Jerry Nadler's 'Family' Values
Congressman Jerrold Nadler is currently playing a lead role in a grand drama aimed at removing President Trump from office. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the ultra-partisan Nadler is handing out subpoenas left and right. On May 8, the day Judiciary Committee Democrats voted -- at his prompting -- to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt, Nadler declared a “constitutional crisis.”
This is the same Nadler who, during the Clinton impeachment proceedings, objected to even releasing the Ken Starr report and likened the impeachment to a “partisan coup d’etat.” And during Bill Clinton’s last days in office, as he was handing out 140 pardons (many as thanks for helping his wife’s successful senatorial bid), Nadler had nothing to say. In fact, he was instrumental in getting a pardon for a convicted terrorist. This was Susan Rosenberg, sister soldier in a bloody alliance between the Weather Underground and Black Liberation Movement.
Rosenberg’s role in the “Family,” as this confederation of white and black domestic terrorists called themselves, was to use her “white privilege” to do such things as acquire weapons, purchase vehicles, and rent apartments for safe houses and storage units for explosives and weapons. In 1981, she allegedly drove a getaway car in the Brink’s armored car holdup in Rockland County, N.Y., in which two policemen and a guard were murdered. Authorities nabbed her in 1984 when she and Timothy Blunk were caught in New Jersey unloading the following from a U-Haul truck to a storage unit: 640 pounds of stolen explosives, an arsenal of weapons, manuals on terrorism, and false IDs.
Rosenberg has steadfastly maintained her innocence of involvement in the Brink’s murders. During her trial, however, she proclaimed herself not a criminal, but a revolutionary. In “An American Radical,” published 10 years after Jerry Nadler helped her out of prison, she proclaims herself to be a political prisoner.
She recalls how she had met Blunk when both were organizing against the Ku Klux Klan — presumably, in her mind, a right-wing hate group on the ascendancy in the northeastern United States in 1979. She describes being indicted in a federal conspiracy case and charged with participating in the prison break of Joanne Chesimard -- and in the Brink’s robbery. Her own imprisonment, claims Rosenberg, stemmed from “being part of a group of white radicals who aided and abetted a group of black revolutionaries in their attempt to build a revolutionary organization.”
“The Brink’s robbery,” she conceded, “had been a devastating blow to the Rockland community, where two local police officers, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, died along with a Brink’s guard, Peter Paige. The subsequent investigation into this robbery and multiple deaths led to several prosecutions, grand juries, indictments, trials, and convictions. Many people who were both remotely and closely connected to the events were targeted and I was one of them.”
Rosenberg does not say the three murdered men were shot to death by members of the “Family,” nor does she hint why authorities believe she helped make it happen. Rather, she speaks of herself as more of a bystander, part of a larger, well-intentioned network, remotely “connected to the events.” The Antioch University creative writing program from which she obtained a master’s degree while in prison seems to have taught her quite well how to manipulate language, to use the passive voice to avoid causality and generalities to deflect responsibility.
In this and many other chapters of her memoir, Rosenberg belabors the purity of her motivations. Her activism was spurred by “Seeing [in Vietnam] the B52s dropped from planes, watching the burning of civilians with napalm and Agent Orange,” which a reader supposes is her idea of poetic license. On the home front, the civil rights movement opened her eyes to the fact that “we lived in a segregated society, in a divided country where black people were still slaves.” Several pages of such explanation lead up to “that awful and cold day in November ” when Rosenberg, then 29, was arrested. “[T]here was no immediate, specific plan to use the explosives,” she assures us. “We were stockpiling arms for the distant revolution that we all had convinced ourselves would come soon.”
Blunk and Rosenberg acted as their own attorneys during the trial. Rosenberg screamed revolutionary slogans in court and demanded the maximum sentence. “The truth,” Rosenberg pronounced, was that “revolutionary resistance fighters were defending the world-wide anti-colonial and anti-imperialist peoples and nations.” “The system,” she thought, would not last as long as her sentence. A federal jury, the majority of whom were women, found her guilty, and she was sentenced to 58 years in prison. Rudolph Giuliani, the United States attorney at the time, decided not to try Rosenberg on complicity in the Brink’s case since conviction on the other charges amounted to a virtual life sentence.
