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The FBI’s Political Decision to Put Assata Shakur on Its List of ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’

Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” poster for Joanne Deborah Chesimard aka Assata Shakur

The FBI has added former Black Panther and former member of the Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur, to its “most wanted terrorist” list. The decision is political and clearly aimed at the Cuban government, which granted political asylum to her after she escaped from prison in 1979. It also is an escalation of the government’s demonization of her for continuing to openly espouse radical political views, while in exile outside of the United States.

Assata Shakur—or Joanne Chesimard, as she is called by the government—was found guilty in 1977 of killing a New Jersey state trooper. She was also convicted of “armed robbery and other crimes” and sentenced to life in prison.

The FBI’s press release announcing her addition to the “most wanted terrorist” list offers the following description of her crime:

On May 2, 1973, Chesimard and a pair of accomplices were stopped by two troopers for a motor vehicle violation on the New Jersey Turnpike. At the time, Chesimard—a member of the violent revolutionary activist organization known as the Black Liberation Army—was wanted for her involvement in several felonies, including bank robbery.

Chesimard and her accomplices opened fire on the troopers. One officer was wounded, and his partner—Trooper Foerster—was shot and killed at point-blank range. One of Chesimard’s accomplices was killed in the shoot-out and the other was arrested and remains in jail.

Shakur maintains she was the victim of political persecution. Her lawyer, Lennox Hinds, asserted on “Democracy Now!” that she was “targeted by the FBI” and stopped and the “allegation that she was a cold-blooded killer is not supported by any of the forensic evidence.”

If we look at the trial, we’ll find that she was victimized, she was shot. She was shot in the back. The bullet exited and broke the clavicle in her shoulder. She could not raise a gun. She could not raise her hand to shoot. And she was shot while her hands were in the air. Now, that is the forensic evidence. There is not one scintilla of evidence placing a gun in her hand. No arsenic residue was found on her clothing or on her hands. So, the allegation by the state police that she took an officer’s gun and shot him, executed him in cold blood, is not only false, but it is designed to inflame.

For decades now, law enforcement have demanded that the Cuban government extradite Shakur to the US, but the US has no extradition treaty with Cuba.

The US is a signatory to the United Nations’ Refugee Protocol. While Cuba is not a signatory, its constitution has a process for granting political refugees asylum. Cuba granted Shakur political asylum, which is a concept recognized universally under international law. And, she was given asylum because, according to Hinds, she had a “well-grounded fear” that if she returned to the country, which she had fled, she would “either be persecuted or prosecuted” based upon her political beliefs and/or her race or religion.

Hinds explained:

…There have been numerous individuals who have left the United States and went to foreign countries, allies of the United States, where those countries have refused to extradite them. France, for example, in the 1970s, there were Black Panthers who hijacked planes and went to France. Now, both France and the United States have extradition treaties. Not only that, France signed the 1963 Tokyo Convention, the 1970 Hague Convention and the 1973 Montreal Convention, with the United States. All of these are international agreements that require countries, host countries, that are holding individuals—who have hijacked planes—to extradite them or try them. France, after conducting their own independent review of these Black Panthers, refused to extradite them to the United States based upon France’s assessment that if they would be returned, they would be subject to political and racial repression. So, I say that the Cubans’ position is well grounded in international law…

The FBI, the New Jersey state government and politicians do not want to recognize her asylum as legitimate. Even though none of her acts are anything that should ever be construed as “terrorism,” they are treating her as an enemy of the state and have raised the bounty on her from $1 million to $2 million.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who had been pushing for the FBI to name her a “most wanted terrorist,” cheered the news. He highlighted a letter he sent to FBI Director Robert Mueller, where he stated, “The addition of this fugitive’s name to the FBI’s Top 25 Most Wanted Terrorists list sends the strong message that we will never abide nor forget the murder of a sworn officer of the law ­– no matter how much time passes, no matter where the culprit hides.”

New Jersey Representative Scott Garrett, a Republican, briefed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November 2009 and said in a statement after, “We must demand that Cuba recognize the legitimacy of our criminal justice system by returning known fugitives such as Joanne Chesimard.”

Yet, there is a blatant double standard. Luis Posada Carriles was the mastermind behind the bombing of a Cuban airliner, but, because he was a CIA asset, he has never been put on trial for committing this act of terrorism.

