Assata Shakur

Last night I attended a private screening of Assata, a 93 minute ‘docudrama’ written and directed by my old friend Fred Baker. Despite the obvious shoestring budget, the film has more impact that the average Hollywood blockbuster costing 1000 times more. It is the story of Assata Shakur, nee Joanne Chesimard, the sixty year old Black liberation activist who fled from a New Jersey prison in 1979 and was granted political asylum in Cuba.

Along with Mumia and Leonard Peltier, she was one of the most prominent victims of the American injustice system. For many young people first coming around the Black liberation movement today, she is a symbol of resistance as the New York Times reported on December 13, 2006:

The chancellor of the City University of New York yesterday directed the president of City College to remove the names of two fugitives linked to violent crimes from the entrance to a student clubroom.

Matthew Goldstein, the chancellor, called the designation of the room as the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center “unauthorized and inappropriate.”

Ms. Shakur — once known as Joanne Chesimard — was a member of the Black Liberation Army convicted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper. She is currently a federal fugitive living in Cuba. Mr. Morales, also in Cuba, was a leader of the Puerto Rican independence group known as the F.A.L.N., which claimed responsibility for a tavern bombing in Lower Manhattan that killed four people and injured others. Both were students at City College…

But the students were not ready to acquiesce.

Rodolfo Leyton, a City College senior and the center’s director, said students planned to speak to a lawyer, Ronald B. McGuire, and possibly ‘’seek legal remedies.” The center sued college and university officials in 1998 when it discovered a surveillance camera in a smoke detector across from it. That suit is still pending.

Mr. Leyton also said that while others view Ms. Shakur as guilty, ”we see her as a leader in her community who was framed and unlawfully convicted.” He said minutes of college proceedings in September 1989 dedicated the room to one of the groups still using the center, Students for Educational Rights. Others also use the space.

Fred Baker blends documentary-type material, including interviews with former Panther leader Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, with a love story revolving around two young African-American characters who are both committed to finding out the truth about Assata Skakur. Justin (Charles Everett) is a documentary film maker who we first meet filming an outdoor jazz concert on a New York street. (As the director of acclaimed jazz films featuring John Coltrane, Stan Getz and others, Baker must have a strong identification with this character.) During filming, Justin runs into Asha (Erika Vaughn), a pretty college student who falls in love with him in a rather old-fashioned way. After a few visits to his apartment, she discovers a bookshelf full of material on Assata Shakur. This leads to a showdown with Justin to see how involved he is with her story. It turns out that he is very involved. The remainder of the film is structured around his recounting of Assata’s arrest and flight to freedom to Asha.

In a way, his passion for finding out the truth reminds me of the young African-American film-maker Keith A. Beauchamp’s dedication to Emmett Till. The martyrs and heroes of the Black Community have a way of inspiring succeeding generations of truth-tellers.

As somebody who had only very limited exposure to her case in the 1970s, I found Fred Baker’s film most instructive. Like many “old leftists” (Trotskyist, to be specific), I found much of the Black Panther and Black Liberation Army activities that Assata Shakur was involved with to be an ultraleft diversion from more pressing tasks in the mass movement. My political differences might have even led me to assume the worst about her, a mistake that the movie very effectively corrects.

Despite her reputation as a “terrorist,” there is no evidence that she actually shot a New Jersey State Trooper on January 23, 1973. Doctors testified that she was shot when her hands were up, while one of the arresting officer’s testimonies was riddled with contradictions. In one of the more dramatic scenes of the film, we see a recreation of the confrontation on the New Jersey highway that led to her arrest. It has the same kind of chilling effect as Earl Morris’s recreation of a similar incident in The Thin Blue Line, in which the police testimony is revealed to be full of holes. If there is anything that can be learned from cases such as Mumia’s or Assata Shakur’s, it is to take the word of the cops with a wheelbarrow full of salt.

In the early 70s, Assata Shakur became a kind of symbol of evil in the minds of white racist America that Nat Turner was in an earlier age. The police were anxious to hold her practically responsible for every crime that the Black Liberation movement was accused of around that time to the point that it became ridiculous.

Assata was never forgiven for her flight to freedom. Last May she was identified as a “domestic terrorist” and a one million dollar bounty was put on her head. Such is the state of the American justice system that she is still being hounded, while mass murderer Luis Posada Carriles is released on bond from a Texas jail.

Considering the state of racial relations in the USA, with Don Imus’s “joke” about the Rutgers women basketball players and a white cop firing 31 bullets at an unarmed and unresisting Sean Bell, such a film is more urgent than ever.

Louis Proyect is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear. Read other articles by Louis, or visit Louis's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Basym Hasan said on October 11th, 2007 at 4:35am #

    When will the documentary become availible for public view?

  2. neema shakur said on January 30th, 2008 at 12:02am #

    I am very interested in the Revolutionary Assata Shakur. I first learned about her in her autobiograpy,I am so inspired by her fortitude and strenght.

  3. KENDELL said on April 7th, 2008 at 3:39am #

    I am also interested in the Revolutionary Assata Shakur. I read about her in her autobiograpy while i was incarcerated. I’m inspired because she is the truth and the government is full of bullshit. They don’t care about us. Another thing i feel that all these rich black people should pay for more schools, recreation centers, and provide/support/give us more job opportunities. Why? Because, we stuck in da hood!!!