President Clinton’s eleventh-hour pardon of Rosenberg in 2001 elicited a chorus of outrage, including from then-Mayor Giuliani, New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, Rockland County police union official David Trois, and even Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. Without question, it stunned the widows and children of those men murdered by Rosenberg’s coadjutors. In an editorial headlined “Pardons on the Sly,” the New York Times editorial board agreed.
The Times specifically condemned the pardon of Rosenberg, for whom “Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat, served as a courier ... forward[ing] pardon information to the White House.”
Nadler’s involvement seems to have originated at his synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, on New York’s Upper West Side. In 1990, the synagogue’s social action committee showed the documentary “Through the Wire,” about the Lexington, Ky., prison that housed Rosenberg. It was described by Walter Goodman in the New York Times as leaving the impression that Rosenberg and fellow internees Silvia Baraldini and Alejandrina Torres “were not convicted for their connection with explosives or attempted prison breakouts or bank robberies or seditious conspiracy, but because they happened to be attending a rally in Central Park.”
Her father and Rabbi Marshall Meyer were on a discussion panel. Meyer, as Rosenberg writes, accepted her father’s view that she was “a political prisoner being repressed by the Reagan and then Bush administrations.” Meyer’s friend, Rabbi Rolando Matalon, began to work for her release. As Rosenberg attests, her parents were longtime “supporters” of Democrats, including of Nadler and his predecessor, Ted Weiss, who died unexpectedly of heart failure one day before the primary election in 1992. Nadler was put on the ticket and won the general election. They had helped found the anti-nuclear organization SANE (in 1957) and the antiwar organization Peace Now (in 1978).
In 1993, Susan Rosenberg’s mother and Rabbi Matalon met with Nadler to enlist his aid in getting permission for Rosenberg to visit her dying father. As Nadler told Truthout, a far left news outlet, in a 2011 interview (shortly after Rosenberg’s book came out), “The story was that she was in jail for a long time, her father was dying.” So Nadler spoke to the head of the Bureau of Prisons.
In that interview, Nadler admitted to helping obtain a commutation of Rosenberg’s sentence, though not by applying “pressure.” He does not mention, however, his efforts to get her paroled in 1994. His letter of July 18, 1994, to the parole board cited Rosenberg’s work in the AIDS education program, reports of the staff psychologist, her 4.0 grade point average, two awards from the PEN American Writing Center’s Prison Program, and Rabbi Matalon’s glowing assessment based on his “regular in-depth interviews with her for several years.” Matalon was so convinced that she had altered “her views about social change” that he promised her “a full time position as coordinator of social and community projects at his own congregation.”
Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney in New York City at the time, opposed parole. Despite the decision not to charge Rosenberg in the Brink’s heist, compelling evidence pointed to her complicity, White wrote to the parole board in a Nov. 8, 1994 report. This letter may have had the desired effect: The parole board wrote Nadler on December 5, 1994, saying that it had been informed on Nov. 22 through Rosenberg’s attorney that Rosenberg had signed the I-22 form “waiving parole consideration.”
However, Rosenberg’s attorney, Mary K. O’Melveny, asked Nadler on July 23, 1998 for additional help. Since the government had not prosecuted Rosenberg in the Brink’s case, O’Melveny argued for Rosenberg’s unfair treatment -- given that her accomplice, Timothy Blunk, had been released in March 1997 “after being convicted of the identical charges and receiving the identical sentence.”
Nadler told the Truthout interviewer in 2011 that he thought Rosenberg’s case was “a failure of due process.”
“She was accused of involvement in the Brinks [sic] robbery,” he explained, “in which a couple of cops were killed. She proclaimed that she was innocent of that. There were two Brinks trials. And in the second trial, which she could have been a member of, the evidence was so overwhelming that five of the seven accused were acquitted by the jury. Meanwhile, she was caught red-handed in possession, and of having transferred over state lines, dynamite and small arms, and other stuff. For this, she was sentenced to 58 years in jail, which was a hell of a sentence, you know, 59 months for this stick of dynamite, 59 months for that stick of dynamite.” The “sticks” of dynamite, as Nadler must have known, were 640 pounds of explosives, enough to level a city block.
