Radical media, politics and culture.

Hands Off Assata

Bernie Roddy writes
Assata Shakur in Cuba - A Video Review

"I am an ex-political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984. I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the U.S. government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one.”

“She is now 120 lbs of money,” State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The U.S. government recently raised the bounty for the capture of Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, to $1 million. The new initiative “is going to exert pressures that weren’t in place nationally and internationally before,” said Fuentes. “And we’re going to follow up to make sure everybody is aware of this both inside and outside of Cuba.”

Who is Assata Shakur, and why has the U.S. put such a high price on her head? I recently saw a video of her that was recorded in 1997, I believe. She is seated on a school desk and addressing a diverse audience of about fifty people. After about 20 minutes explaining her story, she took questions from several whites in the audience, as well as from several blacks.

Assata began by giving a rough outline of her story. During the 1960s and early 1970s she was a political activist concerned with social justice issues. She joined the Black Panther party without realizing that it was being targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, an operation designed to neutralize and destroy dissident communities. Because she did not trust the justice system, when she was accused of “aiding and abetting” a crime (I forget which one) she went underground. Here Assata admitted to having been naïve. The FBI, she says, took a photo of someone robbing a bank, inserted a caption that said this was her, and plastered it all over the newspapers, buses, and billboards of New Jersey.

Assata explained that Ricco, a law written to combat the mafia, was used extensively against people involved in liberation movements. This law permitted the government to pursue convictions on what would otherwise be discredited as insufficient evidence. Although it was used to imprison black liberation advocates, every charge against her was eventually thrown out of court except one.

On May 2, 1973, Assata Shakur, Zayd Shakur, and Sundiata Acoli were pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike by New Jersey State Trooper James Harper. Like several other famous frame-ups (Huey P. Newton and Mumia Abu Jamal), this one involved a shoot-out, wounded Black Panther members, and a dead trooper. Besides the trooper, Werner Foerster , Zayd Shakur was killed. Acoli and Assata were seriously wounded.

In his autobiography, Huey P. Newton recounts the incident on the roadside that left him wounded and the primary suspect in the death of a cop. There is a photo in the book of the wounded Newton handcuffed to a gurney at the hospital and guarded by a white policeman. In the 1997 video Assata reported a similar experience. She says that she could hear cops asking whether she was dead yet, and that she endured a variety of tortures subsequent to her arrest that she was not emotionally prepared to go into. She only mentioned being sprayed in the eyes and told that she would never see again unless she told investigators what they wanted to hear.

Assata said she was convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of Foerster in a trial not worthy of the name. She then spent 6 1/2 years in prison at the maximum security wing of New Jersey’s Clinton Correctional Facility for women, where she gave birth to her daughter. In 1979 friends assisted her escape and flight to Cuba, where she has remained ever since.

In 1987 Assata Shakur published an autobiography called Assata: An Autobiography, with forwards by Angela Y. Davis (written in 2000) and Lennox S. Hinds (Zed Books or Lawrence Hill Books, 1987). In the video she says she is working on another book but was not free to disclose who the publisher would be because it would put people in danger of intimidation by the FBI. She said she was not free to make contact with other prisoners in the U.S. because prison authorities severely punish inmates who correspond with fugitives, conduct legal research, or are otherwise vulnerable for their political views.

“The United State government is vicious, I mean totally vicious,” she said. Asked what she thought of the U.S. now that she has been in Cuba, she said things have gotten much worse in the U.S. She cited the boom in the number of prisoners since 1970, the rise in homelessness, and the crack epidemic of the 1990s. Since she escaped in 1979, she said, the number of women in prison has tripled. A third of black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are either in prison or under the supervision of prison authorities.

Assata said there are people in Cuba who want to become millionaires, but in contrast to the U.S. they are not in power. It is interesting to note that this was back in the late 1990s that, in her opinion, the U.S. government was “two steps away from fascism.” But what concerned her most was that the complete lack of concern for human beings in evidence in the U.S. was being exported, through the movie and advertising industry.

Asked about her advice to political activists, she recommended unity without uniformity and encouraged listeners to develop relationships with those they are working together with to bring about social change. Recalling her experiences in the liberation movement of the 1960s, she said there was too little attention to personal needs, to the demands of children, too little understanding of one another as people. She strongly advocated study rather than dogmatism, calling her listeners to avoid pat responses to the differences in views they encounter.

Health care, education, and freedom from oppression she mentioned several times in her discussion with the audience. In her view, we must be tolerant of the different visions we have of liberation, but we must fight the impact of imperialism, which is the primary enemy of anyone opposed to sexism, racism, homophobia, and class oppression.

Assata also mentioned the importance of discipline. She argued that the dog-eat-dog mentality that is fostered in the U.S., the get-mine-first attitude, too easily becomes a part of how we act. Discipline is, however, not magic. It must be learned. She admitted that she is still learning discipline.

