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Understanding Judy Clark: An Interview with Reporter Tom Robbins

Judith Clark


Introduction by Max Cea; interview by Jennifer Mancuso
By now, Judy Clark’s story is a familiar one to most Rockland residents. In 1981, Clark drove the getaway car in the Weather Underground’s robbery of a Brinks armored car in Nyack. The Weather Underground was a band of radicals, fighting for black rights at any cost. In the heat of the robbery, the Underground killed a guard, Peter Paige, and two police officers, Waverly Brown and Ed O’Grady.
In her trial, Clark was defiantly unrepentant, and she was sentenced to a minimum of 75 years in prison. Clark’s hostile attitude persisted in prison, and after she was caught planning to escape she was held in solitary confinement for two years. But with time, Clark did what society hopes all prisoners will do: reform. She became repentant and, by very many accounts, a positive force in the prison community.
Because the crime hit so close to home and was committed against brave law enforcement officers — one of whom was black — it’s been difficult for many residents to believe, accept, or care that Clark has changed.
After years of lobbying from Clark acquaintances, journalists, and a few celebrities, at the end of last year Governor Andrew Cuomo granted Clark a parole hearing, scheduled for early this year. Local politicians and community members spoke vociferously in opposition to her parole. “Her terrorist crimes deserve no special treatment,” Nyack’s Democratic State Senator, David Carlucci said. Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day said the effort to give Clark clemency is “a vicious slap in the face to every member of law enforcement.”
Those supporting Clark’s clemency have argued that she no longer poses a danger to society, has acted as a model inamate, and is being punished not for her crime but for her attitude in court. She is one of only three of the crime’s perpetrators who remains incarcerated. The others are Mutulu Shakur, the stepfather of rapper Tupac Shakur, and David Gilbert. Shakur, who was alleged to be the ringleader of the crime, was granted an April 4 parole hearing. Gilbert was involved in the shoot-out. One of the crime’s perpetrators, Kathy Boudin, was released in 2003 and is now a professor at Columbia University.
Clark’s is a complicated case that is further tangled by its closeness. So ahead of her parole hearing Nyack News and Views is running a series of interviews with some of the people who have gotten to know Clark throughout the years. Jennifer Mancuso, who is friends with Clark and has advocated for her release, conducted the interviews. “I have talked to several hundred people about the Brinks crime, mostly from our community but many who live outside of Rockland County as well,” she wrote in a letter we published. “While there are strong feelings for and against Judy Clark’s sentence commutation, I have not encountered one person who does not feel and understand that losing these three men in the violent attacks on October 20, 1981 was a profound and devastating loss to their families and to our community as a whole. While our opinions about Judy Clark may be divided, our hearts are united in empathy for these families.
This series does not aim to present both sides of the debate; rather, by talking to people who were initially skeptical of Clark’s rehabilitation or present a unique perspective, we hope that this series will make Clark more human to those who would like her to be a two-dimensional villain. Clark can never undo the effects of the Brinks robbery; she was accomplice to a heinous crime that irrevocably affected Rockland and some of the county’s most revered families. But can such a crime never be forgiven? Should taxpayer money be spent on punishing the reformed?  Can we see Judy Clark for who she is and not just what she did 35 years ago? Make up your own mind — first, by hearing from Tom Robbins, a reporter who wrote a feature on Clark for the New York Times Magazine in 2012.
Jennifer Mancuso: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Tom Robbins: I’ve been a reporter for almost 40 years. I cover NY usually local issues, politics, crime, labor. I once wrote a book about the mafia. I am someone who grew up in the 60’s and was very supportive of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. I started out in South Nyack on Smith Avenue. My parents left when the bridge got built. I’ve always looked at Nyack fondly. Amazingly I lived as a child less than a mile from where that fatal shootout took place. So it has always informed my perspective on this in a strange way.
How did you come to know Judy Clark?
