My name is Assata Shakur, and 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 toward people of color. I am an ex-political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984….
People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” (from “An Open Letter from Assata Shakur: ‘I Am Only One Woman,’ ” Colorlines, May 6, 2013)
To the credit of The National Conference of Black Lawyers, The National Lawyers Guild, The Black Commentator, The Nation, Democracy Now, The Huffington Post, and an array of blog essays the FBI decision to place Assata Shakur on its “Most Wanted Terrorists” list and the State Department decision to keep Cuba on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” have been roundly condemned.
Assata Shakur was an activist in the Black Panther Party, the student and anti-war movements, and human rights causes in the 1960s. Her activism made Shakur a prime target of the violent FBI COINTELPRO program designed to arrest, convict, and assassinate those who worked against U.S. racism, classism, and war. She was stopped in a car on the New Jersey turnpike on May 2, 1973. Police engaged in a shooting which led to the death of a passenger in the car. Also a police officer was killed in the shootout.
Shakur and another comrade were charged with the police killing even though she also was shot and was incapable of shooting a weapon because of her injuries. Shakur was subsequently charged and convicted for killing the police officer, though she was unarmed, and sentenced to life plus 33 years. On November 2, 1979 she escaped from the New Jersey prison where she was serving her sentence. In 1984 she fled to Cuba, was granted political asylum, and has been living there ever since.
Expressions of outrage about the policies toward Assata Shakur and the government of Cuba need to be raised again and again because these policies get to the heart of racism, repression, and imperialism. The United States government, from civil rights organizing against Jim Crow in the South to urban Black liberation movements in the North sought to divide, repress, and crush demands for an end to institutionalized racism. The same police and federal security apparatuses complicit in the hosing of protesters in the South, refused to vigorously investigate racist murderers in Alabama and Mississippi. State and federal authorities launched a nationwide campaign during the Nixon administration to falsely charge, arrest, sentence, and murder militants fighting racism. From Chicago, to Oakland, California, to Detroit to the New Jersey turnpike police and FBI shootouts were initiated to eliminate those who were challenging the political and economic status quo. At the ideological level activists for change were labeled “communists,” “terrorists,” common “criminals,” and foreign agents. Let’s be clear: the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many police departments were agents of a policy of state terrorism. The first targets were African Americans.
In addition, what happened to Assata Shakur and untold thousands of others sent a clear message to activists, particularly young ones, that public protest would lead to violent repression. In 1970 the killings at Jackson State and Kent State Universities communicated to college students that protest might be life threatening.
Raising the issue of “terrorism” again in reference to Cuba and now Assata Shakur also serves to link the COINTELPRO violence against the people of the 1970s to the “war on terrorism” in the 21st century. Everyone knows that as economic crisis grows, demands for change are likely to increase. From a systemic point of view the tools of repression must be reinvigorated. Raising the case of Assata Shakur now and framing it as an issue of terrorism links the political mobilizations of the 1970s to the Occupy Movement, the horrific bombings in Boston to the demands for change all around the world. Putting Shakur on the terror list and keeping Cuba on a similar list is a metaphor for all that economic and political elites regard as a threat. It seeks to reinforce the theme of the linkage of terrorism and people of color.
Finally, adding Assata Shakur to the terrorism list, and keeping Cuba on the state list, provides ready cover for a possible future military strike against targets on the island. It is conceivable that, unless massive voices are raised to protest these lists, some adventurist administration could launch a drone strike against targets in Cuba. And, in the short run, associating Assata Shakur and Cuba with terrorism continues the argument that the U.S. blockade of Cuba needs to be maintained, which many of us would regard as a real act of terrorism against eleven million Cubans.
Lennox Hinds, Shakur’s lawyer and National Lawyers Guild member, summarized the current meaning of the Shakur case. “Clearly, the federal 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 sixties and seventies.”