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Assata Shakur: An Autobiography

Angela Davis and Assata Shakur’s Lawyer Denounce FBI’s Adding of Exiled Activist to Terrorists List

One day after the exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur became the first woman named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, we’re joined by another legendary African-American activist, Angela Davis, as well as Shakur’s longtime attorney, Lennox Hinds. Davis, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the subject of the recent film, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” She argues that the FBI’s latest move, much like its initial targeting of Shakur and other Black Panthers four decades ago, 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.” A professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, Hinds has represented Shakur since 1973. “This is a political act pushed by the state of New Jersey, by some members of Congress from Miami, and with the intent of putting pressure on the Cuban government and to inflame public opinion,” Hinds says. “There is no way to appeal someone being put on the terrorists list.”

Assata: An Autobiography

Assata Olugbala Shakur (born July 16, 1947), as JoAnne Deborah Byronmarried name Chesimard is an African-American activist and escaped convict who was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA). Between 1971 and 1973, Shakur was accused of several crimes and made the subject of a multi-state manhunt.

In May 1973 Shakur was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, during which New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur were killed and Shakur and Trooper James Harper were wounded.   Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was indicted in relation to six other alleged criminal incidents—charged with murderattempted murderarmed robberybank robbery, and kidnapping—resulting in three acquittals and three dismissals. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout.

Shakur was then incarcerated in several prisons. She escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba in political asylum since 1984. Since May 2, 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has classified her as a domestic terrorist and offered a $1 million reward for assistance in her capture. On May 2, 2013, the FBI added her to the Most Wanted Terrorist list and increased the reward for her capture to $2 million.   Attempts to extradite her have resulted in letters to the Pope and a Congressional resolution. Shakur is the step-aunt of the deceased hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur, the stepson of her brother Mutulu Shakur. Her life has been portrayed in literature, film and song.

Early life

Shakur was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, on July 16, 1947, where she lived for three years with her parents and grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill.   After her parents divorced in 1950, she spent most of her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her grandmother until her family relocated to Queens when she was a teenager.   For a time, she ran away from home and lived with strangers until she was taken in by her aunt, Evelyn Williams, later her lawyer.   She dropped outof high school, but later earned a General Educational Development (GED) with her aunt’s help.   She attended Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and then the City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid-1960s, where she was involved in many political activities, protests, and sit-ins.

Shakur was arrested for the first time in 1967 with 100 other BMCC students, on charges of trespassing. The students had chained and locked the entrance to a college building to protest a curriculum deficient in black studies and a lack of black faculty.   She married Louis Chesimard, a fellow student-activist at CCNY, in April 1967, divorcing him in December 1970. Shakur devotes only one paragraph of her autobiography to her marriage, attributing its termination to disagreements related to gender roles.

After graduation from CCNY at 23, Shakur became involved in the Black Panther Party (BPP), eventually becoming a leading member of the Harlem branch.   Prior to joining the BPP, Shakur had met several of its members on a 1970 trip to Oakland, California.   One of Shakur’s main activities with the Panthers was coordinating a school breakfast program. However, she soon left the Party, charging macho behavior of males in these organizations, but did not go as far as other female Panthers like Regina Jennings who left the organization over sexual harassment.   Instead, Shakur’s main criticism of the Black Panther Party was its alleged lack of focus on black history:

“The basic problem stemmed from the fact that the BPP had no systematic approach to political education. They were reading the Red Book but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them barely understood any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise. […] That was the main reason many Party members, in my opinion, underestimated the need to unite with other Black organizations and to struggle around various community issues.”

That same year she changed her name to Assata Shakur and joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA), “a politico-militaryorganization, whose primary objective (was) to fight for the independence and self-determination of Afrikan people in the United States.”   In 1971, Shakur joined the Republic of New Afrika, an organization formed to create an independent black-majority nation composed of South CarolinaGeorgiaAlabamaMississippi, and Louisiana.

Allegations And Manhunt

On April 6, 1971, Shakur was shot in the stomach during a struggle with a guest at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan and was arrested on a string of charges. According to police, Shakur knocked on the door of a room occupied by an out-of-town guest and asked “Is there a party going on here?” to which the occupant responded in the negative.   Shakur then allegedly displayed a revolver and a struggle ensued, during which she was shot.   She was booked on charges of attempted robbery, felonious assaultreckless endangerment, and possession of a deadly weapon, then released on bail.   Shakur is alleged to have said that she was glad that she had been shot since now that she had experienced what it was like she was no longer afraid to be shot again.

