Seemingly out of nowhere the FBI announced that fugitive Black activist Assata Shakur was now declared a “terrorist” on their Most Wanted list. In addition, a bounty for her capture was raised from $1 million to $2 million. There are several questions that immediately arise but the most important is perhaps this: why now?
Assata Shakur, known earlier as Joanne Chesimard, was a leading member of the Black Panther Party. Following the split in the Panthers in 1971 she became involved with the Black Liberation Army, an organization that saw itself as the military wing of the Black Freedom Movement. In 1973 Assata Shakur was in a car that was stopped by the police on the New Jersey Turnpike. A shootout took place during which she was wounded, a comrade of hers was killed along with a police officer. After several very controversial trials covering various allegations against her, Assata was ultimately convicted of murder and assault in connection with the Turnpike shootout, despite evidence of her innocence. In 1979 she escaped prison and fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum. She has lived there ever since.
Assata Shakur has lived in relative silence, only periodically offering interviews. The Black Liberation Army was crushed, and in either case never engaged in military attacks on civilians. The Cuban government saw in Assata’s case that of an individual who was politically persecuted by the United States government and, therefore, concluded that she had a legitimate right to remain in Cuba and not be forced to return to prison.
Independent of any organization in the USA and living in a country that has been victimized by terrorist acts by US-supported Cuban exile groups, Assata Shakur has been the ‘poster child’ for segments of the political Right in the USA, including but not limited to those in the Cuban exile community. Elements of the law enforcement community as well as those who wish to freeze any discussion of normalized relations between the USA and Cuba have periodically seized upon the image of Assata Shakur in order to suggest that not only is she a terrorist but that the Cuban government is aiding and abetting terrorism. This begs at least one question: has there ever been a connection between Assata Shakur and terrorism?
The simple answer is “no,” but that answer necessitates further explanation. Assata Shakur, like many other activists in the 1960s—including but not limited to African Americans—witnessed the active infiltration and repression of liberal, progressive and radical movements by the US government. Through programs such as the notorious COINTELPRO (the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program), an active effort was undertaken by various branches of the US government to disrupt and suppress a wide variety of social justice movements and organizations. This disruption and suppression included the use of murder, such as the infamous drugging and killing of Chicago Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the Chicago Police.
It was in this environment of severe repression that certain elements within the Black Freedom Movement concluded that a military organization needed to be built to both defend against attacks from the government (and from non-governmental right-wing organizations) as well as prepare for what many people thought was a pending revolution. Assata Shakur was part of that section of the movement.
Assata Shakur has never denied having been a member of the Black Liberation Army. She has also never denied being a revolutionary. She has a very well developed critique of US capitalism, imperialism and racism. In no case has anything ever associated with terrorism been alleged against her. Just to be clear, the armed actions that were taken never conformed to any approximation of the notion of “terrorism,” i.e., the use of military/violent actions against civilians in order to advance a political agenda.
The label of “terrorist” in this case then has nothing do with actual terrorism. Assata never targeted civilians; her political beliefs and practice never suggested actions be taken against non-combatants. Yet the label of terrorist, particularly in the post-9/11 world is a very convenient means of stirring fear and irrationality among many people and, in effect, of getting a segment of the public to simply stop thinking. Label someone a “terrorist” and all sorts of actions can be justified, including targeted killings whether through drones or renegade bounty hunters.
In the aftermath of the reelection of President Obama whispers started to be heard suggesting that there might be efforts to take Cuba off the list of countries that support terrorism. There were other whispers that further suggested that there may be efforts aimed at normalizing relations with Cuba. The frenzy in connection with Assata Shakur is precisely the sort of step that those who wish to derail such efforts could either implement or celebrate.
Since the 1959 overthrow of the US-supported Batista regime by the July 26th Movement (led by Fidel Castro), supporters of the old regime as well as elements who fell out with the Castro-aligned leadership, have cooperated with the US government in destabilization and anti-government activities. Such efforts have ranged from guerrilla activities within Cuba to clear examples of terrorism, such as those associated with the notorious Luis Posada Carriles (e.g., the bombing of a Cuban civilian airplane killing all the passengers).
The hatred of the Cuban revolutionary government by this element (and their friends in the USA) has its root in not only the stated commitment of the Cuban government to socialism, but also the demographics of the Cuban Revolution. Cuba’s revolution was not only on the Left, but it was also very black and brown. Given the history of US domination of the Western Hemisphere and the absolute fear of movements arising from the descendants of former slaves and those of the indigenous peoples, the Cuban Revolution was a nightmare for much of the ruling elite in the USA.
Thus, there is a battle that has been underway for some time within the US establishment as to how to handle the existence of Cuba. A small, vocal and actually narrowing constituency in the USA, largely based in Miami and New Jersey, aligned with various politicians in both political parties, are trying everything that they can to forestall any hope for the normalization of relations. Instead they wish to see a continuation of the illegal and immoral US blockade of the island with the aim of bringing it to its knees.
…which brings us back to Assata…
It is in this context that the peculiar and threatening announcement of the placing of Assata Shakur on the terrorist list and the increase in the bounty can be better understood. Leaving aside for a moment that the combination of these announcements represents a threat to Assata’s life; that it violates Cuba’s law; and that people could be killed if bounty hunters attempt to seize Assata. The reality is that this disingenuous action by the FBI and their political supporters potentially boxes in those who wish to see a change-for-the-better in US/Cuban relations.
In that regard, the case against Assata Shakur is nothing more than a cynical pawn to move a more diabolical agenda. For that reason, silence in the face of this travesty is unacceptable. President Obama and Attorney General Holder must take immediate steps to reverse these actions.
The bottom line is that the USA needs to keep its hands off of Assata, and while so doing, get on with the business of normalizing relations with Cuba rather than playing Cold War games.