Why the Assata Shakur case still strikes a chord

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In “A Song for Assata,” rapper, Common asks “I wonder what would happen if that would’ve been me?” Common wonders aloud what readers of Assata Shakur’s gripping autobiography, Assata, must ask themselves as they are confronted with the miscarriages of justice at the core of Shakur’s life as a black revolutionary.

Published in 1987, the autobiography chronicles Shakur’s emergence as an activist at the center of America’s racial conflict. She ultimately affiliated with the Black Panther Party and the black liberation movement in the 1960s. Her case and her bouts with the criminal justice system recall all of the angst and murkiness within which the battles for black freedom were fought in the mid-20th century: brutal prison conditions, falsified evidence, conflicting statements, frenzied media panic, and violent racists posing as officers of the law.

In spite of these at times unlawful and regularly dehumanizing experiences, Assata Shakur has been living in exile with asylum in Cuba since 1984.

‘She Who Struggles’

Assata – whose name means “she who struggles,” was implicated in the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper on May 2 1973. Today marks 40 years since that day.

While little detail is available as to how Ms. Shakur was ferreted away to freedom from the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979, the “facts” of her case, or rather, the state’s case against her are shaky at best. By her supporters’ accounts they are institutionally designed to falsely prosecute and imprison her.

For more info on her case and details of her experiences go here: http://www.assatashakur.org.

As recently as 2005, the U.S. government issued a one million dollar bounty for information leading to her capture and/or extradition from Cuba. Her name, as well as her government name, Joanne Chesimard, has been on the FBI’s most wanted list since before most Americans had ever heard of Osama Bin Laden.

’20th Century Escaped Slave’

Assata refers to herself as “a 20th century escaped slave” and her experiences with the criminal justice system and the verve with which the U.S. government prosecuted and persecuted her suggest that this reference is not exaggerated in the slightest.

She has occasionally given interviews and or written from somewhere inside of Cuba, but 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.

Assata’s status, the government’s case against, her and the moment out which all of this emerged, are signal reminders to many of us that not so long ago, members of the Black Panther Party were considered the greatest threat to the United States government; that revolutionary activists like Assata Shakur, were considered this nation’s most feared terrorists.

We can only hope that as the fight against terror creeps through the beginnings of a new century, that this nation will fight to uphold the tenets of justice above and beyond its xenophobic and racialized history.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson