Civil Liberties and the 1981 Brink’s Case: A 1991 “Downtown’ Inquiry,” Part 1

Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond

Reposted from
Originally posted: July 9, 2007
by Bob Feldman

“If Justice travels for ten years, she will never find shelter in the castles of the powerful.” (an old Russian proverb)

On October 20, 1981, Kathy Boudin, Sam Brown, Judy Clark, and David Gilbert were arrested in Rockland County, New York, following a robbery of a Brink’s truck in Nanuet in which an armed guard was killed, and a shootout near the New York State Thruway entrance in Nyack which left two local policemen dead.

The following day, evidence began to emerge that the robbery was a politically-motivated expropriation involving New York City radicals who had been activists in the 1960s Civil Rights and antiwar movements.

In a 1991 telephone interview, Downtown asked Susan Tipograph, one of the attorneys for the people arrested on Oct. 20, 1981, whether their civil liberties were respected following their arrest.

“No. Their civil liberties were grossly violated. Some were beaten and tortured and were denied proper medical treatment. They were denied access to attorneys. They were denied access to family and friends. They were held in intolerable jail conditions. It was only through lawsuits that some access to family and friends was secured,” Tipograph recalled.

At the Oct. 23, 1981 preliminary hearing in Nyack (from which the public was excluded), then-Rockland County District Attorney Kenneth Gribetz claimed Tipograph was “imagining things” when she charged that people arrested on Oct. 20th had been beaten. Outside the hearing room, Gribetz said “there were no beatings by Rockland County authorities.”

According to David Gilbert, however, there were beatings by Rockland County authorities of himself and Sam Brown:“I think the arrest was around 4 or 5. And we were arraigned around midnight. And I think for about 5 hours, I guess, I was being beaten. And then they tried to make me talk. When that didn’t work, they took out a shotgun and jammed it into my neck and tried to make me talk.

“There was a call made for lawyers. But there were hours before lawyers either got to us or were allowed to see us.

“In Brown’s case, they broke two vertebrae in his neck during that beating. And he was in excruciating pain after that. And for 11 weeks he did not get proper medical care, until he agreed to be an informant for the F.B.I. This is a medically-documented atrocity that went on that the courts didn’t want to hear and the media didn’t want to talk about.”

The pro-Establishment former Rockland Journal-News reporter, John Castellucci, supports Tipograph and Gilbert’s contention that pretrial beatings took place. In his gossipy 1986 book, The Big Dance, Castellucci wrote that “the results of the beatings were documented in Brown’s medical records.”

Gilbert feels that whereas he was just beaten, the African-American defendant Brown was tortured. “I think it is a political distinction between beatings and threats on the one hand—which are brutal and can’t be justified—and torture on the other hand, which goes further. It’s a more scientific, intense infliction of pain. What happened with Brown—maybe not consciously that night, but when he was left with two broken vertebrae in his neck and then not given proper treatment—that’s a real form of torture,” Gilbert said.

According to Tipograph, at the Oct. 23rd preliminary hearing, Nyack Judge Robert Lewis was not willing to listen to any legal arguments with respect to the civil liberties of the people arrested being violated, and he “pooh-poohed” her request that medical attention be given to Sam Brown. Tipograph was also not allowed to consult with her clients during the proceedings of the preliminary hearing.

Asked by Downtown in 1991 if it was unusual that the public was excluded from the preliminary hearing, Tipograph replied: “It was highly unusual. Nyack police headquarters was in the same building in which the hearing was held. And for five blocks around the courthouse, sharpshooters were on roofs of buildings. Blocks were cordoned off by armed police, so the public couldn’t even approach the hearing.”

Downtown asked Tipograph how she would describe the atmosphere in Rockland County in the days following the October 20, 1981 arrest.

“Hostile. One felt unmistakably in a police-state,” Tipograph recalled. She also noted that she felt personally threatened by the hostility in Nyack.

The now-deceased Civil Rights Attorney William Kunstler, in a 1991 telephone interview, also recalled the post-Oct. 20th atmosphere in Nyack: “The atmosphere was so tense, you could cut it with a knife. Sheriff’s deputies on horseback were all around the courthouse and sharpshooters were on building roofs. It was an armed camp,” Kunstler said.

Kunstler had received a late-night phone call on October 20th from the Rockland County Jail from a woman whose name he didn’t recognize, so she was told to call back in the morning. When the woman called Kunstler back, he realized she was Kathy Boudin when she mentioned that her father’s first name was “Leonard.” (In reference to Civil Liberties Attorney Leonard Boudin, who died in November 1989). On Oct. 21st, Kunstler went to Nyack with Kathy Boudin’s parents and experienced the post-arrest atmosphere.

Gilbert also recalled the atmosphere: “There was massive hysteria. I guess partly understandable because it was an intense event. Police forces in those areas hadn’t been challenged like that before. It was completely blown-up into this tremendous thing. Not only because of the intensity of the incident, but because it became a tremendous propaganda vehicle to scare people to build up police forces to attack civil liberties.”

Boudin, Clark, and Gilbert had all been political activists in the Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) radical youth organization of the 1960s. Gilbert co-founded the S.D.S. chapter at Columbia which helped lead the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt. In order to more militantly resist the Vietnam War and racism, all three joined the Weatherman political group in June 1969.

Since the March 6, 1970 townhouse explosion at 18 West 11th Street, which claimed the lives of three Weatherman activists, Boudin had been a Weather Underground fugitive. Clark and Gilbert had also been members of the Weather Underground. After being arrested by the F.B.I. in late 1970 and jailed for six months for participating in an antiwar protest, Clark became active in above-ground political groups in New York City. Gilbert and Boudin were lovers and had a child together. They would be married in jail after Gilbert’s 1983 sentencing. [Boudin was eventually released on parole in 2003, while Gilbert and Clark are still imprisoned, despite a lower court eventually ruling that there were legal irregularities in the way their trial was conducted].

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