Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation
By TOM ROBBINS
Judith Clark was one of four people arrested that day for armed robbery and murder. She was 31, a veteran of the white left who traveled the radical arc from student protest to the Weathermen to the fringes beyond. A new single mother, she kissed her infant daughter goodbye that morning, promising to be home soon.
No one ever accused
Her better-known co-defendant, Kathy Boudin, arrested at the scene of the shootings after having been a fugitive since a 1970 bomb blast in a
Judge David Ritter of the Orange County Court sentenced
On Oct. 6, 1983, clenching a fist of solidarity, Clark was sent to the maximum-security prison for women at Bedford Hills in
Like many who knew Judy Clark before that terrible October day, I wanted nothing to do with her after the crime. I shuddered at the same photos that chilled the victims’ families.
She was part of the wild tribe of radicals who smashed windows in the streets of
By the time I met her in the mid-’70s, she was a stalwart of something called the May 19th Communist Organization. A dogmatic offshoot of the Weathermen, May 19th’s members believed that a black-led revolution in
The Judy Clark I knew had two distinct sides. She was capable of warmth and joy. But her smile could vanish in a moment, replaced by an accusing finger. “How many people did you kill in
“Judy, it was a war,” he said.
“Yes, and you were the invading army,” she insisted. “How many did you kill?”
The bright, laughing woman was someone you wanted to like. The rigid radical made it tough. Then the Brink’s robbery occurred, and there was no point in trying anymore.
In the years after she disappeared behind prison gates, occasional word came from friends who visited her that
On my first trip, in 2006,
I returned several more times over the years, sitting at the same table near a playroom where inmates spent time with their children. On a recent visit in June, Clark arrived with a black
On the day of the Brink’s heist,
“I was accused of losing sight of my responsibilities,” she said. Her parents were also eager to be involved with their new granddaughter, and
In Judy’s view, she was the keeper of the flame that flickered out in her parents’ lives. Anything less than total commitment to the cause was betrayal. “Armed struggle was happening all over the world, and we thought we had to bring it to the motherland,” she said.
But Harriet’s birth rocked her convictions. “I felt myself shifting,”
She had one hesitation that she was too embarrassed to admit and about which her partners never bothered to ask: Clark, who was supposed to follow the gang members in a backup car, wasn’t much of a driver. She convinced herself that it didn’t matter, that the heist would be called off, as had several earlier attempts. But she was under no illusions about what she signed on for. “I knew what I was driving a car for,” she told me. “I knew the whole situation.”
In Clark’s version of the events of that day, she donned a wig and then followed a small caravan north from
“I was in this terrified, frozen state,” she said. She considered just driving away. “I can’t do that,” she told herself. “I am not supposed to leave people.”
She heard gunfire behind her. Suddenly “two people jump into my car and scream at me to drive.” She quickly drove ahead, up a curving mountain road, no idea where she was headed. When a police car pursued them, she drove faster. “I am so out of my league,” she remembers thinking.
Near Nyack, she turned down a street that plunged steeply toward the
“I spun out of control,” she said.
In jail, all she could think was that she had let down her friends and had to make up for it. “I was not a good freedom fighter,” she told herself, “but I can be a good captive freedom fighter.” Her role models were Puerto Rican radicals, linked to a group responsible for a string of deadly bombings, who declared themselves prisoners of war after being arrested. She didn’t think about the enormous sentences they had received. She also tried not to think about having left her baby. “I would just shatter,” she said, “so I turned it off.”
Clark’s father went to the
Two weeks later, her parents brought Harriet to visit. Physical contact was forbidden, and she wasn’t allowed to touch the baby, who was just learning to walk. “Every time she started toddling toward me, the person watching would say, ‘If she touches you, this visit is terminated.’ ” Harriet cried in confusion. To
Under tight security,
After the judge sentenced
After Clark arrived at Bedford Hills in a military-style convoy, she was put in solitary confinement for a month. She emerged the same stubborn, self-defeating rebel she was in court. Sister Elaine Roulet, a nun who founded the prison’s children’s center and worked there for 35 years, noted how the new prisoner walked with her hands clenched in tight fists. “When Judy came, she was a very angry person,” Roulet says.
