I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color.
– Assata Shakur
It was forty-one years ago, when a 25-year-old Joanne Deborah Chesimard (nee’ Assata Shakur) allegedly shot and killed New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. She was later convicted by an all-white New Jersey jury, but escaped from prison in 1979.
In ’84, she escaped again – from this nation-state’s jurisdiction and into Cuba where she was granted political asylum with the blessings of then President Fidel Castro himself. She has remained there ever since.In 2013, the FBI, together with the Attorney General of New Jersey, doubled the $1 million reward for Shakur’s capture. At the same time, the FBI also placed the now 66-year-old Shakur on its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list, making her the first and only woman to ever appear on that list. And she is only the second “domestic terrorist” to make the most wanted list.
“This case is just as important today as it was when it happened 40 years ago,” said Mike Rinaldi, a lieutenant in the New Jersey State Police, in a press release announcing the renewed effort to capture Shakur.
In 1973, Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army, an off-shoot of the Black Panther Party. Of course, law enforcement describes both entities as exemplars of a “radical left wing terror group that felt justified killing law enforcement officers,” Rinaldi said. “[T]his group conducted assaults on police stations and murdered police officers.”
Chesimard/Shakur’s escape from prison was dramatic, indeed. According to Rinaldi, “[a]rmed domestic terrorists gained entry into the facility, neutralized the guards, broke her free, and turned her over to a nearby getaway team.”
Despite a softening of America’s 50-plus year, hard-line stance against Cuba, no extradition treaty with the US government has been signed as of this writing.
However, a report in the New Jersey Star-Ledger quoted Cuban exiles in this country as saying that they will materially aid friends and families still in Cuba to attempt to catch and return this woman to the US.
In 2005, Castro had this to say of Shakur’s situation and this nation-state’s system of “justice”: “They wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie,” he said in a TV speech, according to the Associated Press. Castro stepped down as president of Cuba and handed power over to his brother, Raúl, in 2011.
From Day One, Assata Shakur has denied killing Foerster. I will not recount the dirty details of her alleged crime because for the first time, in a piece entitled “An Open Letter To The Media,” Shakur gives us her own account of her false arrest, her imprisonment and her daring escape therefrom.
As to her life in Cuba over the last 40 years, Shakur, has lived in and about Havana, and was once even listed in Havana’s phone book, reported the New York Times in 2007. By most accounts, she has led a relatively quiet life, writing, teaching, and counseling others about how to avoid the insatiable maws of the US “criminal” justice system.
Not so, according to New Jersey State Police Col. Rick Fuentes. He wants all to know that Shakur has lived openly, brazenly, in Cuba and “flaunts her freedom.”
“To this day from her safe haven in Cuba Chesimard has been given a pulpit to preach and profess, stirring supporters and groups to mobilize against the United States by any means necessary,” Fuentes said, according to the Huffington Post.
Shakur has a website and many thousands of followers throughout the world.
Again, after conviction in 1977, Shakur escaped from the prison where she was under a life sentence. For the following seven years, she was spirited from one safe house to the next in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, until she finally fled to Cuba in 1984.
At the 40th “anniversary” of Foerster’s death, New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa offered this: “We want her to come back here and face justice and serve out her sentence.” The FBI calls Shakur a “supreme terror” and consummate threat to this nation-state.
Supporters, and those of us old enough to recall how “law enforcement” treated dissidents of all stripes, and particularly black resisters “back in the day,” argue that Shakur was targeted by a national law enforcement campaign against the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2001, Shakur addressed this point directly in a BET interview:
I was convicted by—I don’t even want to call it a trial, it was lynching, by an all-white jury. I had nothing but contempt for the system of justice under which I was tried.
Assata Shakur is also the godmother of slain rapper Tupac Shakur.
Shakur’s 2013 addition to the FBI list was a last ditch effort to pressure Cuba to release U.S. Agency for International Development worker Alan Gross. That was 19 months ago. Just this month, President Barack Obama announced that the US and Cuba were working to normalize relations and that Gross would be released. The two nation-states have been in secret talks for the last 18 months.