 I met her as a neighbor in Brooklyn in the late 1970s. She had been the high school sweetheart of a very close friend of mine. They were both involved in high school civil rights activism. My friend Alan just adored Judy. The three of us lived within a few blocks of each other and I would see Judy a lot. I was very fond of her. She always had this wonderful smile as she still does now, and a laughing way, but she was also a tough person to like when she got going on her politics. She could be a real zealot and just be closed minded. Her and her group — this outfit of self-styled communists as they called themselves, who had basically decided that the revolution was coming and it was going to be led by these black revolutionaries they had attached themselves to.
You know, I cared about the issues that they cared about supposedly. I thought bad housing was an issue, police violence was an issue, but their politics were always abhorrent to me. I never wanted anything to do with it.  But Judy was a friend. Until the day that I picked up the paper and saw what had happened in Rockland County on October 20, 1981 and I didn’t want anything to do with her after that. I was just appalled that anybody I knew could have been so reckless and so heedless about human life to have taken part in a robbery in which there were weapons and where the possibility of violence could happen, whether or not she participated in the violence herself. I just didn’t want anything to do with her. So I didn’t speak to her for 25 years.
What led you to get reacquainted with Judy after so many years?
People I knew who had known Judy before [Brinks]  would occasionally tell me that they had visited her in prison at Bedford Hills in Westchester County. People came back saying that Judy has really changed. I must have heard it several times and it didn’t really register for a long time. I knew a friend’s mother who was a volunteer up there at Bedford Hills and she would come back and talk about the good things Judy was doing, but I really wasn’t interested. I felt that the harm she had done to the community and to everybody — it just wasn’t worth my time to seek her out again as a friend.
But eventually, about 10 or 12 years ago, somebody said she was just visiting with Judy and she described her and she said ‘I really think you would learn a lot from going to see her.’ As a reporter, that intrigued me. So I thought ok, let me go at this. But I was very skeptical. I did not expect when I first went to see her to really like her again or to be that impressed with her accomplishments. It took 3 or 4 visits. When you go up there to Bedford Hills, you sit there in the visiting room and visits can last for hours. We talked about mutual friends, but after a while I got a chance to really press her about what in the world she had been thinking when she took part in that ridiculous episode and how she was dealing with the fact that she had caused such harm. And I know many of the people who were involved in similar groups like hers, these notorious people who celebrated violence back then. One of the things that struck me about the way Judy talked was that she was the first person from that wing of the left that had embraced violence as a solution, she was the only one I had ever met who said straight out and forthrightly, ‘We were wrong and I was crazy. I had stopped thinking.’ She would say things like ‘It was a closed circuit and I was only getting feedback from people who already agreed with me and were part of the same approach.’ She said what she had done was appalling. She said ‘I committed a crime for which I can never be forgiven. Nobody could ever forgive me. It’s my job to try to make amends as best I can.’
Listening to how she talked I was struck by how different it was from the way other former or current radicals talk about that period. I began to believe her and find her not just believable about her sincerity and her remorse and her regret — but then there was all the work she was doing in the prison. It was clear to me, by the way other inmates interacted with her, even guards, that this was a woman who established herself as a very special person within that community. And I asked her if I could write about it. She was hesitant for a long time.  It took her a while to agree but finally in 2012, she said ‘OK!’
You wrote such a compelling article in the New York Times in January of 2012 called “Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation.”  Why do you think Judy has become the target of community anger when there are so many others more culpable who go unmentioned?
It’s partly the notoriety that accompanied her more than the severity of her role in the crime. She takes full responsibility for having known there were weapons, for having known that there was a robbery planned. She makes no excuses for the fact that she participated in a crime in which murders took place and under the law she is responsible for those murders as though she pulled the trigger. But there were other people who had a much more culpable role in the actual crime.
When I was researching that story about Judy for the New York Times, I went to a fundraising breakfast in Nyack to raise money for a scholarship in the names of Waverly Brown and Edward O’Grady. One of the most striking things I heard that day was a former sheriff of the town talking about the crime and talking about what happened to the culprits. He mentioned Mutulu Shakur, who had been the ringleader of the group and who had planned this robbery and executed it and had been convicted and was sentenced to federal prison because he was tried in federal court for 60 years. And this sheriff, as he was talking, said that Mutulu Shakur had died in prison. And I was amazed because I knew that Mutulu Shakur was then, and is now, very much alive. And it told me something which was that because Judy and her codefendants, David Gilbert and Kwasi Balagoon, were tried first and were caught right there in Rockland County they became the targets for the brunt of the wrath. And the other people who were much more culpable and were tried later in Manhattan in federal court received much less attention, even to this day.
