Assata Olugbala Shakur (née JoAnne Deborah Byron on July 16, 1947), whose married name was Chesimard, is an African-American activist, escaped convicted murderer, and member of the former Black Panther Party (BPP) and Black Liberation Army (BLA). Between 1971 and 1973, Shakur was accused of several crimes and was the subject of a multistate manhunt.
In May 1973, Shakur was involved in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, in which she was accused of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and grievously assaulting Trooper James Harper. BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur was also killed in the incident, and Shakur was wounded. Between 1973 and 1977, Shakur was indicted in relation to six other incidents—charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, bank robbery, and kidnapping—resulting in three acquittals and three dismissals. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout. In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced it had made Shakur the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists.
Shakur was incarcerated in several prisons in the ’70s. She escaped from prison in 1979 and has been living in Cuba, in political asylum, since 1984. Since May 2, 2005, the FBI has classified her as a domestic terrorist and offered a $1 million reward for assistance in her capture. On May 2, 2013, the FBI added her to the Most Wanted Terrorist List. On the same day, the New Jersey Attorney General offered to match the FBI reward, increasing the total reward for her capture to $2 million.
In 1998, Shakur referred to herself as a “20th century escaped slave.”
Shakur was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City, on July 16, 1947, where she lived for three years with her parents and grandparents, Lula and Frank Hill. After her parents divorced in 1950, Shakur spent most of her childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina with her grandmother, until her family relocated to Queens when she was a teenager. For a time, she ran away from home and lived with strangers until she was taken in by her aunt, Evelyn Williams, who later became her lawyer. Shakur dropped out of high school, but later earned a General Educational Development (GED) with her aunt’s help. Shakur attended Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) and then the City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid-1960s, where she was involved in many political activities, protests, and sit-ins.
Shakur was arrested for the first time in 1967 with 100 other BMCC students, on charges of trespassing. The students had chained and locked the entrance to a college building to protest a curriculum deficient in black studies and a lack of black faculty. She married Louis Chesimard, a fellow student-activist at CCNY, in April 1967, and divorced him in December 1970. Shakur devotes only one paragraph of her autobiography to her marriage, attributing its termination to disagreements related to gender roles.
After graduation from CCNY at 23, Shakur became involved in the Black Panther Party (BPP), and eventually became a leading member of the Harlem branch. Prior to joining the BPP, Shakur had met several of its members on a 1970 trip to Oakland, California. One of Shakur’s main activities with the BPP was coordinating a school breakfast program. However, she soon left the Party, charging macho behavior of males in these organizations, but did not go as far as other female Panthers like Regina Jennings, who left the organization over sexual harassment. Instead, Shakur’s main criticism of the BPP was its alleged lack of focus on black history:
“The basic problem stemmed from the fact that the BPP had no systematic approach to political education. They were reading the Red Book but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them barely understood any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise. […] That was the main reason many Party members, in my opinion, underestimated the need to unite with other Black organizations and to struggle around various community issues.”
That same year Chesimard changed her name to Assata Shakur and joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA), “a radical and violent organization of black activists” “whose primary objective (was) to fight for the independence and self-determination of Afrikan people in the United States.” In 1971, Shakur joined the Republic of New Afrika, an organization formed to create an independent black-majority nation composed of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
Political asylum in Cuba
Shakur fled to Cuba by 1984; in that year she was granted political asylum in that country. The Cuban government paid approximately $13 a day toward her living expenses. In 1985 she was reunited with her daughter, Kakuya, who had been raised by Shakur’s mother in New York.
In an open letter, Shakur has called Cuba “One of the Largest, Most Resistant and Most Courageous Palenques (Maroon Camps) that has ever existed on the Face of this Planet.” Shakur is also known to have worked as an English-language editor for Radio Havana Cuba.
In 1987, she published Assata: An Autobiography, which was written in Cuba. Her autobiography has been cited in relation to critical legal studies and critical race theory. The book does not give a detailed account of the events on the New Jersey Turnpike, except saying that the jury “Convicted a woman with her hands up!” The book was published by Lawrence Hill & Company in the United States and Canada but the copyright is held by Zed Books Ltd. of London due to “Son of Sam” laws, which restrict who can receive profits from a book. In the six months prior to the publications of the book, Evelyn Williams, Shakur’s aunt and attorney, made several trips to Cuba and served as a go-between with Hill.
In 1993, she published a second book, Still Black, Still Strong, with Dhoruba bin Wahad and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In 1997, Carl Williams, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II asking him to raise the issue of Shakur’s extradition during his talks with President Fidel Castro. During the pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998, Shakur agreed to an interview with NBC journalist Ralph Penza. Shakur later published an extensive criticism of the NBC segment, which inter-spliced footage of Trooper Foerster’s grieving widow with an FBI photo connected to a bank robbery of which Shakur had been acquitted. On March 10, 1998 New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman asked Attorney General Janet Reno to do whatever it takes to return Shakur from Cuba. Later in 1998, U.S. media widely reported claims that the United States State Department had offered to lift the Cuban embargo in exchange for the return of 90 U.S. political exiles, including Shakur.
