Assata Shakur: Still America's Nightmare?

Sean Posey I Politics & Government I Commentary I July 2nd, 2013

On May 2, 2013, the FBI added the first woman in history to the disreputable ranks of the Most-Wanted Terrorist List. Joanne Deborah Chesimard (Assata Shakur) joins eight suspected Islamic terrorists and one member of an animal rights group wanted for the bombing of a biotechnology corporation. The Bureau also doubled the price on her head from one to two million dollars. But who is the woman that Tupac Shakur (Assata's godson) once called "America's Nightmare"?

Shakur's case is unique for a few reasons: her alleged crime was committed forty years ago; she's remained at large, despite an intense manhunt, for thirty-five years; and the public knowledge surrounding her and the era she operated in as a revolutionary is very limited. Furthermore, the FBI's long war against her and various other Black Power-era groups is often not part of the conversation surrounding this case. With so little accurate historical information in the public realm, the FBI can label Shakur-and by extension Black Power itself-as the domestic equivalent of Islamic extremism.

Born in 1947, JoAnne Byron spent her formative years growing up in the de jure segregation of the South and in the de facto segregation of New York City. Byron took the name JoAnne Chesimard after marrying in 1967. She was already heavily engaged in radical politics by the late sixties. Eventually, as part of this radical turn, she dropped her "slave name" and assumed the name Assata (she who struggles) Olugbala (love for the people) Shakur.

In 1970, she joined the Black Panther Party's Harlem branch. However, her time with the organization was short-lived. She claims she left partly due to its lack of understanding of black history.[i] Soon after, Shakur became involved with the Black Liberation Army, a militant group dedicated to armed revolutionary struggle. The enormity of state repression directed against the Black Panther Party caused the party itself to back down from the idea of militant struggle after 1971.[ii] Groups like the Black Liberation Army stepped into the breach, determined to meet the violence directed by police and the FBI with armed self-defense. In addressing the many violent acts committed by the BLA, it's necessary to note the atomized nature of the group during this time.

The Black Liberation Army is not an organization: It goes beyond that. It is a concept, a people's movement, an idea. Many different people have done many different things in the name of the Black Liberation Army.[iii}

Little is known about the BLA. Primary resources are scarce, and many of its members are now dead, in prison or exile, or not talking. What is known is that, aside from the turnpike shooting, Assata herself was tried numerous times for numerous crimes, all but one of which ended in dismissal. The trial that led to Shakur's conviction was the result of a 1973 shoot-out between several members of the BLA and New Jersey State Troopers. During the melee, a trooper and one of Shakur's compatriots were killed. Assata herself ended up seriously wounded. Assata's eventual conviction for the murder of Trooper Werner Foerster proved enormously controversial. Dr. David Spain, an expert witness, testified that an examination of Shakur's wounds and X-rays fully corroborated her version of events, in which she claimed she had been shot while her hands were raised. Dr. Spain stated the issue clearly: "There is no conceivable way it (the bullet) could have travelled over to hit the clavicle if her arm was down… It was impossible to have that trajectory." [iv] Assata also showed no signs of gunshot residue on her hands. Despite this, an all-white jury convicted her on two counts of murder-one for Trooper Foerster and one for her companion Zayd Shakur-and six counts of assault.

A number of extreme circumstances dominated Assata's six and a half years in prison. She spent nearly two full years in solitary confinement in Riker's Island. She was later held as the only female inmate at Yardville Youth Correction and Reception Center. During her imprisonment, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights condemned Shakur's treatment.[v] In 1979, a daring prison break freed Shakur, who then spent almost half of a decade in hiding before making her way to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. Since then, Shakur has almost vanished into legend.

The rise of hip-hop brought Assata's story to a whole new generation: Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause"; Common's "A Song for Assata"; Rebel Diaz's "Which Side are You On?" And Paris's "Assata's Song" are just a few of the many tracks that mention or are dedicated to Shakur. Her legend spread from the microphones of emcees through the ghetto streets of the eighties and nineties. Chuck Creekmur, co-founder of, succinctly describes the appeal of Shakur's legacy to the hip-hop generation: "Detractors may not agree, but hip-hop's adoration of Assata Shakur is not blind. It's complicated. It's rooted in history: past, present, and probably future. Assata is not O.J. Simpson. She too is complex to be bound by linear, elementary terms like 'cop killer' and 'domestic terrorist.'"[vi]

A domestic terrorist is exactly what Shakur was branded by the FBI. Aaron Ford, head of the FBI's Newark division, stated the FBI's case in a recent interview with CNN: "We absolutely still consider her a threat…She is a menace to society still. She has connections and associations from members of that party she belonged to years ago. They are still espousing anti-government views." He went on to say, "She is a member of an organization which espoused hate against the U.S. government."

It's nothing less than disturbing to hear an FBI agent say espousing "anti-government views" is critical to being labeled a domestic terrorist. Nor does he explain how this makes her a threat or whom it is she is conspiring with-since the Black Liberation Army hasn't functioned for thirty years. Even more disturbing is the lack of coverage of the FBI's own illegal program aimed at Shakur and others during the sixties and seventies: COINTELPRO. The Counter Intelligence Program's objectives involved attacks on domestic political groups deemed "subversive." Some of the stated goals of the Counter Intelligence Program's efforts against black political groups included the following: "Prevent the RISE OF A 'MESSIAH' who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement; Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to three separate segments of the community; it should also be a goal of the Counterintelligence Program to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence."[vii]

An investigation of COINTELPRO by the "Church Committee," organized by Senator Frank Church of Idaho, lambasted the program and its flagrant constitutional violations.

Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that...The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.[viii]

Very few articles about the FBI's recent moves mention the full implications of the Bureau's own actions taken against individuals like Shakur under COINTELPRO. Nor has the FBI fully addressed how or why she still poses a threat to the nation. Instead, what we have is the continuance of the demonization of individuals connected to the era of Black Power activism. And despite much publicity surrounding the FBI's announcement, few media outlets have focused on the era that birthed Shakur.
Classrooms and popular histories often center exclusively on the civil rights movement, but not on the implications of the Black Power movement that sought to address the economic and government violence directed at black communities-issues the civil rights movement proved unable to address.

As for Assata, she will continue to remain a symbol of hope and defiance for many. To others, she is still America's Nightmare-a symbol of an uncomfortable era best forgotten or demonized.


[i] Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987), 12.

[ii] See Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2103).

[iii] Jail Muntagim, On the Black Liberation Army (Oakland, CA: Abraham Gullien Press, 2002), 3.

[iv] Joseph F. Sullivan, "Doctor Testifies on Bullet Scars in Chesimard Trial," New York Times, March 18, 1977, (accessed June 22, 2013).

[v] Laura Browder, Her Best Shot: Women and Guns In America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 112.

[vi] Chuck 'Jigsaw' Creekmur, "Hip-hop's Infatuation with Assata Shakur: It's Complicated,", May 3, 2013, (accessed June 22, 2013).

[vii] Brian Glick, War at Home and What We Can do About It (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999)

[viii] United States Senate, Final report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 1976, (accessed June 22, 2013.)