The slain “couple of cops” Nadler mentioned were Edward O’Grady, married with three children -- the youngest of whom was 5 months old -- and Waverly Brown, the first black man to serve on the Nyack police force and father of a 17-year-old son.
A Feb. 18, 2001, Daily News article quoted Brown’s son, Gregory, then a 36-year-old U.S. Postal Service sergeant, about how difficult his last year of high school had been: “My father was supposed to help me, he was supposed to be there. I was looking for guidance from him.” When people asked how he felt, he usually replied, “‘I don’t have the words.’”
His four children knew their grandfather only by his scrapbooks. O’Grady’s widow, Diane, had to move away from the area of such painful associations to raise her children. In 2001, she proudly spoke of the two youngest who were in college and the oldest who was a Navy helicopter pilot. “I never believed in my heart [President Clinton] would do this,” she said. “After [the federal office building attack in] Oklahoma, how could you pardon anybody who was caught in this country with weapons of mass destruction?”
Although Nadler admitted that the court was understandably “hostile to Rosenberg because she called the judge a pig, she advocated violence, she made all kinds of crazy statements,” he claimed Rosenberg was a changed person. The parole board, he said, should not have postponed the possibility of parole for another 15 years after the last appeal in 1998 because of the Brink’s charge, which “she denied and was never convicted of.”
Rosenberg by then was in the Danbury, Conn., facility where her job was to teach fellow inmates about HIV/AIDS prevention and black history based on the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Robert Williams, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and various communist writers. Teaching the class, Rosenberg recalled, “brought into sharp relief the fact that the United States has always been in the business of human bondage, first through slavery, and now through the criminal justice system.” Her Antioch thesis adviser, Henry Bean, “a prominent screenwriter,” introduced her to Howard Gutman, who worked for Williams & Connolly, “the biggest and most prominent law firm in Washington,” one that boasted a senior partner who was Bill Clinton’s lawyer.
Rosenberg hoped for a pardon from Clinton, a president who she noted had “apologized for slavery” and, more to the point, commuted the sentences of 12 members of FALN, the fringe Puerto Rican Marxist organization that set off more than 138 bombs in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, killing six Americans. She thought he “could understand my motivations and consider clemency.”
She wrote to Gutman and sent copies to her group of advocates, including O’Melveny, Matalon and Jane Aiken, “head of the prisoners’ rights teaching clinic” at Washington University Law School. Through the Antioch program she met a short story writer whose husband, John Marks, was working as a producer for “60 Minutes.” He and senior producer Steve Reiner, a former member of SDS, visited her. That led to her four-hour conversation with Morley Safer and a “60 Minutes” segment that, according to National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, gave “the impression that Rosenberg was basically a political leafleteer, perhaps caught with the wrong crowd.”
Six weeks after it aired, on Dec. 19, 2000, Clinton announced his first round of pardons. Although Rosenberg was not on the list, she seemed to realize another round was coming. When she “heard that an important congressman had seen President Clinton at a dinner and had handed him a letter from Rabbi Matalon that contained another letter from Elie Wiesel asking to grant me a pardon, I thought I might really get out.” By the time her pardon was announced -- within the hour before George W. Bush’s inauguration -- she had already sent home some of her papers and books to clear out her cell.
Susan Rosenberg’s dreams of a Marxist revolution in America brought about with explosives and guns did not come to fruition. But she left prison with a master’s degree and accolades from prisoner advocates for her “poetry.” She no doubt hoped to land the same kind of cushy teaching job enjoyed by fellow Weathermen, like Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Kathy Boudin. Her partner in explosives transportation, Timothy Blunk, has parlayed his experience as a “political prisoner” for “over 13 years in some of America’s most notorious prisons for his activism in resistance to racism, US support for apartheid in South Africa, and involvement in Central America during the 1980s,” into a career as a performance artist, curator, theatrical set designer, and college instructor, recently at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, according to his website.
