Rachael Bedard: The Radical Life of Kathy Boudin

The New Yorker | May 7, 2022

She became infamous for her involvement in acts of political violence. Then she found her way out of the abyss.

Kathy Boudin, the teacher, organizer, and revolutionary, died on May 1st, after a seven-year battle with cancer. She’d been in hospice care at a friend’s apartment in New York City. More than one person close to her, including her son, Chesa, the San Francisco district attorney, remarked to me that it felt appropriate that she had died on May Day, the annual occasion that marks the struggle for workers’ rights.

Boudin was an iconic character in the American imagination. From the late nineteen-sixties through the early nineteen-eighties, she became prominent for her association with several infamous acts of radical political violence, most notably the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s money truck, which resulted in the murder of one security guard and two police officers. Boudin, an accomplice to the robbery, served twenty-two years in prison and expressed remorse for her actions. She was sensationalized in the press and inspired caricatures of zealous, wayward militants in Philip Roth’s novel “American Pastoral” and David Mamet’s play “The Anarchist.” These representations make the error of conflating a remarkable person with the worst things she ever did. They also miss the more instructive story of an organizer and activist who ultimately found a productive way to live her principles.

My mother-in-law, Lucy Friedman, met Boudin in 1961, when they were freshmen at Bryn Mawr College. Both young women had grown up in privileged, progressive families in New York; Lucy’s father had recognized Kathy’s last name on the incoming-class list and told his daughter to look out for her during orientation. Boudin arrived at college with an already well-developed sense of justice and worldliness. Angela Davis joined her high-school class in the eleventh grade. “I think that our classmates, most of whom had already attended the school for many years, would agree that she was one of our acknowledged political and intellectual leaders,” Davis wrote to me in an e-mail. “I don’t think I would have developed an awareness of the Cuban Revolution if not for the fact that Kathy had a way of making it absolutely relevant to the conditions of our lives at that time.”

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