‘My Journey From Guerilla to Grandmother’: The Ms. Q&A With Katherine Ann Power

In 1970, college student Katherine Ann Power became involved with a revolutionary anti-war guerilla group. Power was the getaway driver when the group attempted to rob a Massachusetts bank to help finance the anti-war movement. During the robbery, one of her comrades shot and killed a police officer. Three robbers were caught. Power went on the run for the next 23 years. 

She took on a new identity and started a new life throughout small towns in Oregon, while on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. For years, Power lived as Alice Metzinger: baker, cook and eventually—mom.

As she reflected on her own responsibility for the officer’s death, she concluded that she needed to turn herself in to begin the long process of redemption and restitution. She served nearly six years in prison, then returned to Oregon to begin rebuilding her life. Power wrote a memoir about her experience, Surrender: My Journey from Guerilla to Grandmother.

Surrender: My Journey from Guerrilla to Grandmother by Katherine Power.

She recently talked with Ms. about her involvement in the anti-war movement, the killing of police officer Walter Schroeder, her time in prison and her reflections on it all. 

This interview has been lighted edited for clarity.

Susan Shaw: Talk a little bit about life in the 1960s and the larger social context that directly influenced you.

Katherine Ann Power: From the late ’60s up into 1970, there were a few things that dominated our consciousness. One was the Vietnam War. That was huge and ongoing. Over half of the country opposed it, yet it still went on. Nixon was elected on a promise to end it and expanded it instead. Because there was the draft, middle-class people were impacted in a way that hasn’t been true of wars since. That was a huge part of the opposition. It impacted so many more people.

Black Liberation was another key issue, starting with the civil rights movement, the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders in the early ’60s. By the late ’60s, we had the Black Panther party. The government’s repression of the Black Panther Party was violent and accomplished by infiltration. They shot at party headquarters. They bombed Black Panther Party headquarters. They regularly arrested Panthers on charges that never held, but they would hold them in prison.

And, the women’s movement was just beginning to resurge. There were two threads: one, the Betty Friedan kind. Two, women in peace and anti-racism movements who saw how they were being treated and said, “This isn’t good enough. This is not for us.”

Shaw: So how then did you become involved in the anti-war movement?

Power: I attended my first anti-war demonstration in October of 1967, just a month after I arrived at Brandeis. Before then, I received somewhat limited information from Newsweek and TIME magazine. I did not have much sense at all of how big the opposition to the war was and how bad the war was in terms of its impact on the people of Vietnam. I do not even think that came out until a little later. Here I am, arriving at Brandeis, idealistic. I was raised in a culture full of idealism, particularly impressed on me in the worldviews that I grew up with: it was my responsibility to take my role in the world. I was really looking for how to be engaged. The war was certainly the beginning of that.

Then, in April of ’68, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. That was another moment of focus for me where I just knew I had to do more.

I came from a working-class family. College on a scholarship was going to be my ticket out. That’s what I was aiming for. Over the years I was at Brandeis, the idealism became more intense and the ambition fell in the background. In those years, I think many of us felt the world was on fire and we could not go about it as we thought we were going to do.

I was raised in a culture full of idealism, particularly impressed on me in the worldviews that I grew up with: It was my responsibility to take my role in the world.

Katherine Ann Power

Shaw: So you got involved with a group of folks. Why rob a bank?

Power: Right. I got recruited to this guerilla band. I had let it be known that I wanted to do something more militant against the war. Because the troops and weapons moved by train, I had the idea to build a thermite device that could weld the train wheels to the track. This was a naïve idea I had about how we could monkey-wrench the war effort. That was at the time the Catholics [Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists] were monkey-wrenching the war by destroying draft files. These were activities that I would see somebody like me doing.

Stanley Bond was a Vietnam veteran who had been released on furlough from Walpole Prison. He was serving a sentence for many armed robberies. He was furloughed to the Brandeis campus, a nexus of communication for the nationwide strike. People reported what they were doing to us: whether they were going out on strike, how many people were involved. We were spreading that word back to everybody. He was around there and heard that I wanted to do more. He said, “I am putting together a guerilla revolutionary group. Do you want to join?”