Carriles entered the US in 2005. He was put on trial in El Paso, Texas, in 2011 for lying to immigration authorities about how he got into the country and his participation in terrorist attacks. In April of that year, he was acquitted.

Venezuela had pushed for his extradition. But, a US immigration judge ruled he could not “be sent to either country, for fear he could be tortured.”

There’s also the case of Orlando Bosch, who is dead now but was an associate of Carriles and involved in the bombing of the Cuban airliner. According to an article written by Time’s Tim Padgett after he died in 2011, “In the 1980s, after returning to the US, Bosch was arrested for his parole violation; but he was pardoned by then President George H.W. Bush in 1990 after pleading from Miami’s politically powerful Cuban exile leaders. Bush did so despite warnings from his own national security officials that Bosch was, as then Attorney General Richard Thornburgh has since said, ‘an unrepentant terrorist.'”

He died in Miami having not been convicted of any terrorism charges and was essentially given asylum, despite his crimes.


In her appearance on “Democracy Now!” with Hinds, longtime civil rights activist and former political prisoner, Angela Davis, described why people should be disturbed by this development:

…[T]here’s always this slippage between what should be protected free speech—that is to say, the advocacy of revolution, the advocacy of radical change—and what the FBI represents as terrorism. You know, certainly, Assata continues to advocate radical transformation of this country, as many of us do. You know, I continue to say that we need revolutionary change. This is why it seems to me that the attack on her reflects the logic of terrorism, because it precisely is designed to frighten young people, especially today, who would be involved in the kind of radical activism that might lead to change…

She added, “To represent her as a person who continues to be a threat to the US government in the way that is described is, it seems to me, an effort to strike fear in the hearts of young people who would be active in the struggles that are represented historically by Assata and struggles that continue today,” like struggles against police violence or the murders by police of African-American teenagers like Kimani Gray in New York, Oscar Grant or Alan Blueford in Oakland and the number of people killed by the police in Chicago last year.

It should therefore be recognized that it is not new that law enforcement is casting Shakur as a terrorist. This language has been used to describe black militant activists before, even those who committed no violent crimes.

In the foreword Davis penned for Shakur’s autobiography in 2000, she noted the FBI had used her image on “official FBI wanted posters and in the popular media as visual evidence of the terrorist motivations of the black liberation movement. Black militants were assumed to be enemies of the state and were associated with communist challenges to capitalist democracy. The protracted search for Assata, during which she was demonized in ways that are now unimaginable, served further to justify the imprisonment of vast numbers of political activists, many of whom remain locked up today.”

Today, how many actually know who Shakur happens to be (other than maybe the step aunt of rapper Tupac Shakur)? What do they know about her involvement in the black liberation movement that was targeted heavily by the FBI’s COINTELPRO?

As Davis went on to describe in the foreword, “The retailoring of the image of Assata as enemy is even more damaging, omitting the original political context and representing her as a common criminal—a bank robber and murderer.” That applies today.

“Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman read off a list of crimes she was charged with committing, all cases, where she was acquitted or dismissed: “in 1971, armed robbery case was dismissed; 1971, she was acquitted of bank robbery; 1972, hung jury; 1972, kidnap of drug dealer, acquitted; and then several other cases dismissed.”

Rational thought would suggest she may have been politically targeted when charged with killing a state trooper, however, this story will not be reported in much more detail than the headline and the main contents of the FBI’s official press release. That is because no establishment media outlets are going to engage in the past history of black liberation movement groups and how they were targeted by law enforcement. Such a discussion would be third rail, as it would invite discussion of systemic racism and how the US government has historically targeted its own citizens for having radical political views.

In conclusion, being labeled a “most wanted terrorist” is not only a reflection of the racism that has pervaded and continues to pervade law enforcement. It also is indicative of how “terrorism” is a wholly political term with a definition, which the state will adjust and shape to suit its agenda. So, in Shakur’s case, she is a “terrorist” because Cuba is giving her “safe haven” and the government “harbors terrorists” so it makes political sense to give her that label. She also has inspired part of the hip-hop community, black activists and young African-Americans, another reason to make an example out of her by giving her the distinction of the “first African-American woman” to appear on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorist” list.

Below is the “Democracy Now!” segment with Angela Davis and Lennox Hinds discussing Assata Shakur’s designation as a “most wanted terrorist.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."