The Other Rosenberg Case
Guilty as hell. Free as a bird. America is a great country.
On November 3, 1984, Susan Lisa Rosenberg was apprehended by police as she and a cohort were hiding 740 pounds of high explosive, 14 guns (including semiautomatic weapons), and hundreds of phony IDs in a storage facility in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Rosenberg, then 29 years old, was a member of the May 19 Communist Organization (M19CO), an ultra-violent support group formed of members of the Black Liberation Army—itself the so-called military arm of the Black Panther Party—the Weather Underground, and other terrorist organizations.
She had been living underground for two years, ever since she skipped out on her indictment as an alleged accomplice and getaway car driver in a botched $1.6 million Brink’s armored car robbery in Rockland County, New York. The October 1981 robbery, which ended in a careening series of car chases and a bloody shootout, left two policemen and an unarmed Brink’s employee dead and others injured.
One of those arrested amid the shooting was Kathy Boudin. She had disappeared from public view in 1970 after she and another member of the Weather Underground escaped from the wreckage of a Greenwich Village townhouse, where three of their own number died while building a bomb. Another Brink’s perpetrator was David Gilbert, father of Boudin’s child, Chesa (the couple dropped him off with a babysitter before joining in the robbery). In a second shootout two days later in Queens, an additional member of the Brink’s assault group was killed, and another arrested.
Rosenberg was also wanted as a suspect in the 1979 jailbreak in Clinton, N.J., of Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, who had been found guilty two years earlier of murdering one police officer at point-blank range and wounding another. Chesimard was sentenced to life in prison plus more than 20 years but was then sprung from the Clinton Correctional Institute for Women by members of the Black Liberation Army who were also members of M19CO. After years underground, Chesimard surfaced in Cuba in 1984, where she still apparently lives. There is a $1 million bounty on her head.
During the two years in which Rosenberg was underground, M19CO—also known as the Armed Resistance Group, the Revolutionary Fighting Group, and the Red Guerrilla Resistance Group—was involved in a spree of high-profile bombings, in which she allegedly took part. Among the targets: the U.S. Senate, where a late-night explosion on November 7, 1983, tore apart a conference room; the Washington Navy Yard Computer Center; the National War College; and the Israeli Aircraft Industries Building. (Rosenberg refers to all of these generically as “unoccupied federal buildings.”) It can be reasonably assumed that the explosives and weapons seized at Rosenberg’s arrest were part of the terrorist effort.
But in 1988, in a trial known as the Resistance Conspiracy Case, charges against Rosenberg for an active role in the conspiracy to commit those bombings were dropped as part of a deal in which other M19CO members pled guilty to the offense—largely because Rosenberg was already serving a 58-year sentence on weapons and explosives possession charges based on the guns and explosives found at her arrest. One factor in the lengthy prior sentencing was Rosenberg’s complete refusal to cooperate with investigators on the whereabouts of other fugitive M19CO members, the identities of those who enabled her long fugitive career, or anything else to do with the case. She and her cohorts jeered their bravado during court proceedings.
In short, Rosenberg was a hardened member of an active terrorist organization whose members had robbed banks and armored cars; killed police and unarmed security guards; broken prisoners out of U.S. jail; helped to smuggle felons to Cuba; continued a campaign of bombing after various group members jumped bail; and they were storing large quantities of explosives and weaponry to further continue that campaign when she was apprehended. It took two more years to roll up most of the other members of the disparate and dangerous group.
Because federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District under then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani decided that they would not pursue charges for her alleged part in the Brink’s armored car robbery, Rosenberg and her lawyers have ceaselessly argued for more than two decades that the lack of a conviction is tantamount to proof of her innocence. But Justice Department officials, led by future U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, a Democrat, insisted that they had evidence Rosenberg was also involved in the 1981 robbery bloodbath. They testified to that effect every time Rosenberg had a parole hearing.
This lengthy recitation is a necessary precondition for putting in context who Susan Rosenberg really is, in contrast to her deeply disingenuous and misleading memoir, An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country (Citadel, 400 pages), now being marketed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and at every campus bookstore near you.
An American Radical is the latest in a line of terrorist apologetics by members of the former Weather Underground who blame American society in the 1960s and 70s for the crimes committed by a toxic alliance of extremist intellectuals and lumpen-proletarian criminals who claimed to be engaged in political war. The most famous of those self-justifications is Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers, scion of Chicago’s power structure and, later, associate in Chicago school reform with the young Barack Obama. A lesser-known example is The War Before, a collection of essays by a deceased Black Panther member named Safiya Bukhari which was edited by one of Rosenberg’s partners in crime, Laura Whitehorn, after her 1999 release from prison on the same weapons charges.