Enter New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Since Obama’s announcement, Christie has demanded Shakur’s extradition.
But, hopefully, if the Castro brothers and Cuba generally remain true to their revolutionary principles, Shakur will never again set foot on American soil. Those principles have nothing to do with the any extradition treaty with the US. Rather, political intelligence, geostrategic issues, as well as a revolutionary ethic on the part of Cuba, must obtain and allow Shakur to live out her life in peace and in Cuba.
To wit: If Obama and company demand that Cuba give up Shakur, Cuba will almost certainly counter with a demand for the return of Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles is the now 86-year-old Cuban-born but American apparatchik, whose blood soaked “covert” activities on behalf of the US span three generations. He now lives quite comfortably as he lives out his “golden years” in Miami. Here’s an abbreviated list of his many crimes:
- He was convicted in Panama of the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 civilians.
- He is a suspect in the planting of bombs throughout Havana in 1997 (including one that killed an Italian tourist).
- He was arrested in Panama for an attempt on Fidel Castro’s life — but later pardoned by the US.
Dragging Shakur back to the US would scratch an irritable itch among American right wingers and cops, and their blind supporters, because in their black/white, binary, non-nuanced world, a convicted cop killer has escaped their clutches.
But Shakur has little “intelligence” that could be useful to the American government. Her real “crimes” involved little more than effectively organizing and participating in protests against cops and the government. What “intelligence” could she offer the US that was not protected by Constitutional fiat? Free speech and assembly, you know.
Posada Carriles, however, brings a different and overflowing kettle of fish to the intel table. This man, indeed, has whole boat and plane loads of info that the Cubans would love to access. He has been neck-deep in everything from President John Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco to St. Ronald Reagan’s Contra wars against Nicaragua.
As Assata Shakur notes in her “Open Letter,” Cuba has a long and storied history of serving as an asylum for “maroons” – escaped slaves who established their own truly free societies throughout the Americas and especially in the Cuban hinterland – stretching all the way back to the 15th and 16th century days of the dreaded Columbus family.
In modern history, Cuba has likewise been a haven for black Americans – especially those accused of, essentially — political crimes. At one point, as many as 90 African Americans, including Black Panthers Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were living in Cuba under asylum.
Should Cuba throw Shakur to the American wolves, it would destroy this very carefully cultivated relationship with the African American community, with the African diaspora and with Africa itself.
Again, recall that Fidel and Malcolm X strategized to finally dismantle the institutional racism and end the insatiable capitalistic quest for profit over people of the great northern behemoth. Under Castro, Cuba has always been on the “right side of history.” Unlike most American presidents (Obama included), Fidel’s actions, that is, have and continue to match his words. He put thousands of Cuban soldiers on the ground in support of several wars of liberation in Africa (while the US continued tacit and not-so-tacit support for South Africa’s despicable apartheid regime). Under Cuba, Africans were trained as doctors for free via its Latin American School of Medicine and, extended scholarships to the school through the Congressional Black Caucus to US students from under-served communities.
And, most recently, brother Raul dispatched hundreds of doctors and medical personnel (not troops as did the US) to aid Ebola-stricken West Africa.
Assata Shakur has never waivered in her opposition to the rampant racism/white supremacy which has defined this nation-state since even before its formal foundation.
When this remarkable woman’s “situation” first erupted, I was in the US Navy stationed aboard a ship sailing through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We were returning from our fourth trip ferrying Marines from the jungles of Vietnam and back to “the world.” At the time, Shakur’s case garnered national headlines for months, and she was immediately compared to the then recently accused – but eventually acquitted – Professor Dr. Angela Davis of University of California.
Black people throughout this nation-state applauded both women’s efforts to free themselves – and us – from what still remains an essentially race-based society.
But we learned back then that this fight will never end – not in our lifetimes, anyway. You see, white racism/white supremacy will never – ever – just give up. Especially in cases like Assata Shakur. She is the one who got away, and they just cannot let that stand.