Nothing I have written in some time has aroused so much passionate and often informed comment than my last column on Judith Clark. I have, in addition, received a great deal of private e-mails from people who preferred not to post comments online. One prominent legal expert replied that his head agrees with me but his heart sympathizes with those who favor harsh punishment. This lawyer also, like David Horowitz, does not believe her repentance. Another former public official replied that he believes all those convicted of killing police officers — including someone like Clark who was guilty of felony murder — “should suffer the death penalty.” That is a response even more harsh than any of those who commented on my post made.
So the thoughts and comments of respondents and critics have caused me to re-examine the issue again. I began by re-reading Tom Robbins’ article, and then trying to frame the different arguments and separate them. Here are my latest thoughts.
First, Robbins’ article is, as David Horowitz suggests, part of the New York Times’ long effort to paint favorable portraits of ex-60s radicals, people of the same generation as many of their own writers and editors. Robbins is a freelance writer now at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, and a former reporter at The Village Voice. He writes that “he wanted nothing to do with her after the crime,” and had no sympathy for her, regarding her as someone on “the left’s outer reaches.” After talking with her, Robbins is convinced that her repentance is true, not a mere ploy to finally get out of prison.
There is some evidence for this, aside from his impressions. He tells the story of how when Judith Clark praised black revolutionaries, her father told her she should honor instead true democratic radicals like the Pullman Porter’s union chief, A. Philip Randolph. Robbins got that story from Judith herself, since her father was dead. That suggests in essence that she was saying in effect that her father was right, and she should have listened to his counsel decades ago.
Secondly, unlike the others of her now free comrades, she accepts responsibility for her actions, and that driving the get-away car does not exonerate her from being guilty of murder of the two police officers. The grandparents raised her abandoned daughter; she did not give her over to Ayers and Dohrn, as Kathy Boudin gave her child to be raised by her two Weather Underground comrades. She accepts that whatever her fate, she did it to herself — not the state, the authorities, or her fellow terrorists. Moreover, while Susan Rosenberg and the others called themselves “political prisoners,” a term implying innocence of any real crime — Clark accepts her guilt and does not use any such political terminology to describe her plight. To me, that says her perspective is quite different than the others in her old movement.
Finally, Robbins is more than unfair to Clark’s father, who should be the hero of the article, rather than somewhat of a villain. He describes him as someone who “became vehemently anti-communist, raging at former friends,” as if that is somehow a bad thing. He does not note that Clark still was on the Left, and was a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, not any kind of a conservative or right-winger. They were right to have no “patience for their daughter’s rabid politics,” and Robbins should have made that much clearer.
Second: The unevenness of the law. As Robbins reveals, another who was indicted and was directly guilty of murder, the mastermind Mutulu Shakur, received a 60 year sentence and is eligible for parole in 2016 — not the date of 2056 when Clark is eligible. Bill Clinton, as I noted in my previous article, released by executive clemency both Silvia Baraldini and Susan Rosenberg, neither of whom have apologized in any way. In fact, they remain proud of their involvement with terrorist “radical” organizations. Two wrongs do not make a right. One informed person e-mailed me he suspects that Clinton pardoned Rosenberg because Rep. Jerrold Nadler belonged to a temple that was waging a campaign to free Rosenberg, and that the president owed him something for Nadler’s defense of him during the impeachment proceedings.
Nevertheless, most murderers including those in the Brink’s action get something like 25 to 30 years to life; clearly, Clark’s much stiffer sentence stemmed from the antics she displayed during her trial, and her rhetoric that she believed that the court was made up of “fascist dogs” and that “revolutionary violence is necessary, and it is a liberating force.” The stiff sentence was put on her by the judge because of that rhetoric. Clark did not use radical lawyers to strike a deal and get out early, as did her cohorts. But one can still argue that her sentence was excessive compared to those made against the others just as or more guilty than Clark. I do not believe that courtroom rhetoric should get the response of a harsher sentence.
