May 19, 1943
Member of the Weather Underground
"I believed at the time that the robbery would help bring greater equality and freedom to African-Americans, and that this would help bring greater equality and justice to our whole society. But I was wrong."
K athy Boudin was a member of the radical group founded in the 1960s called the Weathermen (later called the Weather Underground) that wanted to start a violent revolution in the United States. The movement had gained influence as part of two political movements of the 1960s: the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. After many young radicals (people who want rapid changes in a society) of the 1960s moved on to other things, Boudin remained active until 1981, when she was arrested and charged with murder for her part in robbing an armored car. The robbery killed three people, including two policemen.
The incident, which brought a twenty-years-to-life jail sentence, made Boudin a symbol of how student radicals of the 1960s turned into revolutionaries, even though most of her companions eventually gave up their extreme politics.
Boudin was born in 1943 and grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village. Her father, Leonard Boudin, was a leading lawyer who specialized in civil liberties. He defended many people accused by the government and by Congress of having sympathies with communism. (Communism is a system in which the state controls the economy, including factories and businesses. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, when the capitalist United States was vying with the Communist Soviet Union [present-day Russia and neighboring countries] for world power, people with progressive views were often labeled communist.) Leonard Boudin's defense of alleged communists brought the family to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the mid-1950s Leonard Boudin's passport was taken away on the grounds that he was a communist, despite the fact that no evidence was ever presented. Two federal courts ordered the State Department to restore the passport, but it seriously harmed Leonard Boudin's reputation in an era when fear of communism was everywhere.
Boudin was sent to private schools—The Little Red School House for elementary school and Elisabeth Irwin High School—where her teachers included some people who could not get jobs elsewhere because they were suspected of being sympathetic to communism, if not of being communists themselves.
Boudin was remembered as being intelligent, thoughtful, an outstanding athlete, and an independent thinker (asked to write an essay on any topic, she chose "Why Can't I Play Football with the Boys?"). In the eleventh grade she led classmates to East Harlem in New York to paint and plaster buildings, helping out the low-income African American and Latino residents.
Words to Know
- Civil liberties:
- the basic rights guaranteed to individual citizens by law (freedom of speech and action, for example).
- an economic system under which private citizens do not own property; instead, the public—usually represented by the government—owns all goods and the means to produce them.
Kathy and her brother, Michael, grew up in a family that had high expectations of both children; their parents believed they would make major contributions to society. The two took slightly different lessons from their father's example. Michael focused on the law and became a leading business lawyer and federal judge. Kathy considered law school but decided instead to work for the rights of African Americans and try to lead a revolution.
College and political radicalism
In 1961 Boudin entered Bryn Mawr College, a respected women's school near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was an odd match. Bryn Mawr was a conservative, traditional place for a liberal New Yorker like Boudin. Each afternoon, for example, women at the school sat down to a formal tea (the school advised them to bring tea sets with them when they enrolled).
At this time, in the early 1960s, Boudin became active in the civil rights movement, the effort to gain equal rights for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, which was running at full speed. At Bryn Mawr Boudin attended a scheduled civil rights demonstration but was the only person to show up. That evening at dinner in the school cafeteria, to protest student disinterest in social causes, she stood up and smashed a dinner plate against a wall. "No one stopped eating or said a word," she remembered later. "They didn't even look up from their plates."
In 1963 Boudin was arrested at a civil rights demonstration in Chester, Pennsylvania. This demonstration had a major impact on Boudin. She became involved in an organization called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which wanted greater equality for all Americans and planned to use direct action to effect change rather than traditional political campaigning. Picketing was an example of the sort of "direct action" SDS supported.
Another example of direct action was the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), an organization sponsored by the SDS in which SDS members moved into poor African American neighborhoods to help residents improve their lives. Boudin joined ERAP in Cleveland, Ohio, after her junior year. Her mother later remembered visiting Boudin and finding rats in the building where her daughter was living.
ERAP pointed to a central problem of SDS. While leftwing (socialist or communist inspired) politics talked about "the workers" rising up against their terrible economic and
The Special Vocabulary of Radical Politics in the 1960s
The world of Kathy Boudin in the late 1960s and early 1970s used a special vocabulary to describe politics. Among the key words and phrases are:
- Left wing and right wing. People who push liberal or radical measures to solve social problems, usually in order to achieve equality and the well-being of the common people, are described as "left wing." People who prefer to rely on individual action to solve social problems are called "right wing." These two terms cover a wide range of attitudes and policies, including such issues as civil rights, civil liberties, and economic policies. They also cover a range of opinions.
- Liberal. In some contexts a "liberal" is on the left wing, while a "conservative" is on the right wing. In another sense, though, "liberal" refers to the idea of using electoral politics (voting) to achieve gradual social and economic change. It is in contrast to a radical.
