Civil Rights activist Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Byron-Chesimard, has re-appeared in the headlines after years of exile in Cuba, because on May 2, 2013, the State of New Jersey raised the bounty on her head to $2 million after the FBI promoted the 66-year-old woman to its Most Wanted Terrorist list.
Many in the African American community are shocked to learn that this astonishingly beautiful woman, whose inspirational significance has been compared to Leila Khalid, and whose contributions to the Civil Rights movement are legendary, is now being treated like the next Osama bin Laden!
Nick Chiles writes in the Atlanta Black Star that â€œto many blacks Shakur is a hero for standing up to law enforcement while she was a leader of the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s and for her forceful writings and commentary on the conditions of black people after she fled to Cuba sometime around 1984. She has been the subject of films, documentaries and rap songs over the years.â€ Why would the government do this, and why now? Is this an act of war against Cuba? Are they trying to create a Black Messiah in order to instigate a racial civil war in the US? Professor Julio Pino, who teaches history at Kent State University, told TMO, â€œItâ€™s part of the long Cold War against Cuba, but also a warning to African Americans to act like Obama or else.â€ During the earlier part of the 1970s, Shakur, an active member of the Black Panther Party and its paramilitary arm, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), assisted in clothing, educational and food drives within many dilapidated communities, and gave speeches at rallies in efforts to help empower the everyday people. The BLA organization was known to mimic the current tactics of other liberation movements around the world by robbing banks, hijacking planes, and bombing courthouses in order to make public the grievances of American blacks. They also trained and organized black people to stand up to police brutality by shooting back when attacked. Importantly, they appealed to International Laws protecting people engaged in revolutionary struggle against tyrannical government. They regarded themselves as warriors, as political prisoners, not as criminals. While their approach was very radical, the aggressive tactics of the BLA paved the road towards acceptance of Martin Luther Kingâ€™s message of human equality, in large part out of white fear that if segregation did not end, blacks would retaliate with organized violence.
Assata Shakur was convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973, though she has always maintained her innocence. Evidence shows she was shot by the police while her hands were in the air. In the aftermath, Zayd Shakur and a police officer lay dead.
Davey D writes in Hip Hop Corner, â€œIf weâ€™re gonna talk about Assata and say sheâ€™s a â€˜cop killer,â€™ letâ€™s be completely honest and put such accusations into perspective. Everyone wants to forget that in the 60s and 70s the FBI and police declared War on the black community and organizations that formed in the community to end oppression. The police and FBI went all out to destroy Black leaders and these organizations with undaunted impunity. The reason why you had BPP (Black Panther Party), SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and BLA (Black Liberation Army) was because they responded to police terrorism. They were tired of seeing the police come into our communities and take them over like an â€˜occupying army,â€™ if I may quote Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.â€
The FBI had long viewed Shakur as a black leader that needed to be neutralized, but the police hatred of her was intense. The white police officer who arrested Shakur raped her with his gun and dragged her broken and bleeding body on the street. That the New Jersey government just contributed another $1 million to the existing $1 million Federal reward for her capture on the 40th anniversary of her arrest shows that there remains a very personal sense of vendetta against her.
â€œAlthough I drifted in and out of consciousness I remember clearly that both while I was lying on the ground, and while I was in the ambulance, I kept hearing the State troopers ask â€˜is she dead yet?â€™â€ remembers Shakur.
â€œSundiata Acoli nor I ever received a fair trial. We were both convicted in the news media way before our trials. No news media was ever permitted to interview us, although the New Jersey police and the FBI fed stories to the press on a daily basis. In 1977, I was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life plus 33 years in prison.â€
Shakur was treated in an extraordinary way, put in a high security menâ€™s prison where she had to take care of her bodily functions in front of male guards, and was frequently tortured and beaten. She became pregnant by another Black Panther who shared a cell with her during her trial. She was then put in solitary confinement in a womenâ€™s prison. She gave birth in her prison cell and her baby daughter was immediately taken away from her. She was violently brutalized while still in postnatal weakness.
On November 2nd 1979, BLA comrades broke Shakur out of New Jerseyâ€™s Clinton Correctional Facility for Women by seizing the visiting area, brandishing previously concealed 45 caliber pistols, taking two officers hostage, and hijacking a prison van to escape the premises, then switching vehicles at an undisclosed area & fleeing further. Assataâ€™s brother, Mutulu Shakur and Sekou Odinga along with two white women, Silvia Baraldini and Marilyn Buck got life sentences for aiding Shakurâ€™s escape. Shakur went underground, and was given political asylum by Fidel Castro in 1983.
In 1997, the New Jersey State Police wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II upon his visit to Cuba, unprecedented in history, asking him to intervene in order to get Shakur extradited back to the US. This was combined with a vicious media smear campaign against her, coordinated with then Governor Christine Whitney. â€œIt is nothing but an attempt to bring about the re-incarnation of the Fugitive Slave Act. All I represent is just another slave that they want to bring back to the plantation. Well, I might be a slave, but I will go to my grave a rebellious slave,â€ responded Shakur.
â€œThey wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie,â€ Castro told Cuban TV.
Shakur addressed her own letter to the Pope:
â€œI first learned of the struggle and the sacrifice of Jesus in the segregated churches of the South… 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 writing to ask you to intercede on my behalf. I ask nothing for myself. I only ask you to examine the social reality of the United States and to speak out against the human rights violations that are taking place.â€