The Real Dragons
David Gilbert, No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner. Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press, 2004.
In the 1960s and 1970s, some of the movement’ s most powerful voices and most revered leaders spent time in prison. Some, such as Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, were ex-offenders turned revolutionaries. Others, including Assata Shakur and Angela Davis, were people who found themselves behind bars as a result of their activism on the outside. Regardless of why they were in prison, the ones who defined the generation those who spoke for the movement from the belly of the beast remained committed revolutionaries even behind bars. These people gave an important voice to the movement and forged strong links of solidarity between activists on the outside and those on the inside, underscoring the solidarity needed between those most targeted by the system and those with some measure of privilege.
Despite the existence and, indeed, prolific writings of present-day US political prisoners, today’s social movements have not embraced the thinking of our incarcerated comrades half as much as did the movements of the past generation—even as the prison system swallows up more than ten times as many people now as it did in 1970. But with the release of a book by one of the more prolific and gracious US political prisoners, progressives in this country ignore the political internees only at our greatest peril. David Gilbert’s No Surrender is rich in lessons from the past for today’ s struggles. While the book draws from personal experience, it is by no means a memoir. Indeed, No Surrender lacks the self-aggrandizement or bombast that accompanies most movement memoirs—to such an extent, in fact, that Gilbert seems loath to give himself just credit. Readers will likely be looking for more personal information from or about Gilbert.
Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Gilbert joined the movement in 1960 as a high school student in Boston. A founding member of the Columbia University Students for a Democratic Society chapter, Gilbert stayed with SDS and other affiliated anti-war, anti-racist groups until 1969. With SDS torn apart by sectarianism, the state’ s dirty tricks, and the rise in revolutionary activity, Gilbert joined a group calling itself the Weather Underground, which took credit for more than twenty bombings of corporate and government buildings in a seven-year period without injuring civilians.1 The Weather Underground, we find out, was a group of anti-imperialist whites who turned to clandestine activities in solidarity with the national liberation struggles being waged across the planet, from Vietnam to Angola, and Bolivia to the United States. Liberation struggles of people of color were at the center of the Weather Underground, and remain the defining feature of Gilbert’ s political outlook. After that group fell apart as a result of internal problems, Gilbert joined as a white ally to the Black Liberation Army; he was arrested after a failed BLA robbery in 1981. Since then, he has also been an AIDS activist behind prison walls.
Now serving a life sentence in New York State, Gilbert combines his expansive knowledge with his revolutionary commitments to bring us one of the more important books to come out of the recent Sixties Renaissance. That he was able to produce such an eminently readable and politically solid text amid the brutal repression characterizing maximum-security prison is itself an astonishing accomplishment worthy of praise. But the book is significant for more than just the fact that it was produced under extreme conditions. Indeed, it is incredibly relevant for today’ s movements for global justice, against war, and against racism. It demonstrates that movement theorists and political economists can be found underneath the guard tower as much as in the ivory tower. Reading No Surrender calls to mind the dictum offered by Ho Chi Minh, Henry David Thoreau, and so many others, who have said that prison is all too common a space where some of the world’ s greatest minds and dedicated activists end up. Part of what makes Gilbert’ s book so important is that he is still a tireless activist; the historical analysis is done with only one question in mind: what are the lessons from yesterday that can help bring a better and brighter tomorrow? In answering this question, David Gilbert is always concerned with dismantling privilege—showing how people who are given advantages in a system defined by racial, class, and gender oppression can work to overturn such domination.
No Surrender is not a history of an organization but rather a collection of Gilbert’ s writings from his more than two decades of incarceration. Itincludes several book reviews, which may initially give pause to readers looking for a more personal or autobiographical approach. But the book reviews are not mere commercials for Gilbert’ s favorite authors. Instead, the reviews showcase his internationalist outlook and anti-imperialist commitment. That is, Gilbert uses the reviews as a space to talk with other men about sexism, with whites about racism, with Jews about the occupation of Palestine, with all of us about war, the prison crisis, state repression, the AIDS epidemic, and other pressing matters. These discussions reflect not just Gilbert’ s fierce commitment but his unfailing humor and irrepressible hope. He lets us know that he started writing book reviews early on into his sentence as a way to stay in touch with the movement. In reading them, one feels the palpable connection David has with all people of the world. The reviews are an implicit reminder of the fact that political prisoners are a part of our movement, that those behind bars are as much in the struggle as those of us in the streets.
