Image via New Jersey Department of Corrections
Activist Assata Shakur is lying low. Somewhere in Cuba, the 67-year-old African American—born JoAnne Chesimard—is still hiding out, 40 years after she was branded a fugitive. Shakur was a prominent female member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, and became the subject of a nationwide manhunt after she was named the prime suspect for a string of bank robberies and "execution-style" murders of New York City police officers in the early 70s.
Shakur was eventually apprehended on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. A routine roadside check by state troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper turned into a gun battle that left two out of five people dead and a whole lot of unanswered questions about who was responsible. Traveling in a car with Zayd Shakur (born James Coston) and Sundiata Acoli (born Clark Squire), two other well-known activists at the time, Shakur ended up with three bullets in her body and one arm paralyzed almost beyond recovery, according to reports from Vibe magazine, NPR, and Shakur's own account in her recent autobiography. But the FBI and the American mainstream press (including Fox News, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, and the Associated Press) offer up a different story.
According to the Feds, Shakur shot and killed Foerster in cold blood and then tried to flee the scene. She was eventually convicted of Foerster's murder in 1977 but served two years in prison before she broke out in 1979, lived underground for five years, and escaped to Cuba in 1984.
It wasn't until May last year, though, that Shakur made history when she became the first woman to land on the FBI's Most Wanted terrorist list—joining such company as plane hijacker Mohammed Ali Hamadei and Saudi national Ibrahim Salih Mohammed al Yacoub. "JoAnne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style," said Aaron T. Ford, special agent in charge of the FBI's Newark Division, in a May 2013 press release regarding Shakur's upgrade to the list."Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Werner Foerster's death, we want the public to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice." Why, decades after her escape and well into her 60s, was Shakur suddenly deemed to be a renewed threat?
To understand how this petite woman from Queens, New York, came to threaten the US government as much as men reportedly linked to Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, you have to backtrack. You've got to connect the dots between rappers like Common and Chuck D name-checking her in song, the wider context of the black power movement, and the tension between black revolutionaries and the state. Only then could you make up your mind about Shakur: Is she friend or foe? Fugitive and felon, or heroine to the children of the black power and civil rights struggles?
"You don't get Assata Shakur lessons during Black History Month in elementary school, with the images of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King," says writer and blogger Mychal Denzel Smith with a laugh, over the phone from New York. "It just wasn't stuff I was exposed to. But in my teens, I started listening to hip-hop and artists who weren't necessarily getting all the radio play. I started hearing Assata's name mentioned in those folks' rhymes." Born in 1986, Smith wasn't of the East Coast generation that would've been somewhat familiar with Shakur's face from the Wanted posters the New York Daily News plastered around the city when she was charged with a spate of crimes in the late 60s and early 70s.
Instead, it was rappers whose music was released by the Rawkus Records label—Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch—who piqued Smith's interest in Shakur's story, as well as Common and Cee-Lo Green's "A Song For Assata." Tupac gave Assata a shout-out in "Words of Wisdom" and was both her godson and the stepson of her brother, Mutulu Shakur. Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mother, was in the Black Liberation Army alongside Assata. Her connections to music extend further, with poet and rapper Saul Williams (who starred in the recent Tupac-tinged flop musical Holler if Ya Hear Me) name-checking her left and right. "If you want to understand Tupac, read the autobiography of Assata Shakur," he told Noisey's Drew Millard earlier this summer. "That's his aunt, and read what's happening with her right now, via the state of New Jersey. She's listed as the number-two Most Wanted terrorist in America today... for something that went down in 1976, based on COINTELPRO."
Yeah, about that. From 1956 until 1971 the FBI collected information for its anti-terrorism counterintelligence program, dubbed COINTELPRO. The program grouped the Black Liberation Movement, Black Panthers, and other black nationalist organizations with the Communist Party of the US, Socialist Workers party, and the Ku Klux Klan—terrorists, in the Bureau's view. It wasn't the most constitutional program at times. Or, in the FBI's own words, "although limited in scope... COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights and for other reasons."
COINTELPRO's cover was blown when a March 1971 break-in at an FBI office uncovered hundreds of documents detailing the surveillance that various groups had been placed under by both the FBI and local police forces. For example:
Scans via the FBI
Together, the government and local law enforcement covertly monitored, anonymously called, and relentlessly arrested black power activists (often on charges "pushed against" them). They also used radio stations and newspapers to deliberately skew public opinion. Tactics like these demonstrate the sort of threat to national cohesion that Assata and other black nationalists represented at the time—clearly enough of a worry to warrant running a 23-city wide program like COINTELPRO.
To rapper Akala, raised in a pan-African tradition in London, it was Assata Shakur's status as a black, female radical that pretty much encapsulates her place on the Most Wanted list. "She is a threat," he tells me, on a sticky July afternoon. "But she's not a threat in the way the FBI and the American government want us to believe she's a threat. She's a threat in that she represents the one that got away. Pretty much every other black revolutionary of her era was killed, imprisoned, silenced, put in exile." Akala lists a flurry of names, ranging from Huey Newton and Malcolm X to Geronimo Pratt and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking with the sort of weary impatience that sounds as though he's made (or labored) this point before, Akala continues, "When the American government says Assata Shakur is a threat, they mean what she represents—a black woman who refused to compromise in any way, shape, or form with white supremacy and escaped to the 21st century 'maroon' camp of Cuba (as she calls it)—is a threat."
Akala hits on a basic point, reiterated by 20th-century American history academic Anna Hartnell: Shakur's place on the list is both totally ludicrous and completely logical. "Why the US government want to flag this up now is both mysterious and disturbing," Hartnell writes in an email. When we speak over the phone, she elaborates: "If they really were pursuing her for what they say they're pursuing her for, it doesn't make any sense. She was a large figure of threat, and the United States government are asserting the fact that they are still interested."
They're still interested because Shakur's beliefs go against the American narrative of progress. She experienced a different America than the post-racial beacon of exceptionalism that people propagate today. In her view, the story of a nation built on white supremacy and black enslavement couldn't be that simple. "America says that it's the greatest nation on the face of the earth, the greatest nation to have ever existed. And it needs a history to match. So you tell this story so it doesn't look so bad," says Smith, articulating the perspective Shakur worked to debunk.
Shakur represents a challenge to that perfectly formed narrative. For the FBI, that level of dissent just isn't acceptable. Her survival over decades that saw other radicals imprisoned, murdered, and snuffed out goes against the Bureau's plan to "neutralize" and "frustrate" the activities of black nationalists. As such, perhaps it only makes sense that they're still on her tail and that she's still lying low.
Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur with forewords by Angela Davis and Lennox Hinds, is available now from Zed Books priced $15. There will be a launch event for the book on August 21st at the Black Cultural Archives with rapper Akala, performance poet Zena Edwards, and others.
Tshepo is a Guardian journalist—follow her on Twitter.
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