At one point in the video she said that U.S. policies tell people, “Die!” The elimination of affirmative action programs - which she held to be neither “affirmative” nor “action” programs - belong to the same category of policies as California’s Proposition 187 and the cut-backs in money for education and health care. “Die!”, she said, is the message being sent to the poor in this country.

At various points in the video Assata Shakur expressed outrage at the number of people whose doors were knocked down and possessions ransacked by the FBI when the Black Panther party was active. Obviously happier and more comfortable in Cuba, she compared the U.S. in the late 1990s to Germany before the second World War. The situation in the U.S. is much worse than when she was an active revolutionary in the States, she said. She was careful to draw her listeners’ attention to the many other victims of the most successful police state in the history of the world, and to make sure this was not limited to a history lesson or to her own exile.

The screening took place in a black, urban neighborhood. I was the only white in the room, and I knew nobody there. Those hosting the event were not there simply to instruct the audience about an unfortunate past. The urgency of Assata’s situation represents a more general crisis.

Assata was right that things had gotten much worse during her stay in Cuba. The proportion of the U.S. population in prison had risen from 93 per 100,00 to 427 per 100,000 between the time of Assata’s conviction in 1973 and the time of the videotaped discussion, around 1997. Just to put this in perspective, prior to 1973 the proportion of the U.S. population in prison hovered around 100 per 100,000. Its peak was a mere 119 per 100,000, recorded in 1961. These figures do not take into consideration, of course, the continuing prison expansion since 1998.

I am taking my data from Elliot Currie’s book, Crime and Punishment in America (Henry Holt, 1998). According to Currie, between 1971 and 1996 the prison population rose from 200,000 to 1.2 million. In Texas alone the number of prisoners rose 80,000 within five years (from 1991 to 1996). This rise in Texas prisoners is equal to the total prison population in Germany in the mid-1990s, and not because of the difference in populations. There were 18 million people in Texas, compared to 80 million in Germany. In 1978, just prior to Assata’s escape, the number of U.S. prisoners of all races was half the number of black U.S. prisoners alone by 1998. In that year, 1998, black men in California were 4 times as likely to be in prison as they were to be in college.

Assata was also correct about the impact of U.S. policy on American women. Within the twenty years between her escape and the time of the video the number of women prisoners in the United States rose from a high that did exceed 19 per 100,000 for any year prior to 1977, to an alarming 51 per 100,000 in 1998.

Prison is supposed to combat crime. But crime rates in the U.S. saw nothing like the significant changes in prison rates. Violent crime continues to be a disproportionately American problem. But I only wanted to give some indication of what Assata had in mind here. Let’s now briefly consider what the history of resistance looks like.

In the late 1950s a black man named Robert F. Williams discovered that white law enforcement was not serious about protecting blacks against the Klan and lynch mobs. In his book Negroes with Guns he describes an early encounter with law enforcement when a group of blacks picketing a swimming pool faced racist white threats. Williams had learned that law enforcement does not value the life and safety of African Americans as much as that of white Americans, so he showed up at the protest armed. He also discovered that when drive-by shootings from Klansmen were met with return fire, blacks enjoyed greater security and could expect their lives to be valued as much as the lives of white members of the community.

Williams eventually fled to Cuba, where he was welcomed as a human rights activist. Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton both took inspiration from him. Like many others, the followers of John Africa (also known as the members of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia) ended up dead or in jail when they tried to pursue a lifestyle committed to nourishing all forms of life and nature. Their resistance included armed and vociferous resistance to police brutality and racist courts. Mumia Abu Jamal was reporting on these events and a member of the Black Panther party when he was framed for the murder of a policeman in much the same way that Assata was.

One reason Assata Shakur cannot get a fair trial in the U.S. is that she has been convicted of capital murder while holding strong political convictions in favor of social justice. Anyone who studies capital punishment in the United States from a human rights stand-point can see that the process breaks down here because the state’s interest in obtaining convictions and executions is particularly intense. There has never been a serious interest in providing fair trials for political prisoners in the United States, but if you also have a murdered police officer, that interest declines precipitously. If you favor stamping out serious political dissent, it helps to have a capital offense to fire up your supporters, but we ourselves should not be fooled by this ruse. As people who profess a concern for the poor and exploited, we must not silence those who have the most to tell us about what it means to fight for social justice in the United States.

You can learn more about Assata and sign a petition in the defense of her and Sundiata Acoli at: www.handsoffassata.org. The United States does not forget when it suffers a defeat in its war on freedom. Rhetoric aside, the stories of many people like Assata that are vehemently suppressed in the press expose the reality of life in the U.S. Filling cages is a point of pride, not a means of obtaining truth or justice. In the video she drove home the contrast between the myth and the reality. The reality for many who watched the video is that their incarcerated black sisters and brothers are “behind enemy lines.”"