In a highly disputed trial held 28 years ago, an all white jury convicted former Black Panther Assata Shakur of the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. In 1979, while serving a life sentence, she escaped from prison and eventually resurfaced in Cuba, where she was granted asylum and has lived ever since. But the U.S. government has continued to pursue her, regularly increasing the bounty on her head and classifying her as a “domestic terrorist.” Last May the Justice Department issued an unprecedented $1 million bounty for her return. Shakur, 58, continues to maintain her innocence.
Assata and Sundiata Acoli were arrested May 2, 1973, after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which State Trooper Werner Foerster and Black Panther Zayd Shakur were killed. Assata was severely wounded, shot while her hands were up. She has always maintained that she did not kill anyone. But in separate trials, Sundiata and Assata were convicted of murdering Foerster.
Several years after she escaped, Cuba gave her political asylum on the grounds that she had been subjected to political persecution and had never received a fair trial.
Many freedom fighters I knew and loved, including Eldridge Cleaver, to whom I was married, were arrested and imprisoned because of our membership in the Black Panther Party. Many turned into fugitives to save their own lives, including my husband, whom I joined in Algeria in May 1969. That was around the same time that Assata, then a bright New York City college student named Joanne Chesimard, joined the Black Panthers.
We had a concrete ten-point program to end racial inequality. We insisted on decent housing, appropriate education, economic justice, an immediate end to police brutality and other rights our people had been fighting for since slavery ended. We were not patient, we were not passive, and we were willing to defend our principles with our lives. We became prime targets for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, particularly after J. Edgar Hoover, then FBI director, labeled us the “greatest threat to the internal security” of the United States in 1968.
We were young and passionately determined to secure the freedom of our people in our lifetime. Assata saw our leaders imprisoned and killed. Both Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale faced the death penalty, and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Illinois chapter, were murdered in 1969 in a predawn raid while they slept. Assata reported that she was beaten, tortured and denied medical attention after her arrest, then continually threatened by police and prison guards. There was no question that she felt her life was in danger.
Under international law and Cuban law, Shakur is entitled to the protection and freedom of asylum. There are no legal grounds for her return to the United States because no treaty of extradition exists between the United States and Cuba, which has been subjected to a U.S. blockade and trade embargo for more than 40 years.
Despite this, the U.S. government and the state of New Jersey have repeatedly called for her capture. The meaning of this new million-dollar bounty is to encourage and finance what amounts to a kidnapping.
The government has elevated this barbaric conduct to the diplomatic level as a way to reimprison one Black woman who dared fight for our freedom. We cannot allow them to engage in lynch-mob diplomacy.
Kathleen Cleaver is a law professor and former communications secretary for the Black Panther Party. For more information about Assata Shakur, please visit handsoffassata.com, or call the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement at (718) 254-8800.