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Hands Off Assata: Protests Can Protect the Revolutionary Fugitive Again

Assata Shakur. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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In September 1998, a nonbinding resolution sometimes known as the Joanne Chesimard Fugitive Act passed both houses of Congress calling on Cuba to extradite the black revolutionary Assata Shakur back to the United States.

But according to a former Black Panther Party leader, a protest movement that erupted in October 1998 organized by the Ad Hoc Coalition to Keep Assata Free forced two members of the Black Congressional Caucus, California Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Barbara Lee, to write a letter to Fidel Castro apologizing for their vote. The two congresswomen also traveled to Cuba in December 1998 to meet personally with Cuban officials and distance themselves from the resolution.

“If it wasn’t for the protests we organized in Washington, DC, that year, Assata may have been captured then,” said JoNina Ervin, a former Black Panther Party leader, during an exclusive interview with Truthout on December 18. “We have to stand up and speak out now to protect Assata again.”

The wide-ranging interview with Ervin focused on the recent news that the Obama White House is moving to normalize relations with Cuba, as well as the effect the move could have on Assata Shakur’s political asylum, but also touched on the intersections between the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ’70s with today’s #BlackLivesMatter protests sweeping across the nation.

Ervin is now the acting chairwoman of the Black Autonomy Federation, an anti-authoritarian group based in Memphis that organizes poor, low-income and working-class people of African descent. The group states that Memphis police murdered 24 people between February 2012 and November 2014, the highest rate in the country during that timeframe.

Ervin joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Detroit in 1972 and moved to the party’s headquarters in Oakland in 1974 to help write and edit the Panthers’ national newsletter. She met Assata in 1988 during a delegation to Cuba organized by the National Alliance of Third World Journalists.

“Assata Shakur was a young woman like myself who saw what police terror was doing to her people and who joined the Black Panther Party to bring about the liberation of black people in America,” Ervin said.

“Assata joined the Black Panther Party because she wanted to fight against police brutality and the other issues oppressing black people across this country, and that is why she wound up being labeled a criminal and a terrorist, and why she was ultimately captured, falsely convicted, unjustly imprisoned and forced to flee the country and seek exile in revolutionary Cuba.”

On paper, Assata Shakur was convicted of murder, after a 1973 confrontation between herself, two other members of the Black Liberation Army and the New Jersey State Patrol ended in the death of police officer Werner Foerster.

The details of what really happened are sketchy, but Shakur was badly wounded, captured, tortured while in police custody, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. She escaped prison in 1979 when she fled to Cuba and has been a living symbol of black militant struggle ever since. Her book, Assata: An Autobiography, is considered by many to be mandatory reading, alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Black Power movement.

Assata’s story, which is also documented in “A Song for Assata” by Chicago rapper Common Sense, is often neglected, but cropped up in headlines in 2013 when the FBI moved to place her on their “Top Ten Most Wanted Terrorist List,” and again this week when the New Jersey State Patrol used the White House move to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba as an excuse to escalate their campaign to extradite her.

“When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was, ‘what’s going to happen to Assata?’ That was my first thought. Is Obama going to try to get her back? Is Raul [Castro] going to hand her over? I was immediately concerned for her safety,” Ervin said.

“We cannot remain silent,” Ervin continued. “We have got to speak out now forcefully and protect her and let the Cuban government know that they’ve got to keep her safe there. They must not turn her over to the United States under any circumstances. Don’t hand her over to Obama. And we need to let Obama know: Hands Off Assata. Get her off that terrorist list.”

But Ervin also said that the hashtag demand meme, #HandsOffAssata, doesn’t go far enough. According to her, this is also an opportunity to educate young people not just about the Black Power movement, but also to teach them about the illegal government surveillance and counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO that was used to disrupt and ultimately destroy the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary organizations.

“We have to say, ‘Hands Off Assata,’ but we have to do more than that. We need to remind people how Assata got to be in Cuba today in the first place. She was driven there by an illegal government surveillance and counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, which was designed to destroy the Black Power movement and everything we were fighting for.”

David Goodner: What are the connections between Assata Shakur, the Black Panther Party and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is attempting to respond to police violence in black communities?

JoNina Ervin: If you look at the original Black Panther Party, it was started in response largely to police brutality against black people in the United States. If you fast-forward 48 years, police brutality is actually far worse today than it was back then because now we have the militarization of the police. So there is a direct connection. The Black Panther Party was initially organized to fight police brutality. Assata Shakur and so many other young black people like myself joined the Black Panther Party because we wanted to be part of that fight. And now the black youth in Ferguson are carrying the torch.

If the Ferguson youth are carrying the torch, the fire they’ve lit is now burning across the country. What’s your take on where the #BlackLivesMatter movement is headed?

I have hope. I have hope that a really radical, militant and sustained movement against police terror can be built. My concern is that it could be co-opted. You have a part of this movement that is pacifist. I think that clearly the black youth in Ferguson are who we have to thank for this and that other people are largely following their example. But the youth in Ferguson are not pacifist. My concern is this movement could be co-opted by pacifists, nonprofit mainstream organizations and politicians.

I’m looking at this very carefully. Will this movement be a viable, sustained, militant protest led by black youth and youth of color? Or will it be taken over by the pacifist, mainstream, conformist civil rights activists like Al Sharpton, who didn’t have anything to do with starting it?

How do the #BlackLivesMatter protests, which are still in their infancy, stack up against the long-running Black Power movement?

Look at the LA rebellion in Watts in 1965. I remember them because I had just turned 17 years old and I had not seen black people protest like that before. But the Watts riots didn’t last longer than five days. The rebellion in Ferguson, this is the longest rebellion or insurrection against police terror in the history of the United States. So it is very significant.

And that’s why we have to demand “Hands Off Assata.” Because her fight is the same fight we are still in today.

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