This week, the U.S. and Cuba officially re-established diplomatic ties, mending a historically troubled relationship. This is the culmination of a reconciliation process that has been in the works for months. Back in April, President Barack Obama and Cuban president Juan Castro held a formal meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. More than 50 years had passed since these two countries’ leaders last officially met. Obama spoke on his plan to take Cuba off the U.S. list of state sponsors for terrorism, a designation first placed on the nation in 1982. Days later, the U.S. State Department also announced that the two governments will begin talks about one of the United States’ most-wanted fugitives, Assata Shakur.
At a 2013 press conference, FBI special agent Aaron Ford said “Joanne Chesimard (Shakur’s birth name) is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution style.” Convicted of killing New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster in 1973, Shakur was the second U.S. citizen and currently the only woman to be on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie described Shakur as “a cold-blooded cop-killer, convicted by a jury of her peers, in what is without question the fairest and most just criminal justice system in the world.”
But although many want her extradited to the U.S., a large following of supporters see Shakur’s indictment as an episode of state brutality and cover-ups that have distorted and thwarted struggles for justice for the Black community in the America.
Shakur was a founding member of the Black Liberation Army, a group dedicated to resisting “political, social, and economic oppression of Black people in the U.S.” Philosophically, the group supported armed struggle as the Black and poor community’s necessary response to oppression in the U.S. and globally. Prior to her 1977 conviction, Shakur and the BLA were implicated in several other criminal cases involving armed robbery, murders and attempted murders of policeman, kidnapping, and bank robberies. But all of the cases against Shakur were either dismissed, ruled a mistrial, or she was acquitted.
Early on May 2,1973, Shakur and fellow BLA members Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were stopped by state troopers in a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. During the encounter, both Zayd Malik and Foerster were shot and killed. Shakur and Acoli fled the scene, but were later apprehended by authorities. She was put on trial, and the New Jersey jury reached a guilty verdict after twenty-four hours for deliberation. Shakur was convicted on six assault charges and one homicide, and sentenced to life imprisonment. While in prison, she wrote a letter viciously accusing the U.S. government of corruption and oppressive actions towards liberation movements.
Although she was convicted, there is much evidence to support claims of an unfair trial. Foerster’s partner James Harper admitted under oath that he lied on his initial report; five jury members were friends and relatives of state troopers; Shakur’s fingerprints weren’t on any gun or ammunition found at the scene, and no gunpowder residue was found on her; a state Assemblyman visited the sequestered jurors to urge them to convict; medical experts testified that her injuries suggested that her hands were up when she was shot; there was evidence that the defense team’s offices were bugged, and materials relating to Shakur’s case went missing from the home her lawyer’s home (later to be found with New York City police).
Shakur’s trial also intersects the Cold War history of COINTELPRO, the U.S. government’s counter-intelligence program targeting “domestic threats” with secret surveillance and covert (many times illegal) policing. “Threats” included not only “radical” groups like the Black Panther Party, socialist and communist organizations, but also the Black Student Unions of several colleges, anti-war groups, journalists sympathetic to civil and human rights causes, Feminist book clubs, the Boy Scouts of America, and customers of “Afro-American type bookstores.”
The program’s tactics included monitoring and infiltrating Black nationalist organizations to provoke conflict from within, and allegedly planting evidence in the headquarters of these groups in order to justify warrants or probable cause for raids. During this time, the FBI attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide and was accused of helping coordinate the execution of chairman Fred Hampton of the Illinois Black Panther Party in a 1969 police raid. That same year, the director J. Edgar Hoover said that the Black Panther Party “without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Shakur escaped prison in 1979 with the help BLA members who posed as visitors and fled to Cuba. There, former dictator Fidel Castro granted her asylum under international law as a “victim of state persecution for her political beliefs and practices.” As far as we know, Shakur has been there ever since.
The FBI and New Jersey State Police maintain that Shakur’s trial was fair, and that they will continue to use all available means to return the fugitive to custody “no matter where she is,” including a $2 million reward for her return.
Despite the U.S. government pressing the issue, Cuban officials have repeatedly denied that extradition is negotiable. When asked about if Cuba would send Shakur back, Gustavo Machin, the Deputy Director for American Affairs at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “it is off the table.” The Cuban foreign ministry’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, said Cuba would not return Shakur and that there is “no extradition treaty between Cuba and the U.S.” If extradition ever becomes an option, Cuba would surely request that the U.S. return Lois Posada Carriles, who was convicted for bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people, and was arrested in Panama for an attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Carriles is currently in asylum in the U.S, living out his life in Miami.
With all the moving parts involved, an extradition of Shakur seems unlikely at best. But if the U.S. government continues to press the issue, Shakur’s fate will move from the periphery to the center of national media attention. The probability of this increased when President Obama announced at the start of July that the U.S. will formally re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, and will re-open embassies in both countries.
“This is a historic step forward to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the people; to begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas,” said the POTUS.
The reactions to an unlikely, but still possible Shakur extradition would catapult #BlackLivesMatter to a larger international stage. Global protest movements for (alleged or proven) victims of political persecutions have happened before, such as the “Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners” campaign in the 70s and the movement to free Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa in the 80s. It is reasonable to surmise that returning Shakur to U.S. custody would spark an international protest of the same magnitude.
Hip Hop artists, such as Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), also had a hand in keeping Assata Shakur in the contemporary popular imagination. Grammy award-winning artist Common wrote “A Song For Assata” for Shakur (the godmother of rap icon Tupac Shakur) on his Like Water For Chocolate album.
The FBI and New Jersey state troopers assert Shakur’s “terrorist” status, while many in the Black community see Shakur as a heroine, and her case as supporting historical skepticism towards federal claims to uphold justice for all.
Though iconography like #HandsOffAssata already figure into this contemporary civil rights movement, the re-emergence of Shakur’s story inevitably plays out against the backdrop of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, now possibly Sandra Bland, and an estimated 1,500 police-related homicide victims since January of 2014.
These killings, along with the non-indictments of the majority of the officers involved, has fueled a generation of activists to take #BlackLivesMatter from social media to the streets. Regardless of whether one asserts Shakur’s guilt or innocence, she may be the most dramatic example in mainstream consciousness of a violent encounter between a White police officer and an unarmed Black person that defied the conventional outcome. Her arrest would further charged discourse on domestic terrorism, as the massacre in Charleston, the subsequent burning of Black churches, and recent the shooting in Chattanooga all have stirred up historic and current political wounds.
The extradition of a Black activist “cop-killer” to a U.S. prison in an era of cops killing Blacks with impunity would be a spark on the powder keg, considering the recent large protests in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and the implosive riots the nation witnessed in Baltimore, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
Shakur’s extradition may further improve the tumultuous relationship between the two governments. But it could very likely deepen racial divides about what constitutes justice for all.