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In the quiet hours just after midnight on May 19, 1972, a blast from a homemade bomb ripped through the Pentagon, tearing open a 30-foot section of wall. A year later, the revolutionaries responsible for the attack would detonate another bomb in the U.S. Capitol building, and two years after, they’d leave explosives in the State Department. The group, known as the Weather Underground, was largely made up of young, white leftist radicals who wanted to fight Western imperialism and advance the cause of Black Power in the U.S. And they were willing to use violence to do so.
But their campaign of domestic terrorism would come to a violent end in New York during a botched robbery of an armored van in 1981. The plan was simple: The stolen money would pay for land in the former slave states of the South, allowing them to create the Republic of New Afrika. Instead of walking away with the funds to build their utopia, though, their plot ended in an eruption of gunshots and chaos.
The young radicals called their operation the “Big Dance.” The participants included Kathy Boudin, David Gilbert and Marilyn Jean Buck, all of whom were white former Weather Underground members who had just started a new group, the May 19th Organization. Their de-facto leader was Black Liberation Army (BLA) member Mutulu Shakur, who’s been credited with planning the scheme. Other BLA members, all of whom were Black, acted as gunmen for the robbery.
Then there was former Weather Underground activist Judith Clark — the white getaway driver.
It all started on an unusually hot, bright October day in Nyack, New York, a small town about 25 miles north of Manhattan. At around 3:45 p.m., an armored Brinks van arrived at the Nanuet National Bank, which was attached to a large two-story shopping complex, for its final scheduled pickup that afternoon. Three guards were working that day — one in the truck, one responsible for loading the money bags from the bank and one who would stand watch.
When the Brinks truck arrived, Clark was already in position. She sat behind the wheel of a yellow Honda Accord at the end of a long parking lot. The plan was for masked men to surprise the guards, grab the money bags and hop into a second getaway car, a red van, that Clark would follow. Later, they’d switch cars to evade capture.
Just as they’d planned it, when the Brinks guard stepped out of the bank with the money bags, four heavily-armed robbers jumped out of a red van. Then, almost immediately, the gunmen opened fire. One of the guards, Peter Page, was killed instantly. A second, Joe Trombino, was gravely wounded. After they both fell to the ground, the gunmen seized the money bags, loaded $1.5 million into the van, slammed the doors shut and drove off.
Witnesses left on the scene screamed for help. One recounted to the New York Times that they saw “one of the guards, who seemed to be shot in the stomach, sitting down on the ground holding his abdomen.” A second told the Times, “I saw another guard lying on the ground and a third guard standing with his shotgun broken open. He seemed to be in shock, and he might have been grazed.”
A bank manager named Ed Horan phoned the police. His call was recorded. “Yeah, I have a problem at Nanuet National in the mall, our armored car was shot at,” he relayed.
“All right. Do you know if anyone was hurt?” the dispatcher responded.
“I don’t know, but it’s just people running all over the place.” After a moment, Horan said, “Someone just yelled out, ‘I’m gonna need an ambulance.’”
The dispatcher’s reply was curt: “Shit.”
The red van, followed by Clark in the yellow Honda, pulled into a pre-arranged location behind a supermarket to swap vehicles. A U-Haul truck joined them. As one of the BLA gunmen stood guard, the others transferred the money from the van to the Honda, and then the men jumped into the back of the U-Haul. Meanwhile, upfront, two white members of the operation, Boudin and Gilbert, sat in the cab of the truck, with Clark still behind the wheel of the money car. The perfect white camouflage — and they almost pulled it off.
Except they didn’t expect Sandy Torgerson, a local woman who lived behind the grocery store, to spot them offloading the red van. She called the police and reported what she saw. “Well, the van is stopped,” she told the dispatcher. “Opened up right behind the store here… A yellow Honda sedan and a U-Haul truck… Someone’s holding a gun.”
The police were now alerted to the two new vehicles. Unaware of how many perpetrators there were, available local officers focused on closing down the roads and setting up roadblocks.
* * * * *
Judith Clark stood 5-foot-3 and weighed roughly 115 pounds. In other words, she wasn’t an intimidating figure. But it was hard to find someone who was more committed to the cause. At the time of the robbery, she was 32 and the mother of an 11-month-old daughter she had left with friends that morning.
Her own parents set the mold for Clark. They were Communists who had lived in the Soviet Union before returning to Brooklyn, where Clark would grow up. Her parents later renounced their Communist activism, but their early commitment made a deep impression on their daughter — it was that sort of idealism that would lead her to work for civil rights, and later to fight for the revolution. “I associated the warmth I remembered from their early years with their political involvement and their political disengagement with my own sense of loss,” Clark said in her 2017 parole hearing. “I took on the task of making up for my parents’ loss through my own political involvement.”
Clark enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1967, arriving just in time for the student uprisings led by the Students for a Democratic Society, who later started to call themselves “the Weathermen” in reference to the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Not all the young radicals were so eager to embrace revolution, and some of them grew resistant to the talk of open warfare against the government. But not Clark. “I had plenty of people arguing with me to slow down a little,” she would later remember. “I was involved in a number of demonstrations which definitely got violent. We certainly argued for militancy, I would say, back then.” By 1969, the group called for what they’d dubbed the “Days of Rage,” which Weatherman leader Bill Ayers said would be a series of “massive demonstrations against the war, in support of the Black Panther Party and in solidarity with all political prisoners.”
By the early 1970s, the Weathermen became the Weather Underground Organization (again, this lasted until 1981, when the last of the members formed the May 19th Organization). For over a decade, they engaged in a steady assault on America’s psyche with bombing after bombing after bombing. Amazingly, this group of bomb-planting white radicals somehow evaded President Nixon’s ire and the FBI, even as they conducted such an endless wave of violence.
* * * * *
After the shootout at the Nanuet National Bank, it didn’t take police long to find the U-Haul. Sergeant Ed O’Grady and detective Arthur Keenan rushed out of the Nyack Police Station and drove to the intersection of Route 59 and Waldron Avenue, where the two roads met the New York State Thruway. Two patrol officers, Brian Lennon and Waverly “Chipper” Brown, were already there, creating a two-car roadblock. O’Grady and Keenan got there just in time to spot the U-Haul pull into view. O’Grady contacted the police dispatcher: “We’re going to pull over a U-Haul truck. It’s going to enter the thruway here. Do you have a description of the people?” Meanwhile, O’Grady instructed Lennon to block the truck’s progress. “Just make sure that the U-Haul truck doesn’t get on the thruway, Brian. We’ll pull him over as soon as we get behind him.”
After that, the police radio went silent, and the four cops moved into action. Lennon, as he was asked, blocked the path to the thruway while O’Grady and Keenan pulled behind the U-Haul. Brown’s patrol car stopped just behind O’Grady and Keenan.
From the Honda, Clark spotted the cops and decided to pull over on a side street where she could see what was happening. She watched as the police popped out of their vehicles and approached Boudin and Gilbert. Boudin slid out from behind the wheel, opened the cab door and asked the officers to lower their weapons, which they did. As Keenan inspected the cab of the truck, O’Grady and Brown stood to the side with Boudin and Gilbert. Keenan walked to the back of the truck and tried to open the overhead door. But he couldn’t. Just as he was headed back to tell O’Grady, he heard a noise. “Sounded like something fell down in the truck,” Keenan later recalled. “I turned around, and at that time, individuals were jumping out of the back of the truck and firing at us.”
A full-on gunfight erupted in the middle of the thruway on-ramp. “I couldn’t see everything going on. But I definitely heard all those shots when that happened, and I saw people running from that,” Clark later recalled.
Keenan’s immediate concern was for the two officers who were shot. “I immediately went to the closest one to me, which was Officer Waverly Brown,” he said. “I was unable to get a pulse. So then from him, I went over to Sergeant O’Grady, who was also down, and I picked up his service revolver, which he was in the process of reloading.” Brown died in the street; O’Grady would live for a few more hours before he died at the hospital, succumbing to his bullet wounds.
When Boudin tried to escape the carnage, an off-duty New York corrections officer, Michael Koch, ran her down. “There was a firefight going on, and I’ll use firefight because I was in Vietnam and that’s what I’m accustomed to,” he told the news at the time. “I see an officer go down, [Boudin’s] running, she runs up to me and she yells, ‘I didn’t shoot him –– he did.’ … And, I know she’s one of them.”