Inmate 83G0313, as
She tried to convince herself that Harriet was safe and secure being brought up by her former comrades with a mix of love and proper politics. But the communal home was under siege: one by one, members were being jailed for refusing to cooperate with grand juries. Day to day, it was unclear who was caring for Harriet.
During the summer of 1985, her parents sued for custody of the nearly 5-year-old Harriet. At one point, they picked her up at the
Judy was irate. Roulet urged
That same year, letters from
In the summer of 1986, while
It was the first time
She began keeping a journal. She had used her radicalism, she realized, much the way prisoners around her used drugs, as a means to avoid confronting her own doubts. She walled herself off in the safety of doctrine. “I was beginning to say these politics are crazy. I’ve experienced so much loss, and created so much loss, for the sake of an illusion.”
She consumed books on psychology and wrote poetry. Solitary was grueling, she said. “But as horrible as it felt, I felt more alive than I had been. It was like coming out of this cave and being able to see again and feel.”
Helping to pull her into the world was her daughter. “Harriet was the first person I fully engaged with on her terms,”
When Harriet was 6, she made an announcement during a visit: “Mommy,” she said, “Grandpa taught me about the Ten Commandments. You committed a sin.”
The full story emerged in bits and pieces. “Why are you in jail?” Harriet would ask. “Were you scared?” And the hardest one: “Were you thinking about me?”
They devised ways to overcome their separation. Mother and daughter kept copies of the same book on birds.
The children’s center also became the neutral ground where
In September 1987,
“My arrest kind of broke my father’s heart,”
Alone in the prison chapel, she said aloud the names of the men who died in the robbery: Peter Paige, the Brink’s guard, and the policemen Waverly Brown and Edward O’Grady. She was 39 years old, grieving for her own father. “And yet,” she said, “there were nine children who were a lot younger than me grieving for their fathers. And I was responsible for that. There was the human toll. It was a terrible truth, but it was my truth.”
Slowly she began building a life behind bars. Through programs for inmates, she earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science followed by a master’s in psychology. When the government ended tuition aid for inmates, she helped persuade local colleges to offer affordable courses. As AIDS arrived in the prison, terrifying inmates and correction officers alike, she calmed things down by educating everyone.
In 1994, a prison-advocacy newsletter published one of her poems and referred to her as a political prisoner.
Harriet Clark turned 31 in November, the same age her mother was when she was arrested. She’s a short, slim woman with dark hair, bangs and a sunny smile. Her high-pitched, schoolgirl’s voice belies a rush of reflections that sound wise beyond her years. For someone who has never known her parent outside of prison, she is remarkably buoyant.
She grew up in
On a walk along the
The prison’s visiting center was her second living room. “When they got a new vending machine, it felt like new furniture in my house,” Harriet said. The other children she met visiting their inmate moms fell into two groups: those who lost them to prison “within memory or before memory.” She was puzzled when some were anguished that their mothers weren’t home for holidays and family events. Harriet had never had that experience to miss. “My mother lived in prison,” she explained. “That was always the reality going backward and going forward.”
Harriet and her mother spent hours making creations with pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. “I have no memories of not having my mother’s undivided attention,” she said. Later they moved on to Battleship and Monopoly. Her mother was such an enthusiastic playmate that other children asked to join. “I spent half my time shooing away other kids,” Harriet said.
Prison also offered unique ways for a little girl to spite her mother. “I knew if I was making more noise than I should that the officers would yell at us and I’d put my mother at risk,” she said. Sometimes Harriet would dart past the line on the floor in front of the vending machines beyond which prisoners are not allowed to step. “If you get me, you’ll be in trouble,” she’d say.
