Judith Clark understands why being a person is better than being a symbol. A symbol is isolated, detached from the push and pull of everyday life; and absolute, complete in and of itself. A person, on the other hand, lives in connection with others, affects and is affected by them; a person is incomplete, and full of possibilities. In 1983, when she was 33 (she is now 67), Judith Clark thought a lot about symbols and defined herself as one; specifically, she thought herself a symbol of the Revolution. Reflecting on what happened in 1983, Judith Clark now says she tragically limited how she could think about both herself and other people. As she puts it, thinking about herself as symbol, she lost her humanity. She failed to think about the victims of the Brink’s robbery, their families, and her own family. Now, Judith Clark thinks about herself as a person, and she has recovered her humanity. The wonderful work she has done for others during her 35 years in prison – including training dogs for work with disabled veterans and police officers, working as a chaplain’s assistant, helping develop a college program in the prison, supporting women with AIDS, leading prenatal and newborn classes – shows the change. Her thoughts about herself have moved from Judith Clark as symbol to Judith Clark as a distinctive individual living with and responsible to distinctive other individuals, in a distinctive place and time. In other words, she is actively, flexibly, and deeply thinking about herself as a person. Hannah Arendt would simply say she is thinking: “To think and to be fully alive are the same thing.” (Arendt, The life of the mind: Thinking)
Sadly, members of her parole board chose to regress, to bring us back to symbols and ignore the promise of persons. In their decision not to grant her parole, they throw Judith Clark back into the role of symbol. They confine her to being a symbol, no longer of the revolution, but a symbol of a cop killer. They ignore Judith Clark the person and all that she has become and done while in prison; and fail to imagine all that she might contribute to the wider society if released. They do the same to themselves. They confine themselves to being a symbol of the toughness of our society when it comes to crimes that involve policemen’s deaths. They ignore what each of them is capable of, and their own possibilities for growth. They fail to imagine what more they could do as persons to address the serious problem of violence between police and citizens. They stop, after the countless testimonies from a diversity of sources that support her release and after 7 hours of talking with her, and simply say “no.” They limit how Judith Clark can think about herself and they limit how they think about themselves. They lose their appetite for meaning and the possibility of needed social change.
It is more than likely that if men were ever to lose the appetite for meaning which we call thinking, and cease to ask unanswerable questions, they would lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things which we call works of art but also the capacity for asking all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.
The New Yorker (21 November 1977)
The parole board’s decision also minimizes the thinking the rest of us can do. Do we really need symbols of the complexities and horrors of the relationships between police and people in society? Do we not have enough actual instances of those relationships? Can’t we leave aside symbols and use those real life cases to contend with, feel responsible to, and attempt to resolve the issues? Violence between police and citizens is a serious problem that requires not symbols but persons who create possibilities for and take concrete action towards solutions. One hopes that the members of the parole board, as individuals and as a group, find their humanity the next time they are asked to rule. One hopes they provide room for all of us, with Judith Clark at the forefront of their thoughts, to act as persons.
 Judith Clark was one of eight people involved in the Brink’s 1981 truck robbery in New York that went terribly wrong. In the course of events, one Brink’s guard and two policemen died. Judith was a driver of a get-away car. She and Kathy Boudin and the six men had worked in groups labeled as politically radical, over many years prior to the robbery. At the 1983 trail, Judith showed no remorse and simply held to the stance of one committed to the revolution. She had no legal defense, she was sent to the basement and heard the court proceedings over a loud speaker. She was charged with felony murder and sentenced to 75 years in prison. Kathy Boudin, who pleaded guilty and had strong legal representation, was sentenced to 25 years. Kathy was released on parole after 20 years, in 2002.
Kathy enrolled in courses I taught at The Graduate School at CUNY. She now holds a degree in social work and a Ph.D. in education. She teaches at Columbia where she is co-director of their Center on Justice. She is a regular target of FOX news and Breitbart. They want her fired from Columbia but the university has remained supportive of her. Through Kathy, I learned that Judith Clark, imprisoned at Bedford Hills facility for women, was interested in narrative psychology and the study of lives (what I was teaching). I visited her in the prison and had wonderful conversations. Judith had changed dramatically from the single-minded radical of the 1983 courtroom. She had done extensive work with a psychoanalyst who was also a Buddhist. From this, she developed her own unique and very deep spirituality. She worked in the prison with women with AIDS, women who were pregnant and with young children, helped develop a college program for inmates, and became a chaplain. Also, she was doing extraordinary work in the training of dogs for work with disabled veterans and police. Talking with her, I knew I was in the presence of a remarkable and rare person who felt deep sorrow for what she had done. I wrote in support of her being released on parole. Many people wrote, and we waited. Finally, Governor Cuomo granted her clemency. He said the case for her release was remarkably strong.