By David A. Love
What’s next for Assata Shakur? With Havana’s humanitarian release of American Alan Gross—A USAID worker who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years on accusations of espionage—President Obamaannounced a resumption in relations between the two countries after 53 years.
“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said Wednesday in his White House speech. “It’s time for a new approach.”
In exchange for the Gross’s release, the U.S. released the three remaining members of the “Cuban Five,” Cuban citizens who were convicted of spying in Miami in 2001. Cuba also released 53 political prisoners, and a valuable U.S. spy who is a Cuban native.
The news from the president was dramatic and a game changer, thanks in part to an assist from Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope. But now that U.S.-Cuba relations have thawed, with a road to normalization and a U.S. embassy in Havana at some point in the near future, what does that mean for Assata Shakur? Will she be extradited to the U.S. and forced back to prison?
Assata Shakur, 67, also known as JoAnne Chesimard, was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. She became a member of the Black Power movement, at a time when many activists were galvanized following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
In 1973, Shakur was arrested during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. A shootout left Assata injured with multiple wounds, the driver, Zayd Shakur, dead, and a state trooper dead. In 1977, after numerous trials, she was convicted of first degree murder of the officer. And in 1979, Shakur escaped and fled to Cuba, where Fidel Castro granted her asylum.
“Assata was falsely charged on numerous occasions in the United States during the early 1970s and vilified by the media,” said scholar and activist Angela Davis in a recent commentary in The Guardian. Davis added Shakur “was charged with armed robbery, bank robbery, kidnap, murder, and attempted murder of a policeman. Although she faced 10 separate legal proceedings, and had already been pronounced guilty by the media, all except one of these trials – the case resulting from her capture – concluded in acquittal, hung jury, or dismissal.”
“Under highly questionable circumstances, she was finally convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a New Jersey state trooper,” she added.
According to the National Lawyers Guild, who represented Shakur in her final trial, the proceedings were plagued with constitutional violations, including an all-white jury of 15 people, including five jurors who had personal connections to state troopers. A state Assemblyman spoke to jurors while they were sequestered, urging them to convict.
“The judge cut funding for additional expert defense testimony after medical testimony demonstrated that Ms. Shakur—who had no gunpowder residues on her fingers, and whose fingerprints were not found on any weapon at the crime scene—was shot with her hands up and suffered injury to a critical nerve in her right arm, making it anatomically impossible for her to fire a weapon,” the Guild said in a statement.
Moreover, evidence proved Shakur was targeted and framed by the covert and illegal FBI COINTELPRO program. The baby of J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO was designed to monitor, infiltrate and destroy social justice movements seen as a threat to national security, including civil rights and antiwar groups, the Black Power movement and the Young Lords. Some of the stated goals of the program in an FBI memo were to “prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups,” to “Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify…the militant black nationalist movement,” to “Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to…both the responsible community and to liberals who have vestiges of sympathy…,” and to “prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth.”
As a result, black leadership was decimated, either assassinated—as in the case of Dr. King, Malcolm X and Fred Hampton—or thrown in prison with the key thrown away. Assata Shakur, who fled to Cuba, was the last woman standing, so to speak. And apparently that is embarrassing to someone in the FBI, so they want to make an example of her as a so-called “domestic terrorist.” That is why last year, 40 years after the shooting, the FBI made the politically-motivated move of placing Shakur on their Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list, making her the first woman and second U.S. citizen on that list. If you listen to the FBI, you’d think the ten most dangerous people on Earth are essentially nine Al Qaeda operatives and—Assata Shakur.
The FBI and the New Jersey police are offering a $2 million reward for her capture, which the police hope will be more likely with normalization of relations with Cuba. But would Cuba really extradite Assata Shakur to the U.S.? Currently, the U.S. and Cuba have no extradition agreement. But even if they did, Havana, which disagrees with her charges and conviction, would not be obligated to give up Assata.
While theGrio made several attempts to contact Lennox S. Hinds, Assata Shakur’s longtime lawyer, he could not be reached for comment. However, in a 2013 interview on Democracy Now!, Hinds noted the Cuban government granted Assata Shakur political asylum based on a firm grounding in international law, namely the Refugee Convention. There are precedents for U.S.-friendly nations that have refused to extradite American fugitives who have fled the U.S.
“Now, what is the basis for that? It is if an individual has a well-grounded fear that if they return to the country from which they left, they would either be persecuted or prosecuted based upon their political beliefs or/and their race or religion,” Hinds noted. Hinds elaborated that in the 1970s, Black Panthers hijacked planes and went to France. France—an American ally which has signed international extradition treaties with the U.S.—conducted its own investigation and concluded the Panthers would be subject to racial and political oppression if they were returned to the States. So France refused to extradite the Panthers.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. removes Cuba from the terrorist list, it needs to remove Shakur from the list as well. According to the FBI, neither President Obama nor Attorney General Eric Holder were involved in placing Shakur on that list. Nevertheless, at a time of heightened political consciousness, when black people are railing against racially-motivated police killings and the targeting of African-Americans by the system, the extradition of a black activist who was framed and railroaded would cause an uproar among the black community, putting Obama and the Justice Department in a bad way with a key constituency.
“Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world,” the president said. “We can’t keep doing the same thing for five decades and expect a different result.”
As President Obama rights old wrongs and casts off anachronistic and failed Cold War policies, the last thing the federal government should want to do is perpetuate the sordid legacy of COINTELPRO, kangaroo trials, and Hoover’s quest to neutralize black activist leadership, including Assata Shakur.
During this time of bold decisions coming from the White House, it is better for the president to pardon Assata.