“People are tried and convicted in the newspapers and on television before they ever see a courtroom.” -Assata ShakurSince the 1960’s, Assata Olugbala Shakur has been fighting for the liberation of the racially oppressed. Ironically, it is the same oppression that has caused her to become the first female ever to be added to the FBI’s America’s Most Wanted Terrorist List. Political activist, former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, and step-aunt to slane hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, her story is deeply cloaked in the struggle for systemic change.
Early Years and Education
Assata Shakur was born JoAnne Deborah Bryon on July 16, 1947 in New York City, New York. She lived with her mother, school teacher Doris E. Johnson, retired grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill and her aunt until the age of 3. In 1950, shortly after her parents divorced and she moved with her grandparents to Wilmington, North Carolina, where they started a business on the beach with money saved from retirement. During her formative years, she alternated between her mother’s residence in New York, and grandparents home in Wilmington.
In the mid-1960’s she attended Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York, where she was involved in many political demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins. Leaders of the organization familiarized her with black historical figures who were prominent in resisting racial oppression and social violence. She engaged with other activist groups which lead to the participated in student rights, anti-Vietnam war, and black liberation movements.
In 1967, she was arrested for the first time (with 100 other students), on trespassing charges. The students had chained and locked the entrance to a college building to the absence of a black studies program and the scarce presence of a black faculty. In the same year, she met and married fellow student-activist at CCNY, Louis Chesimard. The marriage was brief, lasting less than a year. In her autobiography, she wrote that it ended over their differing views of gender roles.
Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army
In 1970, during a trip to Oakland, California Assata became acquainted with the Black Panther Party (BPP). She returned to New York City and joined the Harlem chapter. She became active with the BPP breakfast program but grew increasingly critical of the party. She disliked the male chauvinist behavior and believed that the group lacked knowledge and understanding of United States black history and disagreed with the group’s reluctance to collaborate with other organizations. She left the BPP and joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an offshoot of the BPP. Inspired by the Vietcong and the Battle of Algiers, BLA members led a campaign of armed struggle against the U.S. government using tactics such as planting bombs, holding up banks and murdering drug dealers and police. The FBI branded the Black Liberation Army an anarchist group.
Assata changed her name in 1971. She writes in her autobiography. “The name JoAnne began to irk my nerves. I had changed a lot and moved to a different beat. I didn’t feel like no JoAnne, or no Negro, or no amerikan. I felt like an African woman. My mind, heart, and soul had gone back to Africa but my name was still stranded in Europe somewhere.” The name Assata is West African, which means “she who struggles”, Olugbala means “savior” in Yoruba, and Shakur means “thankful one” in Arabic.
From 1971 to 1973, Assata was alleged to have committed a series of crimes, sometimes alongside other members of the BLA:
|April 5, 1971||Robbery at Statler Hilton Hotel||Dismissed|
|August 3, 1971||Bank robbery in Queens||Acquitted|
|September 1, 1972||Bank robbery in Bronx: Conspiracy, robbery, and assault with a deadly weapon||Acquitted|
|December 28, 1972||Kidnapping of James E. Freeman||Acquitted|
|January 2, 1973||Murder of Richard Nelson||Dismissed|
|January 23, 1973||Attempted murder of policemen Michael O’Reilly and Roy Polliana||Dismissed|
She was not charged for any of the crimes for which she was the subject of the manhunt. In a statement by Angela Davis, “People really don’t know the details and are not aware of the extent to which [Shakur] was targeted by the FBI and the COINTEL programme.”
New Jersey Turnpike Shootout
How did Shakur become a woman considered so dangerous by the US government that her name is listed as #1 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, inspite of foresenic, clinical and evidence, which supports her plea of innocence?
On the evening of May 2, 1973, Assata, along with two other members of the BLA were stopped by two state troopers for a traffic infraction on the New Jersey Turnpike. An encounter ended in the deaths of Assata’s friend Zayd Shakur and State Trooper Werner Foerster, in addition to Assata being shot in her arm and back.
She taken to Middlesex General Hospital under “heavy guard” and was reported in serious condition. She was interrogated and arraigned from her hospital bed, and her medical care during this period was “substandard”. In her autobiography, Assata details the conditions in which she was kept during the days that followed imprisonment. Her food was spat in, she was not allowed to contact a lawyer, and Zayd Malik’s dead body was left lying next to her. She recalls some compassion from a German nurse at the hospital, who protested about the tightness of the cuff on Shakur’s ankle and covered it in gauze, and later showed her the call button so she could buzz the nurses’ station for help. She was later transferred from Middlesex General Hospital in New Brunswick to Roosevelt Hospital in Edison after her lawyers obtained a court order from Judge John Bachman,and then transferred to Middlesex County Workhouse a few weeks later.
Arraigned on charges that included first degree murder, Assata went to trial seven times and was eventually convicted of Trooper Foerster’s murder, regardless of her contention that the gunshot wound she sustained during the confrontation partially paralyzed her arm and rendered her incapable of firing a weapon.
In 1977 after years of incarceration, the case was bought before a jury in New Jersey. The jury reached a verdict after 24 hours, she was found guilty on all seven counts. Her attorney Lennox Hinds explained: “Under New Jersey law, if a person’s presence at the scene of a crime can be construed as ‘aiding and abetting’ the crime, that person can be convicted of the substantive crime itself.” Assata was handed a mandatory life sentence, despite forensic evidence that supported her assertions.
She spent a total of 6 and a half years in prison (much of this time was held in a men’s prison and 2 years out of that time was spent in solitary confinement). She endured such brutal circumstances before escaping out of the maximum-security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979. She fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum and reunited with her daughter Kakuya Amala Olugbala, whom she delivered while imprisoned.
In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of Trooper Foerster’s death, the FBI placed Assata on the Most Wanted Terrorists list, conferring upon her the dubious distinction of being the first woman and the second domestic terrorist to appear on the list. It also increased her bounty to two million dollars. Assata continues to live in exile in Cuba. Since her escape, Assata’s life has been depicted in songs, documentaries and various literary works.
Open Letter From Assata Shakur to Pope John Paul II
i believe in living.
i believe in living.
i believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
i believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs;
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
i believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
i believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
i believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path
i have seen the destruction of the daylight
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted
i have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
i have walked on cut grass.
i have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference
i have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know anything at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.
i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.
“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
“A revolutionary woman can’t have no reactionary man.”
“i Believe In The Fire Of Love And The Sweat Of Truth”
“Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them.”
“The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.”
“We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”
“All you have to do is ask yourselves, who controls the government? And who are the victims of that control?”
“People are tried and convicted in the newspapers and on television before they ever see a courtroom.”
“In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.”
“If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.”
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
University of Texas at Austin:
ReCreate Model: Jasmine Y. Mallory
ReCreate Photographer: Kimberly Staples