Attacks on Kathy Boudin Are Attempts at Vigilante Justice – Op Ed from Julien Hawthorne

Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion piece from Julien Hawthorne, currently a student at Columbia University, regarding controversial Columbia professor Kathy Boudin. Boudin’s participation in the Weather Underground and especially the 1981 Brinks Robbery has led many to criticize her appointment to a teaching position at an elite university. 

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Media Attacks on Kathy Boudin Are Attempts at Vigilante Justice

By Julien Hawthorne

For the most part, Kathy Boudin, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, has an exceptional resume.  She has a Master’s degree in adult education and literacy, an Ed.D. from Columbia Teachers College, and is the current Rose Sheinberg scholar in residence at NYU Law School.  She has published numerous books and scholarly articles, including one in the Harvard Educational Review, and in 1999 she was awarded an international PEN prize for her poetry.  Boudin’s credentials would be acceptable, if not distinguished, at any elite university, if not for one extraordinary disclaimer.

In 1984, Boudin was convicted of felony murder for her participation in a politically motivated armed robbery that resulted in the death of two police officers and a security guard.  Though she was a passenger in a getaway vehicle and did not shoot anyone, she was found guilty of helping with the escape from the robbery.  This atrocious act of violence, notoriously known as the 1981 Brinks Robbery, made Boudin a poster child for the violent political left and put her in prison for 22 years (she received 20 years to life with the possibility of parole).

Though Columbia hired Boudin in 2008, recently, in the wake of the newly-released Robert Redford film The Company You Keep, loosely based on the radical left organization the Weather Underground, of which Boudin was a prominent member; and following a prestigious lecture Boudin delivered at NYU Law School (available on YouTube), major media outlets like Fox News and the New York Daily News have recently expressed outrage over Boudin’s hiring.  Some of the pieces seem to construe Columbia’s decision as a “reward” – giving a prestigious teaching position to an ex-terrorist who is currently indoctrinating her students with radical anti-government propaganda.

Boudin’s hiring was indisputably very painful for many who remember the Brinks robbery or have lost a loved one to violent crime.  Yet the recent coverage of Boudin is one-sided and frequently small-minded.  What the New York Post fails to understand when it reduces Boudin to a distasteful slur like “Columbia’s pet terrorist,” is the injustice of defining Boudin solely by the terrible mistake she made in the first half of her life.  The logic of these media outlets – demanding that Boudin pay for her crime, not just with 22 years in prison but also with a lifetime as a pariah – undermines the entire idea of the criminal justice system: namely, that prison is both necessary and sufficient punishment for serious crimes.

The media’s persistent harassment of Boudin has taken on an aspect of vigilante justice, with the media taking the law into its own hands to make sure Boudin pays for what she did, far beyond what the criminal justice system demanded of her. According to this logic, a prisoner who successfully earns her release from prison is not through being punished:  no, she must also forfeit her right to work and her hope of atoning for her crimes by participating in society to the best of her abilities.

But the irony is, if the theoretical aim of prison is both to punish and rehabilitate, then Boudin is one of its success stories.  She was able to earn a masters degree in Adult Education and Literacy while still in prison, she founded a program called Coming Home to provide health care for released prisoners; she designed the Longtermers Responsibility program that works with people in prison to address their responsibility and the suffering caused by their crimes; and she now serves as director of the School of Social Work’s Criminal Justice Initiative.  These are only a few achievements on her list.  In short, Boudin’s transformation from reckless radical to socially responsible professor and activist is a testament to the remarkable capacity for human beings to change.

Nothing, of course, can repair the lifelong pain that the families of the Brinks Robbery victims still experience.  This pain is still very real, and the trauma that these people went through must surely make Boudin’s position at Columbia seem cruel and ironic.  She lives, teaches and receives recognition; their loved ones never had the chance.

On the other hand, Boudin has worked tirelessly to atone for her atrocious crime.  Those who say Boudin has not expressed remorse have either not read or have chosen to ignore Boudin’s confessional essay written just prior to her release from prison, in which she says outright, “I supported and was part of a robbery that risked and then destroyed human life. I am morally responsible for all the tragic consequences that flowed from that.”

By hiring Boudin, Columbia demonstrated its ability to see past a person’s criminal record to what he or she can give to students. In addition, Columbia showed a laudable commitment to personal redemption.  According to a recent set of interviews about Boudin, her students think she is an excellent professor, whose unique personal experience actually makes her exceptionally qualified to teach at Columbia.  What is the aim of college, after all, if not to ask students to rethink the categories of good and evil, or God forbid, even change their minds?

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Note: This piece is published simultaneously at the Columbia Spectator. Comments are disabled below; to discuss the Kathy Boudin controversy, please go here. For an opposite point of view at Patheos see Thomas McDonald’s piece, Can The President Launch A Drone Strike On Columbia University?


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