† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
CI: Desperately Seeking Assata
by Kay Whitlock
Why Assata Shakur? Why now, of all times?
Last week, on May 2, 2013, 40 years to the day after a shootout in which Assata Shakur, a well-known Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army activist, was shot twice, and a fellow activist and a New Jersey state trooper were killed, the FBI announced that Shakur, whose original name was Joanne Chesimard, was the first woman to be placed on the agency’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. (It’s worth taking a look at the makeup of the list; notice anything about it?)
At the same time, the New Jersey state police and the FBI doubled – from $1 million to $2 million – the reward offered for Shakur’s capture. As it happens, she escaped from prison in 1979 – an embarrassing development which law enforcement still cannot coherently explain today – and made her way to Cuba, where she sought and received political asylum.
Why on earth would law enforcement dredge up a 40-year old case and enshrine it in the annals of Most Wanted Terrorists? Welcome to the surreal world of Racist Criminalization.
There’s a lot about the way the police targeted her for the trooper killing that never made a shred of sense in terms of the official story – including the fact that medical experts testified that her injuries were so severe that she could not have fired the fatal shot. (Disclosure: I don’t believe she was guilty, and I remember how the case played out in the day.) Assata Shakur was simply the Designated Dangerous Black Radical of the moment.
Black leaders and organizations – from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the leadership of the Black Panther Party – were among those most heavily targeted. If you were politically active during that time – and I was – then you know that actual guilt for actions charged was not remotely necessary for the hunt to assemble and the racist, criminalizing din to take over.
But this isn’t a column about what happened in that case, although that deserves to be known. You can read about Shakur here and in her autobiography and latest book. Listen to her voice. It’s important to know that before she was finally convicted of several felonies related to the shootout, including killing NJ state trooper Werner Foerster, Shakur was indicted in six other criminal incidents that included murder, attempted murder, armed bank robbery, and kidnapping. Three of those charges were dismissed, and the remaining three resulted in Shakur’s acquittal. But law enforcement was out to get her, and, for a while, they did.
And now they’re trying again.
This is a brief glance into the bleak, racist mythos surrounding U.S. law enforcement conceptions of terror.
The “Terror” Mythos
The mythos that accompanies the concept of “terrorism” in this country is a product of the imagination of U.S. policy makers and police forces, and their colonial predecessors. A race-based imagination, centuries long in the making, that treats white people and people of color quite differently.
An imagination that historically has construed people of color as intrinsically threatening, as terrorists amassing at, subverting, and seeking to destroy the borders of functional white supremacist control not only of major pubic and private institutions, but also public culture.
It is an imagination that often relies on race, and subliminal, mythic associations of race, in the differential framing violence and people accused of doing violence, even as today, it asserts an official posture of “color-blindness.”
Timing is everything, and Assata Shakur’s mythic image as a terrorist of color serves several specific imaginative policing/national security state purposes at this particular moment.
The First Woman on the “Most Wanted Terrorists” List
The FBI chose to place Assata Shakur – whose story is known to relatively few people in this country – on the list just about a month after a new documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch, was released.
In 1970, Angela Y. Davis, then a UCLA philosophy professor, Black Panther Party associate, and member of the Communist Party was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and charged with conspiracy in kidnapping and murdering a California judge. Framed as a dangerous black radical who’d acquired guns and sought to overthrow the U.S. government, Davis was fashioned by law enforcement authorities as symbolic of race-based terror and disorder. Through the lens of Davis’ experience, the film reveals layer after layer of the government’s relentless effort to criminalize black dissent and rebellion.
Davis was acquitted of all charges and is regarded by many as a progressive political icon.What does she, still a widely respected scholar and activist, think of the FBI’s placement of Assata Shakur on its Most Wanted Terrorist list?
When the grandchildren of those who were active in the late ’60s and early ’70s are becoming involved in similar movements today, there is this effort to again terrorize young people by representing such an important figure as Assata Shakur as a terrorist. Before the Tsarnaev brothers were discovered to be the alleged perpetrators [of the Boston Marathon bombings], there was an attempt to present the person who planted the bomb as either a black man or a dark skinned man with a hoodie. This racialization of what is represented as terrorism is an attempt to bring the old-style racism into the conversation with modes of repression in the 21st century. –Angela Y. Davis
Moreover, Assata Shakur is once more associated with other “dangerous” people of color. Even liberal media could not help but frame her by association (godmother, though many claimed she was his aunt) with the talented and well-known rapper, Tupac Shakur. Of course, he was was often placed within a racist media/political frame of “thug/gang member.” But aunt, godmother, it all blurred together: Shakur now joined the pantheon of pathologized black women who produce young, criminalized black kin, either physically or spiritually. Criminalization of race and dissent is once again seamlessly blended into an image of menace. Finally, placement of Shakur as the first female on the “Most Wanted Terrorist” list comes at a time when there is increasing criminalization of young, black girls. Read more at Prison Culture blog and The Feminist Wire.
