Assata Shakur: Interview With An Exile
By dream hampton
Special to BET.com
For so many who have read her landmark autobiography Assata, the former
JoAnne Chesimard is a powerful symbol of resistance. In the 70's, when as a
prominent member of the Black Panther Party
she was forced underground by COINTELPRO, and her Wanted posters
wallpapered New York's subways, supporters from Brooklyn to the Bronx hung
"Assata is Welcome Here" posters on their door. A decade ago she was
shouted out by Chuck D. on "Rebel Without a Pause" and this year Common
gave her story a beat with "Assata's Song." But she is also a real woman: a
mother who loves poetry, a Cancer who loves to paint and a worker in
Socialist Cuba. I am told there is another Assata. That she is an
unremorseful cop-killer worthy of a $100,000 bounty. That she is such a
threat to national security that her extradition must preface any lifting
of the embargos this country imposes on Cuba. While down in Cuba, as part
of a cultural exchange with the organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement,
the Assata I met and spent time with is compassionate, brilliant and
unbowed. She misses home but loves the country that gave her asylum. After
many assurances that her story wouldn't be mis-shaped once I'd left her, I
found a revolutionary completely willing to share her story.
When you gave a talk earlier today, you introduced yourself as a
revolutionary. What does that mean today, in the 21st century?
In this world it means changing from the inhumane to the humane. It means
that everybody has a right to live, to eat, to have a house, an education,
to be free from torture, from repression. Maybe 20 years ago I thought that
to change the structure in any given country was enough. Now I know it
means changing the human being who's going to live in that future to be
prepared to live with others. It means having the right to determine my
destiny; my people having the right to determine our destiny. Since we've
been in this hemisphere, it's like the script has been written for us. We
have to write our own script, with our own values, appreciating our own
history, our own gifts.
Our history in this hemisphere is often told with no mention of our long
legacy of resistance. Your autobiography is a testament to resistance.
Growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina and then
in New York when were you made aware of our history of resistance?
I remember in school when they used to talk about slavery I used to slink
under the desk, I'd be so
ashamed. It was like 'and then the Negroes were freed', you know, it was
like we didn't fight, we didn't resist. It wasn't until I was grown that I
began learning about the history of resistance in South Carolina. In the
1700's outside of Wilmington, North Carolina near Sea Breeze and Carolina
Beach, in the marshes where my grandparents' were from, there were maroon
camps, whole communities that slaves who'd just run away built. I didn't
know that Wilmington was mostly Black, that soon after slavery was
abolished, there were Blacks being elected to office, who were active in
the city, trying to take power. That whole movement was destroyed by
terrorism, The Wilmington Massacre.
But it wasn't until I was grown that any of that history even made it my
way. I didn't even know that my grandmother's family name meant anything.
They were called Freemans. I really began to see, as an adult, how much my
family and the people where I'm from struggled and how much terrorism and
repression played in crushing our struggle. I think it's important to know
that because it's the same thing we're facing today.
When did you realize that you were engaged in struggle, that you were a
I would see people on television year after year being attacked by dogs,
having fire hoses turned on them, so I became involved.
You couldn't be indifferent. What went from an attraction or an abstract
idea, bit by bit became a concrete reality in my life. My first meetings
were me sneaking out of my grandparent's restaurant, sliding down to the
church. Because even though my grandparents' were in the struggle, they
didn't feel their granddaughter should be a part of it. They'd say 'Stay
here, you're too young.' I remember the first time I heard Stokely
Carmichael speak, it was like shock therapy to me. I couldn't believe
somebody was actually saying this stuff out loud. That's what Malcolm was
to me. My aunt used to have this saying, she used to say 'Well you tell 'em
brown sugar, cuz I'm too refined!' At that time I was working this slave
job, trying to go to school at night. Trying to survive. So for my own
sanity becoming a part of the struggle was important, but it was a process.
It's still a process. I still try and grow and learn.
