Labeling Assata Shakur a terrorist is the latest attempt by the government to rewrite the history of radical activists.
Just 17 days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the largest spectacle of terrorism on US soil since 9/11, the FBI added the first woman to its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists” for a crime she is accused of committing more than 40 years ago. This is just the latest attempt by the federal government to rewrite the history of radical activists from the ’60s and ’70s and cover up the government’s illegal actions aimed at stopping them.
Assata Shakur, known in court documents and wanted posters as Joanne Chesimard, was added to the list of Most Wanted Terrorists on May 2. Nearly eight years earlier, she was reclassified from fugitive to domestic terrorist under the Patriot Act in 2005. Shakur is only the second so-called domestic terrorist ever to be placed on the list; she joins Daniel Andreas San Diego, an animal rights activist, who was added in 2009. The state of New Jersey also announced that it would be contributing $1 million to her bounty, bringing the total for Assata Shakur’s capture to $2 million.
Since 1984, Shakur, a fugitive and political prisoner, has been living as a refugee, exiled in Cuba. She was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today she might be just as famous for being Tupac Shakur’s godmother if she wasn’t being called a “top priority” by the FBI. But Assata Shakur belonged to one of the most important movements for democracy and racial justice in the 20th century, and for many people who dream of a better world, she is the apogee of hope. For the US government, though, she is the one who got away. Now, at the age of 66, Shakur may still be agitating with her words, but she cannot seriously beconsidered a national security threat.
It is an outrage and a shock to some, but for anyone who has been paying attention, it is par for the course. Since 9/11, the US government has operated with impunity, trampling civil rights, due process, and the legal claims of other sovereign nations. These two new escalations by the FBI and the state of New Jersey, repainting Shakur and other members of the black liberation movement as terrorists, is also nothing new. In fact, it is a logical extension of the repression these groups faced under COINTELPRO when they were active. Only now, it is being translated from the anachronistic language of containment into the present-day language of fear and securitization, in order to merge the narratives of older movements and newer ones, and to justify the repression against both.
Two Narratives of a Traffic Stop
There are two 40-year-old narratives underpinning this case: an official US government narrative that is open-and-shut, and another narrative that recognizes the history of repression faced by black radicals and the oppression of black communities.
Officially, Shakur’s status as a domestic terrorist stems from a shootout with police that took place on May 2, 1973. The shootout resulted in the deaths of a New Jersey state trooper and one of Shakur’s companions, Zayd Malik Shakur.
But according to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Assata Shakur had been pursued by state and federal authorities for several years before the incident in New Jersey because of her political affiliations and because she was a woman. “Prior to the shootout, Ms. Shakur was the subject of a nationwide hunt as part of an FBI campaign to tie her to every suspected Black Liberation Army action involving a woman. After her capture, Ms. Shakur was not charged with any of the crimes that prompted the dragnet,” the NLG states.
Assata Shakur, Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were driving near East Brunswick when they were stopped by two New Jersey troopers for having a broken tail light. It is at this point that accounts of the incident diverge. According to the FBI, Assata Shakur murdered trooper Werner Foerster “execution-style,” in “cold-blood.” In the morass of conflicting accounts about the shootout, these facts are known for certain: Zayd Malik Shakur was killed, trooper Foerster was shot twice in the head with his own gun, and Assata Shakur sustained severe wounds in both her arms and one shoulder.
“The allegation that she was a cold-blooded killer is not supported by any of the forensic evidence,” said Shakur’s longtime attorney Lennox Hinds in an interview with Democracy Now!“If we look at the trial, we’ll find that she was victimized, she was shot. She was shot in the back. The bullet exited and broke the clavicle in her shoulder. She could not raise a gun. She could not raise her hand to shoot. And she was shot while her hands were in the air.”
Following the shootout, Assata Shakur was tried for murder and more than a dozen different crimes. The NLG recalls “two bank robberies, the kidnapping of a Brooklyn heroin dealer, attempted murder of two police officers in Queens, and eight other felonies related to the turnpike shootout.” These indictments resulted in the following verdicts: “three trials resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, one in a mistrial, and one in a conviction. Three indictments were dismissed without trial.”
Despite two mistrials—one in 1973 and one in 1974—and despite the fact that Sundiata Acoli had already been convicted of the murder of Werner Foerster, Assata Shakur was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1977. The trial was full of constitutional violations, including a visit by a New Jersey state assembly member to the sequestered, all-white jury, urging them to convict her. After already serving four years in jail, she was sentenced to life in prison. In 1979, after spending two years in various prisons in New Jersey, members of the Black Liberation Army freed Shakur from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women. She spent the next five years in hiding before fleeing to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum by 1984.
