Why now? On May 2—the 40th anniversary of the New Jersey Turnpike gun-fight that landed her in prison—the FBI made veteran Black Panther Assata Shakur the first woman on its "Most Wanted Terrorists" list, doubling the reward for her capture to $2 million. Shakur is in exile in Cuba, and Cuba's own right-wing exiles in Miami have campaigned for her extradition. But it's the NJ State Police that seem to have brought the pressure, with Trenton putting up the extra million dollars. "She continues to flaunt her freedom in the face of this horrific crime," State Police superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said at a press conference, calling the case "an open wound" for troopers in New Jersey and around the country.
Joanne Chesimard, as she was then known, was convicted in 1977 in the killing four years earlier of state trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop on the Turnpike. Police said Chesimard and two comrades—members of the militant Black Liberation Army (BLA)—opened fire on the cops, with Chesimard shooting Foerster with his own gun as he lay wounded on the ground. But Shakur contended the police opened fire first, while she had her hands up, and that she never got a shot off. After she was convicted of Foerster's murder, facing a mandatory life term, Shakur said a "racist" jury had "convicted a woman with her hands up."
Shakur escaped from prison in 1979 with the help of the BLA and the Weather Underground. After five years living in safe houses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she surfaced under her new name in Cuba in 1984. At the May 2 press conference, the FBI exploited Cuba's official but dubious designation by the US as a "state sponsor of terrorism." Agent Aaron Ford of the FBI's Newark division said "Chesimard" continues to preach "revolution and terrorism" from Havana, and added that she may have connections to "other international terrorist organizations." (See coverage at AP, NBC, Jezebel, Atlanta Black Star)
Note the obvious distortions. No example is given of Shakur's advocacy of "terrorism." The words "revolution and terrorism" are invoked as a single phrase as if one necessarily implies the other. No "other international terrorist organizations" are actually mentioned; this is a cheap attempt to lump Shakur in with al-Qaeda or whoever without actually taking any responsibility for it. Even the word "other" is completely dishonest, because no "international terrorist organizations" have been mentioned at all. Even if we are to call the BLA "terrorist" (an absurd stretch), they were not "international," and disbanded more than a decade before the State Department "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" list was established in 1996.
The application of the "terrorism" label to Shakur is an attempt to build consensus around an essentially fictitious version of the USA's own recent history. Shakur, the step-aunt of late rapper Tupac Shakur (her brother was Tupac's stepfather), remains a hero for many—which is why she needs to be thusly discredited. Read her 1987 memoir Assata: An Autobiography and decide for yourself if she sounds like a "terrorist." But the FBI is wagering that most will just read the disingenuous quotes from their press conference, dutifully presented without context or counterbalance by wire service scribes. Natasha Lennard writes in Salon:
James Braxton Peterson, Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, has argued that the continued interest in Shakur's capture reflects an evasion on the part of the U.S. government to truly come to terms with its racist recent past. "It is unlikely that our government will ever be able to come to terms with its own role in the violent racial conflicts of its immediate past, and thus unlikely that Assata will ever be able to live freely in her country of origin—these United States," he wrote. The point being that if Black Panthers continue to be framed as dangerous, violent terrorists, the government's role in the race war that birthed the panthers can be neatly tucked into history's unread footnotes.
And Shakur's is not the only case of ongoing federal punishment of former black panthers. Perhaps the most telling example of all is the treatment of the "Angola 3." As I noted earlier this year, former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, one of the "Angola 3," has been in solitary confinement in Angola Prison for 40 years for the murder of a guard, despite the fact that evidence strongly suggests his innocence. Although a federal judge has overturned his conviction, Louisiana is likely to keep Woodfox locked up. He has been ordered free by a judge three times now, but remains behind bars. The only freed member of the three, Robert King, was released after 29 years in solitary confinement when his conviction was overturned in 2001.
From Cuba, Shakur has declared herself a "20th century escaped slave." If this seems an extreme metaphor, it speaks to the context behind this case that US officialdom would relegate to the Orwellian Memory Hole. The FBI's Ford told the press conference that the BLA was responsible for killing more than a dozen police officers in the 1970s and '80s. We aren't supposed to recall the reign of police and FBI terror—the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton in the bedroom of his own Chicago apartment being but the most celebrated case—that prompted the transformation of the Black Panthers, founded on an ethic of armed self-defense, into the underground and more openly revolutionary BLA.
Cuba's designation as a sponsor of terrorism is itself a Cold War anachronism hanging on from the Central American insurgencies of the 1980s, and in any case the revolutionary movements on the isthmus in those years were guerilla armies, not "terrorist organizations." One, the FMLN, now leads the democratically elected government of El Salvador, and upon taking power four years ago pledged "peace and reconciliation."
Maybe the USA could learn from El Salvador. In our feature from Angola 3 News, "Why Russel 'Maroon' Shoatz Must Be Freed from Solitary Confinement," supporters of long-imprisoned veteran Panther Shoatz argued that the United States needs a "truth and reconciliation" process over the period of domestic armed militancy that began in the late 1960s, and that figures such as Shoatz should be recognized as "prisoners of war." Matt Meyer of the Campaign to Free Russell Maroon Shoatz told Angola 3 News:
The United Nations outlines the specific legal definition of the prisoner of war position, definitions which are generally accepted by most participating nation-states, including the US. This definition is rooted in history which goes back as far as 1660, when international military protocol accepted that anyone who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict, whether combatant or non-combatant, should be classified as a POW. After World War II, with the Geneva Convention of 1949 to which the US is a signatory, conditions were clearly outlined which require that POWs be treated humanely.
For those who lived through the tremendous upsurge of the Black liberation movement of the late 1960s, the position underscores a clear analysis of the relationship between "the Black nation" and the US empire. That relationship, simply put, is one at war. Though the battles may appear to many as covert, and the military powers deeply imbalanced, the position of extreme conflict is nonetheless expressed.
Contrary to some absurd rhetoric issued by idiotic sectors of the left in the US, terrorism does exist. But the word is an intensely politicized one. Its cynical application to Assata Shakur further pollutes the already toxic intellectual atmosphere. This is part of a general pattern of tarring any instance of armed militancy as "terrorism," and then applying the word with a blatant double standard. For instance, the Syrian insurgents are all "terrorists" for Bashar Assad and his apologists, while the US is funding them and is now weighing actually arming them. Meanwhile in the US, the Black Panthers and BLA, who never targeted civilians in armed actions—who were never even really "insurgents," even in their most adventurist period—get labeled with the t-word.
This is a propagandistic abuse of the English language in the service of historical revisionism. Don't believe the hype.