The Radical Life of Kathy Boudin

Kathy Boudin, the teacher, organizer, and revolutionary, died on May 1st, after a seven-year battle with cancer. She’d been in hospice care at a friend’s apartment in New York City. More than one person close to her, including her son, Chesa, the San Francisco district attorney, remarked to me that it felt appropriate that she had died on May Day, the annual occasion that marks the struggle for workers’ rights.

Boudin was an iconic character in the American imagination. From the late nineteen-sixties through the early nineteen-eighties, she became prominent for her association with several infamous acts of radical political violence, most notably the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s money truck, which resulted in the murder of one security guard and two police officers. Boudin, an accomplice to the robbery, served twenty-two years in prison and expressed remorse for her actions. She was sensationalized in the press and inspired caricatures of zealous, wayward militants in Philip Roth’s novel “American Pastoral” and David Mamet’s play “The Anarchist.” These representations make the error of conflating a remarkable person with the worst things she ever did. They also miss the more instructive story of an organizer and activist who ultimately found a productive way to live her principles.

My mother-in-law, Lucy Friedman, met Boudin in 1961, when they were freshmen at Bryn Mawr College. Both young women had grown up in privileged, progressive families in New York; Lucy’s father had recognized Kathy’s last name on the incoming-class list and told his daughter to look out for her during orientation. Boudin arrived at college with an already well-developed sense of justice and worldliness. Angela Davis joined her high-school class in the eleventh grade. “I think that our classmates, most of whom had already attended the school for many years, would agree that she was one of our acknowledged political and intellectual leaders,” Davis wrote to me in an e-mail. “I don’t think I would have developed an awareness of the Cuban Revolution if not for the fact that Kathy had a way of making it absolutely relevant to the conditions of our lives at that time.”

In college, Boudin was “really one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever known,” Friedman said. She was an excellent student and an avid organizer of conferences and student actions, feverishly involved in bringing the politics of the moment to campus. Boudin spent her senior year in Russia and Friedman spent hers at Brandeis University, where she’d transferred after marrying my father-in-law. After that, the two women lost touch for a few decades.

The next few years of Boudin’s life are the ones that have become the stuff of legend: she joined the leftist activist group Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.), and then the Weather Underground, its radical splinter faction. In 1970, she survived the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that killed three of her comrades. Boudin was caught in the middle of a shower upstairs when the bomb went off in the basement. She managed to get away, naked, taking refuge at the home of a woman who lived down the block—before disappearing. She remained underground for the next eleven years. In 1980, she gave birth to Chesa and started to emerge from hiding. She also became involved with the Black Liberation Army, a well-armed spinoff of the Black Panthers. It was in support of the B.L.A. that Boudin participated in the Brink’s truck heist, in October, 1981. The gunmen killed a security guard, Peter Paige, during the robbery, while Boudin was stationed close by in a U-Haul which the robbers intended to use as a getaway vehicle. When the U-Haul was stopped by police, Boudin surrendered with her hands up, but the gunmen in the back of the truck jumped out and shot and killed Sergeant Edward J. O’Grady and Officer Waverly L. Brown of the Nyack Police Department. Boudin was arrested the day of the incident, and ultimately convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder.

She would later describe her actions during this era as “flawed and wrong,” informed by a “greater and greater” sense of guilt, and a distorted sense of self and the world while underground. In a 2001 Profile for The New Yorker, by Elizabeth Kolbert, she spoke of her involvement with the B.L.A. as an act of self-erasure in service of a better world. “The less I would know and the more I would give up total self, the better—the more committed and the more moral I was,” she said.

One reads this and imagines a person who was brainwashed, maybe, or at least very unsure of what she believed. This was not true of Boudin, however. The Brink’s truck incident and her arrest provoked crisis and transformation, but not total disavowal of her central commitments. “The lesson she learned wasn’t ‘I shouldn’t dedicate my life to the struggle,’ ” Chesa told me. “The lesson she learned, definitively and through tragedy, was ‘Violence is not productive.’ ”

In 1984, Boudin was transferred to Bedford Hills, the women’s prison in upstate New York, where she met friends and future comrades including Roslyn Smith. Smith had been struggling with depression prior to meeting Boudin, whom she calls the most influential person in her life. “When I came to prison, I was operating with the belief that I didn’t matter. Kathy changed that for me through her friendship,” Smith told me. “She helped me to understand the harm that I caused, to tear it apart and take responsibility for it, but she also helped me believe that it didn’t define me, that it wasn’t my whole identity.”

Smith told me about programs that Boudin built while at Bedford, including an AIDS-education and peer-support initiative; a program for mothers who had been separated from their children; and an effort to bring college programming to the prison after Pell Grants were suspended, in the nineteen-nineties. She became most animated describing how Boudin once organized her housing unit to hold a Thanksgiving dinner. Boudin suggested that the women make a “tree of life” on the common-room wall, on which they hung family photos. Then they met beneath the collage and shared the holiday meal. “To this day, that is a tradition for the women at Bedford Hills,” Smith said. “A lot of women don’t know where that tradition came from, even, but it came from Kathy.”

I worry that repeating a story like this makes Bedford Hills sound like a place where warm and pleasant scenes are easily orchestrated. It is not; like all prisons, Bedford is a deeply alienating place, characterized by oppression, mistrust, and indifference. Boudin made Thanksgiving in a place like that possible because she had a genius for connection. “She was deeply anti-transactional,” the activist Laura Whitehorn, who first met Boudin in 1969, told me. “Kathy had a fierce and unbending commitment to principle, and an ability to manifest principle by building community. She connected with people and saw each person for who they were. And that was her political statement, not a personality quirk.”

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