I had no idea what we would do. But I felt like that was the recruiting offer I’d been looking for. He recruited two other people from prison who were on furlough at Northeastern University. The skill set was breaking and entering and armed robbery. None of them had charges that involved violence toward people.

At the time, the revolutionaries in Latin America were robbing banks to finance the revolution, so Bond’s idea was that our guerilla band would rob banks to finance the revolution. The Weather Underground had started to get built and the Catholic Left had started to build an underground. None of us really knew what we meant by making a revolution. We just knew that we felt like it was on the horizon.

Shaw: So it hadn’t occurred to anybody that someone would get hurt in this?

Power: There’s a great big piece of the culpability right there.

On the day I surrendered, I was at the federal courthouse with Kathleen Branigan from the FBI, one of the two law enforcement agencies that I surrendered to. We walked past a holding cell where some of the people were trying to cheer me on, saying I was their hero. I knew that was the wrong story, but I didn’t know at that moment what the right story was. [Branigan] said something motherly: “You should have known better. You should have known that if you were going to run around with people with guns that somebody is going to get killed.”

I was in a naïve denial about that. I was just not a violent person, even expressively. War was our model of change. That laboratory, anti-colonial wars in Africa had been successful. War was certainly our nation’s model of stopping the forces that it didn’t want to have come. I never pictured what happens after you enlist. In that, I share an experience that a lot of Vietnam veterans have shared with me.

Shaw: After the robbery and the murder you went on the lam and ended up in Oregon. You became the mom next door, the woman who could bake, the woman who could cook. What was living that double life like? Were you always afraid there could be that knock at the door and there would be the FBI?

Power: There were two strains. That life was largely made of showing up every day and being engaged in the life I was living. With my family, my son and my partner, and with gardening, hunting and being with my neighbors. That was a very strong strain, just being in that life, in an everyday way.

Then there was always that fear that the knock at the door would come. I tried to be as careful as I could, managing my exposure and risk so that wouldn’t happen. But it was always just there as a nervous background noise.

Shaw: How during this time were you processing police officer Walter Schroeder’s death?

Power: It was walled behind shame. I couldn’t look at it because I couldn’t see myself as a decent human being if I looked at that as my action and the consequences of my action.

Shaw: So you had been really successful with this—you were Alice and everybody knew Alice. Why surrender?

Power: Living as Alice was my adaptation to the circumstances of my fugitive life and it had come to its limits. I suffered from depression. I come from a family with Familial Depressive Disorder so I knew that I suffered depression. I tried to manage it with workaholism but that collapsed. All of the projects ended all at once and there I was. I was so depressed that I literally could not leave the house.

Living as Alice was my adaptation to the circumstances of my fugitive life and it had come to its limits.

Katherine Ann Power

Power: I saw a display ad in the paper for a workshop for women in depression. It was at the hospital in Albany, a blue-collar town. I thought it looked safe. I was sure I was headed for a nurse talking about how to manage depression with lifestyle, exercise and not eating sugar.

I got there and Linda Carroll was the one doing the workshop. She said, “I’m a family therapist.” I wanted to run screaming from the room because people with secrets to keep do not go to therapists. But I didn’t want to draw attention to myself so I just sat there. But I literally could not talk without crying, I was so depressed. I was just waiting for the session to end so I could leave and be safe again.

Then she said to the people in the room, “So where is your soul in all of this?” That question felt like it unlocked my heart. What was wrong in my life was at the soul level and not at the circumstantial level. I somehow knew that I had to say yes and trust something that got opened up.

Most of the people in the group dropped out so there were only two of us. We had a session where we talked about our family of origin. I had my pat story about how I was separated from my family and disagreements about the Vietnam War. Linda said, “You’re never going to get better if you can’t resolve your issues with your family of origin.”

She and I were walking out of the hospital that night. I said, “Come over here.” We sat down in the waiting room of the hospital, all the lights were off. It was dark and we sat there. I said, “I want to tell you why I can’t connect with my family of origin.”

I told her I was a fugitive. She thought that no one could be looking for me. That was 20 years ago. I said, “No, I think they’re pretty much looking for me. That was a police officer that was killed.” She said, “Maybe you should talk to an attorney I know who might be willing to deal with something that was kind of irregular.”

