In Search of Assata: Former Black Panther First Woman Named to FBI’s Top Terrorist List

by Evan Seymour After three decades of exile in Cuba, 65-year-old Assata Shakur is once again ...

by Evan Seymour

After three decades of exile in Cuba, 65-year-old Assata Shakur is once again a wanted woman in the United States. In a joint news conference last week, the FBI and New Jersey state troopers announced Shakur’s addition to the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Terrorists List. Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard, is the first woman ever named to the list. Officials made their announcement on the 40th anniversary of the murder of Werner Foerster, the state trooper Shakur is accused of killing in 1973.

During the press conference, FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford described Chesimard as “a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style”. Authorities also announced they are doubling the reward for the capture of the escaped convict from $1 million to $2 million.

Shakur, who was shot twice during the incident, has always maintained her innocence.

State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes, who also spoke at the press conference, described the case as "an open wound" for troopers in New Jersey and around the country.

So, why seek to mend that wound now?

One has to wonder why less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings, the 40 year-old case against Shakur has once again been brought to the forefront of conversations of national security. Is the timing coincidental or a deliberate attempt to capitalize upon the unease left in the wake of the first major terrorist attack in the U.S. Since 9/11?

Who is Assata?

Shakur’s involvement in the black liberation movement began during her college days at Borough of Manhattan Community College. In her brief time with the Black Panther Party, Shakur was primarily responsible for the group’s free breakfast program. She left the BPP in 1970, concerned with the Party’s lack of focus on black history. Shakur was also displeased with what she viewed as patriarchy within the organization’s structure and practices. She continued her work as an activist, joining the Black Liberation Army in 1971, the same year she changed her name from Joanne Chesimard to Assata Shakur.

In the years since her escape, Shakur has become an iconic figure in the Black Power Movement. Her 1987 book, Assata: A Biography, is a staple in black studies courses throughout the country.

Legal Problems

In 1971, Shakur was arrested and charged with armed robbery, but the charges were later dismissed. The next year, she was again acquitted on charges of armed robbery, and charges she kidnapped a drug dealer in an unrelated incident. Shakur had been indicted six times before her 1973 arrest for the shooting of State Trooper Werner Foerster. With the exception of the charges associated with Foerster’s murder, all previous indictments against Shakur were dismissed, thrown out, or concluded with her acquittal.

The state trooper was killed in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick. State troopers initially pulled over the two-door vehicle for a broken headlight and ‘slightly’ speeding. The initiating officer, State Trooper James Harper, ordered Zayd Shakur, the driver, out of the car. Assata Shakur was in the front passenger seat. Law enforcement officials and Shakur tell very different versions of the incidents beyond this point in the story.

At the conclusion of the shootout, State Trooper Werner Foerster and BLA member Zayd Shakur were dead. Foerster had been shot twice in the head with bullets from his own service pistol. Shakur was shot twice in the incident. State Trooper James Harper was also injured.

Shakur was convicted in 1977 by an all-white jury for Foerster’s murder and sentenced to life, plus 33 years. She and her attorney both described the trial as a “legal lynching”.

The conviction came despite testimony by a neurosurgeon who claimed Shakur would’ve been unable to commit the crime due to her injuries. According to Dr. Arthur Turner Davidson, the former Panther was shot while her hands were raised above her head. The second bullet severed the median nerve in Shakur’s right arm, making it impossible for her to pull the trigger on the weapon. In addition, Shakur’s fingerprints were not found on any of the weapons at the scene, and there was there was no gunpowder residue found on her hands, according to the Trenton Jersey crime lab and the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C.

For two years following her conviction, Shakur was placed in solitary confinement, primarily in a men’s prison. She was often kept in conditions she has described as subpar. On November 2, 1979, Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women with the aid of three members of the Black Liberation Army. Two guards were taken hostage in the incident, and the group stole a prison van as their getaway car.

The former Black Panther stayed underground until her move to Cuba in 1984. Fidel Castro granted Shakur political asylum, and she has been on the island ever since.

Public Enemy

Last week’s addition of Shakur to the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Terrorists List introduces Shakur as a national villain to a new generation. Of course, it was not mentioned during the press conference that Shakur, and other members of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, and other leftist black organizations were under attack by the FBI in the 1960s and 70s. In an open letter written to Pope John Paul II during his 1998 visit to the island, Shakur claims she and her comrades were targeted by COINTELPRO, which was set up by the FBI to “destroy the black liberation movement in the United States, to discredit activism, and to eliminate potential leaders [in the movement].”

Much is now known about J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s targeting of the Panthers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King and other prominent African-American activists and organizations.

While the intelligence community claims Shakur remains a threat to national security, advocates of the radical maintain she is being wrongly accused. According to Lennox Hines, who has been Shakur’s attorney since 1979, she is being protected by the Cuban government because they consider her a political refugee. No extradition policy currently exists between Cuba and the U.S.

Activist and scholar Angela Davis told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman she was “shocked” by the addition of Davis to the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted Terrorists List. Davis voiced concern that the increased reward would encourage vigilantes to try to sneak into Cuba in order to capture, or even kill, Shakur.

As noted in an AP story on the FBI’s announcement regarding Shakur, "This week, the State Department said it has no plans to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan." The activist’s government-approved immunity is one of the reasons Cuba remains on the list.

“40 years later people really don’t know the details of the case and are not aware of the extent to which she was targeted by the FBI [and] the COINTELPRO program,” Davis said on the show.

Davis warned the FBI’s most recent efforts to find Shakur are “designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today.” She is of the opinion that the FBI’s latest efforts are not about justice, but about settling a vendetta. In Davis’ opinion, the FBI’s targeting of Shakur “reflects [the] very nature of terrorism.”

Is it fair to say that at least, the FBI’s announcement was strategically planned?

Shakur’s supporters see her as a warrior woman; a public enemy in her ancestral homeland who is being hunted by the government for speaking out against oppression and racist national policies. To authorities, she is an escaped convicted felon, a murderer, and one of America’s most wanted criminals.

Oh yes, and apparently, a terrorist.


Assata Shakur In Her Own Words
Angela Davis Discusses US Domestic Terrorism in "The Black Power Mixtape"
We Forget Dr. King Had a Political Ministry

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