Following an August 23, 1971, bank robbery in Queens, Shakur was sought for questioning, and a photograph of a woman (who was later alleged to be Shakur) with thick rimmed black glasses, a high hairdo pulled tightly over her head, and a steadily pointed gun became ubiquitous in banks and full page print ads paid for by the New York Clearing House Association.   On December 21, 1971, Shakur was named as one of four suspects by New York City police in a hand grenade attack that destroyed a police car and slightly injured two patrolmen in Maspeth, Queens; a 13-state alarm was issued three days after the attack when a witness identified Shakur and Andrew Jackson from FBI photographs.   Atlanta law enforcement officials said that Shakur and Jackson had lived together for several months in Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1971.

Shakur was one of those wanted for questioning for wounding a police officer attempting to serve a traffic summons in Brooklyn on January 26, 1972.   After a March 1, 1972 $89,000 Brooklyn bank robbery, a Daily News headline asked: “Was that JoAnne?”; Shakur was also wanted for questioning after a further September 1, 1972 Bronx bank robbery.   Msgr. John Powis alleged that Shakur was involved in an armed robbery at his Our Lady of the Presentation church in Brownsville, Brooklyn, on September 14, 1972, based on FBI photographs.

In 1972, Shakur was the subject of a nationwide manhunt after the FBI alleged that she was the “revolutionary mother hen” of a Black Liberation Army cell that had conducted a “series of cold-blooded murders of New York City police officers,” including the “execution style murders” of New York Police Officers Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones on May 21, 1971 and Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie on January 28, 1972.  Shakur was alleged to have been directly involved with the Foster and Laurie murders, and involved with the Piagentini and Jones murders.   Some sources go further, identifying Shakur as the de facto leader and the “soul of the Black Liberation Army” after the arrest of cofounder Dhoruba Moore.   Robert Daley, Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Police, for example, described Shakur as “the final wanted fugitive, the soul of the gang, the mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting.”

Mug shots of the six suspects in the ambushing of four New York City police officers

As of February 17, 1972, when Shakur was identified as one of four BLA members on a short trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee, Shakur was wanted for questioning (along with Robert Vickers, Twyman Meyers, Samuel Cooper, and Paul Stewart) in relation to police killings, a Queens bank robbery, and the grenade attack.   Shakur was announced as one of six suspects (pictured left) in the ambushing of four policemen—two in Jamaica, Queens, and two in Brooklyn—on January 28, 1973, despite the fact that the assailants were identified as male.

By June 1973, an apparatus that would become the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) was issuing near daily briefings on Shakur’s status and the allegations against her.   According to Cleaver and Katsiaficas, the FBI and local police “initiated a national search-and-destroy mission for suspected BLA members, collaborating in stakeouts that were the products of intensive political repression and counterintelligence campaigns like NEWKILL” and “attempted to tie Assata to every suspected action of the BLA involving a woman.”   The JTTF would later serve as the “coordinating body in the search for Assata and the renewed campaign to smash the BLA,” after her escape from prison.   After her capture, however, Shakur was not charged with any of the crimes that had made her the subject of the manhunt.

Shakur and others claim that she was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO as a result of her involvement with these organizations.   Specifically, documentary evidence suggests that Shakur was targeted by an investigation named CHESROB, which “attempted to hook former New York Panther Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur) to virtually every bank robbery or violent crime involving a black woman on the East Coast.”   Although named after Shakur, CHESROB (like its predecessor, NEWKILL) was not limited to Shakur.

New Jersey Turnpike Shootout

Mug shot of Shakur, taken on May 2, 1973

On May 2, 1973, at about 12:45 a.m., Assata Shakur, along with Zayd Malik Shakur (born James F. Costan) and Sundiata Acoli (born Clark Squire), were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick by State Trooper James Harper, backed up by Trooper Werner Foerster in a second patrol vehicle (Car 820), for driving with a broken tail light.   According to Col. David B. Kelly, the vehicle was also “slightly” exceeding the speed limit.   Recordings of Trooper Harper calling the dispatcher were played at the trials of both Acoli and Assata Shakur. After reporting his plans to stop the vehicle which he had been following, Harper can later be heard to say: “Hold on—two black males, one female.”   The stop occurred 200 yards (183 m) south of what was then the Turnpike Authority administration building at exit 9, the headquarters of Troop D.   Zayd Shakur was driving the two-door vehicle, Assata Shakur was seated in the right front seat, and Acoli was in the right rear seat.   Trooper Harper asked the driver for identification, noticed a discrepancy, asked him to get out of the car, and questioned him at the rear of the vehicle.