What sets Rosenberg apart is that previous efforts at rehabbing her reputation have backfired. She was released from prison—along with Linda Sue Evans, another M19CO member—after serving 16 years of her sentence, by virtue of a mystifying January 20, 2001, pardon by outgoing President Bill Clinton. Law enforcement organizations and the families of the slain Rockland County police officers were outraged. They were outraged even more in 2004, when Rosenberg was invited to take up a month-long position teaching a seminar in “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change” at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, as part of the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society, and Culture. Amid the furor, Rosenberg withdrew from the position.
Just to give you a sense of how these things work: the Kirkland Project’s director, Nancy Rabinowitz, was forced out of her job a year later after issuing a speaking invitation to Ward Churchill, the self-described Native American spokesman who famously declared that 9/11 victims were “little Eichmanns.” Her own family ties to the Weather Underground were extensive. Rabinowitz’s father, Victor Rabinowitz, was Kathy Boudin’s lawyer; his law partner was Leonard Boudin, Kathy’s father.
An American Radical could be described as the book version of the seminar Rosenberg never gave at Hamilton, an apologia pro vita sua that attempts to put her and her fellow extremists on a different plane, as victims of brutal and illegal torture and suffering, prisoners of conscience in the hell of the American penitentiary system. It claims to chronicle Rosenberg’s sojourn in various prisons in the 16 years before her pardon as a trajectory of political oppression that places her on equal footing with Elie Wiesel, the concentration-camp poet Paul Celan, and the Holocaust memoirist Primo Levi, the latter of whom “showed me a way to give meaning to my suffering and to try to give voice to the others who were suffering alongside me.”
In fact, Radical is more of a marketing tool in an ongoing effort to rehabilitate and give moral stature to some of the most hard-bitten American political gangsters of the 1970s and 80s by wrapping them in the garb of political dissidents, whose punishment is allegedly part of an ongoing American government conspiracy to deny justice and human rights to its adversaries. “The U.S. government does not recognize the existence of political prisoners in our country,” Rosenberg intones. “The identity of political prisoners is concealed and, consequently, their right to justice is denied.” Their alleged misdeeds are merely “legitimate conflict in response to social inequities.”
In return for this “legitimate conflict,” Rosenberg claims she suffered the tortures of hell: endless time in solitary confinement, degrading strip searches and lack of privacy, anal and vaginal rape, ceaseless insults against her femininity, lesbianism, and, most dramatically, her Jewish identity.
In one of the most spectacular sections of the memoir, Rosenberg claims that immediately after being jailed by a heavily armed phalanx of local and federal police, an FBI agent strolled into her detention cell and declared to his minions: “This bitch is a kike. Get the fugitive posters and find the kikes.” When a match was made, he exulted: “I can always tell a kike. At least now we know it’s the kikes, the ones with the niggers.”
The breathtaking implausibility of those statements ought to convince most common-sense readers that a freshly arrested facilitator of terrorist bombing attacks who was also a gun-toting fugitive-at-large on cop-killing and robbery charges, and who refused to cooperate in any way with law-enforcement authorities, might also be a spectacularly crude and blatant liar.
But An American Radical was not written for common-sense readers. It was written for awesomely credulous people—left-liberal academics come to mind—who would believe that the next two images that arose in Rosenberg’s consciousness after those unbelievable racist slurs from the FBI were memories of the concentration-camp tattoo on a friend’s mother’s arm and of a black boy’s lynching on the cover of the Billie Holliday recording Strange Fruit, both of which she suddenly recalled she had seen when she was eight years old: “White people and black people, Nazis and Jews, in my eight-year-old mind it was a simple equation.”
And if you, dear reader, have an eight-year-old mind, it will be a simple equation for you, too.
Rosenberg’s boundless faith in her readers’ desire to believe almost anything she says, especially about her victimization and its relationship to a racist, imperialist American power structure, is stippled throughout the book, often embedded in a nest of clanging clichés and jaw-dropping errors. She came to revolutionary radicalism, Rosenberg declares, based on her teenage experience in opposing the Vietnam War. “I believed that one had to stop the machinery of war,” she says. “Seeing the B-52s dropped from planes, watching the burning of civilians with Agent Orange, reading about the incarceration of Vietnamese militants in cages only big enough for tigers made me furious.”
Rosenberg’s teenage mind was somewhat cloudier than her eight-year-old version when it comes to vivid detail. Less furious, or perhaps more attentive, opponents of the Vietnam War might have told her that B-52s are aircraft, not bombs, and that Agent Orange is a defoliant. An American Radical gives the impression that Rosenberg is so accustomed to reeling off clichéd images that it does not matter whether she has her facts right. And yet, this is supposedly the searing emotional experience that launched her into her revolutionary life.
