Commentary Magazine

The Big Dance, by John Castellucci

“The Family”

The Big Dance.
by John Castellucci.
Dodd, Mead. 358 pp. $17.95.

Two policemen and one guard were murdered during the bungled holdup of an armored Brinks truck near Nyack, New York on October 20, 1981. After a short chase two men and two women were arrested; a number of others escaped. The brutal crime quickly gained a new dimension when one of those in custody was identified as Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weatherman terrorist group and a fugitive ever since the explosion of a Greenwich Village townhouse being used for a bomb factory in 1970 had killed three of her comrades.

Two other white radicals, David Gilbert and Judith Clark, were captured at the scene, as was one black radical, Sam Brown. Three days later one black suspect was arrested and another killed in a shootout with police. Six more suspects were arrested in 1982, four in 1984. The last fugitive, Mutulu Shakur, alleged ringleader of the group, was captured only a few months ago.

As police investigated the Brinks case they also exposed a bizarre alliance between the remnants of the Weatherman group and a handful of black revolutionaries whose previous specialty had been assassinating police officers. Between 1977 and 1981 members of this terrorist “Family” had attempted some twenty robberies and netted more than $1 million; the haul from the ill-fated Nyack robbery would have been $1.6 million.

The federal government prosecuted several members of the Family under an anti-racketeering statute, and New York State pressed murder and armed-robbery charges. Virtually all the defendants have been found guilty of some crime, and most have received lengthy prison sentences. Kathy Boudin, the most notorious defendant, pleaded guilty to murder and robbery and was sentenced to twenty years to life in prison.


Because of the complexity of the case, the numerous trials, and the piecemeal manner in which it was unraveled, there has been a need for a comprehensive account of this rare example of an interracial, radical, criminal conspiracy. The first effort to tell the entire story, Ellen Frankfort's Kathy Boudin and the Dance of Death, was an embarrassing failure. Short on details and long on reflections on feminism, it also suffered from the fact that it was written before Miss Boudin entered her guilty plea.

John Castellucci, a reporter who covered the Brinks case for a Rockland County newspaper, has now written a fascinating if somewhat journalistic account of the history of the Family, the Brinks holdup, and the ensuing trials. Packed with revealing information, The Big Dance (the code name used for the Nyack robbery) not only has a story to tell, it also attempts to explain how and why the “idealism” of the 1960's dissolved into fanaticism.

While Castellucci in no way minimizes or condones the crimes that were committed, he emphasizes the psychological factors which in his belief account for the transformation of upper-middle-class students into terrorists. Kathy Boudin, for example, first went to work in a Cleveland slum on an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) project because she felt guilty about her own advantages. Later on, she felt “morally inferior to black political activists accused of crime.” Even after her arrest, Castellucci argues, she felt guilty about the high-powered legal talent her father, the noted radical lawyer Leonard Boudin, was able to employ in her behalf. The other white radicals rejected any traditional legal defense because it would demonstrate “white skin privilege.” David Gilbert also felt guilty that his lapse of concentration had contributed to the Nyack debacle.

There is no doubt that the peculiar behavior of the Weatherman group requires at least in part to be understood in terms of psychopathology. In its early days, within its own circle, the group had instituted “smash-monogamy” campaigns to overcome selfish feelings of attachment to other people. It had also encouraged homosexual activities as part of an effort to build a cohesive band of revolutionaries (Kathy Boudin had experimented with lesbianism). Gilbert had opposed Boudin's practice of breast-feeding their infant; he thought it a sexist practice that deprived the father of his right to nurture.


Although Castellucci can be helpful on psychological matters, he is not so reliable a guide to the political background and alliances of the radical Left. For example, he calls Angela Davis a black nationalist (she is a Communist) and Noam Chomsky a “liberal political writer and linguist” (he is a radical). Moreover, psychology tends to explain much too much in this book. To argue that the politics of white members of the Family “was solely an attempt to achieve personal purity by overcoming the mortification they experienced when they contrasted their privileges as white people to the deprivations suffered by blacks” is to understand very little indeed of the history and ideology of the New Left.

