A Question of Justice
FBI Seeks to Make an Example of Exiled Assata Shakur
MAY 5, 2013, A Question of Justice
This week the FBI sent out a symbolic warning. That warning, though heavily veiled behind a sacrificial lamb, said “Do not resist the government. Know your place or be prepared to die.” Sounds a bit harsh, right? But, I’m not the only person who feels the FBI’s actions in regards to Assata Shakur come at an interesting time, and are far more about the bigger picture than this passionate woman and a New Jersey state trooper.
Assata Shakur became the first woman added to the FBI’s most wanted terror listthis week. And in announcing her as one of the top ten most wanted “terrorists”, the agency also said they would be increasing the reward for her capture to $2 million.
Formerly known as Joanne Chesimard (the name that the FBI—with no pretenses of respect–still refers to her as), Shakur was found guilty of killing a New Jersey law enforcement officer in 1973. She was shot twice that night by the police (once while both hands were above her head and once in the back). But it was she who was sentenced to life in prison. Maintaining her innocence, she escaped prison and sought refuge in Cuba where she has been ever since.
To the mainstream media and anyone who uses it as their sole source of information, this may seem like an open and shut case. But, if you know anything about the Black Power era, read about COINTELPRO, or if you’ve heard names like Fred Hampton, Leonard Peltier, or the “MOVE 9”, you know the police (including the FBI) acting on behalf of the U.S. government has a history of covert, unethical, illegal, and racist practices. And if you are hip to today’s War on Terror and its sweeping generalizations of what makes a terrorist, the renewed interest in Assata Shakur should be troubling.
Assata Shakur was, and remains, a revolutionary. She was an active member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. In a nation founded on the backs of Africans, she stood up with her colleagues against a system deeply rooted in the system of oppression. In Assata’s own words, it was this challenge to the most powerful nation in the U.S. that led the FBI to target the Black Panther Party in the first place.
By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become the number one organization targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. because the Black Panther Party demanded the total liberation of black people, J. Edgar Hoover called it “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and vowed to destroy it and its leaders and activists.
The Black Panther Party– which did such “terrorizing” things as feeding schoolchildren (creating what we now have as the school-lunch program), providing medical clinics, offering drug-alcohol education and treatment, and clothing distribution—is, in modern terms, a terrorist group. Alone, these things may have been acceptable. But paired with their “pro-Black” stance and their unabashed disdain for the system designed to keep them quiet, they were (and remain) a threat to the status quo.
The naming of Assata Shakur to the terror list is less about her and more about who she is and what she stands for. Like all true revolutionaries, she spoke up, either unafraid or overcoming fear to stand for truth and rights. And from her current home in Cuba, she continues to speak up today.
Shakur herself put it best in a 1998 letter to the Pope:
I understand that the New Jersey State Police have written to you and asked you to intervene and to help facilitate my extradition back to the United States. I believe that their request is unprecedented in history. Since they have refused to make their letter to you public, although they have not hesitated to publicize their request, I am completely uninformed as to the accusations they are making against me. Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat?
I grew up and became a political activist, participating in student struggles, the anti-war movement, and, most of all, in the movement for the liberation of African Americans in the United States. I later joined the Black Panther Party, an organization that was targeted by the COINTELPRO program, a program that was set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to eliminate all political opposition to the U.S. government’s policies, to destroy the Black Liberation Movement in the United States, to discredit activists and to eliminate potential leaders.
Under the COINTELPRO program, many political activists were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or otherwise neutralized. As a result of being targeted by COINTELPRO, I, like many other young people, was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death. The FBI, with the help of local police agencies, systematically fed false accusations and fake news articles to the press accusing me and other activists of crimes we did not commit. Although in my case the charges were eventually dropped or I was eventually acquitted, the national and local police agencies created a situation where, based on their false accusations against me, any police officer could shoot me on sight. It was not until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the mid-’70s that we began to see the scope of the United States government’s persecution of political activists.
At this point, I think that it is important to make one thing very clear. I have advocated and I still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the United States. I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.
To make a long story short, I was captured in New Jersey in 1973, after being shot with both arms held in the air, and then shot again from the back. I was left on the ground to die and when I did not, I was taken to a local hospital where I was threatened, beaten and tortured. In 1977 I was convicted in a trial that can only be described as a legal lynching.
In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee.
I believe that some people spell God with one “O” while others spell it with two. What we call God is unimportant, as long as we do God’s work. There are those who want to see God’s wrath fall on the oppressed and not on the oppressors. I believe that the time has ended when slavery, colonialism, and oppression can be carried out in the name of religion. It was in the dungeons of prison that I felt the presence of God up close, and it has been my belief in God, and in the goodness of human beings that has helped me to survive. I am not ashamed of having been in prison, and I am certainly not ashamed of having been a political prisoner. I believe that Jesus was a political prisoner who was executed because he fought against the evils of the Roman Empire, because he fought against the greed of the money changers in the temple, because he fought against the sins and injustices of his time. As a true child of God, Jesus spoke up for the poor, for the meek, for the sick, and the oppressed. The early Christians were thrown into lions’ dens. I will try and follow the example of so many who have stood up in the face of overwhelming oppression.
So what can the FBI achieve by capturing Shakur or even merely putting her on the list? It’s my opinion that they care less about Shakur herself and more about squashing current opposition to their power. They want to shut her up, but they also want you to know that if you vocally and physically resist their power, you too could be labeled a terrorist, hunted, and– for all intents and purposes—killed for your actions. They want the people of this country, and specifically the people who would dream of bucking the system, to submit and comply. And this passionate, determined woman has become their lamb.
