New attack on Assata Shakur provokes ire

If the spirit of J. Edgar Hoover still walks abroad, it is an unquiet ghost. Besides anti-communism, Hoover’s great fear was that a “Black messiah” would lead the African American people of the United States into empowerment. Motivated by that fear, Hoover and his FBI agents, working through COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) and in cooperation with state and local police forces as well as private vigilante groups, targeted virtually all branches and leaders of the Black movement for equality and liberation.  Hoover’s campaign used spying, disruption, creation and planting of false information (even perjured court testimony), agents-provocateurs and the instigation of murder to neutralize especially young African American leaders and activists.  The Black Panthers were a target, but so was Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, and electoral politicians. Many died and others served decades in prison until the frame-up was discovered.

In 1975, a Senate Committee headed by Idaho Democrat Frank Church surveyed all aspects of abuses by U.S. security agencies, and among other things exposed the abuses of COINTELPRO. The Church Committee also revealed the existence of U.S. government efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Cuban President Fidel Castro.

All this was supposed to have ended, and a major part of what Hoover most feared has come to pass: There is an African American in the White House, and another is U.S. Attorney General, in direct control of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But on May 2, the FBI, along with New Jersey state officials, revived the issue of Assata Shakur, a 66 year old African American woman, making her the first woman to be listed as one of the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, raising the bounty on her head to $2 million, and putting up billboards in New Jersey (presumably at the taxpayers’ expense) with Assata’s picture and the number to call if one sees her wandering the streets of Bayonne, Weehawken or Trenton, an improbable eventuality since the FBI knows perfectly well she has been living peacefully in Havana, Cuba for 30 years.

Shakur, whose original name was JoAnne Byron and whose married name was originally Chesimard, was a young college educated activist first with the Black Panther Party and then the Black Revolutionary Army. In 1971, she and two colleagues were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, ostensibly because of a defective taillight but probably because of “driving while Black.” In the confrontation that followed, Assata was severely wounded by a shot in the back while she had her hands up, while one of her companions and a New Jersey state trooper were killed. Assata and her other companion were accused of murder in both deaths, and found guilty by an all-white jury, based on flimsy and probably perjured testimony. Assata was sentenced to life in prison but escaped in 1979 and was eventually given political asylum by the Cuban government, on the grounds that at that time, there was no justice for African-Americans in the United States. While in Cuba, she has continued to speak out on issues of social justice and international affairs.  She has published an autobiography (1999 Assata: An Autobiography, Lawrence Hill Books) and numerous other documents.

In 1998 then New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman upped the reward for the capture of Assata to $100,000, and demanded that before there could be any normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the United States, Cuba must return Assata and some other U.S. citizens who have asylum there.  Of course, Cuba did no such thing.  Now the FBI and New Jersey have escalated the whole issue.

What are the possible implications? Many who have been commenting on this since the Thursday announcement see it as a new escalation of attacks on African Americans and especially on African-American women. This may well be part of the motivation. But it is probably not the whole story.

The naming of Assata Shakur as the number one wanted terrorist has also caused some to wonder if this the neighborhood in Havana where she lives could not become the target of a drone strike. The $2 million bounty will certainly motivate some people to go and look for her in Cuba, with the idea of bringing her back dead or alive.  

But others see the new attack on Assata as being aimed not only at her personally, but at socialist Cuba.

One of the many dimensions of U.S. anti-Cuba policy has been the placing of Cuba on a State Department list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism“. This is a propaganda move designed to whip up hostility to Cuba among the U.S. public, but it also has practical implications: For example, it obliges the United States to oppose any Cuban request for financial aid from certain international agencies.

The original reasons for placing Cuba on the list are fraudulent. In fact, the reason Cuba is on the list is a combination of the U.S. government’s own hostility to Cuba, and pressure exerted on the Obama administration by the anti-Castro Cuban exile lobby and its allies. Although most people think of the exile anti-Castro forces as being located in Miami, there is another such grouping in New Jersey. Unlike the G.O.P- connected Miami exile politicians, the ones in New Jersey include a number of Democratic Party figures such as U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Congressman Albio Sires. 

Why now? On April 30, Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to report to Congress on whether Cuba would be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list or not.  Kerry could remove Cuba from the list on his own hook, and there was some hope that he might do so. There is a national campaign to remove Cuba from the list, which has gained the support of numerous public figures including some elected officials. The Kerry report has not been issued yet, though there are reports Cuba will stay on the list.  It is of crucial importance that the refuge given to Assata in Cuba has been a major reason the government gives for keeping Cuba on the list.

In recent weeks, there have been other government and media announcements that seem to have the purpose of building up fear and hostility against Cuba.  For example, the government just unsealed an indictment against a Puerto Rican woman, Marta Rita Velazquez, for having abetted espionage activities for Cuba by Ana Belen Montes, who is doing hard time in the U.S. But the allegations against Velazquez date back to 1984, and she is living in Sweden, so why make such a big media splash about these 29 years later? And everybody knows the U.S. government also spies on other countries. (Interestingly, about the same time as the Shakur announcement came a U.S. judge’s decision to allow one of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez, to stay in Cuba after the Justice Department dropped its objections.)

The new attack on Shakur, and on Cuba through her, has caused indignation. The White House, and the Justice and State Departments should be pressured to stop these dangerous games, drop the bounty for Assata, take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and work toward normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Photo: via assatashakur .org


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.