It is at this point, with the questioning of Zayd Shakur, that the accounts of the confrontation begin to differ (see the witnesses section below).   However, in the ensuing shootout, Trooper Foerster was shot twice in the head with his own gun and killed, Zayd Shakur was killed, and Assata Shakur and Trooper Harper were wounded.

According to initial police statements, at this point one or more of the suspects began firing with semiautomatic handguns and Trooper Foerster fired four times before falling mortally wounded.   At Acoli’s trial, Harper testified that the gunfight started “seconds” after Foerster arrived at the scene.   At this trial, Harper said that Foerster reached into the vehicle, pulled out and held up a semiautomatic pistol and ammunition magazine, and said “Jim, look what I found,” while facing Harper at the rear of the vehicle.   At this point, Assata Shakur and Acoli were ordered to put their hands on their laps and not to move; Harper said that Assata Shakur then reached down to the right of her right leg, pulled out a pistol, and shot him in the shoulder, after which he retreated to behind his vehicle. Harper later retracted this version of events. Questioned by prosecutor C. Judson Hamlin, Harper said he saw Foerster shot just as Assata Shakur was felled by bullets from Harper’s gun.   Harper testified that Acoli shot Foerster with a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol and then used Foerster’s own gun to “execute him.”   According to the testimony of State Police investigators, two jammed semiautomatic pistols were discovered near Foerster’s body.

Trooper Werner Foerster

Acoli then drove the car (a white Pontiac LeMans with Vermont license plates) —which contained Assata Shakur, who was wounded, and Zayd Shakur, who was dead or dying—5 miles (8 km) down the road at milepost 78 across from Service Area 8-N (the Joyce Kilmer Service Area), where Assata Shakur was apprehended.   The vehicle was chased by three patrol cars and the booths down the turnpike were alerted.   Acoli then exited the car and—after being ordered to halt by Trooper Robert Palentchar (Car 817), the first on the scene —fled into the woods as Palentchar emptied his gun.   According to Palentchar, Assata Shakur then walked towards him from 50 feet (15 m) away with her bloody arms raised in surrender.   Acoli was captured after a 36-hour manhunt—involving 400 people, state police helicopters, and bloodhounds from the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department —the following day.   Zayd Shakur’s body was found in a nearby gully along the road.

At the time of the shootout, Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) and no longer a member of the Black Panther Party.   According to a New Jersey Police spokesperson, Assata Shakur was on her way to a “new hideout in Philadelphia” and “heading ultimately for Washington” and a book in the vehicle contained a list of potential BLA targets.   Assata Shakur testified that she was on her way to Baltimore for a job as a bar waitress.

Assata Shakur, with gunshot wounds in both arms and a shoulder was moved to Middlesex General Hospital, under “heavy guard,” and was reported to be in “serious condition”; Trooper Harper was wounded in the left shoulder, in “good” condition, and given a protective guard at the hospital.   Assata Shakur was interrogated and arraigned from her hospital bed, and her medical care during this period is often alleged to have been “substandard.”   Assata Shakur was 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.

The Pontiac LeMans and Trooper Harper’s patrol car were taken to a state police garage in East Brunswick.   Following the incident, on May 11, the State Police instituted two-man night patrols on the turnpike and Garden State Parkway, although the change was not made public until June.

Criminal Charges and Dispositions

Between 1973 and 1977, in New York and New Jersey, Shakur was indicted ten times, resulting in seven different criminal trials. Shakur was charged with two bank robberies, the kidnapping of a Brooklyn heroin dealer, attempted murder of two Queens police officers stemming from a January 23, 1973 failed ambush, and eight other felonies related to the Turnpike shootout.   Of these trials, three resulted in acquittals, one in a hung jury, one in a change of venue, one in a mistrial due to pregnancy, and one in a conviction; three indictments were dismissed without trial.

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