Hands Off Assata Shakur!

Revolutionary Worker #952, April 12, 1998

In November 1979 Assata Shakur escaped from the clutches of the government when she broke out of a maximum security jail in New Jersey, with the help of her comrades. Since 1984 Assata has been living in exile in Cuba.

Now--like modern-day slave hunters--the New Jersey authorities are staging an outrageous public campaign to put this former political prisoner back behind bars in the U.S. They have placed a $50,000 bounty on her head.

This vindictive move against Assata Shakur is spearheaded by New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman. In 1994 Whitman appointed Col. Carl Williams as head of the state police. Williams immediately announced that the capture of Assata Shakur was a priority. In December 1997 the state police sent a letter to the Pope before his visit to Cuba, asking him to help in the attempt to bring Assata Shakur back to the U.S.

Then in March of this year, Whitman wrote to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno requesting federal help. Whitman also announced she was putting up a $50,000 reward for Assata Shakur's return. Col. Williams declared, "We would do everything we could to get her off the island of Cuba. And if that includes kidnapping, we would do it."

This issue has even become part of the U.S. pressure tactics against the Cuban government. Whitman's demand for Assata's extradition was aired by Radio Marti, a station funded by the U.S. government to broadcast anti-Castro programming to Cuba. When a Cuban government official pointed out that no extradition treaty exists between the U.S. and Cuba, Whitman replied: "This isn't about an extradition treaty. This is about--as we move toward the normalization of relations with Cuba--that an act of good faith must be the return of Joanne Chesimard [Assata's former name--RW]." Robert Frank, Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, said that he plans to introduce a resolution linking "normalization" of U.S.-Cuba relations--presumably including easing of the U.S. embargo against Cuba --on Assata Shakur's return to the U.S.

In a recent open letter, Assata Shakur described herself as a "20th century escaped slave" and said, "Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government's policy towards people of color." On the moves to force her back to the U.S. prison system, she said: "It is nothing but an attempt to bring about the reincarnation of the Fugitive Slave Act. All I represent is just another slave that they want to bring back to the plantation. Well, I might be a slave, but I will go to my grave a rebellious slave. I am and I feel like a Maroon woman. I will never voluntarily accept the conditions of slavery, whether it's de facto or ipso facto, official or unofficial."

Assata's supporters are organizing against the moves to extradite her back to the U.S. An open letter to Whitman--demanding "Keep Your Hands Off Assata!"--says in part: "Assata, in leaving the dungeons of New Jersey where your predecessors had hoped her to bury her for the remainder of her life, followed in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman, who instructed: `There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted...'"

Assata's Story

"Black brothers, Black sisters, i want you to know that i love you and i hope that somewhere in your hearts you have love for me. My name is Assata Shakur (slave name joanne chesimard), and i am a revolutionary. A Black revolutionary. By that i mean that i have declared war on all forces that have raped our women, castrated our men, and kept our babies empty-bellied.

"I have declared war on the rich who prosper on our poverty, the politicians who lie to us with smiling faces, and all the mindless, heartless robots who protect them and their property.

"I am a Black revolutionary and, as such, i am a victim of all the wrath, hatred, and slander that amerika is capable of. Like all other Black revolutionaries, amerika is trying to lynch me."

From the statement "To My People," written in prison, July 4, 1973

Assata Shakur spent her early childhood in North Carolina and experienced the bitter realities of the segregated South. She later moved to the northern part of the country--where she realized that "Black people were equally victimized by racism and oppression."

Assata became a political activist in the upsurge of the 1960s, participating in the student struggles, the anti-war movement, and especially the Black liberation movement. She joined the Black Panther Party and became an active member. The Panthers were a key target of COINTELPRO--an FBI program to carry out operations against the Black liberation movement and other revolutionaries. As Assata recalls in her autobiography, the COINTELPRO operations and internal struggles led to divisions among the Panthers. Assata eventually associated herself with those like Sundiata Acoli who believed that organizing small, armed, underground groups was the way to carry on the struggle. They were part of a network of clandestine organizations known as the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

The FBI accused Assata of participating in attacks on law enforcement personnel, and this made her a hunted person. Posters in police precincts and banks described her as being involved in serious "criminal" activities. She was high on the FBI's "most wanted" list.

On May 2, 1973 Assata, Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur were ambushed by state police on the New Jersey turnpike. One state trooper shot Assata in the arm and back as she had her hands in the air. Another trooper was killed. Zayd Malik Shakur was gunned down. Sundiata escaped and was later captured after a massive police manhunt.

One of the state troopers admitted that he shot and killed Zayd Malik Shakur. But Assata was charged with the killing of Zayd--who she described as her "closest friend and comrade"--as well as with the death of the trooper. Sundiata Acoli was also charged with both deaths. No credible evidence linked either of them to the shooting of the state trooper. Their trials were a blatant political railroad wrapped in manufactured hysteria. The two revolutionaries were denied access to the media, while the New Jersey police and the FBI fed daily lies to the press. In 1977 Assata was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life plus 33 years in prison. Sundiata was sentenced to life plus 30 years. He remains a political prisoner today.

The authorities were out to break Assata, if not kill her outright. After her arrest, Assata was shackled and chained to a hospital bed--one arm paralyzed from a bullet wound and another bullet wound in her chest--as police guarding her shouted Nazi slogans, jabbed her with shotgun butts and threatened her life. In a foreword to Assata's biography, Lennox Hinds wrote, "In the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was, continuously confined in a men's prison, under 24-hour surveillance of her most intimate functions, without intellectual sustenance, adequate medical attention, and exercise, and without the company of other women for all the years she was in their custody."

Assata wrote of her flight from prison: "In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee."

The Fight to Defend
All Political Prisoners

In her recent open letter, Assata Shakur said that her main concern is not for herself but the pressing issues facing the people today: "I am more concerned about the growing poverty, the growing despair that is rife in Amerika. I am more concerned about our younger generations, who represent our future. I am more concerned that one-third of young Blacks are either in prison or under the jurisdiction of the `criminal in-justice system'; I am more concerned about the rise of the prison-industrial complex that is turning our people into slaves again. I am more concerned about the repression, the police brutality, violence, the rising wave of racism that makes up the political landscape of the U.S. today. Our young people deserve a future, and I consider it the mandate of my ancestors to be part of the struggle to insure that they have one. They have the right to live free from political repression. The U.S. is becoming more and more of a police state and that fact compels us to fight against political repression. I urge you all, every single person who reads this statement, to fight to free all political prisoners. As the concentration camps in the U.S. turn into death camps, I urge you to abolish the death penalty. I make a special, urgent appeal to you to fight to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the political prisoner who is currently on death row."

Gov. Whitman claims that the government's pursuit of Assata Shakur is about going after "crime." This is a gross lie. The government of this country always claims, "We have no political prisoners." But, as the Jericho '98 Amnesty Campaign has made clear, there are many men and women who are locked up in U.S. prisons for their political beliefs and actions. Carl Dix, a national spokesperson for the RCP, said in his statement to the Jericho '98 march: "All of them stood up and fought the hell this government brought down on the people in this country and worldwide. Many were down with the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary groups in the 1960s. Some took up arms to liberate the people. The cause they fought for is as just as what Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Pedro Albizu Campos fought for many years ago." The fight to defend Assata Shakur from the attacks of the U.S. government is closely linked with the fight to defend all political prisoners.

Assata Shakur was once one of those political prisoners--and her escape from their prisons made her one of the "most wanted" fugitives from their system of injustice. The people must not allow the U.S. government to get their hands on Assata again.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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