Both the white and black members of the Family were doing precisely what they said they would do: striking blows against the capitalist state and its props. The whites were veterans of the Weatherman faction of SDS. Formed in 1969, Weatherman was dedicated to the proposition that white revolutionaries had the duty of providing assistance to blacks, whose own struggle was leading to a worldwide revolution. One of their slogans, “John Brown, live like him,” expressed quite vividly their belief that this revolution might require self-immolation. (Brown had been hanged.) The group's first public act, the Days of Rage in Chicago in 1969, was a violent riot and pitched battle with Chicago police.

Weatherman's commitment to violence went well beyond that of most student radicals. Members drilled with guns; Bernadine Dohrn, an early leader of the group, praised the murder spree of Charles Manson's gang. Nor did it stop with rhetoric and playing Che Guevara. Terry Robbins, before he was blown up in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, had firebombed the home of a New York judge. When killed, he was working on an anti-personnel bomb that he hoped to plant at Fort Dix. Between 1969 and 1976 the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) claimed 26 bombings, including one planted by Bernadine Dohrn and Kathy Boudin in a Senate bathroom.


The WUO split apart in 1976 with one faction, including Kathy Boudin, attacking backsliders who wanted to become more respectable. The “moderates” were accused of being racists and male supremacists. One of the specific charges leveled against them was failure to support the struggle for a black nation. The remnants of the WUO and some of their above-ground supporters evolved into the May 19th Communist Organization in 1978. The name derived from the birth date of Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X; it was also the date on which, in 1971, the Black Liberation Army (BLA) had begun its campaign against the police by killing two officers sitting in their patrol car in Harlem. Announcing its commitment to the “final defeat of U.S. imperialism,” May 19th pledged the use of “armed struggle and waging people's war.” Its own role in this struggle was to fight alongside black revolutionaries.

As for the Black Liberation Army, it was an offshoot of the Black Panther party. Originally loyal to Eldridge Cleaver, it had specialized in police killings before slipping into inactivity in the mid-1970's. Then, with the assistance of white radicals, a handful of blacks sympathetic to BLA aims took over the Lincoln Hospital Detoxification Program in the South Bronx. Under the pretense of helping to cure drug addiction, they built up a patronage machine, gained control of a substantial budget, and recruited new members to their gang.

When the Koch administration ousted the radicals from Lincoln DeTox (after revelations of mismanagement, fraud, and political chicanery), Mutulu Shakur, one of its guiding lights, set up the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America to serve as a new headquarters for the Family. Shakur planned the group's early robberies as a way of raising money for the black community; in fact, most of the money was used to support the new clinic, now bereft of government largesse. Several members had ties to the Republic of New Africa, a group whose goal was a separate black nation carved out of the Southern United States. Shakur also hit on the idea of using sympathetic whites to set up safe houses and to procure and drive getaway cars. The revolutionaries of May 19th offered a useful camouflage for the black gunmen. They, in return, could offer their services to the revolution.

Castellucci attributes to guilt feelings the refusal of any of the white defendants to engage in a traditional legal defense; it is just as plausible, however, if not more so, that they were only remaining true to their ideological code. In any case, several of the black defendants, their revolutionary nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding, cooperated with the prosecutors. Much of the stolen money, moreover, was used to purchase cocaine to support the drug habits of other members—to the point where a few of the committed black revolutionaries had to draw up rules, such as: “No use of cocaine more than once every thirty days, marijuana and alcohol more than once every seven days, and for not more than five hours on any given day.”


It is a fitting epitaph to the radicalism of the 1960's that its last survivors wound up robbing banks to obtain drug money. White radicals, convinced of their historic and moral obligations to support the black revolution, were providing aid to a group of criminals who, under the auspices of a program to end the scourge of addiction in black communities, became drug addicts themselves. Despite its limitations, Castellucci's book offers a useful case study of the ideological detritus of the 1960's.

About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.

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