Dueling narratives surround Assata Shakur, a political figure who found herself returned to the national spotlight after the FBI officially added her to their Most Wanted Terrorists list on May 2, 2013. To mainstream media, Joanne Chesimard murdered a police officer and fled to Cuba to escape justice. A New York Times article on the announcement opens: “The end came suddenly for Werner Foerster, a 34-year-old state trooper executed with his own gun on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. For many others — his widow, the State Police and the woman convicted of his murder — the end remains elusive, postponed these 40 years by a fight over what justice really means.”
In black media circles and in hip hop media, the decision to drag Shakur’s case out of historical record and to place a bounty on her head only leads to more skepticism around the government’s true motives. Why declare Shakur a terrorist at all? Didn’t Cuba grant her political asylum? What is the motive to invest two million dollars toward her capture after she’s lived semi-openly in Cuba since the early 1980s? Far from venerating murder, many in the community see her as yet another persecuted revolutionary.
Detractors may not agree, but hip-hop’s adoration of Assata Shakur is not blind. It’s complicated. It’s rooted in history: past, present, and and probably future. Assata is not O.J. Simpson. She [is too] complex to be bound by linear, elementary terms like “cop killer” and “domestic terrorist.”
The accounts of the incident contain conflicting information (normal in highly charged court cases), which is made even worse by attempts to spin the information. The FBI’s account of the scenario stresses Shakur’s “cold blooded murder” of the officer and stresses she was wanted in the connection with several crimes. But the case is more complicated – forensic experts testified Shakur was shot with her hands in the air, and injury that would not have been possible if she had fired first. Further, there is no mention that all of the other charges against Shakur were acquitted, dismissed, or ended in a hung jury. She was only tried and convicted for the New Jersey Turnpike incident.
Finally, there is no mention of why the case was considered a mockery of justice. Marc Lamont Hill hosted a Huffington Post Live conversation with Rosa Clemente, Dara Cooper, and Priscilla Ocen that gives more background information as to the political climate during the trial. But even more damning are basic issues – that the initial police reports contained false information that was recanted, and that Shakur’s expert witness testimony from forensic experts was limited as many worked for law enforcement and did not want to participate in the trial due to conflicts of interest.
Evelyn A. Williams, Shakur’s defense attorney, laid out the inconsistencies in the trial on the Hands Off Assata campaign site, explaining:
Assata was not convicted of firing the shot that killed Trooper Foerster. She was convicted as an accomplice to his murder under New Jersey’s “aiding and abetting” statute. 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. Judge Theodore Appleby charged the jury that they were permitted to speculate that Assata’s “mere presence” at a scene of violence, with weapons in the vehicle, was sufficient to sustain a conviction of the murder of Trooper Foerster. She was also convicted of possession of weapons – none of which could be identified as having been handled by her and of the attempted murder of Trooper Harper, who had sustained a flesh wound at the time of the shootout.
So why does the official narrative paint Shakur as a murderer?
The fanfare surrounding the decision to increase the bounty for Shakur’s arrest is even more puzzling. The FBI announcement proudly announced that Shakur is the first woman to make the Most Wanted Terrorists list. But her crimes are not equivalent to the company she keeps. Of the 32 people on the terrorist list, thirteen were indicted as bombers who facilitated events of mass destruction. Seven more people were listed as being involved with airplane hijackings.
Only one, Raddulan Sahiron of the Philippines, is wanted for a single crime – in his case, the kidnapping of a US citizen in 1993. While the citizen was eventually released (not killed), it appears many of the people on the list who committed acts that do not fit the popular understanding of terrorism are the leaders of FBI designated terrorist groups. Since the US Government designates the Black Liberation Army as a terrorist organization, they made the case to add Shakur to the list.
But the core issue at play is no longer Shakur’s guilt or innocence. Some parties have speculated that the renewed interest in Shakur is just a pretense for testing the political relationship between the United States and Cuba. But there is a more sinister undertone to all of the hoopla. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about Shakur’s actions, we would all be wise to listen to Angela Davis – another veteran of the FBI’s most wanted list – who outlined the severity of the problem on Democracy Now:
Really, it seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism. I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems as if it were a long time ago, four decades; however, in the 21st century, at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re still fighting around the very same issues—police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison, and so forth. So I see this as an attack not so much on Assata herself […]
There’s always this slippage between what should be protected free speech—that is to say, the advocacy of revolution, the advocacy of radical change—and what theFBI represents as terrorism. You know, certainly, Assata continues to advocate radical transformation of this country, as many of us do. You know, I continue to say that we need revolutionary change. This is why it seems to me that the attack on her reflects the logic of terrorism, because it precisely is designed to frighten young people, especially today, who would be involved in the kind of radical activism that might lead to change.