Assata Shakur is a living legend of Black history. Born on July 16, 1947 as Joanne Chesimard, the aunt of Tupac Shakur would be described as the “soul of the Black Liberation Army”.
She has defied the most powerful country on Earth, and inspired a whole new generation of revolutionaries.
Here is her story, and 5 things that Assata taught us all.
The Autobiography of Assata Shakur
Few women in our movement can personify the word “revolutionary” like Assata Shakur.
Her courage in the face of America’s imperial might and her willingness to endure persecution for her values makes her a living legend in the Pan-African community.
A Born Revolutionary
Some people are made into the people they grow up to be, and others are born into their destinies. Assata was one such person.
From an early age, Assata Shakur was a rebellious revolutionary. From the time she was born in 1947, until her college years, Assata was constantly in transition and rebellion, even running away from home to live with strangers for a time.
With the help of a relative, she was able to hone her focus, complete her high school education, and enroll at City College of New York City.
It was here – under the mentorship of Dr. Leonard Jeffries – that she learned the power of disciplined political action, and earned herself the first of many arrests for chaining the doors of the school closed in protest of a lack of Black faculty members.
In 1970, Assata graduated from City College in New York at the age of 23 and immediately joined the Black Panther Party – Harlem Branch after returning from a trip to Oakland.
Her enlistment with the Black Panther Party would not last long.
Shakur criticized the Black Panther party not over the extent of its political activities, but because of its lack of focus on Black history and its chauvinism.
“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.”
She would find a new home with the Black Liberation Army, a militant Black organization dedicated to fighting for the independence and self-determination of African people in the United States.
To call the organization “militant” is an understatement. They were a Holy terror to law enforcement:
- On October 22, 1970, the BLA is believed to have planted a bomb in St. Brendan’s Church in San Francisco while it was full of mourners attending the funeral of San Francisco police officer Harold Hamilton, who had been killed in the line of duty while responding to a bank robbery.
- On May 21, 1971, as many as five men participated in the shootings of two New York City police officers, Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones.
- On August 29, 1971, three armed men murdered 51-year old San Francisco police sergeant John Victor Young while he was working at a desk in his police station. Two days later, the San Francisco Chronicle received a letter signed by the BLA claiming responsibility for the attack.
- On January 27, 1972 the Black Liberation Army assassinated police officers Gregory Foster and Rocco Laurie at the corner of 174 Avenue B in New York City. After the killings, a note sent to authorities portrayed the murders as a retaliation for the 1971 Attica prison massacre.
- On the 3 November 1971, Officer James R. Greene of the Atlanta Police Department was shot and killed in his patrol van at a gas station. His wallet, badge, and weapon were taken, and the evidence at the scene pointed to two suspects. The first was Twymon Meyers, who was killed in a police shootout in 1973, and the second was Freddie Hilton (aka Kamau Sadiki), who evaded capture until 2002, when he was arrested in New York on a separate charge, and was recognized as one of the men wanted in the Greene murder. Apparently, the two men had attacked the officer to gain standing with their compatriots within Black Liberation Army.
- On July 31, 1972, five armed individuals hijacked Delta Air Lines Flight 841 en route from Detroit to Miami, eventually collecting a ransom of $1 million and diverting the plane after passengers were released to Algeria. The authorities there seized the ransom but allowed the group to flee. Four were eventually caught by French authorities in Paris, where they were convicted of various crimes, but one—George Wright—remained a fugitive until September 26, 2011(!), when he was captured in Portugal. Portuguese courts rejected the initial pledge for extradition. American authorities may still appeal from this decision.
In addition to her affiliation with the Black Liberation Army, Assata also became a vocal member of the Republic of New Afrika, an all-Black organization that proposed three objectives:
- The creation of an independent African-American country situated in the southeastern United States. The states of Louisiana,Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina would be separated from the United States, and handed over to descendants of slaves in compensation for the never-fulfilled promise of “forty acres and a mule”.
- The payment of several billion dollars in reparations from the US government for the damages inflicted on Africans and their descendants by chattel enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, and persistent modern-day forms of racism.
- A referendum of all African Americans in order to decide what should be done with regard to their citizenship, since African Americans were not given a choice after emancipation.
