Few women in our movement can personify the word “revolutionary” like Assata Shakur. But the word represents only a shadow of her true essence; her courage in the face of America’s imperial might, her knowledge of self, her powerful sense of justice, and her willingness to endure persecution for her values makes her a living legend in the Pan-African community.
This article is the story of how she came to be known as a “domestic terrorist” , how she came to live in Cuba – where she remains today – and how she single handedly avoided a multi-state manhunt and million dollar bounty on her head.
Early Life as a Revolutionary
Some people are made into the people they grow up to be, and others are born into their destinies. Assata was one such person. From an early age, she was a rebellious revolutionary. From the time she was born in 1947, until her college years, Assata was constantly in transition and rebellion, even running away from home to live with strangers for a time.
With the help of a relative, she eventually completed her high school education and ultimately enrolled at City College of New York City. It was here that she learned the power of disciplined political action, and earned her the first of many arrests for chaining the doors of the school closed in protest of a lack of Black faculty members.
It is likely that during her last year at CCNY, she was mentored by then political science instructor and legendary historian Dr. Leonard Jeffries.
In 1970, Assata graduated from City College in New York at the age of 23 and immediately joined the Black Panther Party – Harlem Branch after returning from a trip to Oakland.
Her enlistment with the Black Panther Party would not last long.
Shakur criticized the Black Panther party not over the extent of its political activities, but because of its lack of focus on Black history. For this reason, along with what she called the “macho” attitudes of the men involved in the party. She elaborates on her reasons for leaving in her autobiography:
- “The basic problem stemmed from the fact that the BPP had no systematic approach to political education. They were reading the Red Book but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them barely understood any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise. [...] That was the main reason many Party members, in my opinion, underestimated the need to unite with other Black organizations and to struggle around various community issues.”
She would find a new home with the Black Liberation Army, a militant organization dedicated to fighting for the independence and self-determination of Afrikan people in the United States. To call the organization “militant” is actually an understatement. They were a Holy terror to law enforcement:
- On October 22, 1970, the BLA is believed to have planted a bomb in St. Brendan’s Church in San Francisco while it was full of mourners attending the funeral of San Francisco police officer Harold Hamilton, who had been killed in the line of duty while responding to a bank robbery.
- On May 21, 1971, as many as five men participated in the shootings of two New York City police officers, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones. Those arrested and brought to trial for the shootings include Anthony Bottom (aka Jalil Muntaqim), Albert Washington, Francisco Torres, Gabriel Torres, and Herman Bell.
- On August 29, 1971, three armed men murdered 51-year old San Francisco police sergeant John Victor Young while he was working at a desk in his police station. Two days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter signed by the BLA claiming responsibility for the attack.
- On January 27, 1972 the Black Liberation Army assassinated police officers Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie at the corner of 174 Avenue B in New York City. After the killings, a note sent to authorities portrayed the murders as a retaliation for the 1971 Attica prison massacre. To date no arrests have been made.
- On the 3 November 1971, Officer James R. Greene of the Atlanta Police Department was shot and killed in his patrol van at a gas station. His wallet, badge, and weapon were taken, and the evidence at the scene pointed to two suspects. The first was Twymon Meyers, who was killed in a police shootout in 1973, and the second was Freddie Hilton (aka Kamau Sadiki), who evaded capture until 2002, when he was arrested in New York on a separate charge, and was recognized as one of the men wanted in the Greene murder. Apparently, the two men had attacked the officer to gain standing with their compatriots within Black Liberation Army.
- On July 31, 1972, five armed individuals hijacked Delta Air Lines Flight 841 en route from Detroit to Miami, eventually collecting a ransom of $1 million and diverting the plane, after passengers were released, to Algeria. The authorities there seized the ransom but allowed the group to flee. Four were eventually caught by French authorities in Paris, where they were convicted of various crimes, but one—George Wright—remained a fugitive until September 26, 2011, when he was captured in Portugal. Portuguese courts rejected the initial pledge for extradition. American authorities may still appeal from this decision.
In addition to her affiliation with the Black Liberation Army, Assata also became a vocal member of the Republic of New Afrika, an all-Black organization that proposed three objectives:
- The creation of an independent African-American country situated in the southeastern United States. The states of Louisiana,Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina would be separated from the United States, and handed over to descendants of slaves in compensation for the never-fulfilled promise of “forty acres and a mule”.
- The payment of several billion dollars in reparations from the US government for the damages inflicted on Africans and their descendants by chattel enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, and persistent modern-day forms of racism.
- A referendum of all African Americans in order to decide what should be done with regard to their citizenship, since African Americans were not given a choice after emancipation.
The group was the target of America’s COINTELPRO – the secret, illegal project conducted by the United States FBI aimed at watching, infiltrating, discrediting, and destroying domestic political organizations.