Once, when Judy refused Harriet candy from the machines, the daughter fired back that when she grew up she’d let her own kids eat all they wanted. “What else will you do?” her mother asked. “I’m sure as heck not going to leave them,” Harriet answered.
As she grew older, Harriet became protective of her mother. She cringed at the ways inmates were the ones treated like children, denied money, keys, silverware. When her mother phoned her at home, she would always wrap up the conversation before the automated message that the call would end in 60 seconds. “I wanted to deny their control,” she said.
She also walked a delicate line with her strong-willed grandmother, who reared her after her grandfather died. Fiercely proud, Ruth Clark, who died in 1997, instructed Harriet not to tell people that her mother was in prison. “I wouldn’t talk about it, even to close friends,” Harriet said. She kept her two lives strictly separate, treasuring her weekly visits to
Her mother’s wrenching guilt over her crime had been such a large part of her childhood, Harriet told me, that it took her a long time to recognize that the sentence
She has often pictured her mother sitting in the basement cell during the trial: “I wonder, Were you thinking about the fact that you would never come home to me if you did this?”
Yet over the years, she has realized that her relationship to her mother is closer than that of many people she knows. “The advice my mother has given me in life is the advice I live by,” she said. “The values she has instilled in me is how I move through this world.” It’s what got her started writing fiction. “When I had frustrations with people,” she said, “my mother would ask me to imagine my way into their lives, so I would have an openness and compassion for them.”
In July 2010, one of
Among those supporting
Robert Dennison, a veteran parole officer and member of the Conservative Party who served as state parole board chairman under Gov. George E. Pataki, also wrote in support. Dennison met
In his letter to
The rest of the Brink’s suspects were rounded up months and years after the robbery and tried in federal court. Cecil Ferguson, known as Chui, and Edward Joseph, known as Jamal, who were accused of being among the robbers, were convicted only as accessories for hiding a Brink’s fugitive and served 7½ and 5½ years, respectively. Joseph is now a successful playwright and a professor at
Silvia Baraldini, a fellow May 19th member who went to trial with other Brink’s defendants, got 43 years for related crimes with the gang, including the Assata Shakur jailbreak. A federal inmate, she was released in 1999 under President Clinton to her native
Mutulu Shakur was described as the Brink’s mastermind. “He picked it, he planned it, he orchestrated it and he executed it,” prosecutors told his jury. Shakur got 60 years. Under federal rules, his projected release date is February 2016. He’ll be 65. Shakur’s attorneys claim that he’s likely to remain in prison much longer. He’ll still be out well before
For most relatives and supporters of the victims, this is as it should be. When I spoke with John Hanchar, who was in eighth grade when his uncle, Edward O’Grady, was killed, he told me that the Web site maintained by
Hanchar recalled his aunt trying to keep up a brave front that night. “I remember her going down to the laundry room, and then we just heard this wail. She’d opened the dryer and pulled out his police uniforms.”
Hanchar is now a
The deaths, Edwin Day, a
Waverly Brown, then the only black officer on Nyack’s force, was the other policeman killed. Frank Olivier, raised in a Nyack housing project and now a corrections officer at the
When he and his friends heard Brown was killed, “everybody was in a rage,” he said. But Olivier now feels differently about Judith Clark. He wrote one of the letters that Bennett delivered to the governor. “I know that people change after a while. Communities heal after a while. This lady has been in there 30 years. When has she paid her debt?”
In December 2010, a few days before Governor Paterson’s term ended, he met with a small delegation of
Last June, I went to meet some of the people whose wrath the governor feared at a fund-raising breakfast in Nyack for a scholarship fund in memory of officers Brown and O’Grady. Most were still bitter over Boudin’s release and felt that
It’s a skepticism shared by many. When I first started visiting
Not long ago,
Tom Robbins was a reporter for The Daily News and The Village Voice. He now teaches investigative reporting at CUNY’s
Editor: Ilena Silverman
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs