe my experience had been more with white groups that were a little bit… And he struggled a lot with white anarchists to be much stronger about anti-Imperialism and anti-racism and to ally. But it hasn’t led to any grand resolution of those issues that I can put into a nutshell except to say I’m open to learning.
David Z: And I think it’s worth saying that Kuwasi eventually lost his life to an AIDS-related illness in ’86.
David Gilbert: Yes.
David Z: And you mentioned before that you were inside when the AIDS crisis hit, what was it like being inside while that was happening?
David Gilbert: It was incredible, what an intense period of time. Up until Kuwasi died, I sort of was vaguely aware that there was an AIDS epidemic going on, and that that was a shame. I didn’t quite understand that as a political issue. You know, before Kuwasi got that sick or we had any idea that he could have AIDS, he told me about going to sick call. And there were a couple of guys there who were thought to have AIDS. And the other guys were saying maracon, you know faggot, and you know Kuwasi tried to talk to those guys. And you know, people were terrified about casual contact. And that was both stimulated by homophobia and intensified homophobia, because to them people visibly that’s who could have AIDS. Which is ironic in addition to backward because in prison overwhelmingly, it was I.V. drug use that was the basis for HIV. So this is why peer education which was also very important in the gay community, became essential in prison. And we had our fight for peer education programs. It’s a longer story and some of it is in the interview Dan Berger did with me that’s in “Rebellious Mourning.” I won’t tell all the old war stories. But in a way they used this thing of fear of casual contact because while they were stalling us in doing the education, they were granting every request we made to let the guys who were identified with HIV come into population, like that, with no preparation. Fortunately, I had done some groundwork. It could have led to a real upheaval.
David Z: I mean, we have a zillion questions but I know our time here is short.
David Gilbert: Right, right.
David Z: And so I really want to know, we’re talking about all of these complicated political situations, and things are pretty rough out there right now. And I’m wondering what gives you the most hope today that we’ll reach a more just future?
David Gilbert: I mean hope… I have hope, that doesn’t mean I’m optimistic. I was pretty optimistic in the 60s and 70s, the forces of destruction and hate that are in play now are very fierce and giant, but it’s not hopeless. It’s not. And given what’s at stake for really the survival of our species and many other species, if there’s any chance at all we have to give it our best shot. And there are sources of hope. The main thing is the overwhelming majority of people of the world have a fundamental interest in radical change, revolutionary change. So what gives me hope? Three hundred million Indigenous people around the world, many of whom are still guardians of nature and have international links. The women association of India that was marching recently, the shack dwellers in South Africa who are trying to get housing for the poorest people, the landless workers in Brazil who are trying to get land to grow food, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, SURJ, the young people against gun violence, the Women’s Marches, the teacher strikes. But most directly and personally, the range of younger generation activists who are in touch with me. Who are wonderfully humane people, aware people, who don’t seem as arrogant as we were when we were young activists. But there’s a lot of struggle within, even within the United States which is a backwater, you know the most technologically advanced, or it was, but the most socially and politically backward. There’s been an incredible series of eruptions of protest and some really, there’s some real human decency. The demonstrations in seven hundred cities against separating migrant children from their parents, the Women’s Marches and all the teacher strikes, but they’re still kind of siloed as single issue. There needs to be more of an understanding that these problems emerge out of the basic power relations in society. For two reasons. If you just think as a single issue you’re going to get demoralized when the demonstrations or the protests don’t bring about change because you don’t realize how difficult it is. But also those movements could ally into, not merge, but ally into a much bigger anti-system movement that would be a lot stronger. It has to be anti-militarist and there has to be internationalism for that to work. So even within the United States there’s still a lot of human decency and a level of activism that’s re-emerged. A long way to go for it to be effective. But it’s something to work with.
Sam B: All right. So David and I have a segment on our show and it’s called Shkoyach. Which is a Yiddish phrase which people say sometimes in synagogue as a congratulation or a big-ups if you will. And so David and I, on each show we each give our own Shkoyach. And we also have a negative one, so we can give a negative Shkoyach, which doesn’t exist but we created it. (laughter)
David Gilbert: If I can be a little bit undisciplined in terms of what you’re raising, there’s one major point that I thought would come up that didn’t.
