Kathy Boudin, Tireless Fighter for Justice — Rest in Power

Kathy Boudin is gone.

She died on May Day in Manhattan, with her son, Chesa Boudin (now San Francisco’s district attorney), and her partner, David Gilbert, at her side. She was 78 years old, and she’d lived a large and remarkable life. Friends and family gathered to grieve, to witness, to celebrate. And she did not leave lightly — like a big ship brought down in a violent storm, there was struggle till the end.

The headline in The New York Times obituary about Kathy is worth noting in this context: “Kathy Boudin, Radical Imprisoned in a Fatal Robbery, Dies at 78.” The story enumerates a few of her dazzling accomplishments — founding the Center for Justice at Columbia University, for example — but those things are rendered practically illegible by the insistent and totalizing framing. That would not be her headline; that would not be her story. And it’s universally true: follow any human being into their lived lives and every stereotype crumbles.

I’m thinking now of the thousands of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people whose lives Kathy touched, the organizations and projects and campaigns she built in over a half century of organizing, the communities she sparked and served year after year. In the days since her passing, we’ve received heart-felt personal messages from all over the country — and the world.

Chesa and his partner Valerie had their first child on September 3, 2021; David was released from a New York State prison two months later, on November 3, 2021, after 40 years and 10 days in prison. Kathy was able to greet and know her grandson, and to see David on the free side. That itself is a wonder worth celebrating.

We had a blended family with Kathy, and so survivors include Chesa’s brothers, Zayd Dohrn and Malik Dohrn, and their families — and all the grandkids who Kathy cared for and loved.

Speaking of survivors — I attended an event in Chicago on May 4 where Mama Dorothy Burge, a longtime activist in the Jon Burge police torture cases, and Michelle Daniel Jones, whose work engages mass incarceration and the impacts of the carceral state, kicked off their year-long residencies as Artists for the People. When Michelle spoke, she lifted up Kathy as someone whose presence in her life was tremendous and precious. Michelle shared how Kathy refused to be defined through the eyes of the powerful and the privileged, or bound by the most difficult and painful events in her life. I realized then that this kind of testament was likely being offered everywhere — from London to Los Angeles, from New York to Nairobi, from Hanoi to Havana to East Jerusalem.

Kathy and I met in 1966 when we both became community organizers with the Community Union in Cleveland — a loosely linked national network of grassroots groups determined to transform disenfranchised and marginalized citizens and residents of the ghettos into a powerful force capable of effectively fighting for their own needs and aspirations. The Community Union was inspired by and an extension of the Southern civil rights movement, and this was defining for us — she was a comrade to the Black freedom movement then and ever after, and the fight against white supremacy was the core of her politics and her practical work. Our political and educational work was also our ethical work — organizing as righteousness. I was 20 years old. Kathy was 21.

Our mantra was, “The people with the problems are the people with the solutions,” and our buttons read, “Let the People Decide,” and, “Build an Interracial Movement of the Poor.” We believed then — and we held to it evermore — that legitimate and just social change must be led by those directly impacted, the people who’d been dehumanized or marginalized, pushed down and locked out. In fact, we believed that struggling in the interest of the most oppressed held the key to fundamental transformations — internal and personal as well as social and collective — that would ultimately benefit everyone: we’re all better off when we’re all better off. That was our theory of change.

Kathy was our most effective organizer. She brought enormous energy and her mighty spirit of hopefulness into the most difficult and sorrowful situations — she had the capacity to illuminate even the darkest places. She also brought authentic concern for other people’s lives and a natural ability to build authentic relationships rooted in solidarity, not “service”: it was about respect and mutuality, not ostentatious acts of “charity.” Her comfort zone was the grassy grassroots — when we organized a 10-day march from Cleveland to Columbus to demand rights for mothers on welfare, for example, Kathy was always on the clean-up crew, always on food preparation, always volunteering for the unglamorous and invisible work that kept the movement moving.

A lot of water under the bridge since then — a lot of triumph and a lot of tragedy. We were fighting for participatory democracy, for a world in balance, for joy and justice, for love and life and peace — fighting hard and at the same time trying to live lives that would not make a mockery of our values. We made terrible mistakes and swam in deep rivers of regret, mainly for errors of self-righteousness and arrogance, but not for hurling ourselves with all our might at the structures of imperial war and white supremacy.

Kathy survived the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that took the lives of three of our dear comrades on March 6, 1970, and we were — all of us — on the run in a flash. In the wake of that catastrophe, we worked to build an organization and a network that would take the war to the war-makers, act in solidarity with the Black freedom movement, and survive what we saw as an impending American fascism. That’s a long and winding story in itself.

Eleven years later, Kathy was arrested in Nyack, New York, for the attempted armed robbery of an armored car in which a guard and two police officers were killed. She would go on to spend 22 years in a New York State prison.

