By Hadia Akhtar Khan
Assata Shakur is a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army who has been living as a political refugee in Cuba for the last 32 years. Falsely accused of killing a New Jersey State Trooper, she was imprisoned while under trial for 6 years before she escaped prison and fled to Cuba in 1984.
She grew up in a working class family and was raised partly by her mother and aunt in New York and her grandparents in North Carolina. Brilliant and rebellious from an early age, she ran away from home as a teenager and got a glimpse of living the precarious life of a working class black woman in New York. Taken in by her aunt, she went to college in the 60s, where she started gaining her political consciousness.
She was arrested for the first time in 1967 for trespassing while protesting the deficient college curriculum that did not address any of the issues facing black people or why these issues existed in the first place.
Assata became involved with various leftist movements and black nationalist groups that were emerging during the 1960s. She felt that the people needed to be organized in order to change their conditions, but was unsatisfied with many of the conclusions of these groups. As a result of this experience, she became increasingly convinced that black liberation was impossible within capitalism:
‘I got into heated arguments with sisters or brothers who claimed that the oppression of Black people was only a question of race. I argued that there were Black oppressors as well as white ones. That’s why you’ve got Blacks who support Nixon or Reagan or other conservatives. Black folks with money have always tended to support candidates who they believed would protect their financial interests. “
After several years of seeing the failures of pursuing activism work and simply protesting, she became a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Assata agreed with the BPP’s 10 Point Program, and was involved in the free breakfast program for poor kids and focused on teaching black history to black people who had been brought up with the white version as the ‘objective’ truth. She loved teaching kids and would spent hours preparing classes.
She was deeply troubled by the brainwashing of an education kids got in school and made it her life goal to help black people gain the critical consciousness they need to fight for their liberation.
“It would burn me up every time somebody talked about Black people climbing the ladder of success. Anytime you’re talking about a ladder, you’re talking about a top and a bottom, an upper class and a lower class, a rich class and a poor class. As long as you’ve got a system with a top and a bottom, Black people are always going to wind up at the bottom, because we’re the easiest to discriminate against. That’s why i couldn’t see fighting within the system.’
As a result of the progress that the BPP had made in organizing tens of thousands of black people in major cities throughout the entire United States, the American government began to disrupt the work of the BPP and attack their members and leaders. This broader initiative by the American state against the BPP and other progressive groups such as the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords was known as COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program).
After being falsely accused of involvement in a series of BPP bank robberies, Assata became the subject of a nation-wide manhunt in 1971. Like many of her comrades in the BPP, Assata was forced to go underground. When she was finally captured in 1972, however, she was not charged with a crime.
In May 1973 a trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike stopped Assata, along with her BPP comrades Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, for driving with a broken taillight. Zayd was asked to get out of the car, and a shootout ensued, leaving Zayd and the trooper both dead and Assata wounded – she had been shot in the chest although she had her hands above her head. She spent the next four years in custody and on trial.
The final trial in 1977 resulted in Assata being convicted of murder and assault and sentenced to life in prison. When the verdict was announced, she said that she was “ashamed that I have even taken part in this trial” and that the jury was “racist and had convicted a woman with her hands up.”
In 1979, four members of the Black Liberation Army entered the prison that held Assata, drew concealed weapons, took prison guards hostage, and escaped with Assata in a prison van. She lived as a fugitive for several years. The FBI circulated ‘wanted’ posters throughout the New York – New Jersey area, and her supporters hung ‘Assata Shakur is Welcome Here’ posters in response. She fled to Cuba in 1984 to live under political asylum.
In 2005, the FBI upped the ante by reclassifying her as a ‘domestic terrorist’ with the reward for assistance in her capture set at $1 million. This once again forced her underground after living relatively openly for twenty years. More recently, with dialogue opening up between the US and Cuba, there have been calls from New Jersey police officials to extradite her back to America, leading to increased tensions for her to remain underground.
Assata’s autobiography is an important read to better understand the life of this revolutionary. She has an extraordinary ability to weave in her brilliant political analysis of black liberation and socialism in the narrative of her own life experiences. In spite of all the pain and suffering she witnesses and recounts from her own life and those of her loved ones: from being tortured in prison to seeing her loved ones get mistreated and killed, she is moved by a deep-seated love for life, beauty and freedom.
“The only way to live on this planet with any human dignity at the moment is to struggle.”
With notes from the Queen of the Neighbourhood Collective’s “Revolutionary Women: A Book of Stencils”.