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National Assata Shakur Liberation Day: Activism Undeterred

By Dara Cooper, Contributing Editor, Environment, Food, & Sustainability

This past November 2nd was the 35th anniversary of a day celebrated by many as Assata Shakur Liberation Day. It is the day former Black Panther Assata Shakur was liberated from a maximum-security prison, a day many acknowledge as a celebration of freedom fighters, political prisoners and exiles.

Although Shakur is widely lauded as an activist, freedom fighter, artist, and important public intellectual, the U.S. government persistently characterizes her as an enemy of the state, a terrorist.  In May 2013, the FBI placed Shakur on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list and doubled the bounty for her capture to an outrageous $2 million, even though she has been granted political asylum in Cuba. But, as Mos Def eloquently declares with the title of his essay about Shakur: “The Government’s Terrorist is Our Community’s Heroine.”

“Viewed through the lens of U.S. law enforcement, Shakur is an escaped cop-killer,” Mos Def explains. “Viewed through the lens of many Black people, including me, she is a wrongly convicted woman and a hero of epic proportions.”

Assata Shakur smiling
Assata Shakur

Why is there such a drastic difference between the U.S. government versus the people in how they view Assata Shakur? How can we explain why hundreds of thousands of people around the world see Shakur as a hero while the U.S. government continues to perpetuate her vilification and actively pursue her capture? Why are public funds being allocated in an attempt to punish her for the crime of killing a police officer despite overwhelming evidence of her innocence?

What we know is that J. Edgar Hoover considered the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and launched an attack aimed to “neutralize” the Party, now publicly known as the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program). What we also know is that because Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Movement and the Black Panther Party, she, like many other political prisoners and exiles, was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Prior to Shakur’s conviction by an all white jury for the alleged killing of a police officer, she had been charged six times with bogus criminal cases. In each of these bogus charges, Shakur was either acquitted or charges were dismissed. What we know is that the barrage of investigations and indictments did not stop, but culminated in an ill-fated shoot-out in 1973 on the New Jersey turnpike.

This shoot-out resulted in the death of Shakur’s comrade Zayd Shakur and New Jersey State Trooper Werner Forester. Forensic evidence demonstrated that Shakur, who was also shot and injured in the shoot-out, had a shattered clavicle and damaged nerve in her right hand. Shakur’s injuries indicated that her hands were raised above her head when she was shot by police. Moreover, Shakur’s fingerprints were never found on any guns found at the scene nor was any gun residue found on her hands. Nevertheless, Shakur was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life plus 33 years in prison for “aiding and abetting” in the murder of her own dear friend, Zayd Shakur, and Trooper Forester.

After serving over six years in prison, Shakur escaped from her unjust incarceration and was later granted political asylum in Cuba. The New Jersey state government and FBI have relentlessly pursued Shakur, offering bounties of $50,000, $1,000,000 and now an astronomical $2 million to capture this mother, grandmother, artist, intellectual, and yes, revolutionary, who is approaching 70 years of age.

Fellow freedom fighter and law professor Kathleen Cleaver draws on the historical conjuring of slave catchers in her 2005 essay about the FBI’s million dollar bounty: “This extraordinary bounty on the head of a Black woman inevitably brings to mind Harriet Tubman, that Underground Railroad ‘conductor’ whose ability to organize escapes earned a $12,000 price on her head from the state of Maryland. Outraged slave owners added $40,000.”

Angela Davis smiling
Angela Davis

In an important new essay published in the Guardian, Professor Angela Davis asks a critical question about Shakur’s case: “what interest would the FBI have in designating a 66-year-old black woman, who has lived quietly in Cuba for the last three and a half decades, as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”

Davis begins to answer this question with a critical interrogation of the definition of terrorist: “A partial – perhaps even determining – answer to this question may be discovered in the broadening the reach of the definition of ‘terror.’” She conjures the likes of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress who were once deemed “terrorists” by the U.S. government, a term Davis says, “was abundantly applied to US black liberation activists during the late 1960s and early 70s.”

