The FBI has added the former Black Panther Assata Shakur to its Most Wanted Terrorists list 40 years after the killing for which she was convicted. Born Joanne Chesimard, Shakur was found guilty of shooting dead a New Jersey state trooper during a gunfight in 1973. Shakur has long proclaimed her innocence and accused federal authorities of political persecution. She escaped from prison in 1979 and received political asylum in Cuba. On Thursday, she became the first woman added to the FBI’s terrorist list, and the reward for her capture was doubled to $2 million. We begin our coverage by airing Shakur’s reading of an open letter she wrote to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba in 1998 after the FBI asked him to urge her extradition. “As a result of being targeted by [the FBI program] COINTELPRO, I was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death,” Shakur said at the time. “I am not the first, nor the last, person to be victimized by the New Jersey system of 'justice.' The New Jersey State Police are infamous for their racism and brutality.” Hear Shakur read the letter in full on SoundCloud. Click here to watch our interview about her case with scholar and activist Angela Davis and Lennox Hinds, her longtime attorney.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show looking at the case of Assata Shakur, a legendary figure within the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. On Thursday, she became the first woman ever to make the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. In addition, the FBI and the state of New Jersey doubled the reward for her capture to $2 million.
Shakur was convicted in the May 2nd, 1973, killing of a New Jersey state trooper during a shootout that left one of her fellow activists dead. She was shot twice by police during the incident. In 1979, she managed to escape from jail, and she later fled to Cuba where she received political asylum. She has long proclaimed her innocence.
On Thursday, FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford spoke at a press conference announcing Shakur’s placement on the Most Wanted Terrorists list. He refers to Shakur as Joanne Chesimard, her original name.
AARON FORD: Openly and freely in Cuba, she continues to maintain and promote her terrorist ideology. She provides anti-U.S. government speeches espousing the Black Liberation Army message of revolution and terrorism. No person, no matter what his or her political or moral convictions are, is above the law. Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer, execution-style.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford. In a moment, we’ll be joined by two guests: the scholar and activist Angela Davis, who faced her own murder trial decades ago, and Lennox Hinds, Assata Shakur’s longtime attorney for some 40 years. But first we turn to Assata Shakur in her own words. In 1998, Democracy Now! aired her reading an open letter to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba. She wrote the message after New Jersey state troopers sent the pope a letter asking him to call for her extradition.
ASSATA SHAKUR: My name is Assata Shakur, and I was born and raised in the United States. I am a descendant of Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas as slaves. I spent my early childhood in the racist segregated South. I later moved to the northern part of the country, where I realized that Black people were equally victimized by racism and oppression.
I grew up and became a political activist, participating in student struggles, the anti-war movement, and, most of all, in the movement for the liberation of African Americans in the United States. I later joined the Black Panther Party, an organization that was targeted by the COINTELPRO program, a program that was set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to eliminate all political opposition to the U.S. government’s policies, to destroy the Black Liberation Movement in the United States, to discredit activists and to eliminate potential leaders.
Under the COINTELPRO program, many political activists were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or otherwise neutralized. As a result of being targeted by COINTELPRO, I, like many other young people, was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death. The FBI, with the help of local police agencies, systematically fed false accusations and fake news articles to the press accusing me and other activists of crimes we did not commit. Although in my case the charges were eventually dropped or I was eventually acquitted, the national and local police agencies created a situation where, based on their false accusations against me, any police officer could shoot me on sight. It was not until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the mid-'70s that we began to see the scope of the United States government's persecution of political activists.
At this point, I think that it is important to make one thing very clear. I have advocated and I still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the United States. I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.
To make a long story short, I was captured in New Jersey in 1973, after being shot with both arms held in the air, and then shot again from the back. I was left on the ground to die, and when I did not, I was taken to a local hospital where I was threatened, beaten and tortured. In 1977 I was convicted in a trial that can only be described as a legal lynching.
In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee.
The New Jersey State Police and other law enforcement officials say they want to see me brought to “justice.” But I would like to know what they mean by “justice.” Is torture justice? I was kept in solitary confinement for more than two years, mostly in men’s prisons. Is that justice? My lawyers were threatened with imprisonment and imprisoned. Is that justice? I was tried by an all-white jury, without even the pretext of impartiality, and then sentenced to life in prison plus 33 years. Is that justice?
Let me emphasize that justice for me is not the issue I am addressing here; it is justice for my people that is at stake. When my people receive justice, I am sure that I will receive it, too.
AMY GOODMAN: That is an excerpt of a letter Assata Shakur read, an open letter to Pope John Paul II, during his trip to Cuba in 1998. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by Assata Shakur’s longtime attorney, Lennox Hinds, and the scholar and activist Angela Davis. Stay with us.