In a grainy video, a woman with flowing dreadlocks strolls through a market in Cuba, smelling spices and smiling at the camera. In another scene, she is wearing a black T-shirt, her long hair parted to reveal the words “framed, jailed, exile.”
In the video, Assata Shakur’s voice is high-pitched and soft, out of sync with the fact that she is a notorious fugitive convicted of the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. The footage comes from a documentary filmed in Cuba where Shakur — a.k.a. Joanne Deborah Chesimard — has lived since the early 1980s under political asylum. It is a celebration of her radical politics. In it she calls herself a revolutionary seeking freedom for “my people.”
Shakur’s 1977 conviction and later escape from prison have made her an icon of Black power enthusiasts. Last week, it also made her the first woman ever to be named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
It is the decision to add Shakur, 65, to the list of terrorists that has reopened old debates about radicalism and the racial politics of the early 1970s while spurring discussion about the meaning of “domestic terrorism.”
There is no question that Shakur was on the scene when the state trooper was murdered. But does she belong on a list that includes affiliates of international jihadist groups?
To begin to answer the question, one must understand Assata Shakur, the crime for which she was convicted, and the efforts to define that crime as an act of terrorism.
One must also grapple with the 100 or so working definitions of “domestic terrorist.”
Shedding a ‘slave name’
Shakur was born in the Jamaica neighborhood of the New York borough of Queens, although she spent much of her childhood in North Carolina. In her 20s she returned to New York and became involved with the Black Panther Party.
It was there, in the late 1960s, that she shed what she called her “slave name” for Shakur — a surname that she adopted as a member of the Black Panthers, whose adherents armed themselves as a show of force while also running a free breakfast program and other anti-poverty initiatives.
“She was part of the Pan-African revolutionary sentiment in the wake of Malcolm X’s death,” said Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University and author of “Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America.” “By the late ’60s, millions are involved in the Black power movement, most just by growing out their Afros.”
Shakur’s involvement was deeper than sit-ins and protests; her activism was of the sort that led to open discussion of the possibility of a race war. She was among the “self-styled revolutionaries who committed acts of violence that they defined as revolutionary, inspired by guerrilla revolts in places like Cuba,” said Joseph, who does not condone violent actions.
Shakur hasn’t given an interview for nearly a decade, said scholars who have studied the Black power movement, and she could not be reached for this article. She did write an open letter in 1998 to Pope John Paul II after the New Jersey State Police asked him to call for her extradition during a visit to Cuba. It was aired on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” news program in the late 1990s and has been rebroadcast in recent days.