U.S. bounty on Black Panther targets Cuba

New Jersey’s attorney general and its police superintendent announced May 2 that a bounty of $1 million had been posted for the return to New Jersey from Cuba of former Black Panther Party leader Assata Shakur. They also said Shakur, 57, had been placed on the FBI list of “domestic terrorists.”

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly authorized the million-dollar bounty on April 28, upping a reward of $150,000 set in 1998.

Thirty-two years ago, on May 2, 1973, New Jersey police officer James Harper stopped the car in which Assata Shakur and two others were riding on the New Jersey Turnpike, supposedly for a faulty taillight. At the time, Shakur, who then went by the name of JoAnne Chesimard, was well known to police authorities as a high-profile Black liberation activist, and was on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

The Black Panther Party was a militant advocate of the rights of African Americans, espoused a 10-point program for equality and justice, and sponsored a free breakfast program for children. J. Edgar Hoover regarded the Panthers as the “greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and the FBI targeted it for destruction. By 1973, the authorities had already killed several of its leaders.

After police stopped Shakur’s car, a melee of gunfire followed. One of the men in the car and another policeman were killed. Shakur, seriously injured, was arrested. The third occupant of the car is now serving a life sentence in jail. A New Jersey Court convicted Shakur of murder in 1977. She escaped from prison in 1979, lived as a fugitive in the U.S. for five years, and was given asylum in Cuba in 1984.

News reports about the million-dollar bounty have ignored defense arguments introduced at her trial. Shakur contended that police bullets had already wounded her so severely that she could not have shot the trooper. She had been tried and acquitted six times on other alleged offenses before her 1977 conviction.

Whether the increased bounty originated in Washington or New Jersey is unclear. The U.S. government has long used the case of Assata Shakur to demonstrate the supposed “terrorist inclinations” of Cuba, despite Cuba’s outspoken denunciations of terrorism and its frequent offers to join other nations to stop it.

Menacing overtones accompanied the announcement May 2. Shakur “is now 120 pounds of money,” the state police superintendent said. New Jersey authorities explained that upping the reward would make “Chesimard a much more attractive quarry for professional bounty hunters.” A Woodbridge, N.J., “businessman” was unrestrained in his zeal: “I’m going to jump on it,” said Louis Faccone, boasting that once he knew the whereabouts of Shakur in Cuba, “a two-man team” would be setting out from the Florida Keys.

Why publicize a new bounty now, more than two decades after Shakur’s escape? Observers speculate that the U.S. government wants to deflect criticism of its silence about the recent arrival in Florida of the anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who has applied for asylum. Washington, by seizing on the “case” of Shakur, can perhaps plead it shares anti-terrorist failings with Cuba.

But Canadian author Isaac Saney believes more is involved. In a May 3 letter on the Internet, he writes, “We should view this in the context of Washington’s objective of manufacturing a pretext to launch a military aggression of some sort against the island. Critical to this aim is the demonization of the island. What is of note is that the FBI has taken the step of adding Assata’s name to its list of domestic terrorists.

“Faced with very potent challenges to its hegemony in Latin America in the form of new social movements,” he continues, “and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela (particularly Chavez’s open embracing of socialism), U.S. imperialism is confronted with a very serious crisis. Moreover, the U.S. ruling class understands that the Cuban Revolution has been both the symbolic and concrete anchor for the development of this new wave of Latin American struggle.”