Kathy Boudin: Weather Underground radical who reformed behind bars

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Kathy Boudin, who died at the age of 78, was an activist and former member of Weather Underground, a radical group formed in opposition to the Vietnam War that sought to overthrow US imperialism through violent revolt.

Following her involvement in a robbery and subsequent incarceration, she emerged from prison transformed and went on to teach at the Columbia University Center for Justice.

Kathy Boudin was born in Manhattan in 1943, daughter of Jean Boudin, poet, and Leonard Boudin, socialist lawyer. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, majoring in Russian Studies.

Weather Underground was formed in 1969, as an early student splinter group for a democratic society, and takes its name from the words of Bob Dylan “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing” in its song “Nostalgic Subterranean Blues”. The following year, the band issued a “state of war declaration” against the US government and launched a bombing campaign against banks and government buildings.

Boudin and fellow member Cathy Wilkerson narrowly escaped death in 1970 when a bomb being built by members of Weather Underground exploded in the basement of their home in Greenwich Village, killing three band members. The couple escaped the rubble and remained wanted fugitives for the next decade.

In 1981, she and her co-conspirators – including members of the Black Liberation Army and former Weather Underground members – participated in the armed robbery of a Brink’s security truck collecting money in a mall in Nanuet, New York.

Boudin was part of the escape team in a rental truck that day, escaping with bags of cash amounting to approximately $1.6 million. However, while driving away, the vehicle collided with a police car. The thieves fled the scene, Boudin attempting to escape on foot.

Two policemen and a security guard were killed in the attack, while a guard and two policemen were injured. Boudin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to “21 years to life” in prison for murder and robbery. Speaking in court at the 1984 trial, she said: “I feel very bad about the lives lost as a result of this incident”, and continued: “I led a life committed to political principles . I believe that I can be faithful to these principles in various ways without committing violent acts.

Boudin was already a wanted fugitive before the fatal robbery in 1981

(Shutterstock)

Her son, Chesa, who was only 14 months old when Boudin was imprisoned, was raised by activist friends.

Her time inside profoundly transformed Boudin: she renounced violence and began to write and publish poetry, winning an international PEN award in 1999. The award-winning poem, “A Trilogy of Journeys”, reflects her experience of motherhood in prison, as a means of envisioning freedom.

And turning that experience into practical help for others, she became an advocate for women in prison, campaigning to reunite them with their children. Boudin was the first woman to earn a master’s degree while incarcerated in New York State Prison, after studying remotely with the University of Norwich, Vermont. She co-wrote the book Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998), written while in prison.

Boudin was granted parole and released from prison in 2003, while her partner, David Gilbert, was released only last year. She earned a doctorate from Columbia University Teachers College in 2007 and was named an adjunct professor in 2008.

At Columbia, Boudin co-founded the annual conference Beyond the Bars. Its co-founder, Cheryl Wilkins, described it as “a global community at the forefront of justice reform”.

Jarrell E Daniels of the Columbia University Center for Justice said in tribute: “Kathy’s legacy, mission and lifelong commitment to advancing social justice, supporting disadvantaged communities and reforming the system criminal justice will never be forgotten, especially by those whose lives it touched. .”

Boudin resided in New York and lived with cancer for seven years. She is survived by her life partner, David Gilbert, and their son, Chesa Boudin, lawyer.

Kathy Boudin, activist, born May 19, 1943, died May 1, 2022

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