The truckload of explosives is apparently not worthy of mention.
Susan Rosenberg came close to landing a position at Hamilton College, an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York. Nancy Rabinowitz, the professorial head of the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture -- a lavishly funded social-justice redoubt at the college -- quietly redefined an “artist-in-residence” position to an “activist-in-residence” position in order to hire Rosenberg.
The month-long course, to begin in January 2005, was to be called “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity, and Change.” Rabinowitz is the daughter-in-law of Victor Rabinowitz, attorney who partnered with Leonard Boudin to form, arguably, the most radical-left law firm in American history. Boudin’s daughter, Weatherman Kathy Boudin, was the Family member in the Brink’s robbery who pleaded with Officer O’Grady to put his gun away just before he and Waverly Brown were ambushed by six men with automatic weapons jumping out of the back of the U-Haul. Boudin, paroled in 2003, ended up teaching at Columbia University.
Thanks in large part to a timely op-ed by Roger Kimball in the Wall Street Journal and the published objections of Hamilton College history professor Robert Paquette (who would go on to found The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization), public outrage over the appointment of Rosenberg to a teaching position at Hamilton erupted. Alumni expressed their outrage and threatened to end donations to the college.
At the kickoff to a major fundraising campaign at the New-York Historical Society, trustees, administrators, and alumni had to pass through a gauntlet of angry, placard-carrying police officers before entering the building. Under considerable pressure, the college announced that Rosenberg had “withdrawn” from the appointment.
Following Rosenberg’s release, Congressman Nadler provided a most sympathetic and disingenuous account of her past while downplaying his role as minor and pointing to his rabbi. But recently Nadler also added his signature to a list of “notable supporters” for Judith Clark, another member of the “Family” who served as a driver of a getaway vehicle in the Brink’s robbery. This came after he signed a letter urging her release in 2017. In an amazing confluence of talent, it seems that Clark too has done work in the AIDS/HIV prison counseling field and is a PEN award-winning poet. Thanks to the overflow of support from politicians like Nadler and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and academics in the field of prison abolition, Clark was released without notice on May 10, five days earlier than the announced date, apparently to avoid media attention and possible protests.
Clark’s writing is thematically similar to Rosenberg’s, evoking sympathy for the imprisoned, but not quite as ideologically honest as “An American Radical.” Rosenberg’s book suggests that her time behind bars taught her how to soft-pedal the radical ideology she still clings to. She speaks of taking “up the radical choice of trying to help make a revolution” as “part of the left that grew out of the 1960s.” It was a “different time,” she explains, a “time when I — and thousands of people like me — believed that ‘you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem’ … a time of massive civil conflict.”
Rosenberg’s “narrative” about the “prison industrial complex” has become a common theme on college campuses. Her past as a terrorist brought her invitations to participate in PEN panels, including in 2007 and in 2011, on “The Prison Industry.” According to her memoir, she has worked since 2004 as communications director for a “faith-based human rights organization” and has participated “in prison reform, women’s studies and legal conferences around the country.”
She has given lectures at law schools at Yale, Stanford, Georgia State University, and Washington University, as well as in other departments at Columbia, Rutgers, Brown, New York University, University of Michigan, University of Massachusetts, and CUNY Graduate Center. One assumes the postmodern campus offered honoraria commensurate with her radical heroine status. No doubt the fact that her memoir is on the “prison abolition syllabus,” recommended for classroom use at such places as Duke University, boosts her royalty payments. Perhaps we shall see a similar piece of creative writing from Judith Clark.
In 2011, when House Speaker John Boehner sought to open the 112th Congress by reading from the Constitution, Jerrold Nadler objected and called it “nonsense,” and little more than an act of “propaganda.”
In 2019, Nadler’s machinations as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee would suggest disdain for that very document in his use of congressional power to advance partisan aims. His claims of a “constitutional crisis” are about as valid as the claims of members of the terroristic “Family” he has helped spring and who have contributed to the new academic discipline of prison abolition studies.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Susan Rosenberg obtained a master's degree from Antioch College. She earned it at Antioch University.