According to attorney Hinds, by renewing the invective against Shakur, the US government “is continuing the unrestrained abuse of power by which it attempted to destroy Assata Shakur and other black individuals and groups by surveillance, rumor, innuendo, eavesdropping, arrest and prosecution, incarceration, and murder throughout the ’60s and ’70s.”
The litany of tactics that Hinds lists belongs to the playbook of COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program of the FBI. The program was masterminded by J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau’s pre eminent founder. Origins of the COINTELPRO doctrine can be found in this declassified memo which outlines the scope of the FBI’s war on black activists and radicals: “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists, hatetype organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, members, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.”
Hinds points to the continued persecution of Assata Shakur as the continuation of COINTELPRO. But the FBI cannot continue to use that same playbook because it has been vilified in the public sphere and found to be largely illegal. Instead, it must pivot and switch to the contemporary language of repression. Label Shakur a terrorist. Make her one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.
This logic effectively covers up the existence of COINTELPRO and denies the murders, surveillance and false convictions of an entire generation of political dissidents. Many of those who experienced the might of this repression firsthand and could attest to it are now dead, and others, like Sundiata Acoli, are still in prison. Assata is the loose end the state desperately needs to tie up. Her existence and freedom link the FBI’s troubling past to its suspicious, opaque present. “Labeling Assata a terrorist and putting a bounty on her head,” says NLG executive director Heidi Bogoshian, “is a clear attempt by U.S. authorities to hide this chapter in history.”
Even worse, by further criminalizing Assata Shakur, the Justice Department under Obama is lifting up those older chapters of struggle and condemning them in the fearful language of the present, equating radicalism and militancy with terrorism. This campaign of slippery diction has condemned numerous environmental and political activists to lengthy prison terms under new state and federal anti-terrorism laws, and it is the preferred terminology used to entrap and indict Muslims at home and abroad.
Are we to look back at militant and radical labor struggles that gave us the eight-hour work day and call this the work of terrorists? Undoubtedly, this is the road we are going down.
Timing is Everything
“I believe that we have to look at this in the context of what has just happened in Boston,” Lennox Hinds told Amy Goodman. “I think that with the massacre that occurred there, the FBI and the state police are attempting to inflame the public opinion to characterize [Shakur] as a terrorist, because the acts that she was convicted of have nothing to do with terrorism.”
Hinds may be right with his suspicion. But as Trevor Aaronson points out at Mother Jones, the situation in Boston could have been prevented if the FBI had been investigating Tamerlan Tsarnaev more closely and not spending gross amounts of money to entrap and convict innocent Muslim men like Rezwan Ferdaus, who became the FBI’s target after they stopped trailing Tsarnaev in 2011. Rather than devoting valuable resources to apprehending a revolutionary, now in the twilight of her years, the FBI ought to focus its attention and budget on preventing serious attacks that put us all at risk. If there is another attack in the near future, we will be forced to ask: could it have been prevented if the FBI was paying attention where it should have been instead of pursuing Assata Shakur?
For the Next Generation of Activists
Unfortunately, this decision by the FBI is more than a bid to rewrite history. Angela Davis told Democracy Now! that “it seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism,” Davis says. “I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems like it was a long time ago. In the beginning of the 21st century, we’re still fighting around the very same issues — police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison.”
What message does this announcement send to activists who are in communities fighting police violence, stop-and-frisk, police murders like the killing of Kimani Gray in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn or the killing of Manuel Diaz in Anaheim? The persecution of any political activist impacts all political activists and creates a chilling effect.
Lennox Hinds points out that the decision to put Assata Shakur on the Most Wanted Terrorists list is irreversible, and as such, carries the weight of the US government’s support.“There is no way to appeal someone being put on the terrorist list,” he said. The only way to be taken off, according to the FBI’s website, is to be proven innocent in a court of law, or to be proven dead.
For Assata, it is too late to be proven innocent; she has already been wrongfully convicted. But if in the course of these new escalations we can clearly see the process by which language is being used to revise history and to manufacture terrorist threats, then maybe we can see our current moment for what it is: a time when actual threats to public safety are ignored, but a 66-year-old grandmother is considered a high-level threat.