What An American Radical often reveals, in other words, is the calculating but sloppy habit of extensive factual distortion that drives its narrative. Rosenberg recounts how in March 1982—before her flight from indictment but after the Brink’s robbery took place in Rockland County—she was walking to work at a Harlem Institute of Acupuncture when “I saw an army tank coming toward me with a huge gun rolling down the one-way street in the wrong direction.” Sharpshooters were on every roof: “I knew that they were there to search the clinic and I hoped they were not specifically looking for me.” She ran down a subway to escape and later discovered that the armored raid—complete with tank—did no more than deliver subpoenas for clinic records.
Leave aside the preposterousness of her claim about the tank, and focus instead on the impression Rosenberg intends to give of a massive but pointless military raid on a harmless clinic. Even that is untrue. On the previous page of An American Radical, she says that she was working at the clinic for Mutulu Shakur, a African-American acupuncturist she had met and studied closely with starting in 1977. “We were part of the New Age holistic health movement,” she says. “We treated drug addition, diabetes, asthma, and all the diseases afflicting the poorest of the poor.”
Only incidentally does she mention that at the first clinic, “we were led by former revolutionaries and activists from the late 1960s and 1970s, people of color from what had been the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, a U.S.-based Puerto Rican Independence and advocacy organization,” among others.
It receives no mention in Rosenberg’s book, but kindly Dr. Shakur is also known as Jeral Wayne Williams. He is the brother of Joanne Chesimard, and the stepfather of slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Shakur Sr. was later found guilty of taking part in his sister’s 1979 jail escape. He was also one of the principal gunmen in the 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery, and was charged with and convicted of participation in seven other bank robberies, which he calls “expropriations.” Like Rosenberg, Shakur remained on the run after the Rockland County indictments were handed down and, unlike her, continued to avoid capture until 1986. He is currently in jail for multiple crimes and is not expected to be released until 2016. His supporters maintain the website mutulushakur.com, where they fundraise on his behalf and proselytize on behalf of his radical causes.
The fact that Rosenberg slides over these details is par for the course. In fact, a close reading of An American Radical reveals that most of Rosenberg’s close friends in prison seem to be hard-core terrorists, who are suffering terribly—terribly!—for expressing their political views by sticking guns in people’s faces, and sometimes pulling the trigger, or setting off explosions that may, or may not, kill someone.
The first good friend she makes in prison, for example, is Alejandrina Torres, a member of the Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), which had committed or attempted scores of bombing attacks since 1974. “In my mind, Alex was a courageous Puerto Rican freedom fighter,” Rosenberg claims. “I know that her imprisonment hurt every day in a million ways but Alex bore it with grace. Alex was a true heroine.” Evidently, someone in the White House eventually agreed. Torres, along with nine other Puerto Rican terrorists whose sentences ranged from 35 to 90 years, was released in a 1999 round of presidential pardons by, once again, Bill Clinton.
Another dear friend was Lucy Segarra, a member of an armed Puerto Rican terrorist group in Hartford, Connecticut, known as the Machateros. Segarra’s crime, according to Rosenberg, was handing out toys to poor children purchased with money from a $7 million armored car robbery. On the other hand, according to various court documents not mentioned by Rosenberg, Segarra, whose real name is Luz Maria Berrios-Berrios, was the wife of one of the leaders of the group that carried out the 1983 armed robbery, and she helped move stolen money between Puerto Rico and Connecticut as well as play revolutionary Santa Claus.
Rosenberg relates that in a lunchtime meeting with Segarra, the other woman tearfully told “how the Mexican authorities, in conjunction with the FBI, had beaten her (without leaving marks), threatened her by saying they would kill her children, and interrogated her in a locked cell for days while her children were held outside. . . . Always she came back to her children.” This unsubstantiated allegation of bruise-free beatings and threats against innocent children is the only reference in the book to the fact that Segarra and her husband were apparently arrested in Mexico, to which they had fled after the armed robbery, and were returned to the U.S. for trial. One might have thought, incidentally, that her children would have weighed heavily on Segarra’s mind before she began doling out goodies paid for by the proceeds of an armed robbery.
Rosenberg’s other mistreated friends include a convicted robber, kidnapper, and multiple murderer known only as Debra, who helped slay three adults and two children and whose torture in prison allegedly included the wardens’ refusal to allow her baptism. The sheer fact of Debra’s incarceration pushes Rosenberg into emotional agony that is a little difficult to tell from a B movie: “I felt a kind of anguish that I had never experienced before.” Meanwhile, Debra would scream, “Send me to the death house!” and the warden would reply, “when we’re ready.”
