Kathy Boudin, who has died aged 78, was an activist and former member of the Weather Underground, a radical group formed in opposition to the Vietnam War which sought to overthrow American 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 1943, the daughter of Jean Boudin, a poet, and Leonard Boudin, a socialist lawyer. She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, majoring in Russian studies.
The Weather Underground was formed in 1969, as a breakaway group from the earlier Students for a Democratic Society, and took its name from the Bob Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” in his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The following year the group issued a “Declaration of a State of War” against the US government and began a bombing campaign against banks and government buildings.
Boudin and her colleague Cathy Wilkerson narrowly escaped death in 1970 when a bomb being constructed by Weather Underground members exploded in the basement of their house in Greenwich Village, killing three of the group. The pair escaped from the rubble and remained wanted fugitives for the next decade.
In 1981 she and her co-conspirators – including Black Liberation Army members and former members of the Weather Underground – took part in the armed holdup of a Brink’s security truck collecting cash at a shopping mall in Nanuet, New York.
Boudin was part of the getaway team in a rental truck that day, escaping with bags of money amounting to some $1.6m. However, on driving away, the vehicle crashed into a police car. The robbers fled the scene, with Boudin attempting to escape on foot.
Two police officers and a security guard were killed in the attack, whilst a guard and two police officers were injured. Boudin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to “21 years to life” in jail for murder and robbery. Speaking in court during the 1984 trial, she said, “I feel terrible about the lives that were lost as a result of this incident”, and continued, “I have led a life committed to political principles. I believe I can be true to these principles in various ways without engaging in violent acts.”
Her son, Chesa, who was just 14 months old when Boudin was imprisoned, was brought up by fellow activist friends.
Her time inside transformed Boudin profoundly: she renounced violence and began writing and publishing poetry, winning an International PEN prize in 1999. The prize-winning poem, “A Trilogy of Journeys”, reflects on her experience of motherhood in prison, as a way of envisioning freedom.
And turning that experience into practical help for others, she became an advocate for women in prison, campaigning to reunify them with their children. Boudin was the first woman to gain a master’s degree while incarcerated at New York state prison, having studied remotely with Norwich University, Vermont. She co-authored the book Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998), written during her time in jail.
Boudin was granted parole and released from prison in 2003, whilst her partner, David Gilbert, was freed only last year. She earned a doctorate at Columbia University Teachers College in 2007 and was named adjunct professor in 2008.
At Columbia, Boudin co-founded the annual conference Beyond the Bars. Her co-founder, Cheryl Wilkins, described it as being “a global community at the forefront of justice reform.”
Jarrell E Daniels, from the Columbia University Center for Justice, said in tribute: “Kathy’s legacy, mission and lifetime commitment to advancing social justice, supporting disadvantaged communities and reforming the criminal legal system will never be forgotten, especially by those whose lives she touched .”
Boudin resided in New York City and had been living with cancer for the past seven years. She is survived by her life partner, David Gilbert, and their son, Chesa Boudin, a lawyer.
Kathy Boudin, activist, born 19 May 1943, died 1 May 2022
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.