The group was the target of America’s COINTELPRO – the secret, illegal project conducted by the United States FBI aimed at watching, infiltrating, discrediting, and destroying domestic political organizations.
Arrest and Conviction
On August 23, 1971, a bank robbery in Queens led authorities to publish a photograph of a woman with thick rimmed black glasses, a high hairdo pulled tightly over her head, and a steadily pointed gun.
The photo was posted in banks across the region, and the woman in them was identified as Assata.
Later that year, 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.
By 1972, Shakur was the subject of a nationwide manhunt after the FBI alleged that she was the “soul of the Black Liberation Army”, making her “the final wanted fugitive, the soul of the gang, the mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting”.
By 1973, she was officially labeled by law enforcement as the most dangerous woman in America.
Although reports conflict about what exactly happened on the night of May 2, 1973, the outcome would become legend.
Shortly after midnight, Assata, along with Black Liberation Army members Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli, were stopped by State Troopers for speeding and driving with a broken tail light.
Assata was seated in the front-right seat of the two door vehicle. The car’s driver, Zayd Shakur, was asked to step out of the car, and was then taken to the rear to be questioned by Trooper Foerster.
Trooper Foerster was shot twice in the head with his own gun and killed, Trooper Harper was wounded with a non-life threatening gunshot to his shoulder, and Zayd Shakur had been shot – still alive but mortally wounded.
The three fled the scene together, but only Zayd, now deceased, and Assata, who had been shot three times were immediately apprehended 5 miles from the scene.
Acoli fled into the woods, and evaded capture for 36 hours before being caught and jailed. He would later be sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years.
“I decided on [the name] Assata Olugbala Shakur. Assata means “She who struggles,” Olugbala means “Love for the people,” and i took the name Shakur out of respect for Zayd and Zayd’s family. Shakur means “the thankful.” – From The Autobiography of Assata Shakur
Assata faced 8 criminal charges – including First-degree murder, second-degree murder, and atrocious assault and battery – 7 of which were either dismissed, acquitted, or resulted in a hung jury. The 8th charge was initially declared a mistrial when Assata gave birth to her first and only child – Kakuya Shakur- but would result in her conviction and sentence of life plus 26 to 33 years.
Upon hearing the verdict, Shakur said—in a “barely audible voice”—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”.
During her trial, there where four key pieces of medical and forensic evidence that should have cleared Assata’s name:
1. Official fingerprint analyses of every gun and every piece of ammunition found at the scene showed there were no fingerprints of Assata found on any of them.
2. Neutron Activation Analysis taken immediately after Assata was taken to the hospital that night showed there was no gun power residue on her hands. Effectively refuting the possibility that she had fired a gun.
3. Assata Shakur was shot with her hands up. A neurologist testified to the fact that a bullet under her armpit was the result of a shot fired while her arms were raised. A pathologist testified that “There is no conceivable way that the bullet could have traveled over to the clavicle if her arm was down. That trajectory is impossible.” A surgeon testified that “it was anatomically necessary that both arms be in the air for Ms. Chesimard to have received the wounds she did.”
4. State Trooper Harper’s testimony as well as that of all the other state’s witnesses was riddled with inconsistencies and discrepancies. On three separate official reports, including his grand jury testimony, Harper said that he saw Assata take a gun from her pocketbook while she was in the car and shot at him. He admitted on cross-examination during both Sundiata’s and Assata’s trial, that he never saw Assata with a gun and did not see her shoot him – that, in fact, he lied.
Seven jurists representing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights stated in 1979 that Assata Shakur’s treatment was “totally unbefitting any prisoner”.
Their investigation, which focused on alleged human rights abuses of political prisoners, cited Shakur as “one of the worst cases” of such abuses and including her in a “a class of victims of FBI misconduct through the COINTELPRO strategy and other forms of illegal government conduct who as political activists have been selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions”.
Regardless of the facts, Assata was incarcerated and subject to all the maltreatment of the American criminal “justice” system.
According to her attorney Lennox Hinds, Shakur understated “the awfulness of the condition in which she was incarcerated”, which included vaginal and anal searches.