Many understand the bounty on Shakur, her labeling as a domestic terrorist, and the state’s ongoing harassment as a strategy to deter organizers and those involved in contemporary freedom struggles. The ongoing demonization, harassment, arrests, and torture of freedom fighters are intended to create a culture of fear and discourage further activism. We see this with the recent arrest of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, the silencing and ridicule of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, and the torture of political prisoner Sekou Odinga, to name just a few examples. Historically, we know that the public display of whipped, tortured or lynched black bodies when they defied their enslavement served exactly this purpose.

Fortunately, these tactics are not only failing tremendously, but they often backfire, providing fuel for movements worldwide. We can see this in the fearless organizing in Ferguson, the thoughtful work of the Black Youth Project, the critical activism of “We Charge Genocide,” the cop watch organizing nationwide, and the Dream Defenders undeterred efforts. We see this government is wildly unsuccessful in deterring youth activism and resistance no matter how many bounties, arrests or public whippings. Rather, the organizing is intensifying. As we hear Assata chants at Ferguson protests, we are reminded that Assata Shakur’s legacy of resistance, and the resistance of so many other political prisoners and exiles, offers inspiration for our freedom struggles today.


A poem by Assata Shakur

Carry it on now.
Carry it on.
Carry it on now.
Carry it on.
Carry on the tradition.

There were Black People since the childhood of time
who carried it on.
In Ghana and Mali and Timbuktu
We carried it on.
Carried on the tradition.

We hid in the bush.
When the slave masters came
holding spear
And when the moment was ripe,
leaped out and lanced the lifeblood
of our would-be masters.
We carried it on.

On slave ships,
hurling ourselves into oceans.
Slitting the throats of our captors.
We took their whips.
And their ships
Blood flowed in the Atlantic
and it wasn’t all ours.
We carried it on.

Fed Missy arsenic apple pies.
Stole the axes from the shed.
Went and chopped off master’s head.
We ran. We fought.
We organized a railroad.
An underground.
We carried it on.

In newspapers. In meetings.
In arguments and street fights.
We carried it on.

In tales told to children.
In chants and cantatas.
In poems and blues songs
and saxophone screams,
We carried it on.

In classrooms. In churches.
In courtrooms. In prisons.
We carried it on.

On soapboxes and picket lines.
Welfare lines, unemployment
Our lives on the line,
We carried it on.

In sit-ins and pray ins
And march ins and die ins,
We carried it on.

On cold Missouri midnights
Pitting shotguns against lynch mobs
On burning Brooklyn streets
Pitting rocks against rifles,
We carried it on.

Against water hoses and bulldogs.
Against nightsticks and bullets.
Against tanks and tear gas.
Needles and nooses.
Bombs and birth control.
We carried it on.

In Selma and San Juan.
Mozambique, Mississippi.
In Brazil and in Boston,
We carried it on.

Through the lies and the sell-outs,
The mistakes and the madness.
Through pain and hunger and frustration,
We carried it on.

Carried on the tradition.
Carried a strong tradition.
Carried a proud tradition.
Carried a Black tradition.
Carry it on.

Pass it down to the children.
Pass it down.
Carry it on.
Carry it on now.
Carry it on

1 Comment

  1. Willie Williamson

    Dear sister,
    Thank you for reminding us about the life of Assata. She is still that reminder of how our government has continued over the years to paint African Americans as the other and therefore unworthy of what democracy promises. As time marches on this government must relent in its course of actions against us, and at that time it will have to admit to its real history. A history born and nourished with the blood of our ancestors, with lies to keep it afloat. Yes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the world from casting a sharper gaze upon our shores -thanks to our young scholars- and not raise an eyebrow of concern about what is happening here. To continue to operate as it has done in the past, the powers that be must continue the incarcerate us at alarming rates while bending the “truth” to its breaking point. So, to answer your question of why the U.S. government is still going after our dear sister is because the effort to lock us out of the realms of justice strengthens its main pillar of existence-racism.