For a moment, Clark thought about driving away. She had the money and had yet to be spotted. “I was sitting saying to myself, ‘I should just leave.’ [But] I wouldn’t let myself leave, I just stayed there.”
Gilbert and one of the gunmen in the U-Haul, Samuel Brown, raced over to where they saw Clark and the Honda Accord waiting. They jumped in the car and yelled, “Drive!” She floored it in the little yellow Accord. But there was one problem — she was lost, and now there were cops everywhere. “At a certain point, a police car that was driving in the opposite direction turned around and started following me,” Clark recalled. “And I continued to drive, and drove faster.”
The officer was South Nyack Police Chief Alan Colsey. When he spotted them approaching, “I made a K-turn in the middle of Mountain View Avenue. Just as I was completing my K-turn, almost wiping out the front of my car, there was that large white Buick that came, and again a high rate of speed traveling in the same direction as the Honda –– this vehicle which had previously been described as one of the vehicles that the suspects were fleeing in,” he later recalled.
The Buick was being driven by a second getaway driver — Marilyn Jean Buck — who had another of the gunmen in the car and was now leading the chase, with Clark behind her and Colsey tailing them both. The police chief stayed with the cars until they reached the intersection of 6th and Broadway, and the Buick executed a turn at speed. The Accord couldn’t make it, and instead slammed into a retaining wall. Colsey pulled over and arrested Clark and her two passengers, Brown and Gilbert. The white Buick managed to escape.
That night on the CBS Evening News, anchorman Dan Rather greeted viewers with the shocking news: “Good evening. Echoes of the violent radical underground of the 1960s rolled over the New York suburb of Nyack, today, in the botched ambush of an armored car that left one guard and two policemen dead. Among the four suspects arrested was Katherine Boudin, a fugitive since March 6, 1970, when she reportedly fled, naked, from the flaming ruins of a Greenwich Village townhouse turned bomb factory. With the arrest of Katherine Boudin, police believe they’ve all but broken up the Weather Underground.”
Not long afterwards, two of the wanted gunmen were located by police. Buck, the driver of the white Buick, was arrested four years later.
It was the end of an era.
* * * * *
Three people lost their lives that October day in Nyack, a loss that’s still felt today. Just last year, the family of Officer Waverly “Chipper” Brown told the media, “As a Black family that has roots in Nyack going back to the 19th century, the loss of Waverly Brown was very hard on us. Brown became the first African American on the Nyack Police force in 1966. That a group that purported to be fighting on behalf of African Americans caused his death is the kind of circumstance that the word irony is almost inadequate to describe.”
After her arrest, Clark’s father visited her in a Rockland County jail and screamed at his daughter through the glass. “He said, ‘How do you claim yourself supporting a Black revolution, and kill a Black officer in the line of duty?’ I think it’s both ironic and tragic and kinda shows the bankruptcy of my politics and my actions at the time,” she lamented.
The irony of the short-sighted revolution is made even more tragic by the fact that the outcome was so predictable. Way back in 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, rejected the Weathermen and their ill-advised Days of Rage. “We believe that the Weathermen actually are anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic, it’s Custer-istic –– and that’s the bad part about it, it’s Custer-istic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred,” Hampton says to the media in the documentary, The Weather Underground. “And they call that revolution. And it’s nothing but child’s play. It’s folly.”
Clark was charged with three counts of felony murder and sentenced to three consecutive 25-year sentences. She had her sentence commuted to 35 years to life by former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2006, making her eligible for parole. In prison, Clark became an AIDS educator, counseled other incarcerated women and worked with animals. In many ways, she learned to reconnect to her own humanity and sense of community.
In 2017, two years before her release, she told her parole board that she disavowed the violence she endorsed in her youth. “I think it was a way of trying to overcome being white, and with privileges,” she said. After nearly four decades in prison, Clark’s view on change-making had radically shifted. Or as she put it, “The wisdom I have now is that we are all interconnected, and anything I do, on any day, is going to affect all sorts of people that I might not know of.”