Using the Language of Colorblindness to Racialize Terrorism
Openly and freely in Cuba, she continues to maintain and promote her terrorist ideology. She provides anti-U.S. government speeches espousing the Black Liberation Army message of revolution and terrorism. No person, no matter what his or her political or moral convictions are, is above the law. Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer, execution-style.
Of course, Agent Ford is just plain wrong. Nice words, but without substance. The same “terrorist” frame and rule of law do not seem to apply to law enforcement officials, even when they shoot unarmed people of color or whose policies – such as NYC’s “Stop and Frisk”- seek to instill fear in communities of color.
And, as it happens, Shakur apparently is only the second “domestic” terrorist to be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, which currently (and usually these days) is populated almost exclusively by people who are or are perceived to be Muslim and/or people of color. As we saw with the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers implicated in the Boston Marathon bombings, there was much media and public confusion at the intersection of “white” and “Muslim.” The result, as blogger Chauncey DeVega writes, provides grimly fascinating insight into bogus constructions of race in a white supremacist society.
“Muslim” serves as a qualifier that trumps “whiteness” in the social imagination, in effect turning the brothers into (my phrase) “failed white folks” within the white supremacist frame. And I’m not making this up; there’s historical evidence of such processes in motion, and the “average man” knows them “perfectly well.”
History Matters: (h/t Chauncey DeVega)
In its decision in the case of U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court deemed Asian Indians ineligible for citizenship because U.S. law allowed only free whites to become naturalized citizens. The court conceded that Indians were “Caucasians” and that anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as white Americans, but argued that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” The Thind decision also led to successful efforts to denaturalize some who had previously become citizens. This represented a particular threat in California, where a 1913 law prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning or leasing land.
The Problem of White Folks’ Ideology & Violence in the Terror Frame
For the most part, white people, even those responsible for bombings and mass shootings, are not framed as terrorists, even domestic ones. But the logic governing white people and terrorism is both twisted and bizarre.
White people or predominantly white advocacy groups are sometimes considered terrorists – at least by the Right and often by law enforcement – if they advocate or commit violence, or sometimes even when they don’t. White people might be labeled “terrorist” if they:
- belong to such left-wing or anti-corporate environmental/animal rights groups, ranging from EarthFirst to Animal Liberation Front to Greenpeace and PETA
- belonged to the Weather Underground or similar groups of the late 1960s/early 1970s
- identify as Muslim
- hold pro-LGBT views
- advocate peace and social justice
Even though they are usually considered “loners, misfits, and lone wolves,” violence-minded white people harboring fervent right-wing beliefs might have terrorist potential in the eyes of the federal government when they target abortion clinics, mosques, and politicians and communities (queers, Muslims, Jews, people of color, immigrants) they hate.
Oh, wait, no, scratch that thought. A report suggesting the same – timid as it was – was withdrawn under right-wing pressure.
Most of the time, white people are simply exempt from the terror frame – especially heavily armed white people who advocate stockpiling firearms and munitions and speak overtly and in coded ways about their willingness to engaged in armed revolution in the United States. Examples of the “white exemption” include:
- The new president of the N.R.A.
- The libertarian talk show host who says it’s time to abolish the “U.S. federal government” even as he attempts to organize a mass, “loaded rifles” show of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C.
- Timothy McVeigh
White people who actually commit mass shootings or bombings are more likely to be called “mentally ill” or “extremist”. If they have not done actual violence, but wink at it and encourage discussion about armed revolution in the United States and are affiliated with the N.R.A., the Tea Party, or the Republican Party, they are considered “concerned American patriots.”
There’s a reason the power structure in this country always prefers to make the Assatas and the Angelas the icons of danger and terror.
Structural Violence is Never on the List
The massive violence routinely embedded in “respectable” public and private institutions never appears on the “Most Wanted Terrorist” lists, though its many forms – including structural poverty, the violence of mass incarceration, the criminalization of immigrants, the brutality of the so-called “War on Terror (including U.S. employment of torture), and widespread ecological devastation – not only threaten, but do real harm to countless individuals, families, and entire communities.
And That’s Why Assata Shakur Is On the List
She’s there to remind us about the “proper” racial frame for terrorism, and to help solidify the subliminal link between progressive political dissent, violence, and mass destruction in the social imagination.
She’s there to caution younger folks against radical activism, and to remind us older activists who still care that we could be next.
She’s there not only to distract us from structural violence, but to serve as a prop in strengthening it.
The terror mythos offers us nothing but endless, intensified policing and war within a white supremacist framework.
Let’s respond with greater courage and creativity.
The answer is not to expand the terror mythos to get “more of the people we loathe” into it, but to deconstruct it. The task is to craft reform measures that lead toward dismantling the mechanics of mass fear and vengeance, and replacing it with practices that ensure community/societal accountability for violent and harmful actions within a broader framework of healing/transformative justice. And that accountability must be structural as well as individual.
Our lives, those of our children and the generations following them, and the well being of all our communities depend upon it.
Here are the lyrics for “A Song to Assata.”
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to go see Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.