† 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.