Arrest and Conviction
On August 23, 1971, a bank robbery in Queens led authorities to publish a photograph of a woman with thick rimmed black glasses, a high hairdo pulled tightly over her head, and a steadily pointed gun. The photo was posted in banks across the region, and the woman in them was identified as Assata. Later that year, Shakur was named as one of four suspects by New York City police in a hand grenade attack that destroyed a police car and slightly injured two patrolmen.
In 1972, Shakur was the subject of a nationwide manhunt after the FBI alleged that she was the “revolutionary mother hen” of a Black Liberation Army cell that had conducted a “series of cold-blooded murders of New York City police officers”, including the “execution style murders” of New York Police Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones on May 21, 1971 and Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie on January 28, 1972. Later, Assata was even identified as the ”soul of the Black Liberation Army”, making her ”the final wanted fugitive, the soul of the gang, the mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting”.
In the fall of 1992, Sundiata became eligible for parole. He was not permitted to attend his own parole hearing and was only allowed to participate via telephone from USP Leavenworth. Despite an excellent prison work, academic and disciplinary record, despite numerous job offers in the computer profession, and despite thousands of letters on his behalf, Sundiata was denied parole. Instead, at the conclusion of a 20 minute telephone hearing, he was given a 20-year hit, the longest hit in New Jersey history, which dictates that he must do at least 12 more years before coming up for parole again.
The Parole Board’s stated reason for the 20-year hit was Sundiata’s membership in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army prior to his arrest, the receipt of hundreds of “Free Sundiata” form letters that characterized him as a New Afrikan Prisoner of War, and the feeling that the punitive aspects of his sentence had not been satisfied and that rehabilitation was not sufficiently achieved. The real reason for the 20-year hit is to attempt to force Sundiata to renounce his political beliefs and to proclaim to the world that he was wrong to struggle for the liberation of his people.
Assata faced 8 criminal charges, 7 of which were either dismissed, acquitted, or resulted in a hung jury. The 8th charge, (Turnpike shootout: First-degree murder, second-degree murder, atrocious assault and battery, assault and battery against a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery
May 2, 1973) was initially declared a mistrial when Assata gave birth to her first and only child – Kakuya Shakur- but would result in her conviction and sentence of life plus 26 to 33 years.
Upon hearing the verdict, Shakur said—in a “barely audible voice”—that she was “ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial” and that the jury was “racist” and had “convicted a woman with her hands up”.
1. The finger print analyses of every gun and every piece of ammunition found at the scene showed there were no fingerprints of Assata found on any of them. (The official analyses admitted into evidence)
2. Neutron Activation Analysis taken immediately after Assata was taken to the hospital that night showed there was no gun power residue on her hands. Effectively refuting the possibility that she had fired a gun. (The official analyses were admitted into evidence)
3. As a result of the bullet Harper shot under her armpit, while her arms were raised in, her median nerve was severed, immediately paralyzing her entire right arm, shattering her clavicle, and lodging in her chest so close to her heart that an operation to remove it was not feasible. A neurologist testified to that fact at the trial.
4. A pathologist testified that “There is no conceivable way that the bullet could have traveled over to the clavicle if her arm was down. That trajectory is impossible.”
5. A surgeon testified that “it was anatomically necessary that both arms be in the air for Ms. Chesimard to have received the wounds she did.”
Harper’s testimony as well as that of all the other state’s witnesses was riddled with inconsistencies and discrepancies. On three separate official reports, including his grand jury testimony, Harper said that he saw Assata take a gun from her pocketbook, while in the car, and shoot him. He admitted on cross-examination during both Sundiata’s and Assata’s trial, that he never saw Assata with a gun and did not see her shoot him -that, in fact, he lied.
Seven jurists representing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights stated in 1979 that Assata Shakur’s treatment was “totally unbefitting any prisoner”. Their investigation, which focused on alleged human rights abuses of political prisoners, cited Shakur as “one of the worst cases” of such abuses and including her in a “a class of victims of FBI misconduct through the COINTELPROstrategy and other forms of illegal government conduct who as political activists have been selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions”.
Regardless of the facts, Assata was incarcerated and subject to all the maltreatment of the American criminal justice system. According to her attorney Lennox Hinds, Shakur understated “the awfulness of the condition in which she was incarcerated”, which included vaginal and anal searches. Assata also asserted that while giving birth to her child, she was beaten and restrained by several large female guards for refusing examination by a white male doctor.
Hinds argues that “in the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was, continuously confined in a men’s prison, under twenty-four hour surveillance of her most intimate functions, without intellectual sustenance, adequate medical attention, and exercise, and without the company of other women for all the years she was in custody.”
Escape and Exile
The story of Assata’s escape is like the plot of a Hollywood film.
On November 2, 1979 three members of the Black Liberation Army visiting her drew concealed .45-caliber pistols, seized two guards as hostages and drove a prison van through an unfenced section of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. A mile away, two cars were waiting to transfer the crew away from the scene, and to take Assata underground into a network of BLA safehouses.
