Assata Shakur First Woman on FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List: Why Now?

4 years ago

The FBI recently added the first woman, 65-year old Assata Shakur, to its Most Wanted Terrorists list. The addition of Shakur to this infamous list isn’t shocking simply because she is female or black, but because of the timing -- 40 years after her involvement in a police shoot-out.

In 1977, Assata Shakur (also known as Joanne Chesimard) was convicted of the first degree murder of police officer Werner Forester for a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, among a number of other criminal charges. She was sentenced to life in prison, but soon escaped, disappearing for five years and eventually turning up in Cuba in 1984, where she is now in political exile.

Assata Shakur, Image Credit: FBI

According to Shakur’s autobiography, the officer shooting happened when she and two other men were stopped by police on the New Jersey Turnpike for having a faulty tail light. One of the officers drew his gun and ordered them to raise their hands, which all three did, leading to a shootout which ended in the death of one of the men and the officer. Shakur was also shot while her hands were up in the air. She was still convicted despite the fact that forensic evidence eventually proved she did not shoot anyone. The other man arrested is still in prison and was recently denied parole.

The police have a different account:

From the front passenger seat, Shakur fired the first shot, wounding Trooper James Harper in the shoulder, said Fuentes, who has worked on the case for 30 years. He said she continued to fire at both troopers until she was wounded. Chesimard fled, but was picked up a half hour later. False identification, fake license plates and more weapons were found in the BLA vehicle, Fuentes said...... “We’ve been pressing for an increase in the reward and to have her placed on the terrorists list. She continues every day to flaunt her freedom in the face of this horrific crime. It’s an open wound for us.”

For those who are interested in the history of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army -- both groups active within the American counterculture movement from 1966 until 1982 -- Shakur’s story is well-known. At the time, the Black Panther Party -- which was both an armed revolutionary movement and a multicultural organization known for helping low-income neighbourhoods, must have been scary as hell for some people who saw the all-black clad young men and women reacting to the social injustices. Shakur was not the first, nor most well-known, woman in the Black Panther movement. Before Shakur’s arrest in 1970, political activist Angela Davis was arrested for buying guns that ended up being used in a hostage attempt at a courthouse. Davis also later escaped, but was eventually tracked down and arrested in a motel room.

Colorlines recently re-published an open letter that Shakur penned in 1998, the same year the U.S Government tried to extradite her back to the States, in which she questions the attention:

Like most poor and oppressed people in the United States, I do not have a voice. Black people, poor people in the U.S. have no real freedom of speech, no real freedom of expression and very little freedom of the press. The black press and the progressive media has historically played an essential role in the struggle for social justice. We need to continue and to expand that tradition. We need to create media outlets that help to educate our people and our children, and not annihilate their minds. I am only one woman. I own no TV stations, or Radio Stations or Newspapers. But I feel that people need to be educated as to what is going on, and to understand the connection between the news media and the instruments of repression in Amerika. All I have is my voice, my spirit and the will to tell the truth.

It’s been over 25 years since Shakur was reported in Cuba. So why now? Why did the FBI put her on their Most Wanted Terrorists list? Davis, now an author and professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, believes that this turn of events is politically motivated:

"It seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism," Davis says. "I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems like it was a long time ago. In the beginning of the 21st century, we’re still fighting around the very same issues — police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison.

Could it be?

With the Boston Marathon bombings fresh on the public consciousness and the possibility that the bombing suspects could be linked to present-day terror organizers, why are they dredging up the hunt for Assata Shakur and putting her on the same list as members of Al Qaeda... real terrorists? Why the $2 million bounty on her head?

The Root thinks that this might be the US Government’s way of taking a swipe at Cuba....After all, how dare Jay-Z and Beyonce vacation there? Traitors!

"The declining health of Castro and the advancing age of his brother Raúl have triggered rampant speculation that Cuba's socialist experiment is poised to conclude, or at least change dramatically. By announcing Shakur's new status, the U.S. government is perhaps throwing out a trial balloon to test the contemporary strength of past commitments. Fidel Castro's Cuba, on principle, would never give up Shakur to what it views to be an imperialist U.S. government with plans to imprison her. However, this is not Castro's Cuba. Indeed, the easing of travel restrictions is only one example of the ongoing thaw in Cuban-American relations."

But I have a suspicion that this is just another attempt to punish African-Americans and serve as a "F you" to President Obama. Some black writers wonder how this could happen under an African-American president? The Black Agenda Report asks why black community activists are not stepping in?

"It's been a week now since the $2 million dollar bounty and “most wanted terrorist” announcement. In that time, not a single nationally noted African American “leader” has raised his or her voice. Not Ben Jealous. Not a single black mayor or member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Not Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and certainly not the presidential lap dog Al Sharpton. Sharpton has worn wires for the FBI more than once, and is credibly accused of trying to get close to people who were rumored to be close to Assata Shakur in the 1980s. Those people wisely avoided Rev. Al."

Bitch magazine mentioned that the FBI spokesperson who made the announcement about Shakur was also black, and alluded that her "own people" were against her:

"So, we understand that Shakur has been targeted by men of her own race, who care nothing of her ethical fortitude or the pervasive racism that colored her arrest and trial, but instead demand that she be handled as a domestic terrorist and enemy of the United States of America."

While this is a bit of a stretch, you have to wonder if there was some symbolism in the fact that a brotha delivered the news. After all, having a black man as a figurehead might deflect accusations of racism. But as a black woman, I see it as play upon the idea that even black men are emotionally disenfranchised from black women.

But when it comes down it, the most troubling aspect of Shakur’s placement on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list is the term “terrorist”. Not just because a black woman doesn’t fit popular stereotypes about terrorists, but because Shakur’s convictions hardly seem to be a pressing threat to public safety. Murderous, yes -- but putting her on a list that at one time included Osama Bin Laden is ridiculous.

I am currently reading Melissa Harris Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, which provides great insights into the pervasive patterns of how black women are perceived in society: angry, aggressive, irrational. Perry asserts that at best, the black woman is portrayed as someone who does not let anything get her down. But in commonly negative images, (as even First Lady Michelle Obama has been portrayed as), by trying to create an image that black women are not as equal, or perceived to have the same emotional and physical traits as white women, they do not deserve the same considerations. Patty Hearst, a white woman from an extremely wealthy family, was kidnapped by a terrorist organization ( whom might have been more violent that the Black Panthers), and eventually joined her kidnappers in robbing a bank. After serving less than one year of a 35 year sentence, her sentence was commuted and eventually she was fully pardoned in 2001. While Assata Shakur participated in an organization that employed violence to advance a political cause, which is the standard definition of terrorism, there are too many holes to be filled before the U.S. Government should track her down and ship her to Guantanamo Bay.

What do you think? Why do you believe the FBI decided to put Shakur on their Most Wanted list now? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting:

My Book! What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal

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