Third: What Judith Clark is most vulnerable on, and what Tom Robbins did not ask her about, is her violent past with the May 19th Communist Organization. The Black Liberation Army, which they supported, killed a guard and two police officers. They were probably responsible for other actions in past years. As Horowitz points out in as yet unpublished article, May 19th was picked as their name for the birthday of both Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X, as well as being the date that the BLA murdered two cops in Harlem, one white and one black. The group also helped free the convicted cop killer JoAnne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, whom they broke out of prison and who has since fled to Cuba, where she now lives.
I agree with Horowitz that these radicals are part “of an ongoing community of political radicals” who try to conceal their agenda through playing the victim, and always pointing out how they only want “social justice,” the term through which they hide their actual goal of communist revolution. They are anything but the noble idealists the Times paints them out to be.
Fourth: I think Clark’s sentence should be commensurate with those received by the others in the case for which she was tried. But of her guilt, there is no doubt. At her next parole hearing, or before Governor Andrew Cuomo receives petitions asking for her release — which a liberal Democratic governor may be more willing to do than his Republican predecessor — she should be asked the following:
What do you know about any of the unsolved murders and bombings carried out by your comrades in The Weather Underground, The May 19th group, or any other revolutionary cells with which you might have been involved? In particular, do you know who committed some of the unsolved murders, and planted bombs about which we have no information on what individuals did these acts?
If Clark has learned her lesson, and knows that the groups she worked with were not working for justice and equality, but rather were engaging in acts of terrorism committed in the name of bringing down “Amerikka,” as they called the United States, she will freely present to the authorities any and all information she is privy to. She will not refuse to do so on the grounds that their motives were good, that they only wanted a better America, or whatever rationale was used by them at the time.
Does Clark condemn the kind of rationale Susan Rosenberg presents in the book she wrote justifying her politics? Rosenberg still writes that she was a political prisoner, and has penned a dishonest and vile book, and has moderated her position only because at present, she thinks armed struggle will not work. She thinks she was punished for her leftwing views, not for possessing 740 pounds of TNT when arrested which she was planning to use.
Clark, in other words, has to make clear that it is necessary for her to address the politics of her action, and to show that she realizes how wrong she was, and how wrong those like Rosenberg whom Clinton freed still are. She must show the world that she knows people like Susan Rosenberg, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and others were not committing “mistakes” in the service of justice, but acts of terror in the service of a totalitarian creed and future.
All of the above was addressed by Whittaker Chambers in an article he wrote in 1959 for National Review. Chambers was a compassionate man. Recall that when he first testified against Alger Hiss, he did not accuse him of engaging in espionage, only of being part of a secret Communist group (the Ware group) in Washington, D.C., that sought to enter government service in order to influence policy. Chambers hoped that Hiss, a man he thought had decent motives, would take the clue to fess up to his guilt, and that hence he, Chambers, would not have to take the step of showing that he was actually working for the GRU.
After Hiss got out of prison, Chambers argued that he should have a passport issued to him so he could travel abroad freely, even though he detested everything about his politics. But in his NR article, he wrote that although Hiss had served a term in prison and paid somewhat of a penalty for his sins and crimes, he did not do enough. Chambers wrote: “There is only one possible payment, as I see it in his case. It is to speak the truth. Hiss’s defiance perpetuates and keeps a fracture in the community as a whole.”
Hiss never did fess up. He continued to be defended as innocent by gullible New Deal liberals, who believed that if they acknowledged his guilt, they too would be seen as complicit for their failure to pay real attention to Communist infiltration of the U.S. government in their own heyday. Similarly, those who favor freedom for all terrorist “radicals” still in prison, tend to see them as people like themselves who might have taken that extra step on their own, and hence to admit their guilt is to indict themselves retroactively.
If I am right about Judith Clark truly being repentant, or more accurately if Tom Robbins is correct, then Clark will honestly answer the questions I suggest she be asked by the governor, next time an appeal to free her is lodged at his door. If she does not, I think she should serve out her sentence as prounounced. It is up to her to do the right thing.