Rosenberg does not say so, but Debra is Debra Denise Brown, whose partner in crime, Alton Coleman, made the FBI’s Ten Most-Wanted list in 1982 for a tristate killing spree that included bludgeoning a nine-year-old. Coleman was executed in 2002; Brown had her death sentence commuted in 1991.
And then there was the Dapper Don, John Gotti, whom Rosenberg says she met in an early post-arrest stint in the Manhattan Correctional Center. It was something akin to love at first sight. “We had in common a strong code of principle,” she writes. “We would not snitch, not in our cases, in our lives, or inside the jail itself. In that respect, our honor united us. John Gotti had never witnessed such loyalty before in a group outside the mob.” He liked what he saw so much that he paid for Rosenberg’s surprise 30th birthday party. “It was one of the best birthdays I ever had,” she proudly relates.
Whether the party actually took place as described is beyond a book reviewer’s capacity to tell, but amid the bottles of scotch and wine and plates of eggplant, veal, and chicken, a couple of important facts can be discerned. The first is that Rosenberg is tickled pink to get—or imagine she got—the respect of a psychopathic killer from the big leagues of organized crime. It fits perfectly with the sense of grandiosity, self-centered entitlement, and cosmic significance—whatever the earthbound rules might ordain—that drips through the pages of An American Radical.
The second is that this is sure some kind of prison hell, where a high-security terrorist in the early stages of incarceration can get takeout scotch and eggplant parmigiana ordered in by the Mafia. And the barbed-wire room service did not stop there. No sooner does Rosenberg get thrown into her next American gulag stop in Tucson than she is able between alleged anal rapes to order up a phone book and get in touch with sympathetic outside support groups, convivial law professors who stop by to offer legal and moral support, and her own attorneys.
When transferred to a serious high-security unit (HSU) in Lexington, Kentucky—which the ACLU later successfully sued to have shut down—Rosenberg finds that things have become really grim. “Every day was filled with confrontations . . . over every human need: getting hot water for a cup of instant coffee, taking a shower, going outside, getting medical attention, getting a book.” Yes, “the HSU brought new heights of control, harassment, denial of basic human rights, attacks on our gender, and terrible cruelty.” Then, in her next hellhole, in Marianna, Florida, Rosenberg had access to cable TV, could wear her own clothes, and had unlimited access to books. She became an AIDS-awareness activist.
In fact, incarceration was Rosenberg’s equivalent of the G.I. Bill. She picked up a master’s degree from far-left Antioch College, now defunct due to lack of enrollee interest. She taught Marx-influenced black history to black prisoners. She began writing screenplays and execrable poetry. Eventually, her friends orchestrated a sympathetic 60 Minutes segment with a producer who was a former member of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society.
And then came the Big Casino—a presidential pardon, generated by the host of supporters, enablers, lobbyists, and attorneys that she had continued to accumulate during all her time in what was ostensibly the American gulag, not to mention the White House political apparatus that had chosen to select her for freedom.
What has Rosenberg learned from all this? More important, what can we learn from all this, including the overblown political rhetoric, carefully manicured deceit, hyperinflated existential suffering, and accusations of statist and racist brutality that are contained in this preening and shameless book?
Mostly, that militant Marxist posturing, with its depraved, abstract indifference to human life, seems to have replaced patriotism in modern America as the last refuge of scoundrels. Wrapping oneself in the flag as a defense against accusations of terrorist criminality is fine, as long as the banner bears a hammer and sickle. And this most ancient of extremist wheezes—that my abstract principles trump the basic, Hobbesian necessity of social self-restraint—still works.
An American Radical should thus be seen as a harbinger of more to come. Indeed, it is part of a PR assembly line intended to free more of Rosenberg’s jailed terrorist peers, whom she names as political prisoners still trapped in the belly of the American beast. They include well-known poster children of political victimhood such as Leonard Pelletier, serving life for the murder of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee; Mumia al-Jamal, on death row for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer; and Weather Underground member David Gilbert, still imprisoned for his role in the Rockland County Brink’s robbery.
But they also include lesser-known violent criminals like Sekou Odinga, a Black Panther party member also serving time for the same Brink’s robbery who had previously stayed underground for 12 years to escape trial for another police shooting; Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of the sainted Tupac; and Tom Manning, member of the terrorist bombing group United Freedom Front, who was jailed for 58 years for emptying a .357 Magnum revolver into a New Jersey police officer at a traffic stop light. All apparently deserve to be understood on Susan Rosenberg’s terms.
In the end, to anyone who is not caught up in terrorism’s psychopathic bubble, An American Radical ought to raise some disturbing questions. It is clear why Rosenberg and her ilk feel that they deserve a get-out-of-jail-free pass for their actions. But why did the Clinton White House feel the same way? And what pardons remain in the future?