Assata Shakur: don’t believe the ‘terrorist’ hype

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 APNBC,  JezebelAtlanta 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.


  1. NLG-NYC denounces renewed attacks on Assata Shakur
    From the National Lawyers Guild-NYC, May 3:

    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-US” 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[s] 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 US 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.

  2. Reader’s homage to Assata Shakur
    Received via e-mail from reader “Jo” in New York City:

    I was at a major benefit for Assata in March, 1977, at which Bill Kunstler read poetry by Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and drew a connection between their circumstances and hers, which was rather courageous and controversial at that time.

    I also attended Assata’s trial with Bill Kunstler, who was a supporting counsel, several days and even was arrested getting out of a van with other ‘civilians’ attending the trial on another occasion, as pure harrasment to witnesses to the complete illegality of the proceedings. The judge actually went as far as to go to lunch with the prosecutors.

    As time passes it’s easy for history to be slanted and rewritten, and having been a witness to this major miscarriage of justice, I feel the need to put the record straight.

  3. Sundiata Acoli to be relased on parole

    Sundiata Acoli, formerly known as Clark Edward Squire, convicted of the 1973 slaying of state trooper Werner Foerster during a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, was ordered released on parole by a state appeals court Sept. 29. Now in his mid-70s, he was denied parole most recently in 2011, but the appellate judges reversed that ruling in the new decision. In a 28-page opinion, the panel wrote that the parole board ignored evidence favorable to Acoli and gave undue consideration to past events such as a probation violation that occurred decades earlier. (AP)

  4. Harlem welcomes home Sekou Odinga

    A "Welcome Home Celebration for Sekou Odinga" at the Malcolm X and Dr. Shabazz Memorial and Education Center (formerly the Audubon Ballroom) in Harlem Feb. 26. Sekou Odinga, 70, formerly Nathaniel Burns, was a leading member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. He was convicted in 1984 on charges related to the 1981 Brinks armored car robbery and the liberation of Assata Shakur. He was released in November 2014. (Amsterdam News, Feb. 26; DNAInfo, Nov. 26)

  5. Sundiata Acoli wins parole —at last

    New Jersey’s Supreme Court granted parole May 10 to Sundiata Acoli, an 85-year-old former member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a state trooper, Werner Foerster, in what has remained one of the state’s most infamous cases.

    Supporters of Acoli, who was repeatedly denied parole during his 49 years in prison, had been pressing for his release for years.

    In overturning a Parole Board ruling, the court concluded that the board had not proved that Acoli was likely to commit another crime if released. The Supreme Court noted that Acoli, who has dementia, planned to live with his daughter and grandchildren. Justice Barry Albin cited “Acoli’s verbal renunciation of violence as an acceptable way to achieve social change” and “more than two decades infraction-free in the federal prison system,” where he had been transferred despite doing time on a state charge.

    The governor, Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, immediately criticized the decision, as did the state’s acting attorney general, Matthew J. Platkin. They noted that a law passed more than 20 years after Acoli’s conviction requires a life sentence for anyone convicted of killing an on-duty law enforcement officer.

    However, Soffiyah Elijah, a civil rights attorney who long advocated for Acoli’s release, praised the Supreme Court for “correcting the Parole Board’s improper application of the law.” (NYT,

  6. Kathy Boudin passes on

    The New York Times obituary following the May 1 passing of Kathy Boudin notes the outrage from the law-and-order crowd when she was freed on parole in 2003, despite the fact that she had been a “model prisoner” at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, “mentoring other inmates, attending to those with AIDS, writing poetry and expressing remorse for her role in the Brink’s robbery deaths.”