Hinds argues that “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 twenty-four 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 custody.”
In her autobiography, Assata recounts how she was beaten and confined after giving birth:
After ten days, I was discharged from the hospital over the objections of my doctor, brought to the middlesex county jail for men, and kept in solitary confinement from February 1974 until May 1974….I spent over twenty months in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner.
A “20th Century Escaped Slave”
The story of Assata’s escape is like the plot of a Hollywood film.
On November 2, 1979 three members of the Black Liberation Army visiting her drew concealed .45-caliber pistols, seized two guards as hostages and drove a prison van through an unfenced section of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey.
A mile away, two cars were waiting to transfer the crew away from the scene, and to take Assata underground into a network of BLA safehouses.
The FBI scrambled to find Assata, while the public engaged in a campaign of silence. No one would cooperate with authorities as to Assata’s whereabouts.
As the FBI circulated wanted posters, the public responded with posters featuring Assata’s photo and the words “Assata Shakur is Welcome Here”.
5,000 protestors stormed the streets of New York just three days after her escape – all carrying signs with the same slogan.
Frustrated by their lack of results, on April 20, 1980, agents raided a civilian building believed to be one of Assata’s hideouts. Residents were terrorized by men armed with shotguns and machine guns that broke down doors in military-style room clearings. Alas, these tactics only further turned public opinion in favor of Assata.
For 5 years, Assata was moved from one secret location to another, before finally being given safe passage into Cuba. Upon her arrival, she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro himself, given a $13 a day stipend toward her living expenses, and earned the sympathy of freedom fighters around the world.
The United States never gave up their hunt.
On September 14, 1998, House Concurrent Resolution 254 passed, giving “tacit approval for U.S. law enforcement agencies to kidnap Assata Shakur and other revolutionaries living in exile and illegally extradite them to America,” according to coalition spokesman Damon McGhee.
According to Maxine Waters of the Congressional Black Caucus, members of Congress were tricked into voting for the resolution when it was “quietly slipped this bill onto the accelerated suspension calendar last week as one of thirteen (13) bills that had been announced that same day.
As evidence of their deceptive intent, the resolution did not mention Assata Shakur, but chose to only call her Joanne Chesimard.
Unfortunately, none of our offices were alerted to the fact that this legislation was coming up for a vote by any of the numerous advocacy groups that monitor related issues.
In a letter to Fidel Castro, Ms. Waters explained her opposition to the resolution:
“For the record, I am opposed to the resolution.
I support the right of all nations to grant political asylum to individuals fleeing political persecution. The United States grants political asylum to individuals from all over the world who successfully prove they are fleeing political persecution. Other sovereign nations have the same right, including the sovereign nation of Cuba…it is the inviolate right of legitimate governments to grant asylum pursuant to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I will fight to maintain the ability of political refugees to find asylum in United States and respect the right of other governments to be able to grant political asylum.
Just as we maintain the right to grant political asylum for individuals from Cuba, we must respect the right of the government of Cuba to grant political asylum for individuals from the U.S. fleeing political persecution.
In a sad and shameful chapter of our history, during the 1960s and 1970s, many civil rights, Black Power and other politically active groups were secretly targeted by the FBI for prosecution based on their political beliefs. The groups and individuals targeted included Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, officials of the American Friends Service Committee, National Council of Churches and other civil rights, religious and peace movement leaders.
However, the most vicious and reprehensible acts were taken against the leaders and organizations associated with the Black Power or Black Liberation Movement. Assata Shakur, was a member of the Black Panther Party, one of the leading groups associated with the Black Liberation Movement. The Black Panther Party was the primary target of U.S. domestic government political harassment and persecution during this era.
This illegal, clandestine political persecution was wrong in 1973, and remains wrong today.” – Maxine Waters
Assata Taught Me
Assata Shakur is a living legend whose lessons should be taught to any would-be Pan-African.
Ours is a heritage of standing up against tyranny and struggling against injustice, and with the spirit of women like Assata Shakur in mind, we should never cease our revolutionary insurgency.
Here are the 5 lessons that reading the Autobiography of Assata Shakur taught me.
The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows.
“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.”
