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Lives Lost Amid the Slogans of a Time Long Ago

Judy Clark is a 57-year-old Jewish woman who has a sweet face, wears a chai and laughs a lot. She is often (I am told) accompanied by a dog — a dog she is training to be a seeing-eye dog, part of the program “Puppies Behind Bars.”

The bars are those of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, where she is serving a minimum 75-year sentence (three consecutive 25-to-life terms) for her part in the 1981 Brinks armored truck robbery and botched getaway in Nyack, N.Y., in which a Brinks guard and two police officers were killed. On October 20, 500 people gathered at the site of the crime on its 25th anniversary and renewed their vow that the perpetrators who are still alive and behind bars spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Clark, who drove a getaway car, and the other perpetrators — there were at least eight (it is widely believed that some were never apprehended) — were members of “the Family,” also called the May 19th Communist Organization, an offshoot of the Weather Underground (itself an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society). Groups such as these emerged during a time of worldwide student radicalism. In America, some middle-class white kids were outdoing each other in their rejection of their privilege and their hatred of “Amerikkka.” They believed the Vietnam War was genocide and that a global race war was underway.

According to an appellate court in one of the cases that grew out of the Nyack murders (which was the group’s final and most notorious crime): “From December 1976 to October 1981, the ‘family’ committed a succession of robberies and attempted robberies of armored trucks in the Northeast. [A] small circle of men… planned and executed the robberies, while… the so-called ‘secondary team’ [was] a group consisting mostly of women who assisted in the robberies by driving get-away cars, planning escape routes, and renting ‘safe houses.’”

Three of those charged in connection with the Brinks murders in Nyack were women — Clark, Kathy Boudin and Marilyn Buck. Clark, Boudin and another accomplice, David Gilbert, are Jewish.

Jews were all over radical politics of the time. A majority of the steering committee of the Free Speech Movement and of the SDS chapters at Columbia and the University of Michigan were Jewish, as were perhaps two-thirds of the white Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi, Paul Berman notes in his 1997 book “A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.” And as some segments of the Sixties left grew progressively more desperate and alienated, splintering into ever more extreme factions and spawning a violent underground, many of those who followed over the precipice were Jews.

“We were good Jewish kids, the cream of the crop,” writes former SDS activist and, later, Weather Underground fugitive Mark Rudd in his 2005 essay, “Why Were There So Many Jews in SDS?” “We Jews at Columbia — and I would guess at colleges throughout the country—brought the same outsider view to the campuses we had been allowed into,” he writes. “We were peasant children right out of the shtetls of New Jersey and Queens.” At the time, however, the student radicals were often running away from their Jewish backgrounds as fast as they could, and so realizations of this sort have come mostly in hindsight. “I don’t remember one single conversation in which we discussed the fact that so many of us were Jewish,” Rudd writes. (When I pointed out to Clark’s lawyer, Leon Friedman, the high proportion of Jews in SDS and in “the Family,” he said that had never occurred to him.)

Some, like Judy Clark, were red-diaper babies from Jewish intellectual families where they learned both political engagement and, according to Clark, “the safety of dogma.” The happy parts of her childhood, Clark has said in an affidavit, coincided with her family’s Communist Party membership. “I associated the warmth I remembered from the early years with their political involvement and their political disengagement with my own sense of loss…. Had you asked me back then, I would have balked at the notion that my leap into the movement was anything other than a political response to social injustice. But I now recognize that the enormous psychological and emotional needs that catapulted me into activity.” And her attraction to violence? There are no easy answers. The “group dynamic” of “constant crisis and emergency” played a part. It was also “a way to reject my roots and identity as a middle-class Jewish intellectual.” One explanation she today rejects: “I was not a young, idealistic innocent.”

Some of those charged in the Brinks robbery were never prosecuted, and some who were prosecuted and convicted are no longer in prison — one was extradited to Italy, several have been paroled (including Boudin, the only one of the defendants to plead guilty) and two have died. Three will be eligible for parole in the next several years. Clark, however, will not be eligible for parole until 2056. She insisted on representing herself at her 1983 trial and then behaved so disruptively (incessant political speeches rejecting, among other things, the authority of the court) that the judge ejected her from the courtroom. She listened to the proceedings over a one-way speaker in a holding cell — and the trial proceeded without her.

Earlier this year, Clark sought a writ of habeas corpus on the (perhaps, under the circumstances, chutzpahdik) ground that she had been denied her constitutional right to “assistance of counsel.”

On September 21, just as the Book of Life was being opened (as Clark herself is said to have noted), federal district judge Shira Scheindlin granted the writ and ordered the State of New York to conduct a new trial or release her from custody. Judge Scheindlin acknowledged that Clark’s demand to represent herself was knowingly sought and correctly granted, and that the trial judge had been justified in ejecting her from the courtroom due to her disruptive behavior. Nevertheless, Judge Scheindlin held, the criminal trial should not have proceeded without the appointment of “standby counsel,” a lawyer in the courtroom whose only job was to look after Clark’s interests. This, the judge suggested, is not only for Clark’s sake, but for ours. A trial in absentia is a blight on our own sense of decency and principle.

New York is appealing this surprising ruling. There is no telling at this point if the decision will stand.

The Judy Clark of today has begged in vain for the forgiveness of the families of those who died on October 20, 1981. She looks back in shame at her rationalization of the deaths as “casualties of war in America.” “I had fully lost myself in the attempt to believe in the strength of our slogans,” she says.

She has lived a productive life for the last 20 years — studying hard and obtaining a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, creating an in-prison AIDS counseling and education program that has become a nationally recognized model, writing and publishing award-winning poetry and articles about the AIDS program, reconnecting with her Jewish identity under the mentorship of a rabbi and serving as a spiritual guide to her fellow inmates. Her life behind bars provides a glimpse of what her life on the other side of the bars might have been if she had not fallen off the edge in that long ago time that its victims can never forget.

Kathleen Peratis is a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden.

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