- Radical. A radical believes changes in a nation's political and economic system should come quickly. Radicals may or may not regard themselves as revolutionaries.
- Revolutionaries. Revolutionaries seek major, immediate change through a violent uprising. Some revolutionaries believe the poor can improve their lives by taking up arms against the established political and economic powers and seizing property and political control.
social conditions, the SDS itself consisted mostly of middle- and upper-middle-class college students. In the 1960s white people in the working class generally supported the Vietnam War (1955–75, a civil war in Southeast Asia in which the United States military was fighting alongside noncommunist North Vietnamese to rid the southern part of the country of communists) and wanted nothing to do with the left-wing SDS. Through ERAP, the SDS found in African American ghettos (areas in a city where members of a minority group, usually poor, live) the very workers they were hoping to help, not to mention victims of centuries of racism. It seemed that here was what they needed to start a revolution. This view had more to do with the SDS's wishful thinking than with the problems of black Americans who could not get high-paying jobs and whose neighborhoods were filled with crime, drugs, and alcohol abuse.
After graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1965, Boudin was at loose ends. She had applied to Yale Law School and had been turned down. She had enjoyed her time in Cleveland the previous summer and decided to return to the work that gave her a sense of purpose: "learning the realities of class… . It was the discovery that there was a whole other world that I was living next to, part of, and didn't really know about," she told a magazine interviewer many years later.
The year 1968 was a painful and dramatic one for the United States. In January communist forces in South Vietnam launched a strong new military campaign that made it seem that the Vietnam War would drag on forever. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support a strike by city garbage workers. Two months later in Los Angeles, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) was assassinated after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. At the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago, Illinois, in August, rioting broke out as police battled antiwar protesters. A report later described the events in Chicago as a "police riot."
Easily overlooked among all this was the collapse of the ERAP project in Cleveland, which left Boudin at loose ends again. She went to Chicago for the convention, where she was arrested for helping with a project to spread foul-smelling liquid onto a carpet at the Palmer House hotel, where Democratic convention attendees were staying. Boudin said she did not spill any of the liquid herself, but she surrendered to police anyway. "I was somebody who was looking for a way to be a hero," she told a reporter for Time in 1984.
The events of 1968 deeply affected some members of the SDS. The assassinations of King and Kennedy and the violence at the Democratic Party convention convinced some radicals that they had to use violence to counter the violence used by the government. The result was the creation, the following year, of the Weathermen (also called the Weather Underground), a small group of former SDS members who decided to form a branch of what they called the "International Liberation Army" inside the United States. Their enemies were class privilege, capitalism, and "American imperialism" (the belief that the United States was trying to force its will on underdeveloped countries like Vietnam).
American political terrorism
Although not a national leader, Boudin was an early member of the Weathermen. Her involvement in America's newest political terrorist organization quickly led her into a series of events that ended twelve years later in a maximum-security prison for women in New York state. The terrorist acts included:
- October 1969: To fight back against police violence the previous year, Weathermen tried to organize a new set of riots, called the Days of Rage. The event was a flop—only a handful of demonstrators showed up—and Boudin was arrested for minor vandalism while carrying a Vietcong flag through a park. (The Vietcong were the military forces of North Vietnam, against which the United States was fighting.)
- March 1970: In a townhouse in Greenwich Village, several Weathermen were building a bomb that accidentally exploded. Boudin, who was taking a shower when the bomb went off, ran into the street without any clothes on. One other person in the house escaped; the three Weathermen who were working on the bomb died. The house was destroyed. The explosion grabbed national headlines and put Boudin on "wanted" posters for helping assemble explosives intended to attack military facilities. To avoid arrest Boudin disappeared from public view.
- March 1970–1981: For a decade Boudin avoided capture by the FBI and local police. She has described her time as a fugitive as uneventful. She lived briefly in Mexico and then went with Mexican migrant workers to pick grapes in California. Later she had a job in a hospital in Massachusetts.
During the 1970s the Weathermen were blamed for at least two dozen terrorist bomb attacks, including ones at the National Guard in Washington, D.C.; the police headquarters in New York City; and the U.S. Capitol building. Either by luck or by design, no one was killed in any of these bombings. Boudin has said she was not involved in the bombings (although her fingerprints were found in a San Francisco house used as a "bomb factory," according to police). Also during the 1970s Boudin wrote a book titled Prairie Fire, making a case that American history is one of imperialism, and she appeared in a documentary, Underground, by filmmaker Emile de Antonio (1919–1989).
The war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, and with it went SDS and its offshoots. The group had not had any real influence for a long time, but the end of the war seemed to remove its last reason for existence. Its leaders abandoned the group and, for the most part, began to pursue more mainstream careers.