You speak of the deep impression Malcolm made on you. Beyond the
iconography, how should we set about contextualizing Malcolm in our history
Malcolm mapped out a path. The most impressive part of Malcolm was his
growth. He was someone who was continually willing grow, to learn, to
broaden his horizons. The way I look at life is if you're oppressed there
are two ways to live your life, one was the way of Malcolm Little the other
is the way of Malcolm X. Which path do you wanna take? And understand
which way both of those paths lead. Because Malcolm Little will always be a
victim, he may have his own victims along the way, but he's a victim.
Malcolm X is a thinker, a doer and a threat to the status quo. Malcolm
Little will always continue the status quo.
There's been lot of talk in the States in the last decade of personal
responsibility. In the absence of any real organized struggle we strike out
at the closest victimizer. When you speak of the Malcolm Littles, the
criminal, what do you mean?
We do have a responsibility to not feed into those negative messages and
images that are inundating our community. We have to take responsibility
for how we treat each other. I mean I hear "ghetto" in so many hip-hop
songs. You hear so many people talking about escaping from the ghetto-to
where I don't know. But I think that we need to deal with de-ghettoizing
our communities, to making those communities livable.
Can we talk about what has brought you to Cuba?
I was a student activist and a community activist back in the 60's. I
joined the Black Panther Party because I thought that it was the most
progressive Black organization at the time. The Black Panther Party was
against so many of the things I was against. Police brutality, capitalism,
they wanted to free people from prison, they didn't believe we should fight
in imperialist wars.
Very important to me was the fact that the Black Panther Party had women in
its leadership and was outspoken about condemning sexism. In practice of
course sexism was rampant.
We knew we were targeted by the police, we knew we were infiltrated, we
knew we were being harassed on a daily basis, every time we went out to
sell a newspaper. But none of us knew about COINTELPRO. As a result of the
FBI's COINTELPRO in New York, at least, was the Panther 21 case where 21 of
our most articulate, effective organizers were arrested and charged with
conspiracy. And even though the charges were insane, even though they
conspired to do nothing, they still spent two years in jail, most of them,
and each one had $100,000 bail. We had to spend all kinds of resources to
try and free them. They were eventually acquitted, but every one of our
lives was affected by all of the manipulation.
The government successfully separated us. Pitting the east coast against
the west coast, pitting leader against leader, cadre against cadre. I would
see things and not understand what was going on until I became a target-my
phone was being tapped, I was being followed and finally they broke down my
door. I decided I was not going to cooperate with them no matter what so I
disappeared. I went underground. As I spent time underground, the police
and the FBI fed newspapers, magazines, television, systematically-lies.
Accusing me of one thing after another, until they created a situation
where any police, any FBI agent anywhere in the United States, could just
shoot me on sight.
In 1973 Zayd Malik Shakur, Sundiata Acoli and I were driving through the
New Jersey turnpike, we were stopped by New Jersey State Troopers and they
were out of their minds.
Everything happened so fast, in a split second. My arms were in the air and
in a split second they shot me-with my arms in the air, and then again in
the back. I was left on the ground for what seemed like forever. And I
don't want to explain what went on in between, but you can imagine. (she
pauses) It was torture. I spent, all together, six and a half years in
prison. I spent more than two years in solitary confinement in men's
prisons. In 1977 I was convicted by, I don't even want to call it a trial,
it was lynching, by an all-white jury. I was sentenced to life in prison
plus 33 years, plus 30 days. The 30 days was for contempt and I was totally
guilty of contempt. I had nothing but contempt for the system of justice
under which I was tried. Sundiata Acoli received the same sentence, and
Zayd of course, he was murdered. And no one even thought about accusing the
police that shot me or that shot Zayd, of murder.
In 1979 I was liberated from prison with the help of many comrades and
friends. In 1984 I was able to come to Cuba where I was reunited with my
daughter and we were able to live together and bond as mother and daughter.
Here is where I wrote my first book. I went to school here, I studied here.
I continued to struggle and to try and grow.
Your liberation from prison is regarded by many in our community as heroic,
as a moment of victory. But in your book you talk about it being a very
personal decision. You write of hanging up the prison phone after a phone
conversation with your grandmother and deciding 'I'm not going to stay here.'
