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Earlier this month the federal government issued a statement in which they labeled Joanne Chesimard, known to most in the Black community as Assata Shakur, as a domestic terrorist. In so doing, they also increased the bounty on her head from $150,000 to an unprecedented $1,000,000. Viewed through the lens of U.S. law enforcement, Shakur is an escaped cop-killer. Viewed through the lens of many Black people, including me, she is a wrongly convicted woman and a hero of epic proportions.
My first memory of Assata Shakur was the "Wanted" posters all over my Brooklyn neighborhood. They said her name was Joanne Chesimard, that she was a killer, an escaped convict, and armed and dangerous. They made her sound like a super-villain, like something out of a comic book. But even then, as a child, I couldn't believe what I was being told. When I looked at those posters and the mug shot of a slight, brown, high-cheekboned woman with a full afro, I saw someone who looked like she was in my family, an aunt, a mother. She looked like she had soul. Later, as a junior high school student, when I read her autobiography, Assata, I would discover that not only did she have soul, she also had immeasurable heart, courage and love. And I would come to believe that that very heart and soul she possessed was exactly why Assata Shakur was shot, arrested, framed and convicted of the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper.
There are some undisputed facts about the case. On May 2nd, 1973, Assata Shakur, a Black Panther, was driving down the New Jersey State Turnpike with two companions, Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli. The three were pulled over, ostensibly for a broken tail light. A gun battle ensued, why and how it started is unclear. But the aftermath is not. Trooper Werner Forester and Zayd Shakur lay dead. Sundiata Acoli escaped [he was captured two days later]. And Assata was shot and arrested. At trial, three neurologists would testify that the first gunshot shattered her clavicle and the second shattered the median nerve in her right hand. That testimony proved that she was sitting with her hands raised when she was fired on by police. Further testimony proved that no gun residue was found on either of her hands, nor were her finger prints found on any of the weapons located at the scene. Nevertheless, Shakur was convicted by an all-White jury and sentenced to life in prison. Six years and six months to the day that she was arrested, and aided by friends, Shakur escaped from Clinton Women's Prison in New Jersey. As a high school student I remember seeing posters all around the Brooklyn community I lived in that read: Assata Shakur is Welcome Here. In 1984, she surfaced in Cuba and was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro.
There are those who believe that being convicted of a crime makes you guilty. But that imposes an assumption of infallibility upon our criminal justice system. When Assata Shakur was convicted of killing Werner Forester, not only had the Black Panther Party been labeled by then F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover, as "the greatest internal threat" to American security, but Assata herself had been thoroughly criminalized in the minds of the American public; she'd been charged in six different crimes ranging from attempted murder to bank robbery, and her acquittal or dismissal of the charges outright notwithstanding, to the average citizen, it seemed she must be guilty of something. And she was. She was guilty of calling for a shift in power in America, and for racial and economic justice. Included on a short list of the many people who have made that call and were either criminalized, terrorized, killed or blacklisted are Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, Medgar Evers and Ida B. Wells.
Perhaps what is most insulting about the government's latest attack on Assata is that while they vigorously pursue her extradition, a few years ago using it as a bargaining chip for lifting the embargo itself, they have been decidedly lackadaisical in pursuing the extradition to Venezuela of an admitted terrorist, Florida resident Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles is likely responsible for blowing up a Cuban airline in 1976, an act which claimed the lives of some 73 innocent civilians.
For those of us who either remember the state of the union in the 1960s and 1970s or have studied it, when we consider Assata Shakur living under political asylum in Cuba, we believe that nation is exercising its political sovereignty, and in no way harboring a terrorist. Cubans sees Assata as I, and many others in my community do: as a woman who was and is persecuted for her political beliefs. When the federal government raised the bounty on her head this May 2, one official declared that Assata was merely "120 pounds of money." For many of us in the Black community she could never be so reduced. 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.
MOS DEF, an actor and rapper, is currently starring in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.