But Boudin was still a fugitive. She considered surrendering to authorities but decided against it. Instead, Boudin supported herself with a series of menial jobs, such as cleaning houses. She later told Time magazine: "The very status of being underground was an identity for me. It was a moral statement… . I was making a difference in no way, so then I elevated [raised] to great importance the fact that I was underground."
While working as a house cleaner, Boudin read about the Underground Railroad—the pre-Civil War system of whites who offered hiding places and aid to slaves escaping to freedom in Canada—and decided that something more meaningful than living underground would be helping African Americans.
Black Liberation Army
In 1978 Boudin moved back to the East Coast from Ohio and joined a tiny organization called the May 19th Communist Organization, which was thought to have fewer than a dozen members. Their main goal was to hook up with the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA was a group that had spun off from the Black Panthers, a black revolutionary movement founded in 1966. By the time Boudin became associated with it, the BLA had allied with another African American group called the Family. The Family appeared to be part gangsters and part political terrorists. Some critics thought the Family was mostly about robbing armored trucks to raise money, with a thin coating of political theory to make it seem more respectable.
The BLA, in combining crime with politics, had started something new. Members of the BLA argued that robbing banks was an acceptable activity for an organization fighting a war against society. The BLA also was known for attacking policemen in African American neighborhoods, killing some of them.
The big dance
Boudin's role in the Family was to serve as a respectable white woman who might attract less notice than a black woman. One of her main tasks was to help members of the terrorist group obtain false identities. Working as a retail clerk, she would photocopy driver's licenses from customers who were paying by check. With personal details from the driver's license, Family members could apply for a "replacement" for their "lost" license without having to show additional identification. The new driver's licenses were then used to rent cars or vans the gang needed to stage armored car robberies, which was the Family's specialty. Gradually, Boudin was becoming a gangster.
On October 20, 1981, the Family planned to use a red Chevy van to rob an armored truck in Nyack, New York, a suburb north of New York City. Boudin's job was to ride in a U-Haul truck rented for the occasion. Other members of the gang planned to rob the armored truck, meet up with the U-Haul, and then hide in the truck while Boudin and her long-standing boyfriend (and father of her son), David Gilbert, drove the U-Haul back to New York City. They thought that police would be looking for black men driving a red car, and that a white couple driving a U-Haul truck would not arouse suspicion.
The robbery did not go well. While the guards were making a pickup of cash, the red van pulled up alongside the Brinks armored truck. One Brinks guard, Peter Paige, was shot to death
during the robbery, which netted the Family $1.6 million in cash. The robbers made their getaway in the red van and drove behind a nearby discount department store to meet the U-Haul.
But there was a catch. A college student living next to the parking lot saw the exchange and called police. The police set up a roadblock at the entrance to the New York State Thruway heading to New York City. Soon they spotted the U-Haul and ordered it to stop. There was momentary confusion: the police were looking for black men, but the U-Haul was driven by a white couple. Could they have stopped the wrong truck?
Police approached the truck, guns drawn. The woman on the driver's side—Boudin—got out, her hands raised, and asked police to put away their weapons. As this was happening, other officers went around to the back of the truck to get a look inside.
Suddenly the truck's rear doors flew open, and the heavily armed robbers started firing at the police. In the shootout, two policemen, Waverly Brown and Edward O'Grady, were killed. Members of the gang tried to flee. As she ran across the highway, Boudin was grabbed by an off-duty prison guard who had gotten out of his car to see what was happening.
Twelve years after fleeing the wreckage of a Greenwich Village townhouse, Boudin had resurfaced, this time charged with murder.
Before her trial was scheduled to start, Boudin pleaded guilty to murder and robbery charges. Although she had not been armed during the robbery, under New York law someone who helps commit a serious crime can be held responsible for any deaths that result from the crime.
Boudin was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison. Held in a high-security prison for women, she helped start education programs for women prisoners, most of whom were poor and black. She also developed an AIDS education program that served as a model for other prisons.
Although she was behind bars, Boudin was in some respects back where she started after graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1965: living among poor African Americans and applying her training and education to improving the lives of the women around her. And just as she once took her identity from living underground, she now gained an identity living in prison.
For More Information
Castellucci, John. The Big Dance: The Untold Story of Kathy Boudin and the Terrorist Family That Committed the Brink's Robbery Murders. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.
Frankfort, Ellen. Kathy Boudin and the Dance of Death. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.
Jacobs, Ron. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. New York: Verso, 1997.
"A Radical Unexpectedly Recants." Time, May 7, 1984, p. 27.
Shapiro, Bruce. "Kathy Boudin's Prison Odyssey." The Nation, March 20, 1995, p. 380.
Serrill, Michael S. "Trials on Twin Tracks." Time, September 5, 1983, p. 54.