Office Hours: David Gilbert (May 17, 2019)
This is part of a new series called Office Hours, featuring interviews with movement elders by younger activists.
David Gilbert is a revolutionary anti-imperialist political prisoner, a former member of the Weather Underground (WUO), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Men Against Sexism, and a current member of the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar collective. He’s the author of several books, including Love and Struggle: My Time in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond; No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner; and Looking at the US White Working Class Historically.
Gilbert has been in prison for over 37 years, as a result of his participation in an action organized by a Black Liberation Army (BLA) cell that targeted an armored Brinks truck in 1981. The action was one of a series of expropriations undertaken at that time for the Black liberation struggle. Unfortunately, the action went awry and led to the deaths of several people.Gilbert is currently being held at Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison just outside of Buffalo, NY. In March, the hosts of the Treyf podcast visited Gilbert there and conducted an interview. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview here.
David Gilbert: My name is Dave Gilbert. I’ve been in New York state prison for 37 and a half years now. I’m an anti-imperialist political prisoner.
It’s funny to define yourself as anti-imperialist, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression define the current society. I’m really pro-people. I’m for all people of the world to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. To me, imperialism is the best way to sum up those structures of domination.
Treyf: Mark Rudd [another former member of WUO] wrote about how growing up in a family with Holocaust survivors in it prepared him in some psychological way for underground work. That there was a disconnect between living in mainstream American society and this upbringing that emphasized those earlier struggles. Does that resonate for you?
DG: It’s an interesting point and I can see it. It’s not the way I experienced it growing up. I grew up with this tremendous commitment to democracy. I wanted to make America live up to its ideals. I grew up naive, in a way, because I thought democracy, freedom and justice for all, equality—that’s what America was. I thought that was terrific. And then my eyes got opened by the civil rights movement. So no, there was no sense until [I’d been in] the struggle a long time and [seen] 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. It should be for everybody who feels a sense of humanity but particularly for Jews. There were two types of conclusions that people took from this event. One is, we have to have ours at whatever cost. And that led to [many adopting] Zionism. The other is, 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 the worst evil and the most dangerous phenomenon in the world, had an impact and led to a disproportionate number of Jews [joining movements]—I say disproportionate, not enough. It should be everybody; everybody who wants to be a human being should be anti-racist.
Treyf: One of the things I admire a lot about your writing is you do a lot of reflection. You talk about the ways that you made mistakes in the past, as well as the aspects of struggle that continue to be relevant and inspiring. I know that you’ve written about having fallen into what you described as “white interventionism” at different times. Can you share some of those reflections?
DG: Yeah. So there’s a general [principle] about allying with people of color organizations, under their leadership. 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. How you implement that principle in a complex reality . . . there is no blueprint that I know of.
We can identify errors. And just to identify two errors that I was personally involved in: During the time of WUO, all the radical and revolutionary Black groups were nationalist and they didn’t want whites in their organization. For good reason, because there’s a history of unconscious cultural manipulation, which 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 the [Black nationalist groups] were doing.
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 [I thought] 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 I sort of [decided] not to have political discussions about the strategy, or what was appropriate, or about one’s role or whatever. It was just, “okay, 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 can lead to disaster.
Treyf: After you left WUO and moved to Denver, you were involved in the formation of Men Against Sexism. 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. 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 37 and a half years?
David Gilbert: There’s a lot to unpack there. WUO and the anti-imperialist left were definitely 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. There are two levels to the struggle against sexism on the left. One is how people interact, and your relationships, and the other is your program. They’re both important and they reinforce each other, but program is even more important. I think we needed more of a feminist influence on forms of struggle and organization that were less hierarchical. But early on, we tended to be dismissive of a white women’s movement that wasn’t anti-imperialist. It was really an unfortunate loggerheads because the two things go together. And there was a bridge, which was the women of color movement, the Combahee River statement and stuff like that. But we weren’t attuned enough to that, because we weren’t anti-sexist enough and also because we were somewhat isolated. So when Weather fell apart, the analysis that I [favored] was that it was because of white and male supremacy, that we weren’t strong enough allies of Black and other people of color struggles, and that we still had a male dominant culture and program.