I got in touch with Stephen Black, who was in Corvallis. He started the process of inquiring what would happen if I surrendered. What kind of a plea agreement could I negotiate? The Feds said they would go with the state. So he got in touch with an attorney in Boston and she got in touch with the state. We went through over a year of negotiations.

A couple of things: I started taking anti-depressants and I got a letter from my family. The FBI agent went to my family when negotiations were stuck and said to write a letter.

The letter said, “Come home. We miss you.” Then we were able to negotiate. It became clear to me that the sentence would not be less than eight to 12 years.

The breakthrough came when the prosecutor in Massachusetts said, “What if she could serve the sentence in a prison closer to her home? It would still be the same amount of time.” That was the very best we could get. I felt—even though we had hoped that the efforts to reach out and negotiate would be as conservative, strict and reversible as possible—every amount of exposure is an amount of exposure. It became clear that was what I had to do.

The thing about oppressive situations is, what is your adaptation? What practices and worldviews guide you? How do you build community? How do you maintain your sense of yourself as a whole and sacred being when you are in an environment that hates you and wants to tear that down?

Katherine Ann Power

Shaw: In your book, you do not go into much detail about your time in prison. I remember in conversations that we had, you talked about what it taught you about the criminal justice system and the prison system itself. What are some of the lessons you learned? What did you observe and experience about what it means to be incarcerated?

Power: I always start with a couple of cautions that who is in prison is based on race and class. What kinds of theft and mayhem are criminalized is one sifter. Then, who gets prosecuted for actually breaking the law is another sifter. Who ends up in what kinds of prisons is another sifter. Many of the women I was in prison with were from among the dispossessed.

A few things are going on in prison. One is the punishment project. Society has assigned the balancing of scales to the department of corrections. We hurt other people; we have to be hurt back. We caused suffering; we have to suffer. The experience intends to inflict suffering. That appeals to the meanness of some of the people who work in the system. Not all, but certainly some. There are not many effective curbs on how mean they can be. So there is a lot of arbitrary abuse that can be as mild as being spoken to in a scolding fashion for breaking some rule that you are not in fact breaking and the officer is wrong.

When the temperatures in our unit were over 90 degrees, they couldn’t allow the unlocking of the screens so that the windows could be opened. I spoke to a lieutenant about this situation, and she said to me, “You’re to talk to me with the respect I am due as a lieutenant, or I will lock you.” I thought, I am asking for conditions that a dog would not be kept in, and you want me to respect you as a lieutenant or you are going to send me to solitary confinement. The arbitrariness of enforcement is never-ending. That is one level of what it is like.

And there is deprivation. You are not around your family. If you are fortunate enough to have visits, you get a quick hug and kiss at the start and end—at least we have face-to-face visits. Phone calls cost a fortune. Some of the states are now starting to make phone calls with family free of charge. That is crucial because one of the most important deterrents to reoffending, to be returned to prison, is your connection with your family.

We had canteen orders where we could buy and prepare more palatable food than what was offered in the prison system. Some people had enough money to do that. The systems that are possible change arbitrarily. We had a stovetop, then that became only a microwave. We had refrigerated and frozen food, then that became only shelf-stable food. Everything is unpredictable. You are constantly adapting to the circumstances.

Then there is the engagement with the circumstances. You could see it as a cloister walk. I walked from one building to another several times a day in every season for years. I brought my attention to what was on that walk and received it with awe and gratitude. I had pastoral visits. One was from an 80-year-old Catholic nun who was absolutely wonderful. The Catholic pastoral counseling accepted my language for how I encountered the divine or the numinous. We would sit for an hour every week and say, “So where did you encounter the divine in your life this week?” We had equality in that as they would talk about where they did.

I finished my degree in the Boston University education program. I had a job where I cleaned the showers and the kitchen. Eventually, I worked in the education department with a computer-assisted instruction program for which someone had bought the software. I was like almost every other woman in the prison. We went to rec, had our spiritual practices, had our jobs, walked and worked out. When we went to rec, we would be in an inmate-led aerobics class. For several of my years, there was a garden. Five of us would be assigned to the garden plot, like a community garden.