Bernardine Dohrn and I had two kids by then, and we were living above ground in Manhattan. Kathy and David had 14-month-old Chesa, living with her parents since the calamity at Nyack. We’d known and loved Kathy and David forever and they were family, and family takes care of its own, especially in times of crisis. The pulse and measure of our lives was fully tuned to the complex rhythms of raising young kids, and here we were now, happily child-centered, fully immersed in the joyful cacophony of a toddler orchestra. Yes, there was room for one more. And if, God forbid, anything catastrophic ever overwhelmed us, who, of all the people in the world, would we want to step up for them? We would want us, of course.

The culture of our family was saturated with politics and activism from the start: our kids were born onto picket lines and into demonstrations, our lively little apartment abuzz with friends and comrades, meetings and political discussions, organizing projects and action plans, along with the ordinary dialogue of everyday life (play-dates, laundry, groceries and paying the damn rent). Because we never had a TV, conversation was the charge and current in the room — our kids’ earliest words and phrases included “mama” and “dog” and “ball,” of course, but also “Peace Now” and “No Racism.” Even without a literal understanding of every detail or every cause, we built a kind of child-friendly and joyful resistance into our daily lives, a sense that we always stood up somehow for peace and justice — “against racism,” and for “fairness.” “That’s not fair,” had the same indignant tone whether referring to the smallest injustice on the playground or to some monstrous outrage like a police murder on the streets of Brooklyn.

Malcolm X had famously noted that Black people seemed forever to have an abundance of Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns in their family trees, but white people didn’t even have a twig or a leaf for Nat Turner or Cinqué or Frederick Douglass or Harriett Tubman. Why, he asked rhetorically and pointedly, why the color line — even when it comes to naming the babies? We chose to take Malcolm’s observation as a practical matter, and so we named our first-born Zayd Osceola, to remember a Black Panther brother killed by the police, and at the same time to raise up a Seminole leader who never surrendered to the U.S. policy of relocation and extermination, and our second Malik Cochise, this time in honor of Malcolm himself as well as a renowned First Nations legend, the great Apache guerrilla fighter.

Chesa — formally Chesa Jackson Gilbert Boudin — bounded into our family and crash-landed in our lives with his name already attached, and it fit right in: Chesa, a Swahili word for dancing feet, and Jackson, taken from Soledad Brother George Jackson, murdered by prison guards at San Quentin. His prized T-shirt was a silk-screen portrait of Rosa Parks in dignified refusal.

When we first visited David and Kathy in jail in Rockland County, they were fearful for Chesa, hungry for news, and worried about next steps. When we broached the idea of taking him into our family, they leapt as if at the last lifeboat pulling swiftly away from a sinking ship. “Yes, yes, we will co-parent for a time, and when we get out…” Well, reality was still a way off, but first steps were agreed on all around.

Soon Bernardine was locked up in federal prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the robbery — civil contempt. I was suddenly single-parenting (with a lot of help from my friends), and visiting prisons became part of the routine.

Kathy and David and Bernardine were all learning together how to be with their kids in these terrible circumstances, and in time, Kathy became the most creative and wisest person I’d ever known around practical ways to parent from a distance — applicable to hospitalization or divorce, forced migration and military deployment, but in our cases, applied to the separation of prison. She was honest with Chesa about what had happened and her own responsibility, but always following his lead on how far to go and what territory to enter; she was unstinting and un-ambivalent in communicating to him her support for us as his “other parents;” she took a lot of time and spent enormous energy working on art and story projects that would last over time and could be done by phone or mail as well as up close and personal. She was a mentor to us all.

They each wrote long, intricate chapter books for the kids, and solicited advice and counsel from them on the phone about the direction of the next week’s installment. Bernardine created a growing catalogue of riddles and jokes for every visit, and she made a crossword puzzle every week for Zayd based on themes of his choice: favorite foods or best fruit, Central Park and dogs, baseball and mommies coming home.

Eventually they did come home: Bernardine after close to a year in lock-up and never testifying; Kathy after 22 years.

Kathy chose the mighty life she lived, found joy and purpose in the struggle, and lived out a precious dialectic: loving her own life enough to appreciate the sunset and the sunrise, to enjoy dinner with friends, or a walk by a lake; loving the world enough to put her shoulder on history’s great wheel when history demanded it.

Kathy died just as she had lived: fighting for life, surrounded by love, intrepidly building community and casting those invisible but sturdy threads in every direction, connecting family and friends, colleagues and comrades, neighbors and strangers.

To be loved by Kathy — to love her — lit up the whole sky.

Tireless fighter, passionate friend, Kathy is dead.

But fire doesn’t die. Light and heat and love and desire go on and on.

And so does she.

Rest in Power, Sister/Comrade.