My grandmother was a very important influence in my life, in my development
and in my attitude towards resistance. She came to visit me when I was in
prison. I was in Yardville Prison for Men in New Jersey and my family could
not use the visiting room. We had our visit in the search room, which was
this filthy, dirty, awful place. My grandmother came from Wilmington, North
Carolina to New Jersey because she had a dream, a dream she was dressing
me. I asked her if I was little or big, because you know the only grown
people you dress are dead. She said 'No, no, it's not what you think.' She
told me her dream meant that I was going to be free. That I would be free
in less time then I'd spent in prison. It came down to ^A'Who do I believe?
Do I believe my grandmother who loved me, who made me sweet potato pie, who
showed me what love is? Or did I believe in these decadent low-life swine?'
It boiled down to that. Cause I had to go back to that cell. I was singing
'Feet don't fail me now.' What my grandmother told me was what I needed to
When you talk of support in the community, I'm reminded of those "Assata is
Welcome Here" posters that went up in people's homes while you were
underground, after you'd been liberated from prison. What did that support
mean to you?
It was overwhelming. I was surprised. People would literally send messages
through people they thought might have some kind of connection to me saying
'We're willing to do whatever. We're not afraid.' When I talk about
underground people have this vision that there's this secret door that you
got through and there's this weird place. Underground is really almost a
little village of resistance. I was with so many sisters and brothers who
shared with me this kind of memory and spirit that goes back over the
ocean, we were this grandchildren of slaves who sought each other out. Even
though we were facing the hardest conditions and people were putting their
lives on the line, I felt so much love, so much commitment, so much joy in
certain ways. In general why do you think Racism is spoken about as an
issue that belongs to a past decade? We don't know how to define it, right
now we don't see the 'Whites Only' sign, we just see the 'Whites Only'
reality. You have 1/3 of young Black men in prison or under the
jurisdiction of the so-called criminal justice system, that's not subtle.
You have police shooting you if you have a shiny candy bar in your hand,
thinking it's a gun, or saying they think it's a gun, that's not subtle.
And then, we're inundated with propaganda, television tells us who we are.
You've said that if were up to you Assata wouldn't have been written, that
you felt obliged to write that book. What did you mean by that?
I meant that either we're gonna tell our own history or our oppressors will
make a history for us. It's not easy for me to write a book. I'm
claustrophobic, I like to be out with people. Writing is a discipline
that's self-motivated. A lot of times I find it difficult to just do it.
But I feel a duty to in some way to try to contribute to our struggle.
Hmmm. For a lot of reasons. Since Fidel went to Harlem and stayed at The
Hotel Theresa it made an impression. My aunt stayed there. And no other
president or official had ever gone to Harlem, much less stayed there. It
was saying something. As I became more political and started learning about
Che, actually reading Fidel's speeches, learning more about the revolution,
I was impressed. Also, I wanted to understand what Socialism was, what a
country that was building around socialism was like.Then when I got here,
Wow! It was amazing. First of all I'd never conceived of Cuba having so
many African people. And such a strong African culture-the music, the
religion, just the way people moved and the way they act. Watching the
process of how they struggle and how they learn and grow and fight, I
realized it's 40 years after the revolution and people here are still doing
all those things. I changed my philosophy about struggle. I used to think
we struggle some years, we win and then it's over. But I realize this
planet is so twisted and raped and violated, that it will take lifetimes to
make this place livable, to deal with the needs of people. For me, my
lifestyle has to always has to incorporate struggle, that revolution is not
around the corner, that I'm in this for the long haul.
The Trial - In May 1973 Black Panthers Assata Shakur, Zayd Shakur and
Sundiata Acoli, one of the Panther 21, were stopped on the New Jersey
Turnpike by state troopers. A shoot-out erupted during which Zayd Shakur
(Assata's husband) and one of the troopers were killed. Assata Shakur and
Acoli were both charged and found guilty of murder and related charges in
connection with incident and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
The Escape - After spending six and a half years in prison and more than
two of those years in solitary confinement in men's prisons, in November of
1979, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She lived underground in the
United States for five years before gaining asylum in 1984, to go to Cuba,
where she has lived since.
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