The thing about oppressive situations is, what is your adaptation? What practices and worldviews guide you? How do you build community? How do you maintain your sense of yourself as a whole and sacred being when you are in an environment that hates you and wants to tear that down? I learned that from many oppressed people. They were my guides. Being oppressed is not a new thing in the human experience. I learned a lot from the women who were in prison and the cultures they brought in and continued to support.

(Courtesy of Katherine Ann Power)

Shaw: You tell the story in the book about when you went before the parole board and, much to everyone’s surprise, you withdrew your application for parole. Why did you do that?

Power: A little bit of background: I was sentenced to eight to 12 years, five years with statutory good time. When it became clear that Massachusetts was not going to let me transfer out, a state official told my attorney, “Tell her to put her head down and earn all the good time she can.” That is what I did.

I became eligible for parole after four and a half years. Parole is an interesting concept. The point of it is being released from inside of prison bars, but you are still under very tight supervision. It is supposed to be a transition to living in the community unsupervised. The punishment model is very withholding of release on parole and calls it an early release from suffering.

I had no idea whether I would be paroled or not. Defense attorneys believe you are entitled to parole if you have been well-behaved, but the punishment model does not believe in any entitlement. I knew I had to try and apply for parole for two reasons. One is because I owed it to my son to try to get back to his life. He was 14 when I surrendered and 18 then. The second reason: to be in that parole hearing with the members of Walter Schroeder’s family and community was going to be my only opportunity ever to express in an unmediated fashion my remorse for my actions that resulted in their loss.

I did a lot of deep work to prepare for the hearing. First, I rooted out the depths of my defensiveness, every “yes, but… what about the generals?” Two, is to have—deeply, deeply, deeply—the practice of an open heart. So that whenever I started to be provoked into defensiveness, I had a friend who was just very good at the practice and would reflect back to me the heart. I had deep training and a softened heart.

I went into the hearing. The parole board questioned me for an hour and a half. I could tell that what I came there to do was not happening. It just was not happening. Then, it was my turn to sit on the side and listen to Walter Schroeder’s family members.

His brother spoke. His widow spoke. His brother said, “Four and a half years just isn’t enough time. She just should be serving more time.” His widow spoke about her fears because some of her children worked as police officers. She could not talk to her grandchildren about how afraid she was they would not come home from work. Two of the Schroeder brothers talked about how hard their lives have been. I just felt I could know these people. They could have been my co-workers, my neighbors or people from Oregon. I was sitting on the side just listening, crying and listening and crying and listening and crying and listening.

Then it was Clare Schroeder’s turn to speak. Throughout this process, she has been sort of the family spokesperson. She spoke scathingly about what I had written of my sense of responsibility. She asked, where was that sense of remorse in all of the earlier statements?

She spoke about one of her brothers who was killed in a fight. The person who killed him was charged with manslaughter and received a sentence of a few years. They did not feel that was enough, but that was what the law could give them, so they followed it. When they were consulted about a sentence of eight to 12 years for me, they did not feel it was enough, but that was what the law could give them. They followed the law. She said, “Now she doesn’t even want to keep that agreement.”

Four and a half years was not the same as what they had agreed to. I understood in that moment. I had studied peace processes and there is a moment in enmities where one side can break through to see the other’s narrative as legitimate. I used the wisdom from all of those peace processes at that moment as guidance. Then Clare said, “Anyone with half a brain would know that you have to show remorse to be paroled.” In that moment, I saw what I could give. If I decoupled my expression of remorse from a request to be released on parole—perhaps it could be heard.

Shaw: Have you heard anything from the Schroeders since?

Power: There are two things that I have heard since. That night, I was back in prison. They shackled me up and I said, “I know I have done something that will make the headlines, but I do not care. That is not what it is about.” At the prison, the TV news covered what happened. Clare and her younger sister Erin Schroeder came out and they said, “We believe her.”

Several years later, the Fraser Institute funded a series of films on forgiveness by Helen Whitney. One of the episodes was about my story. Clare and I are never on camera together, but Whitney juxtaposes both of us speaking. Helen asks Clare about forgiveness and Clare says something I consider very profound. She said, “That moment when my father was killed was where her life and my life intersected, and she will always be that for me, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t go on to have the life she hopes to have, and I wish her well in it.”

I feel that was an end to the enmity that was begun in 1970.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.