Sam B: Oh, sure!
David Gilbert: So let me talk about that. And that’s the way anti-Semitism is being used as a cudgel against opposing Zionism.
Sam B: That sounds like an anti-Shkoykah.
David Gilbert: (laughter) Yes and my Yiddish is lacking so I wasn’t prepared for that. But boy, am I terrible at languages. I never learned Yiddish, I never learned Spanish. But anyways. this is a really big thing that’s happening now. And irony isn’t the word for the mega chutzpah, that the forces that are attacking Congresswoman Omar are people who have allied with the most fundamental anti-Semitic forces and troves. And I think that Israel itself is an anti-Semitic force and power, both because they ally with Poland, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and the alt-right in the US and forces that were in Charlottesville, Evangelical Christians who want Jews to control Israel so that the end of times can come at which time all Jews go to hell. And Netanyahu’s son himself put this thing on the internet about George Soros manipulating political figures. The most fundamental anti-Semitic trope that gets refurbished and brought back is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And of course, the resurrection or continuation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is George Soros is manipulating everything. You have one rich person who’s giving to liberal causes, he’s not even very radical. And here you have Israel not only validating that but actually promoting that view of George Soros as the puppet master. And George Soros is not behind the caravans of people who are trying to migrate. And there are so many more right wing billionaires who are influencing politics and certainly contributing to candidates. And again, it’s what we said about Fascism in general, it takes the ruling class and Capitalism off the hook and it diverts people’s attention. So one, it’s just some mega hypocrisy that very vehement anti-Semitic forces are criticizing anybody who is anti-Zionist and that Israel is down with that and promotes its. Israel also is a force for anti-Semitism in its betrayal of the Jewish tradition of social justice. And incidentally it’s not a very good strategy for the Jewish people, to oppress other people but that’s…
Sam B: I agree wholeheartedly.
David Gilbert: Yeah. That’s not to say there isn’t some anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist movement and in the Left. I mean I think the Left, because there’s such a large presence of Jews, is less anti-Semitic than certainly than the Right or other segments. But I wouldn’t say it never cropped up and it should be challenged when it happens. It shouldn’t be done to overwhelm opposing Zionism. You know to me as I said about my lessons about racism, the two go together. My staunch anti anti-Semitism makes me a staunch anti-Zionist. And when there is anti-Semitism in our ranks, we’ve got to take that on to. What was the Yiddish word for…
Sam B: Shkoyach.
David Gilbert: My shkoyach is love can defeat hate. That our sense of humanity is bound up with everybody else and with the natural world. And this can be awakened in everyone if there’s a chance, and there’s an opportunity. And if we create a world where people have a chance to develop their creative powers, we can solve all kinds of problems. So yes, I’m anti-Imperialist as I said at the beginning but that means that I’m for humanity and for nature and we have that potential. And we’re up against some major major obstacles but if we pull together we can do it.
Sam B: Well I think that’s the most perfect way to end this conversation.
David Gilbert: Okay.
Sam B: David, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us and answering our letters. And it felt really special to be able to chat with you here.
David Gilbert: Oh great, thank you for making the journey. And I know coming to a prison you have to cross not just physical barriers but emotional barriers to come in.
Sasha Berenstein: Sholem Aleichem! My name is Sasha Berenstein from Seattle, Washington and I’m calling you to let you all know about a Yiddish language project I’m working on that I’m really excited about. A list of trans and non-binary vocabulary and Yiddish that I spearheaded, translated, and created with folks in the Yiddishist community and from my trans and non-binary communities. The first version of this list was recently published by Yiddish Lege – the League for Yiddish – on March 31st for Trans day of visibility, and I’m hoping that this is the start of a much longer overdue project around empowerment and acceptance of people of all gender identities in Yiddish speaking communities and will eventually be expanded to include queer and polyamorous vocabulary. You can check out the trans and non-binary vocab list on the League for Yiddish Twitter and Facebook pages. And for this project specifically, and more like it, find me on Twitter at Bernstein Sasha B E R E N S T E I N S A S H A. A sheynem dank, and a zisyn peysakh far aln. Thanks so much and a sweet pesach to everyone!
Sam B: Steven Miller is a herb, White Nationalists are a plague.
