Painting revolutionaries bad – the case of Assata Shakur
It was just the beginning of the American winter of 1979 when Joanne Deborah Chesimard escaped from the Clinton Correctional Centre in New Jersey, where she was serving a life sentence for her role in the New Jersey Turnpike shoot-out with the police in 1973.
Within days of her escape the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) launched a manhunt and placed wanted posters of Chesimard around New Jersey and New York.
The black community reacted by placing posters outside their houses written “Assata Shakur is welcome here”.
The name Joanne Chesimard, she claims, is her slave name and she prefers to be called Assata Shakur .
For 32 years she has been one of the most wanted individuals in America and the FBI – as of May 2005 – has placed a US$1 million bounty for her capture.
Her infamy within the American political realm, judiciary and law enforcement agencies is so legendary that in 1998, almost 20 years after her escape, Congress passed the House Concurrent Resolution 254 calling on Cuba to send her back to America.
So famous among the black community is she that musicians have dedicated songs or mention her in their rhymes; from hip-hop artist Common in his hit song “A song for Assata,” to actor and hip-hop artist Mos Def writing an essay in her honour.
“For many of us in the black community, she was and remains, to use her own words, an ‘escaped slave,’ a heroine, not unlike Harriet Tubman,” wrote Mos Def.
If the black movement of the 1960s was dominated by Martin Luther King and Malcom X, it is not incorrect to say that the 1970s belonged to Assata Shakur.
By the late 1960s she was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), an organization that J Edgar Hoover – then head of the FBI – said in 1969 “without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country”.
Assata says:”When I was in the Black Panther Party, they (United States) called us terrorists.
“How dare they call us terrorists when we were being terrorized? Terror was a constant part of my life.
“I was living under apartheid in North Carolina. We lived under police terror.”
At this time, the authorities had started to implement the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that was designed to discredit, infiltrate, criminalize and disrupt political organizations that they deemed a threat to the status quo and it was mainly targeted internally at black movements such as the BPP.
Author of “War At Home” Brian Glick states that by 1971 COINTELPRO had triggered the collapse of the BPP and the US government had moved to stop them from regrouping.
Members of the organization were under constant surveillance, others were been arrested on trumped up charges.
These include Elmer “Gerenimo” Pratt who was successfully framed for a senseless US$70 robbery-murder while he was miles away in Oakland attending Panther meetings.
With the collapse of the BPP and with police on her trail, Assata Shakur like most former members of the Panther Party, went underground where they operated under the Black Liberation Army (BLA).
COINTELPRO did not die with the death of the BPP, it continued to operate and haunt the black power movement with Washington heavily involved in the operations.
Throughout the early 1970s the FBI described her as the “bandit queen” or” the mother hen” of the BLA and with the help of the media her notoriety spread across the US.
The police linked her to six serious charges ranging from robbery to murder and of all the charges that were leveled against her at the time none resulted in a guilty verdict.
But it was the 1973 shoot-out with New Jersey state troopers after they stopped Assata Shakur and her fellow BLA members Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli in a case of “driving while black” that led to her imprisonment. Zayd Shakur died during the shooting while Acoli and Assata Shakur received life sentences.
The writer Glick noted: “Also targeted well into the 1970s were former Panthers assigned to form an underground (movement) to defend against armed government attack on the Party.
“It was they who had regrouped as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) when the Party was destroyed.
“FBI files show that, within a month of the close of COINTELPRO, further Bureau operations against the BLA were mapped out in secret meetings convened by presidential aide John Ehrlichman and attended by President Nixon and Attorney-General Mitchell.
“In the following years, many former Panther leaders were murdered by the police in supposed ‘shoot-outs’ with the BLA.
“Others, such as Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur, Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad (formerly Richard Moore), and the New York 3 (Herman Bell, Anthony ‘Jalil’ Bottom, and Albert ‘Nuh’ Washington) were sentenced to long prison terms after rigged trials.”
In her self-titled autobiography Assata Shakur mentions how the US legal and political system always tries to isolate the revolutionaries from the people through smear campaigns and reducing them to “blood-thirsty criminals”.
“The first thing the enemy tries to do is to isolate revolutionaries from the masses of the people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us,” wrote Shakur.
When in August of 1979 international jurists visited US prisons they listed four categories of prisoners and the first of which was that of political prisoners who had been victims of FBI misconduct through COINTELPRO.
Listed among the political activists, who had been “selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions” was Assata Shakur and other former BPP members.
“One of the worst cases is that of Assata Shakur, who spent over 20 months in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner. “Many more months were spent in solitary confinement in mixed or all-women’s prisons…
“Presently, after protracted litigation, she is confined at Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in maximum security.
“She has never on any occasion been punished for any infraction of prison rules which might in any way justify such cruel or unusual punishment,” read part of the report by the international jurists.
And one of the jurists, an Englishmen Richard Harvey, was so disgusted with the racist American judiciary system that he remarked: “It’s impossible to say how strongly shocked we were.
“We did not expect to find anything like this. The pervasive institutional racism, for instance.
“Prison after prison looked like a colonial setting – overwhelming white forces of guards in charge of prison populations that are largely not white.
“And the racism – as the report shows -goes much deeper than that throughout the whole criminal justice system, from prosecutorial misconduct to medical malpractice inside the prisons.”
Shortly afterwards, Shakur – with the help of three male accomplices – made one of the greatest bloodless escapes from prison on the second day of November in 1979.
And for the next five years the trail went cold until she finally emerged in Cuba where she was given political asylum.