Another man, Sekou Odinga, was part of this group. He didn’t take part in the Brinks crime. He thought it was a suicide mission. But he admitted recently to writer Bryan Burrough, in his book “Days of Rage,” that he had committed so many robberies and armored car heists with Mutulu Shakur he couldn’t remember them all. Before that he had been a member of the Black Liberation Army which was responsible for executing and assassinating New York city police officials in the late 1960s and 1970s. Yet Sekou Odinga served 30 years and was given parole from New York State in 2014. There was just one little story about his release in an online newspaper. The Daily News never wrote about it, the New York Post never wrote about it, there were no editorials denouncing it. Yet here was a seminal figure: Sekou Odinga had been arrested days after Brinks in a shootout with police in Queens with another man who turned out to be one of the shooters, Mtayari Sundiata. Mtayari Sundiata was killed in that shootout in Queens and when he was killed they found in his pocket a bullet that had struck the bullet-proof vest he had been wearing at the time of Brinks robbery and it was a bullet fired by a Nyack Police officer. And that’s where Sekou Odinga was arrested. He was clearly a part of this group. And when he walked out of prison with parole after 30 years it was not a big deal. Nobody cared. That’s why Judy’s a flashpoint. So much greater attention is focused on her because of the notoriety of that trial. And also because people like me have written about her and said ‘Look, this is a woman who’s changed.’
Something I have heard in our community is, ‘If Judy was really remorseful, why didn’t she offer the names of the other shooters who were never captured?’ I asked Judy and she had said to me that nobody ever asked her. And that she didn’t know all of the shooters who had participated that day. Do you know anything more about that?
I thought that was a valid point. Judy says that nobody has ever asked her. And she also wasn’t even sure who was taking part. She knew Mutulu Shakur. She knew some of the others, but she didn’t know everybody. But also, what she said that surprised me was that if she knew someone who was out there now committing dangerous crimes who wasn’t caught at the scene she would be inclined to say something about it. Her response surprised me. People don’t usually talk that way. They don’t want to be perceived as a snitch. I think people have put that question out there but I think it’s a false issue.
Can you talk more about the mindset of the Weather Underground and Judy’s commitment to them?
She started out in the right place. She started out with the same broad concerns that an entire generation had. She had the same sense of outrage and concern as so many at that time. There was probably no difference in the way she thought about things in 1965 as the way Martin Luther King thought about things. She saw the world similarly.
Without talking about Judy specifically, there were a lot of people who just clicked off the part of their head that was interested in compassion and understanding. They said ‘“I know what the answers are and these problems are so terrible that only a dramatic, militant, violent revolution of some kind can address them. Black people have been treated so hideously for hundreds of years. Racism is still so dominant. Black panthers are being gunned down.’” They decided that the only solution is to embrace violence and they just stopped thinking.
Can you talk a little bit more about Judy’s sentence and rehabilitation?
There’s no question in my mind that Judy Clark deserved a severe prison sentence. Judy got a triple life sentence. She denounced the judge and denounced the system.
The judge said, ‘I see no hope for you to rehabilitate,’ which at the time was not completely unreasonable.
Yet, I believe that she has rehabilitated in ways that are far deeper than ways that other people who have gone to jail for similar crimes have ever done. I read about Patty Hearst who became a willing participant in bank robberies, served a few years in prison and received a presidential pardon and never had to engage in the same kind of soul searching, the question of  ‘How do I address the harm I have done?’ -the way Judy has done and continues to do.  
I think that Judy’s understanding of conflict and the way that people deal with it is much more perceptive than most of the people I know. One of the things she talks about is when people in prison get mad and athey’re going to do something stupid and they say ‘“I don’t care,’” Judy says ‘“You do care. That’s why you’re mad and that’s why you’re going to do something reckless. And the first thing is to recognize that you do care and the next thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the person who is on the receiving end of your anger and try to figure out why they are doing what they’re doing.’”