David Z: It’s time for Shkoyach!
David Z: Welcome to Shkoyach, everyone’s second favourite segment of the show.
Sam B: People actually stop us on the street and tell us how good shkoyach is.
David Z: I’m going to have to look that up at snopes dot com.
Sam B: (laughter)
David Z: But, Sam…
Sam B: Yes, David?
David Z: What is your shkoyach for today?
Sam B: I have a double positive shkoyach.
David Z: Oh, that’s great.
Sam B: I know, just bring in the positivity.
David Z: Yeah, we need it.
Sam B: It’s spring, good back exercises, we did a wonderful interview. I’m just coming in with the positivity.
David Z: The people demand a positive shkoyach!
Sam B: That’s what people stop me on the street ask me about.
David Z: A likely story.
Sam B: (laughter)
Sam, what do you got for us today?
Sam B: Well I’m going to give my first shkoyach to everybody’s favourite Jewish anarchist collective, Jewdas.
David Z: Oh yeah, definitely my favourite.
Sam B: You’re not alone. And you are never alone if you listen to Socalled’s music.
David Z: Wait, what?
Sam B: It’s a song that he wrote (laughter) Anyways, I’m gonna give my first shkoyach to Jewdas’ haggadah.
David Z: Oh yeah, since we had the honour of submitting a small contribution to this haggadah.
Sam B: So I was gonna give praise before we mentioned the fact that we were asked to be part of it, but sure…
David Z: Very unethical, very unethical.
Sam B: Call the ethics department…
David Z: At CKUT upstairs.
Sam B: (laughter) Anyways, they put out a Haggadah. I think every year we are rifling through folders and drives and printed envelopes, looking for various haggadahs to help us in our Seders. The normative yellow and brown ones just doesn’t cut it anymore, in fact it probably never cut it. But this one looks great.
David Z: And it’s hilarious.
Sam B: I would say nine out of ten lols.
David Z: Oh, so close!
Sam B: (laughter) No, I don’t know. It’s just, it’s weird to give people ten out of ten, you know?
David Z: Is this like withholding dad training?
Sam B: No, no. I don’t know, give them a ten on ten. I’m a pushover. Anyways on their web site, they talk about how it’s fully ready for use at your next Passover Seder, it contains an authorized guide to Jewish practice in the late Capitalist era, and assorted tips for surviving establishment Judaism. So my first shkoyach is kind of a plug for the Jewdas haggadah.
David Z: What’s the second one?
Sam B: The second one is is kind of the theme of positive Jewish things that are printed in books.
David Z: Okay, that’s very specific.
Sam B: And it is a call for submissions to an anthology that Cindy Milstein is putting together.
David Z: Oh yeah, I saw that.
Sam B: So the anthology is called, ‘There is Nothing so Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Queered Anarcha Jews.’ And in the call out, Cindy mentions that she’s looking for fiction, non-fiction and dreamy in-between stories by queered anarcha Jews. And that she’s seeking storytelling that reflects the way that we Jews/anarchists question, debate, and continually rethink our ideas and practices.
David Z: So how can people contribute stuff?
Sam B: Okay David there’s this thing, it’s called electronic mail. And how it works is kind of like a postal system?
David Z: I’m with you so far.
Sam B: Okay so imagine you want to write, I don’t know me for example. I live about 15 blocks away from you.
David Z: The inheritor of the Bic pen fortune.
Sam B: (laughter) So what you do is you write an address, in this case it’s CB Milstein at Yahoo dot com, and we’re going to put this in the show notes. You put that address in the email address section.
David Z: Mhm.
Sam B: And then you write a message to Cindy.
David Z: Alright, I might need some tech support but that sounds good to me.
Sam B: (laughter) Yeah, anyways this anthology looks really interesting. Cindy’s a terrific human. You should check out the call out, see if some work you’re doing or have done kind of fits this mold. And yeah, send an email to CB Milstein at yahoo dot com. And just shkoyach to Cindy for being Cindy.
David Z: Yeah, so that was a really nice positive shkoyach.
Sam B: Riding the positivity train, David.
David Z: Mhm.
Sam B: Are you going to help us continue to maintain a three out of three positive shkoyach rating?
David Z: I think so, although such things I think are subjective at the end of the day.