In addition to the book reviews. No Surrender also includes Gilbert’ s history and analysis of the various organizations of which he was a part. In these probing essays, Gilbert shows himself unafraid to be self-critical of the errors made by groups of which he was a part. The self-critical component is central to No Surrender. Unlike so many other books by children of the 1960s, this book criticizes the movement for its mistakes without ever losing sight of the crimes of the state. Thus, alongside exposing the FBI’ s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and documenting the abuse of prison, Gilbert speaks to the dangers of sectarianism and the pitfalls of egotism. Readers of this text will emerge with a stronger sense of the importance of women in the struggle, the centrality of resisting racism, and the need to view things in an international context.
Cohesive enough as a book to be read from cover to cover and yet general enough to allow people to read the articles in any order they choose, No Surrender is eminently readable and engaging. Whether through book reviews, interviews, children’ s stories, satires, historical studies of whiteness and class, or essays on current affairs, Gilbert has woven a brilliant tapestry on the need for resistance against the forces of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, environmental destruction—all the various forces that make up the system Gilbert defines as imperialism.
His take on globalization should prove my point. I remember when I first heard about globalization—in August 1999, at age 18, when some organizers I had met were talking about the big protests coming up in November against some institution called the World Trade Organization. When 60,000 people shut down the WTO meeting, I was (like many young activists) excited that the good guys had shown the bad guys something. But I didn’ t start to learn about what globalization really meant—as opposed to the movement’ s tactical success in the streets—until around the World Bank/IMF protests in April 2000. Even then, it was mostly soundbites to satisfy my need to have something intelligent to say in case asked. It wasn’ t until after the thrill of protests had died down that I really devoted serious attention to understanding how globalization, and capitalism generally, functions.
Not so with David Gilbert. Readers will find, among other things, a cutting-edge analysis of globalization, written years before the alphabet soup of global financial institutions became common knowledge. The structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and IMF are discussed in detail, as is the ongoing resistance to global capital. That he has consistently focused on world developments since his start as an activist more than forty years ago testifies to the need for such a global approach to our efforts. His serious, ongoing study of capitalism’ s dirty tricks is a constant reminder of the need to stay up-to-date on what the ruling class has in mind for the rest of the world. Just by virtue of the areas it covers, No Surrender is a call to build a unified praxis: neither theory without action nor action without theory will get the job done. In synthesizing the two, Gilbert tries to grapple with the complex history of white working-class people as both oppressed by capitalism and often agents of white supremacist oppression.
But Gilbert is no stodgy academic or heartless militant. Those who have seen him in the Weather Underground documentary or who have gotten to meet him in person know how utterly caring, down to earth, and loving David is—the perfect living example of Che Guevara’ s now-famous quote, that ‘the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.’ Readers of No Surrender will get a glimpse of the full picture of David, including the clever satirist and the children’ s storyteller. Indeed, his stories to his son and his parodies of masculinity in prison and other humorous essays remind us that revolutionaries need to laugh just as much as we study, debate, and march in the streets.
Despite being locked away in US dungeons for more than twenty years, Gilbert remains a part of the movement and irrepressibly connected to ongoing struggles. His internationalist viewpoint is clear, and his understanding of how the system functions is palpable. Indeed, it is no irony that he was the author in 1967 of the first pamphlet in Students for a Democratic Society to define the system as imperialism. It is his connection to the people and movements of the world, his understanding of power, that makes David Gilbert’ s book and Gilbert himself so relevant to today’ s activists. He is a beacon for thoughtful, humane, militant, and lifelong struggle.
The rich lessons offered in No Surrender should be studied and analyzed by all activists in this world of (pre-emptive) Wars on Terrorism, PATRIOT Acts, and global discontent. This book also reminds us, if implicitly, to fight tirelessly to bring home all the political prisoners. Through it all, the reader can grasp Gilbert’ s commitment to anti-racist and pro-feminist change, as well as his love of and hope for humanity. Most important, David Gilbert (like other political prisoners) reminds us of the need to resist empire, to remain firm in our goals, and to not give up hope. Read this book.
Reviewed by Dan Berger
1. Seven police officers were injured from cut glass in Weather’s first bombing, a June 1970 action at a New York Police Department; no one was so much as scratched in the ensuing actions.