Judy said that the first time she really started to think about the victims of her crime as people and not as symbols of authority was when she was in solitary confinement. She found herself talking to the guards., and she would talk about her daughter and they would talk about their children and she would realize that these were people with problems just like hers, family issues. And she stopped seeing them all as symbols. I think that’s her triumph. She sees everyone, the inmates, the guards, the prison administrators as individuals in a much more perceptive way than anyone I know. The reason you see so many people who are so emphatic in their support of Judy Clark is that they have a similar kind of reaction to her. Though it is hard to convince people that someone who took part in such a terrible crime could have become such a successful human being.
What can you tell me about Judy’s relationship with her daughter Harriet?
The remarkable thing about Harriet is that she’s  a woman who has never known her mother outside of prison. She said as a child she used to ask other kids in the visiting room, ‘Did you know your mom before prison or after prison?’ And she of course only knew her mother after prison because she was 11 months old and had no clear memory of her mother before.
The fact that Judy and Harriet have managed to achieve such a wonderful relationship is remarkable to me given the fact that they never lived together. And yet Harriet says ‘I am my mother’s daughter, the decisions I make in life are things based on my mother’s guidance.’ I know a lot of people, myself included, who don’t have as good of relationships with their mothers as Judy and Harriet have with each other. It’s really striking.
What’s the sentiment that Judy has described in terms of how clemency affects the prison system?
The reason why clemency exists, I think, is that the justice system sometimes has its own predeterminism. It is very hard to change decisions. And so the writers of the Constitution understood that there should be an ability for the chief executive, a president or a governor, to be able to put some mercy into the system — that someone who would otherwise be trapped inside a long term prison sentence, someone that had truly tried to reform themselves and had demonstrated that through lots of different ways, that they are deserving of mercy.
For a long time ever since the Willie Horton ads were used to defeat Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential election, most governors have been hesitant to exercise clemency. Horton had not received clemency, but after he had been let out of a Massachusetts prison on a temporary leave, he brutally killed a couple. Ever since then the number of clemencies and the number of any kinds of efforts to try to bring pardons to the system have declined dramatically.
I think what Andrew Cuomo has finally come to recognize is there’s a role for this incredible awesome power that he has in the criminal justice system. To his great credit, he decided to go to Bedford hills and sit down with Judy to try and take the measure of this woman. He is someone who is seen as never doing anything without some political benefit to himself, but I am hard put to find any real political benefit for his having decided to give clemency to Judy Clark. I don’t think there’s a lot more votes that he gets. Some people will see him as more sympathetic but I don’t think it will be a really significant number. On the other side, it’s obviously a potential problem for him. But I think every now and then people do the right things for the right reasons and I think that’s what’s happened here.
I was talking with one of Judy’s oldest friends for the story in the New York Times and I would refer to how much she had changed and refer to her as a different person. This friend told me “she’s actually the person she was always meant to be.” I think about that a lot when I visit other people in prison who have also tried to remake themselves. They go from being young knuckleheads who can’t listen to anything to thoughtful, sympathetic, perceptive human beings who are trying to get a second chance.
And I think it affects the tenor of the prison. Judy says the holidays used to be a joyous time because there were always some inmates who were going to get clemency. The holidays were a time when governors traditionally did these grants of clemency. When that would happen they would celebrate. They would be happy for them and they would think, Oh, maybe I’ve got a chance. Maybe I’ll keep doing good things and maybe that can be me. But because clemencies were bottled up for a long time, that disappeared from the holiday season.
I was visiting Judy last week and it was clear to me that what the governor has done has already made Bedford Hills a more optimistic place. Because other inmates look at this model inmate who has been there for three and a half decades, and if she can’t get released based on her good behavior, what hope do they have? So they look at the fact that she has gotten this clemency as a sign that there is hope.  It gives people a sense that they might not only be judged by the worst thing that they’ve done in their life. I think that reverberates throughout the New York State system.




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