Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes on a Life in Struggle

Magazine article Monthly Review

Notes on a Life in Struggle

Article excerpt

Notes on a Life in Struggle David Gilbert, Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 352 pages, $22, paperback.

I started writing to David Gilbert and several other North American political prisoners in 2001, shortly after 9/11. To say that these correspondences, beginning at such a turning point in history, played a huge role in my political development feels like something of an understatement. Everything in me has grown stronger through my work with prisoners. My analysis of movements, past and present. My understanding of the brutal lengths the state will go to crush dissent. My awareness of the prolonged nature of this struggle. My commitment to it.

David was a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and when the group split into different ideological factions in 1969 he became a Weatherman (later the Weather Underground Organization). He spent more than ten years underground before being captured in an armed action with the Black Liberation Army in 1981. And that's about all I knew when I started writing to him.

With prisoners, that awkward "getting to know you" phase becomes an even more self-conscious and frustrating process than usual. Letters in both directions are torn open, read, even confiscated or destroyed by prison mailroom censors. Visits are too brief and too infrequent, always under the looming presence of armed guards. There are questions I'm not sure if I should ask, and details he may feel too closely watched to share.

Despite it all, through it all, David has been a tremendously gifted communicator. His letters burst with life and passion, and his quirky, sometimes painfully nerdy, sort of humor. He is so real and so charming in those pages that he breaks down some of the barriers between us - the walls, the razor wire, the hundreds of miles, the years. He is warm in the coldest of environments. He asks about my mother and jokes about my cats. He asks if I'm taking care of myself.

David's contributions to the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar and other publications demonstrate his ongoing commitment to building a better world and fostering stronger movements. He is constantly reading, thinking, probing. He wants to know where things went wrong and what we can do better. In our political discussions he is a seemingly inexhaustible source of inspiration and mentorship. Yet these are slow conversations, drawn out over months and years. Working on a variety of projects together, we are often more concerned with the task at hand than delving into the details of his own political development and life outside of prison.

To fill in blanks, I pieced together some of David's history and ideals from pamphlets and web pages - they painted him as a murderous criminal, a martyr, and everything in between. Years ago I spent a whole afternoon staring at his mug shot, his face beaten and bruised almost beyond recognition. I wondered what had led him to that moment, and what those torturous first days after arrest were like.

In 2004 he released No Surrender, a collection of his prison writings. I read it ravenously, thrilled to have more insight into his story and the trajectory of his thinking over the years. It covered his trial statements, struggles against white supremacy and male supremacy, AIDS work behind bars, musings on international popular movements, and even several humor pieces and children's stories that he wrote for his young son.

Many of the insights in these collected writings are invaluable. For David, there is a lesson in everything, and he practices self-criticism more actively and honestly than anyone I've ever encountered. For a whole new generation facing repression for our own activism, these articles help us learn from both the failures and successes of the movements that came before us.

Yet it still felt like there were so many things, even after all those years and writings, that I didn't know about David's story. …

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