So when a friend of mine started Men Against Sexism, I became a charter member. I agonized for a while because I was still cautious about a group that was white and not explicitly anti-imperialist. This sort of division still existed between the white feminist left and the people of color organizations in Denver. But after agonizing, I decided to do it, because I needed to work on those issues. And it turned out to be a really good, helpful group. And in the process of all of us talking from our hearts about reality, it became anti-racist and anti-imperialist, too. It became a main source of white allies for the Chicano group in Denver. The feminist mentors we had told us 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 challenging too, but fun.
Later on when I was relating to the new wave of activism—you know, 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, at least for 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. In prison, I also 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. I realized that guys were terrified of homosexuality because they didn’t want to be in the female position, which is less than human.
In those days there were prison newspapers, and as a way to get this message across, twice I wrote about—not the most hardcore feminist line but basically saying, what women want is what we want: respect. And individual guys would say I really like what you wrote, but it didn’t have a major impact. At this point, I’m not an organizer in prison anymore. I’ll have talks with individuals, and 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.
Treyf: We’ve noticed that a lot of anti-racist work in the past five or ten years has really been focused on antifascist organizing. I was wondering if this is something you’ve seen before, how you’re understanding it.
DG: Racial scapegoating was always central to US politics and especially after the advances of the ’60s—that was Nixon’s whole Southern Strategy. But it’s at a high pitch now. So there’s a greater danger of fascism because of a combination of frustrations from whites who feel they got screwed by neoliberalism, and the way that’s being mobilized. 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 the government, you end up in here.
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. Which means there’s a real danger of fascism. Which was always there. The ruling class probably would prefer to rule by passivity and manipulation, but if push comes to shove, they prefer fascism which is still pro-corporate, while socialism would wipe them out as a class. That’s capitalism’s fallback if things unravel.
So fascism is more of a danger, and antifascism is more on the agenda. But there’s a trap there. As righteous as it is to oppose fascism, to shout them down and have them go back into the woodwork, we don’t want to get locked 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. It’s tricky to do because there’s a history of white union organizing that sold out people of color, that consolidated white privileges. But there are ways to do it that ally with the people who are most oppressed [and often] have struggles that are leading around this, like Justice for Janitors or the 15 dollar minimum wage or environmental justice.
So I like it whenever the fascists are shouted down or surrounded by so many counter-demonstrators that they go back. But our main job is to oppose imperialism, oppose capitalism, and 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 color and people in the Global South.
Treyf: We’re talking about these complicated political situations, and things are pretty rough out there right now. I’m wondering what gives you the most hope today that we’ll reach a more just future?
DG: 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 fierce and giant, but it’s not hopeless. It’s not. And given what’s at stake for the survival of our species and many other species, if there’s any chance at all, we have to give it our best shot.
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’s 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 [Showing Up for Racial Justice], the young people against gun violence, the Women’s Marches, the teachers strikes, the demonstrations in 700 cities against separating migrant children from their parents.
They’re still kind of siloed as single-issue. There needs to be more of an understanding that these problems emerge out of society’s basic power relations. For two reasons: If you just think single-issue you’re going to get demoralized when the demonstrations 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 internationalist for that to work. Within the United States there’s still a lot of human decency and a level of activism that’s reemerged. A long way to go for it to be effective. But it’s something to work with.
But most directly and personally, the range of younger generation activists who are in touch with me [give me hope]. They are wonderfully humane, aware people who don’t seem as arrogant as we were when we were young activists.
Treyf Podcast is a monthly interview show that features political discussions from an anti-colonial, radical leftist perspective. The show is produced by Sam Bick and David Zinman and recorded at CKUT studios in occupied Tio’tia:ke, Kanien’kehá:ka territory. You can follow the show on Soundcloud, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or subscribe using any podcast app.