Photo credit: dignidadrebelde
© 2013, Elizabeth Renter. All rights reserved.
Group Files Petition in Support of Assata Shakur, Asks Obama to Investigate
Why, after so many years, would the FBI decide to place a 65-year old activist on it’s most wanted terrorists list? People are asking this question about Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who has been able to evade authorities for the last 40 years. Her conviction for allegedly killing a police officer and wounding another has long been called into question and she has garnered a tremendous amount of public support, particularly within the black community.
A group has filed a petition on behalf of Shakur, asking that President Barack Obama form a panel to do an unbiased investigation. The group says that, despite the scant evidence that Shakur actually shot anyone, the authorities insist on pursuing her.
This week, the Newark, New Jersey FBI office named Shakur to the “Most Wanted Terrorists” List, despite the fact that she hasn’t harmed anyone in over 40 years. The group also announced a $2 million dollar reward for her capture, drawing the attention of bounty hunters around the world.
In the petition, filed with Change.org, the group is asking that Shakur be left alone by the authorities:
“She’s been living in political assylum in Cuba, unable to return to the United States for fear of being killed or imprisoned. We must strike a blow for justice by fighting this ongoing campaign to smear her name and unfairly imprison her,” the petition states.
In their letter to the president, the group is asking President Obama to do the following:
1. Launch a federal and state investigation to determine the validity of Ms. Shakur’s initial conviction and prison sentence
Assata: Exile since 1979
On May 2 1973, Black Panther activist Assata Olugbala Shakur (fsn) Joanne Deborah Chesimard, was pulled over by the New Jersey State Police, shot twice and then charged with murder of a police officer. Assata spent six and a half years in prison under brutal circumstances before escaping out of the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979 and moving to Cuba.
Assata: In her own words
My name is Assata (“she who struggles”) Olugbala ( “for the people” ) Shakur (“the thankful one”), and I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color. I am an ex political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984. I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the U.S. government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one. In the 1960s, I participated in various struggles: the black liberation movement, the student rights movement, and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. I joined the Black Panther Party. By 1969 the Black Panther Party had become the number one organization targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. because the Black Panther Party demanded the total liberation of black people, J. Edgar Hoover called it “greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and vowed to destroy it and its leaders and activists.
May 3, 2013
The New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG-NYC) denounces the renewed attacks on Assata Shakur (s/n Joanne Chesimard) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement authorities in the State of New Jersey. The FBI has designated the 65-year old former Black Panther Party member a “terrorist” and increased the bounty for her capture to $2 million.
Assata Shakur is a former member of the Black Panther Party in New York City. That organization, which advocated community control and self-determination in the Black community, was the chief target of the FBI’s infamous counterintelligence program known as “COINTELPRO”. According to documents released in the 1970’s, COINTELPRO’s stated goal was to “expose, misdirect, destroy and neutralize” Black political organizations and their leadership. The illegal and unconstitutional program resulted in the police murder of scores of BPP members, including Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago, and the frame-ups and wrongful convictions of many others, such as Geronimo Pratt and Dhoruba Bin Wahad, both of whom spent two decades in prison before their frame-ups were exposed. Many former Panthers remain in prison today.
Labelled by law enforcement as a leader of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), by 1973 Assata was listed as a suspect in virtually dozens of acts where a Black woman was thought to have been involved. After her May 2, 1973 arrest, she was tried repeatedly for armed robberies and assaults, and each time was either acquitted or the charges were dismissed.
Her May 2, 1973 arrest and conviction were the product of a New Jersey State Police “stop” for an alleged traffic infraction. Police opened fire, killing Panther leader Zayd Malik Shakur. As trial evidence showed, Assata raised her hands but was shot once in the front and again in the back. She was left to die on the road. Another Panther in the car, Sundiata Acoli, was wounded, was able to escape, but was captured a few days later. Assata was charged with felony murder on Trooper Forrester, who also died in the shootout. She was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life. She escaped custody in 1979 and thereafter went to Cuba. In the 1980’s that government, after concluding that Assata faced political persecution in the United States, granted her full asylum in accordance with international law.
The determining factor in labeling Assata Shakur a “terrorist” was the FBI’s assertion that she continues to espouse radical, revolutionary and “anti-U.S.” ideology. This candid observation by the FBI is in accordance with its continuing COINTELPRO operation. According to a 1969 FBI document, one of COINTELPRO’s goals was to insure that “the Negro youth and moderate must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.” The FBI’s action is an attack on Assata Shakur. But it is also an attack on all those who believe in and advocate for fundamental change in the social order in the United States. Advocating for freedom, human rights and self-determination and against racist police attacks is not terrorism. It is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment and international law.
We call on the U.S. government and State of New Jersey to rescind its bounty on Assata Shakur. We further demand that all efforts to secure her extradition cease and that her political asylum be respected. We further urge that Sundiata Acoli (s/n Clark Squire), who is over 70 years old and who has been incarcerated for over 40 years, be released to parole supervision.
The National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest public interest/human rights bar organization in the United States. Its headquarters are in New York and it has members in every state.
“The Eyes on the Rainbow” Assata in her own words
“Like most poor people in the United States, I have no voice. The Black press and the progressive media, as well as Black civil rights organizations, have historically played an essential role in the struggle for social justice. We should continue and expand that tradition. We should create media outlets that help to educate our people and our children, and not annihilate their minds. I am only one woman. I own no TV stations or radio stations or newspapers. But I believe that people need to be educated as to what is going on and to understand the connection between the news media and the instruments of repression in America. All I have are my voice, my spirit and the will to tell the truth. But I sincerely ask those of you in the Black media, those of you in the progressive media and those of you who believe in truth and freedom to publish my story.’