U.S., keep your hands off Assata!
Interview with Assata Shakur, Part 1
Pan-African News Wire – What happens to old Black Panthers? Some wind up dead, like Huey P. Newton. Some join the Moonies and the Republican Party, like Eldridge Cleaver. Some, like Mumia Abu Jamal, languish in prison.
But a few, like Assata Shakur, have taken the path of the “maroon,” the runaway slave of old who slipped off the plantation to the free jungle communities known as “palenques.” Two decades ago, Shakur was described as “the soul of the Black Liberation Army,” an underground, paramilitary group that emerged from the rubble of East Coast chapters of the Black Panther Party. Among her closest political comrades was Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s mother.
Forced underground in 1971 by charges that were later proved false, Assata was accused of being the “bandit queen” of the BLA, the “mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting.” The BLA’s alleged actions included assassinating almost 10 police officers, kidnapping drug dealers – one of whom turned out to be an FBI agent – and robbing banks from coast to coast.
Throughout 1971 and 1972, “Assata sightings” and wild speculation about her deeds were a headline mainstay for New York tabloids. Then, on May 2, 1973, Shakur and two friends were pulled over by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. During the stop, shooting erupted. A trooper and one alleged BLA member were killed, another trooper was slightly hurt and Assata – or Miss Joanne Chesimard, as authorities preferred to call her – was severely wounded by a blast of police gunfire.
Left to die in a paddy wagon, she survived only to be charged for the trooper’s death and sentenced to life in prison. During the next six years – much of it spent in solitary confinement – Shakur beat a half dozen other indictments.
In 1979, after giving birth in prison, only to have her daughter taken away in less than a week, Assata Shakur managed one of the most impressive jailbreaks of the era. After almost a year in a West Virginia federal prison for women, surrounded by white supremacists from the Aryan Sisterhood prison gang, Shakur was transferred to the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Center in New Jersey.
There she was one of only eight maximum security prisoners held in a small, well-fenced cellblock of their own. The rest of Clinton – including its visiting area – was medium security and not fenced in. According to news reports at the time, Shakur’s Nov. 2 escape proceeded as follows: Three men – two black, one white – using bogus driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, requested visits with Assata four weeks in advance, as was prison policy. But prison officials never did the requisite background checks.
On the day of the escape, the team of three met in the waiting room at the prison entrance, where they were processed through registration and shuttled in a van to the visiting room in South Hall. One member of the team went ahead of the rest. Although there was a sign stating that all visitors would be searched with a hand held metal detector, he made it through registration without even a pat-down.
Meanwhile, the other two men were processed without a search. As these two were being let through the chain-link fences and locked metal doors at the visiting center, one of them drew a gun and took the guard hostage. Simultaneously, the man visiting Shakur rushed the control booth, put two pistols to the glass wall, and ordered the officer to open the room’s metal door. She obliged.
From there, Shakur and “the raiders,” as some press reports dubbed them, took a third guard hostage and made it to the parked van. Because only the maximum security section of the prison was fully fenced in, the escape team was able to speed across a grassy meadow to the parking lot of the Hunterdon State School, where they met two more female accomplices and split up into a “two-tone blue sedan” and a Ford Maverick.
All the guards were released unharmed, and the FBI immediately launched a massive hunt. But Shakur disappeared without a trace. For the next five years, authorities hunted in vain. Shakur had vanished. Numerous other alleged BLA cadre were busted during those years, including Tupac’s step-father, Mutula Shakur.
In 1984 word came from 90 miles off the coast of Florida. The FBI’s most wanted female fugitive was living in Cuba, working on a master’s degree in political science, writing her autobiography and raising her daughter.
Cut to 2001. It’s a stunningly hot summer afternoon in Havana, Cuba, the ultimate palenque, and I am having strong, black coffee with Assata Shakur, who just turned 54 but looks more like 36. She keeps a low profile; security is still a big concern. She’s finishing her second book. Given how much the feds want this woman locked up, I feel strange being in her house, as if my presence is a breach of security.
Q: How did you arrive in Cuba?
A: Well, I couldn’t, you know, just write a letter and say, “Dear Fidel, I’d like to come to your country.” So I had to hoof it – come and wait for the Cubans to respond. Luckily, they had some idea who I was. They’d seen some of the briefs and UN petitions from when I was a political prisoner. So they were somewhat familiar with my case, and they gave me the status of being a political refugee. That means I am here in exile as a political person.
Q: How did you feel when you got here?
A: I was really overwhelmed. Even though I considered myself a socialist, I had these insane, silly notions about Cuba. I mean, I grew up in the 1950s when little kids were hiding under their desks, because “the communists were coming.” So even though I was very supportive of the revolution, I expected everyone to go around in green fatigues looking like Fidel, speaking in a very stereotypical way: “The revolution must continue, Companero. Let us, triumph, Comrade.”
When I got here people were just people, doing what they had where I came from. It’s a country with a strong sense of community. Unlike the U.S., folks aren’t as isolated. People are really into other people. Also, I didn’t know there were all these black people here and that there was this whole Afro-Cuban culture. My image of Cuba was Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. I hadn’t heard of Antonio Maceo (a hero of the Cuban war of independence) and other Africans who had played a role in Cuban history.
The lack of brand names and consumerism also really hit me. You go into a store and there would be a bag of “rice.” It undermined what I had taken for granted in the absurd zone where people are like, “Hey, I only eat Uncle So and So’s brand of rice.”
Q: So, how were you greeted by the Cuban state?
A: They’ve treated me very well. It was different from what I expected. I thought they might be pushy. But they were more interested in what I wanted to do, in my projects. I told them that the most important things were to unite with my daughter and to write a book. They said, “What do you need to do that?”
They were also interested in my vision of the struggle of African people in the United States. I was so impressed by that – because I grew up, so to speak, in the movement, dealing with white leftists who were very bossy and wanted to tell us what to do and thought they knew everything. The Cuban attitude was one of solidarity with respect. It was a profound lesson in cooperation.
Q: Did they introduce you to people or guide you around for a while?
A: They gave me a dictionary, an apartment, took me to some historical places, and then I was pretty much on my own. My daughter came down, after prolonged harassment and being denied a passport, and she became my number one priority. We discovered Cuban schools together, we did the sixth grade together, explored parks and the beach.
Q: She was taken from you at birth, right?
A: Yeah. It’s not like Cuba where you get to breastfeed in prison and where they work closely with the family. Some mothers in the U.S. never get to see their newborns. I was with my daughter for a week before they sent me back to the prison. That was one of the most difficult periods of my life, that separation. It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to talk about it. I had to just block it out. Otherwise I think I might have gone insane. In 1979, when I escaped, she was only five years old.