For most of her 78 years, Kathy Boudin, who died on May 1, was a frontline activist and creative political thinker. Confronting white racism and supporting the Black freedom struggle defined her life, with some serious consequences along the way. Coverage of her passing has been defined by her presence in, and survival of, the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in March 1970 and her support role in the October 1981 Brinks robbery. Three Weather Underground comrades died in the former, and a Brinks guard and two Nyack, N.Y., police officers were killed in the latter. Kathy regretted both—and served 22 years in New York State prison for her support role in the robbery.
For those of us who shared so much of her life experience, as well as the many activists—young and old—who admired her and the close family who cherished her presence, Kathy’s passing is the loss of a friend, uncompromising radical, parent, and guide on the path to responsibility and redemption. The two of us will always remember her startlingly beautiful blue eyes, swirling scarves, and iconic turquoise Thunderbird ring acquired on the Navajo Reservation during a cross-country drive we made together in 1971.
A high point of her last few months was the release from prison last November of her life partner, and former husband, David Gilbert. David served 40 years in prison for the Brinks robbery. He was granted clemency by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in the final hours of his administration and was paroled several weeks later. David went from a prison cell to becoming Kathy’s constant companion and caregiver in her final months. David, and their son, Chesa Boudin, were with Kathy when she died.
Chesa is the San Francisco district attorney, a national criminal justice reform leader who is using his experience growing up with parents in prison as a guide to systemic changes in a flawed criminal justice system. Chesa and his wife, Valerie Block, are the parents of Aiden Block Boudin. Kathy was able to meet Aiden, who brought her joy and wonder in her final days.
In prison, Kathy became a leader in the fight against AIDS, and a pioneer in developing parent and child relationship opportunities for women in prison. Among her many post-prison accomplishments is her role in the creation of the Center for Justice at Columbia University. She dedicated her years of freedom to supporting others leaving the carceral system and helping develop programs to aid jailed parents in understanding and addressing the damage to children and families wrought by mass incarceration. She was a driving force behind Beyond the Bars, an annual conference that brought hundreds of activists together to hear from prison reform and abolition leaders like her life-long friend and fellow Little Red Schoolhouse graduate Angela Davis.
“More than just an academic conference, Beyond the Bars is led by formerly incarcerated people and has built a global community at the forefront of justice reform,” said Cheryl Wilkins, cofounder of the Center for Justice. “Kathy was instrumental in developing Release Aging People from Prison (RAPP), uplifting the voices of women through work with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and so much more.”
After his parents’ arrest, Chesa was integrated into the family of Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and his new brothers Zayd and Malik Dohrn. Throughout her life, her years of separation from Chesa led Kathy to pursue and keep close friendships with the children of her many friends—and their own children too. An avid reader and inspired storyteller, poet, and gift-giver, she was a beloved adopted aunt and grandmother to dozens of young people.
Also not known as widely was her passion for the natural world. An inherited joy from her parents, civil liberties attorney Leonard and poet Jean Boudin, were many Cape Cod sunrises and sunsets. After 22 years in prison, she could not wait to be outdoors again. She and close friend Nancy Gear could be found every summer canoe camping on remote islands deep in the Adirondack wilderness or along the shores of Lake Champlain. She rode her bike or walked often in Central Park, and many of us will always remember Zoom calls with Kathy sitting on the grass under a tree.
Donations in memory of Kathy Boudin should be made to: Columbia’s Center for Justice, or Release Aging People in Prison, or The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.