Many Blacks in America would prefer to ignore the issues of oppression and white supremacy. But as Assata teaches us, we tolerate what we ignore.
And because of our tolerance, there are more Black women and men in prison that ever before, our communities have been destroyed, and our revolutionary organizations have all but disappeared.
Assata goes on to teach us that the only thing worse than ignorance is being aware – but not taking action.
“If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what’s happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.”
No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them
“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”
The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Therefore, there is no honor or glory in matriculating through a state-sponsored school system that contributes to the miseducation of our people.
We are quick to celebrate our Black college graduates and those who hold a title bestowed on them by white academia without stopping to think if these ‘achievements’ do more harm to our people than good.
It is in the best interest of the state to suppress the revolutionary spirit that gave birth to Assata Shakur, the Black Liberation Army, and the Pan-African struggle. So why would we applaud academic achievement in white supremacist sponsored institutions? As a demonstration of intellect? If so, we must ask ourselves for whom is this demonstration being performed?
If we encourage school for ‘upward mobility’, we must ask ourselves what the term truly means. Does it mean a ‘good job’ in a white owned company? If so, how does a Black employee in a white owned company contribute to Black generational wealth or self-sufficiency?
“When I think of how racist, how Eurocentric our so-called education in Amerikkka is, it staggers my mind. And when I think back to some of those kids who were labeled “troublemakers” and “problem students,” I realize that many of them were unsung heroes who fought to maintain some sense of dignity and self-worth.”
Assata teaches us that our reliance on and participation in the public school system is counter-revolutionary. And she is right.
It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves.
“Constructive criticism and self-criticism are extremely important for any revolutionary organization…Revolution is about change, and the first place the change begins is in yourself.”
It is not enough for us to recite names, dates, and Black facts. It is not enough to possess the knowledge that our ancestors have handed down to us. And it is not enough to read through the sacred scrolls and expect our conditions to change.
You must, as Assata teaches us, change yourself.
Self improvement and constructive criticism must become more of a part of the platforms that we build.
We write articles on Black empowerment and engage in constant assessment as an organization for the very reasons Assata taught us.
You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them
You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships.
Some of those who speak out, comment, and create content shouting for Black unity are the same ones who jump from organization to organization leaving destruction and unhelpful criticism in their wake.
Their relationships with other members of the organization become toxic. They become agents of chaos. They disrespect the leadership, the principles, and the tenets of Black organizations.
This hypocrisy flies in the face of what Assata teaches us.
Assata Shakur on Capitalism vs Communalism
“While big corporations make huge, tax-free profits, taxes for the everyday working person skyrocket. While politicians take free trips around the world, those same politicians cut back food stamps for the poor.
While politicians increase their salaries, millions of people are being laid off…I do not understand a government so willing to spend millions of dollars on arms, to explore outer space, even the planet Jupiter, and at the same time close down day care centers and fire stations.”
One of the defining struggles of the 1960s was the struggle between the western economic philosophy of Capitalism against the original socio-economic systems that put people before profit.
But many Black Americans embraced Capitalism – not because they understood it, but because the West demonized any non-western economic system. Assata wrote:
“I knew I didn’t know what the hell Communism was, and yet I’d been dead set against it. Just like when you’re a little kid and they get you to believe in the bogeyman. You don’t know what the hell the bogeyman is, but you hate him and you’re scared of him.”
She then makes the simple case for the abolition of Capitalism and why any revolutionary is naturally anti-Capitalist:
“The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich business men owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.”
While Assata Shakur remains free in Cuba today, the United States will never stop hunting her. Let the world know that Assata and all those like her are welcome here by participating in Hands Off Assata Campaign Action Alerts here.
These alerts use networks of ordinary citizens from all over the world to educate, agitate and compel change.
Action Alerts are simple enough to be carried out by anyone and effective enough to see immediate results.
Sundiata Acoli remains incarcerated. He may be contacted by writing to:
Sundiata Acoli #39794-066 (Squire)
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. BOX 1000
Cumberland, MD 21501
Finally, I encourage you to learn Assata’s story. Add the following three books to your collection and keep the lessons of Assata Shakur alive.