New Jersey Troopers Have Selective Amnesia About How They Victimized People Like Assata Shakur
Date: Tuesday, May 03, 2005
By: Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com
The other day, a colonel with the New Jersey State Police said something that ought to rankle any black person who has even the vaguest familiarity of how police brutality and racial injustice once had a vise grip on the nation.
“We have pretty long institutional memories,” one Col. Rick Fuentes said during a news conference to announce that the reward for the capture of former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who was doing time in prison for the slaying of a trooper when she escaped in 1979, had been upped from $150,000 to $1 million.
Fuentes and the rest of his gang might have long institutional memories about what Shakur was convicted of doing to one of their own. But they –– as well as the Justice Department –– have selective amnesia about what they were doing to black people like her during that time.
For decades now, law enforcement authorities have been obsessed with capturing Shakur, who has lived in Cuba since 1986. Formerly known as Joanne Chesimard, two troopers stopped her and two companions for a broken tail light on the New Jersey State Turnpike in 1973. A gunfight ensued, and when it was over one state trooper, Werner Foerster, was dead, as was one of Shakur’s companions, Zayd Shakur. She was severely wounded.
What happened afterward was typical in the era of COINTELPRO –– the FBI’s crooked, covert operation intended to destabilize black movements and their leaders –– and out-and-out racism.
Shakur was tried six different times on various, flimsy charges. She was acquitted each time. But an all-white jury ultimately found her guilty in the murders of Foerster and Zayd Shakur. They found her guilty in spite of the fact that forensics experts testified that she was shot when she was in a position of surrender and that no evidence existed to show that she had fired a weapon.
But the jury, them being white and all, convicted her anyway. But Shakur continued to proclaim her innocence and in 1979, decided she wasn’t going to do any more time for a crime she didn’t commit. So she escaped.
I doubt that Shakur killed Foerster. The forensics testimony, as well as the context of the times, is what makes me dubious.
And as a black person in America, I’d be a fool to ignore context.
I’m dubious because throughout the late 1950s to the early 1970s, the FBI targeted black revolutionaries like Shakur for ruination. They did it through flagrant abuses of power, such as planting evidence, weapons and informants. One need only look to the case of Geronimo ji jaga Pratt, a Black Panther who was fingered as the killer of a white woman by Julius “Julio” Butler, another Panther who, as it turned out, was an FBI informant –– and a liar. Pratt spent 27 years in prison before the late Johnnie Cochran, his longtime attorney, helped him get a new trial, and the judge declared that he had been sentenced unfairly.
I’m dubious because the New Jersey State Police had then –– and still have –– a reputation for being notoriously racist. In many cases, stopping someone for a busted tail light tends to be more of an excuse to target someone, namely black people, for harassment rather than to advise them to get the light fixed. And while neither I nor any of the white people who convicted Shakur were there when Foerster was shot, it’s rather interesting that up until that time, she only had a record of organizing free breakfast programs and other community empowerment programs, and not a record of provoking violence.
I’m dubious because, as much as people like Fuentes are calling for justice for Foerster, some of their own are still doing the same injustices to black people as they did in Shakur’s day. In 1998, troopers on that same New Jersey turnpike upon which Shakur was stopped shot and wounded three unarmed black and Latino men whom they suspected were carrying drugs. They weren’t. The next year, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a report that found that racial profiling by the troopers was rampant.
And as recent as 2003, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that internal affairs officers for the New Jersey State Police looking into racial and sexual harassment allegations found a T-shirt with the letters LOD. The initials, which stand for “Lords of Discipline,” represent a secret society that many black and women officers say is sexist and white supremacist.
I’m also dubious because Shakur was convicted by an all-white jury –– a jury that was, at that time, probably was more consumed with administering punishment to black people than in administering justice to them.
Some bounty hunter in Florida said he plans to try and capture Shakur. I hope he fails. I hope he fails not only because I believe that Shakur was wrongly convicted, but because I believe it is the height of hypocrisy for the Bush administration to put her on the same terrorist watch list as Osama bin Laden. It is also hypocritical because right here in the United States, we are harboring a number of fugitives and murderers from other countries. And it’s sheer political lunacy to compare Shakur to bin Laden; she hasn’t killed 3,000 people, nor does she have the capability of carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States.
At the very least, Shakur ought to be guaranteed a new trial –– complete with DNA evidence and all –– as a condition of her return. But in the meantime, we need to focus on catching real terrorists. Not someone like Shakur who was, for all practical purposes, a victim of the racial terrorism that once existed against black people.
The kind of terrorism that has managed to escape Fuentes’ institutional memory.