In May of 1973, Shakur was in a car that was pulled over by police on the New Jersey highway. A shootout occurred, resulting in the deaths of her companion and fellow activist Zayd Malik Shakur and State Trooper Werner Foerster. Assata Shakur was wounded in the gunfight, having been shot twice. Accounts of what happened that night differ greatly — surviving Trooper James Harper (also wounded) claimed that Zayd Malik Shakur began firing when they asked him to step out of the vehicle whereas Assata Shakur attests that the police fired first, even after she had her hands in the air.
Shakur was convicted of Foerster’s murder and sentenced to a life in prison. In 1979, with the help of allies, she was able to escape from confinement and flee to Cuba where she still lives and calls herself a “20th century escaped slave.”
Wanted for approximately 34 years, Shakur, born Joanne Chesimard in New York City, has now become the first woman and the second domestic terrorist to have ever made the FBI’s most wanted list. The bounty for her capture and return to the U.S. has now jumped from $1 million to $2 million.
Shakur still has a massive share of supporters in the U.S. and abroad, as many rightly doubt the impartiality of the U.S. justice system towards Black activists, especially in the 1970s. Indeed, many of the facts in the state’s case against her are considered shaky and unfounded at best, and the “he said/she said” nature of the trial does not lend itself to an unquestionable conviction.
Even taking her conviction at face value, the FBI’s continued pursuit of her for nearly four decades — and her labeling as a domestic terrorist — seems overboard. Could it possibly be because the U.S. is in such denial of its own evident racist past that the government has to believe that she’s guilty for the sake of pride?
James Braxton Peterson, Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, has argued that the continued interest in Shakur’s capture reflects an evasion on the part of the U.S. government to truly come to terms with its racist recent past. “It is unlikely that our government will ever be able to come to terms with its own role in the violent racial conflicts of its immediate past, and thus unlikely that Assata will ever be able to live freely in her country of origin – these United States,” he wrote. The point being that if Black Panthers continue to be framed as dangerous, violent terrorists, the government’s role in the race war that birthed the panthers can be neatly tucked into history’s unread footnotes.
The article, written by Natasha Lennard, also points out how sensitive the U.S. government remains to this day about Black Panther and BLA propaganda. According to Mother Jones, possessing Black Panther literature or imagery — including images of Shakur — in prison can get inmates sent to solitary confinement as authorities claim that the items encourage and indicate gang activity.
Regardless, Assata Shakur remains an icon in and outside of the jailhouse. Songs and books have been written about her, her own autobiography Assata has a large readership and journalists continue to flock to Cuba for the chance to interview her. Public outcry leans heavily on her side so she’s an unwise target for the FBI to continually call attention to. Captured or free, she’ll remain an icon.
Assata Shakur first woman named on FBI most wanted list [Salon] Why the Assata Shakur case still strikes a chord [The Grio] Former Black Panther Assata Shakur Added to FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List [Democracy Now]