The FBI scrambled to find Assata, while the public engaged in a campaign of silence. No one would cooperate with authorities as to Assata’s whereabouts. As the FBI circulated wanted posters, the public responded with posters featuring Assata’s photo and the words “Assata Shakur is Welcome Here”. In New York, three days after her escape, more than 5,000 demonstrators organized by the National Black Human Rights Coalition carried signs with the same slogan.
Frustrated by their lack of results, on April 20, 1980, agents raided a civilian building believed to be one of Assata’s hideouts. Residents were terrorized by men armed with shotguns and machine guns that broke down doors in military-style room clearings. Alas, these tactics only further turned public opinion in favor of Assata.
For 5 years, Assata was moved from one secret location to another, before finally being given safe passage into Cuba. Upon her arrival, she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro himself, given a $13 a day stipend toward her living expenses, and earned the sympathy of freedom fighters around the world.
The United States never gave up their hunt.
On September 14, 1998, House Concurrent Resolution 254 passed, giving “tacit approval for U.S. law enforcement agencies to kidnap Assata Shakur and other revolutionaries living in exile and illegally extradite them to America,” according to coalition spokesman Damon McGhee.
According to Maxine Waters of the Congressional Black Caucus, members of Congress were tricked into voting for the resolution when it was “quietly slipped this bill onto the accelerated suspension calendar last week as one of thirteen (13) bills that had been announced that same day. The suspension calendar is supposed to be reserved for non-controversial legislation like naming federal buildings and post offices. But, the Republican leadership chose to push this provision in an apparent effort to look tough on Cuba for the November elections.
As evidence of their deceptive intent, the resolution did not mention Assata Shakur, but chose to only call her Joanne Chesimard.
Unfortunately, none of our offices were alerted to the fact that this legislation was coming up for a vote by any of the numerous advocacy groups that monitor related issues”
In a letter to Fidel Castro, Ms. Waters explained her opposition to the resolution. She wrote,
” For the record, I am opposed to the resolution.
I support the right of all nations to grant political asylum to individuals fleeing political persecution. The United States grants political asylum to individuals from all over the world who successfully prove they are fleeing political persecution. Other sovereign nations have the same right, including the sovereign nation of Cuba.
Although there are Members of Congress that may disagree with particular decisions made by other sovereign governments regarding political asylum, it is the inviolate right of legitimate governments to grant asylum pursuant to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I will fight to maintain the ability of political refugees to find asylum in United States and respect the right of other governments to be able to grant political asylum. Just as we maintain the right to grant political asylum for individuals from Cuba, we must respect the right of the government of Cuba to grant political asylum for individuals from the U.S. fleeing political persecution.
I believe that the current thirty-seven year embargo on Cuba is a relic of a Cold War past, now over, and is primarily hurting the poor and working people of Cuba. I was encouraged by the words of the Pope in his visit to Cuba this year, and look forward to a new era of US-Cuban relations. Part of these efforts include work to allow humanitarian and medical aid for Cuba.
The second reason I oppose this measure is because I respect the right of Assata Shakur to seek political asylum. Assata Shakur has maintained that she was persecuted as a result of her political beliefs and political affiliations. As a result, she left the United States and sought political asylum in Cuba, where she still resides.
In a sad and shameful chapter of our history, during the 1960s and 1970s, many civil rights, Black Power and other politically active groups were secretly targeted by the FBI for prosecution based on their political beliefs. The groups and individuals targeted included Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, officials of the American Friends Service Committee, National Council of Churches and other civil rights, religious and peace movement leaders.
However, the most vicious and reprehensible acts were taken against the leaders and organizations associated with the Black Power or Black Liberation Movement. Assata Shakur, was a member of the Black Panther Party, one of the leading groups associated with the Black Liberation Movement. The Black Panther Party was the primary target of U.S. domestic government political harassment and persecution during this era.
This illegal, clandestine political persecution was wrong in 1973, and remains wrong today.”
Today, the attack on Assata Shakur continues. On April 17, 2009, President Obama was presented with this letter urging him ”to take action to ensure that any efforts to normalize relations with Cuba are contingent upon the extradition of JoAnne Chesimard to the appropriate authorities in the United States.”
Assata as a Living Legacy
It is critical to remember Assata as the living legend that she is. Ours is a heritage of standing up against tyranny and struggling against injustice, and with the spirit of women like Assata Shakur in mind, we should never cease our revolutionary insurgency.
Assata teaches is that we must do more than fight, and we must do more than love – we must fight with love!
Support Assata Shakur by participating in Hands Off Assata Campaign Action Alerts here. These alerts use networks of ordinary citizens from all over the world to educate, agitate and compel change. Action Alerts are simple enough to be carried out by anyone and effective enough to see immediate results.
Sundiata Acoli remains incarcerated. He may be contacted by writing to:
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. BOX 1000
Cumberland, MD 21501