Sam B: (laughter)
David Z: But my shkoyach today is to a book called The War Before by Safiya Bukhari. You know, earlier in the show we are talking about the Black Liberation Army. Safiya was a member of the Black Liberation Army and she was a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers and she was a former political prisoner. This book came out in 2010 and it’s a collection of her writings and some of her speeches over the years.
Sam B: That sounds like a shkoyach that is very much in your wheelhouse, David. What part of the book felt so meaningful to you?
David Z: I mean I just found reading it really moving. How much she put on the line, how much she sacrificed along with many others. I think it was both moving but also very grounding for me. I think it’s very easy, especially for those of us who are white, it’s very easy to sort of take a role in political struggles that can be very safe and distant. And this book is so grounded in the realities of struggle during a very difficult period, one that’s really defined by backlash and imprisonment. And so being able to read through her work and understand her life just gave me a lot of inspiration and was a really moving experience.
Sam B: And so for folks who haven’t heard of Safiya Bukhari before or who don’t really know about her life, could you give folks a little taste?
David Z: In terms of her political work, she was a political prisoner for about eight years, she was released in 1993. And after that, she sort of became one of the main people supporting political prisoners of the Black liberation struggle. and it’s at this time is she founded the Jericho movement for political prisoners with Jalil Muntaqim, who’s another former BLA member who’s still inside. She was involved in Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, she had a prison radio show (Where We Live on WBAI), she co-founded the New York Coalition of Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, she was a central figure in the infrastructure of supporting political prisoners in the United States.
Sam B: So for someone who was so central to these movements David, why do you think this book didn’t come out sooner?
David Z: Well there’s multiple answers to that but I think the most pertinent one is that she actually died in 2003. And at that point, her daughter approached Laura Whitehorn to help track down some of her writing and sort of edit together a volume of her work.
Sam B: Okay.
David Z: It seems like most of her writing actually wasn’t intended to be released as a book or a tract or anything like that. There were sort of writings for specific movement activities, like for speeches or an event or things like this. And so Laura actually has this very moving intro where she describes both their relationship, they were friends, and also why Safiya’s writing hadn’t been released in any form before this. And so it’s an interesting project of sort of lacing together these disparate writings into a cohesive book.
Sam B: Oh, that’s exciting. So big shkoyach to Safiya Bukhari and I guess side shkoyach to Laura Whitehorn?
David Z: Yeah, double shkoyach.
Sam B: So four for four for positivity, David!
David Z: We did it.
Sam B: They said it couldn’t be done.
David Z: So that’s our show today. Huge thanks to everybody who made this interview with David Gilbert possible. We’re not sure if we can thank you by name so we’re not going to.
Sam B: And also thank you so much to David Gilbert for talking to us, for answering our letters, and for generously sharing ideas and experiences with us at Wende last month.
David Z: Yeah. You know closer to home here, the Québec government has recently passed a new wave of anti-Muslim legislation. We don’t have a lot new to say about this that isn’t already being said by Muslim activists here in the city. But if you’re unfamiliar with this, if you don’t know what we’re talking about, you can listen to old episodes that we had specifically about this. We’ll have them in the show notes too, as well as links to updates as to what exactly is happening right now.
Sam B: And as always please give us a positive rating on Apple podcasts. And if you can, help us out on Patreon. It keeps the lights on at Treyf headquarters and is greatly appreciated.
David Z: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next month.
Sam B: Treyf podcast is Sam Beck and David Zinman. A huge thanks to CKUT 90.3FM where we record this podcast, under the shadow of the giant cross of secularism on occupied Kanien’kehá:ka territory.
David Z: Thanks to everyone who helps make Treyf podcast happen. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and now Instagram at Treyf podcast, T R E Y F, and send us comments, suggestions, or hate mail to treyf podcast at gmail dot com.
Sam B: More episodes soon.
Sam B: You wrote in the book about debating Lyndon LaRouche?
David Gilbert: Yeah.
Sam B: What was that like?!
David Gilbert: Oh it was insane. But it wasn’t very long before they were coming with axe handles and breaking up meetings and stuff like that.
Sam B: There are still LaRuchites in Montreal.
David Z: On the street corners!
David Gilbert: Yeah, they were well funded.