In September 1998, the United States Congress passed a non-binding resolution asking Cuba for the return of Shakur as well as 90 fugitives believed by Congress to be residing in Cuba; House Concurrent Resolution 254 passed 371–0 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. The Resolution was due in no small part to the lobbying efforts of Governor Whitman and New Jersey Representative Bob Franks. Before the passage of the Resolution, Franks stated: “This escaped murderer now lives a comfortable life in Cuba and has launched a public relations campaign in which she attempts to portray herself as an innocent victim rather than a cold-blooded murderer.”
In an open letter to Castro, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Representative Maxine Waters of California later explained that many members of the Caucus (including herself) were against Shakur’s extradition but had mistakenly voted for the bill, which was placed on the accelerated suspension calendar, generally reserved for non-controversial legislation. In the letter, Waters explained her opposition, calling COINTELPRO “illegal, clandestine political persecution.”
On May 2, 2005, the 32nd anniversary of the Turnpike shootings, the FBI classified her as a domestic terrorist, increasing the reward for assistance in her capture to $1 million, the largest reward placed on an individual in the history of New Jersey. New Jersey State Police superintendent Rick Fuentes said “she is now 120 pounds of money.” The bounty announcement reportedly caused Shakur to “drop out of sight” after having previously lived relatively openly (including having her home telephone number listed in her local telephone directory).
New York City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, has called for the bounty to be rescinded. The New Jersey State Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation each still have an agent officially assigned to her case. Calls for Shakur’s extradition increased following Fidel Castro’s transfer of presidential duties; in a May 2005 television address, Castro had called Shakur a victim of racial persecution, saying “they wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.” In 2013 the FBI announced it had made Shakur the first woman on its list of most wanted terrorists. The reward for her capture and return was also doubled to $2 million that year.
A documentary film about Shakur, Eyes of the Rainbow, written and directed by Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, appeared in 1997. The official premiere of the film in Havana in 2004 was promoted by Casa de las Américas, the main cultural forum of the Cuban government. The National Conference of Black Lawyers and Mos Def are among the professional organizations and entertainers to support Assata Shakur; The “Hands Off Assata” campaign is organized by Dream Hampton. Hip-hop artist Common recorded a tribute to Shakur, “A Song for Assata,” on his album Like Water for Chocolate, 2000, after traveling to Havana to meet with Shakur personally. Paris (“Assata’s Song”, in Sleeping with the Enemy, 1992), Public Enemy (“Rebel Without A Pause” in It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988), 2Pac (“Words of Wisdom” in 2Pacalypse Now, 1991), Digital Underground (“Heartbeat Props” in Sons of the P, 1991), The Roots (“The Adventures in Wonderland” in Illadelph Halflife, 1996), Asian Dub Foundation (“Committed to Life” in Community Music, 2000), Saul Williams (“Black Stacey” in Saul Williams, 2004), Rebel Diaz (“Which Side Are You On?” in Otro Guerrillero Mixtape Vol. 2, 2008), Lowkey (“Something Wonderful” in Soundtrack to the Struggle, 2011), Murs (“Tale of Two Cities” in The Final Adventure, 2012), Jay Z (“Open Letter Part II” in 2013), Digable Planets, The Underachievers and X-Clan have recorded similar songs about Shakur. Shakur has been alternately termed a “rap music legend” or a “minor cause celebre.”
On December 12, 2006 the Chancellor of the City University of New York, Matthew Goldstein, directed City College’s president, Gregory H. Williams, to remove the “unauthorized and inappropriate” designation of the “Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center,” which was named by students in 1989, when a student group won the right to use the lounge after a campus shutdown over proposed tuition increases. The decision resulted in a lawsuit from student and alumni groups. As of April 7, 2010, the presiding judge has ruled that the issues of students’ free speech and administrators’ immunity from suit “deserve a trial.”
In 1995 Borough of Manhattan Community College renamed a scholarship that had previously been named for Shakur, following controversy. In 2008, Shakur was featured in a course on “African-American heroes”—along with figures such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Henry, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis—at Bucknell University. Rutgers University professor H. Bruce Franklin, who excerpts Shakur’s book in a class on Crime and Punishment in American Literature, calls her a “revolutionary fighter against imperialism.”
Shakur is still a notorious figure among New Jersey law enforcement officials. For example, black (now ex-)Trooper Anthony Reed sued the force, among other things, over posters of Shakur, altered to include Reed’s badge number, being hung in Newark barracks, an incident that Reed considered “racist in nature.” In contrast, according to Dylan Rodriguez, to many “U.S. radicals and revolutionaries” Shakur represents a “venerated (if sometimes fetishized) signification of liberatory desire and possibility.”
The largely Internet-based “Hands Off Assata!” campaign is coordinated by Chicago-area Black Radical Congress activists.
Assata Shakur was moved to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List on May 2, 2013, the 40th anniversary of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster’s murder. The FBI’s moving Shakur to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List is a first for any woman.