Assata Shakur – Challenge to New Jersey Politics

On May 2, just as I was traveling to the conference at Vanderbilt University, “Re-Thinking Prisons,” word came that the FBI, under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, had placed Assata Shakur on its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, the first woman ever to be designated as such. New Jersey State Police have driven an effort to demonize Assata Shakur for years. This is their latest, and most onerous effort, claiming she is the killer of a New Jersey State trooper. The new $2 billion bounty placed on her head exceeds the earlier bounty that New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman had afixed in a previous attempt to attract vigilantes to return her to the U.S..

I wrote a column appearing in The New York Times (Sunday edition, January 17, 1999) about this case more than a decade ago. Throughout 1998 and into 1999, Governor Whitman issued a bounty of $50,000, later increased to $1 million, for Shakur to be returned from Cuba. She survived that effort, and has remained in Cuba, where she has lived in officially granted assylum for the past 29 years. Below, you can read that 1999 column, as I wrote it and submitted it. Editors at The New York Times ran it under their own chosen title: “Soapbox: Flight from Justice,” instead of the title I had provided (the one shown below).  

Whitman’s bounty-hunting of Assata Shakur was wrong then, and the current FBI branding of her as “terrorist” placed high on its list of “Most Wanted” is even more outrageous in light of the facts of her case, and given any real commitment to due process and an understanding of her life-struggle. This action of the FBI is an invitation to her assassination. It is a subversion of the integrity of the Cuban nation. It makes a mockery of the nation’s own claimed values. It is, of course, an attack on any of us who share a radical view of the future of this country, and who dream revolutionary possibilities for a comprehensive justice and peace for all in a nation failing to deliver it. We may not share Shakur’s choices to work through the Black Liberation Army, or share all her political claims and chosen tactics. I share many of her claims about this country. For a good start on understanding the case, see the Democracy Now interviews with Angela Y. Davis and Shakur’s attorney, Lennox Hinds.

Moreover,  let us be clear – and I will provide my warrants for this in a future column coming soon- Assata Shakur is not a terrorist. (After writing this sentence, I found this in Nation magazine, “Assata Shakur is Not a Terrorist.” She should not be demonized. Are Obama and Holder preparing a drone strike on Shakur? She should be honored and respected. I support her and many like her who remain unnamed and less known than she has become. With this recent action our government violates our freedoms as well as continues its legacy of injustice against Shakur, playing to the public’s fears and exploiting its lack of knowledge about her life and case. Below, again, is the 1999 column. My sense now is that our words and actions in advocacy of Shakur need to grow ever stronger – and so, my words below will need to be still more pointed than they were here (I was still too polite!)


Assata Shakur – Challenge to New Jersey Politics
(written January 17, 1999)

Governor Whitman’s crusade might seem righteous. After all, she is a Governor of New Jersey and seeking the return of an alleged “cop-killer,” Assata Shakur, from a haven in Castro’s Cuba. To Governor Whitman and state law enforcement, Shakur (previously Joan Chesimard) is “New Jersey’s most wanted fugitive.” In 1979, Shakur escaped from prison while serving a life-sentence for the 1973 slaying of state Trooper Werner Foerster on the NJ Turnpike.

Whitman intensified her crusade after a WNBC-TV interview in February 1998 showed a vibrant Shakur addressing numerous contemporary issues, age 50, now a grandmother and author. She also regularly addresses religious and human rights delegations in Cuba.

After the TV interview, Whitman announced that Shakur in Cuba was an “affront to law enforcement and our system of justice.” She allocated $50,000 as a reward for Shakur, and lobbied various federal officials for help in bringing her back.

U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Robert Torricelli, lends support by applauding the passage of House Resolution 254, which calls on Cuba to return Shakur. He wrote Castro directly, urging him to return her because her “brutal actions left behind a grieving widow, and a son forced to live the remainder of his life without his father.”

This crusade is not as righteous as it may seem. To be sure, the emotional trauma of police families grieving lost loved ones is real and needs redress. Simply pursuing a demonized Shakur, however, as “escaped cop-killer” or “queen bee” of Black liberation, allows officials to hide from some hard truths about New Jersey history and politics.  In particular, they avoid exploring the many ways local officials conspired with Federal authorities in the past to harass and intimidate Black activists like Shakur.

A new, broader investigation into Shakur’s case might help surface this ugly past and give occasion for political healing. Three approaches would be crucial to such a new investigation.

First, it is time for New Jersey leaders to give a full account of the legacy of COINTELPRO in recent New Jersey history.  The Governor’s spokesman on Assata Shakur said by phone to me he didn’t know what I meant by the term, “COINTELPRO” – the FBI’s counter-intelligence program for “neutralizing” leaders of  Black social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most famous victim of this program, but many other Black leaders were also targeted, especially those in the Black Panthers, one of Shakur’ affiliations. Numerous studies show that many Black activists were goaded into conflicts with police and framed on flimsy charges.

Shakur has long claimed that she was caught up in this web of COINTELPRO. Police say that when Shakur and her friends were pulled over on the Turnpike, she was wanted on bank robbery and murder charges. The flimsy nature of these charges is evidenced by the fact that in all seven court cases dealing with them, she was acquitted or had the charges dismissed. One jury even determined that the defamatory and widely-circulated FBI photo, showing her holding a gun in a bank, was not actually a depiction of her at all.

Shakur’s apprehension, trial and 1977 conviction, need to be re-examined in light of this conspiratorial milieu. It makes all-the-more suspect the guilty conviction given her by an all-white jury in Middlesex County, even though the slain trooper’s partner, James Harper, admitted lying about seeing Shakur hold or use any gun in the Turnpike incident.

Second, another new approach would be to explore fully the claims by Shakur – and by lawyers, family and friends – that she was tortured by New Jersey officials after being apprehended on the Turnpike. Referring to her physical ordeal, Lennox Hinds, Shakur’s attorney and Rutgers law professor argued that “in the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was . . .”.  This claim is reinforced by Shakur’s own gruesome testimony (see Assata: An Autobiography, 1987).  We all have a stake in checking out police abuse, especially when its details are so long remembered by so many.

Finally, Shakur’s case might prompt New Jersey leaders to take up an approach that better respects international agreements. Just as the U.S. maintains its right to grant asylum for people fleeing other countries, so we need to respect Cuba’s right to grant asylum to people fleeing ours. It is neither becoming nor in the best interests of a democratic state to have its leaders posting rewards, as a kind of bounty, for a citizen who has been granted political asylum by a sovereign state. Instead of simply demonizing Shakur, it is time for U.S. leaders to respect the Cuban government, at least enough to ask how it justifies harboring her.

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters knows well what that justification is. In arguing against the House bill that seeks Shakur’s extradition, she noted that COINTELPRO in the U.S. was “illegal, clandestine political persecution.”

It is time for political leaders in our state to cease being silent about that persecution, and  stake out some new ground – a higher moral ground than that now traveled by Whitman and Torricelli in their clamorous crusade.

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