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Assata Shakur and plight of U.S. political prisoners, 'unfinished business'

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Nov 13, 2013 - 9:45:45 AM

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Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur (a.k.a. Joanne Chesimard) leaves Middlesex County courthouse after Superior Court Judge Theodore Appleby added a 26 to 33 year sentence to life term she is serving for the murder of a state trooper in New Brunswick, N.J., April 25, 1977. Ms. Shakur, of Cuba, escaped from prison in 1979 and claims her innocence. Photo: AP/Wide World photos
WASHINGTON ( - After nearly 55 years of punishing U.S. economic sanctions strangling the Cuban people and their revolutionary government, there is fear now that a $2 million bounty placed on the head of escaped Black Liberation Army (BLA) leader Assata Shakur, could lead a desperate person on the island to try to assassinate her in order to collect the bounty on her head, this according to Lennox Hinds, a professor in the Criminal Justice Program at Rutgers University, and attorney of record for Ms. Shakur.

“I would not be surprised,” Mr. Hinds told The Final Call, “if (Pres. Barack Obama) does not give the order for them to send the (Navy) Seals to infiltrate and capture her” on the Caribbean island.

Mr. Hinds joined dozens of activists from around the country Nov. 2, at the Law School of the University of the District of Columbia, at a “celebration” and all-day series of educational workshops organized by the Jericho Movement for freedom for political prisoners on the anniversary of the “liberation of Assata Shakur,” from U.S. imprisonment for a crime her supporters insist she did not commit.

“The only way that we can change that, is to force the people around him, that is the people of conscience, to educate him on who she is,” Mr. Hinds continued.

“At this moment she is a ‘terrorist.’ Who is a terrorist? Another client of mine—Nelson Mandela—he was on the terrorist watch list, okay? Why was he on the terrorist watch list? Many members of Congress (said), ‘Is he on the terrorist watch list? We’re surprised.’ There they are trying to take pictures with him. Right?” he added, speaking of the 95 year-old former South African president and freedom fighter.

“But he’s a terrorist because an ally of the United States—apartheid South Africa—said he was a terrorist,” Mr. Hinds explained. “Everybody thought he had horns and a tail. The ANC (African National Congress) was a terrorist organization, and so they put them on the terrorist watch list. They put her on the terrorist watch list (Ms. Shakur). We have to change that dynamic and it’s possible to do that.”

Ms. Shakur was kept in solitary confinement on Rikers Island for 21 months.
Assata Shakur has always maintained that when she was in captivity, she was a political prisoner in the war that elements of the U.S. government has waged against African people since their capture and enslavement on these shores, the Jericho Movement insists.

In May, 1973 she was arrested after she was wounded in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which Black Liberation Army member Zayd Malik Shakur and state trooper Werner Foerster were killed. She was charged with a laundry list of crimes attributed to the BLA, including murder, bank robbery, and kidnapping.

Assata: An Autobiography (1987), written while Ms. Shakur was in Cuba.
“It was a classic case of profiling,” attorney Nkechi Taifa told The Final Call, “in which the car they were riding ostensibly had a broken taillight. The FBI and the state troopers knew who they were following, knew who they were looking for and it was pure harassment as described in the COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) to arrest activists on any type of charge, put them in jail, have them spend up their resources on legal matters and spend the rest of the summer in jail. That was really the reason in which they were stopped.

“Assata was shot with her hands in the air, seated,” Atty. Taifa continued. “That was proven by three neurologists during the trial, who talked about the bullets that entered her, and the only way they could have entered was with her hands in the air. Yet, she was convicted of the death of one of the state troopers, despite the fact again, that it was proven that she never shot any weapon. There was no residue—gunpowder residue—on her hands” or clothing.

Although she was charged with committing a series of bank robberies along the East Coast, she was either acquitted, or the charges against her were dropped in each case, Atty. Taifa explained.

“She considers herself a modern-day escaped slave on the Underground Railroad, similar to Harriet Tubman. Back in the day, Harriet Tubman had a $12,000 bounty on her head. Today, Assata Shakur has a $2 million bounty.

A poster with photographs of Assata Shakur (a.k.a. Joanne Chesimard), a fugitive for more than 30 years, is on display during a news conference giving updates on the search of Chesimard, May 2, in Newark, N.J. Photo: AP/Wide Worlds photos
That means that anybody who might be feeling the impact of economic demise who sees her on the streets of Havana, has the legal license to kill her and get a reward, or turn her in and get a reward.”

Today, she is No. 1 on the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” terrorist list, the first woman so listed, even though the crimes of which she was accused were acts of defiance of the secret, illegal, U.S. domestic spying program, and were certainly not considered to be acts of “terror” at that time, Atty. Taifa insisted.

“There is unfinished business since the Civil Rights era. And that unfinished business is the plight of the political prisoners who are still languishing in prison as a result of that era’s” illegal actions against Black people.”

Despite arguments from critics labeling Ms. Shakur and others as otherwise, they are not common criminals said the attorney.

“These are people who answered the cry from thousands and thousands that something must be done about all of this madness. This madness of Black men’s hearts being cut out in Buffalo, N.Y., this madness of Black women being shot at in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“These are the things that were happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the Black Liberation Army, which was an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, decided that they would seek to do something about it. And it is in the context in the context of that era that many people are still languishing.”

Many of those who have been identified by the Jericho Movement and its allies which organized the celebration as political prisoners are Muslims. Many, like Imam Jamil El Amin became Muslims after getting involved in the Black liberation movement, according to Masai Ehehosi, a member of the Republic of New Africa who now advocates the complete “destruction” of the prison-industrial complex, after spending 14 years in prison as a result of his own participation in the BLA.

“Imam Jamil El Amin, a man formerly known as H. Rap Brown may come up a few times in this conversation,” Mr. Ehehosi told the assembly, “because among other things, not only was the organization that he was a part of in the early days—SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) one of the specific targets of the Counter Intelligence Program—but he’s also one of the individuals who was named specifically as a target when they talked about ‘how do we stop the development of a Black Messiah, able to unify and electrify the people.’

“You’ll see why there’s a lot of reasons why the oppressor would in fact fear (the Muslim) community. Sometimes we come to the question where folks try to take us outside of the folds of Islam. That’s not the way we view it at all. Some folks would like to fall back on the fact that he’s in there because of being H. Rap Brown. We just think that H. Rap Brown was a man of character.

“So the state targeted him from the beginning because they knew his character. When he became a Muslim he became more of a threat. He said he loves Allah more than he loves the state. Imam Jamil was one of the ones who said ‘fascism is here in America. Fascism is coming and they’re going to call it patriotism,” said Mr. Ehehosi.

There is indisputable evidence that the government has “preemptively” targeted Muslims for prosecution and incarceration, as a part of the scheme to “build the surveillance state with political prisoners,” and it comes from attorney Stephen F. Downs, who spent his professional career as the chief attorney for the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, disciplining bad judges.

Mr. Downs, founder of Project SALAM, has worked closely with more than 100—mostly Muslim—defendants and inmates who were pre-selected for prosecution before they committed any crimes.

When the trial of one Muslim defendant was over, “I was convinced, along with a lot of other people, that the government had deliberately framed an innocent man,” Mr. Downs told the assembly. “It wasn’t just that they had made a mistake. They understood exactly who he was and what he was doing.

“He was a peaceful man. He was not involved in terrorism. And they framed him anyway. We were mystified by this. In my professional career I had never seen a case like that. I had seen people wrongfully convicted, but never in the same kind of deliberate, almost angry way, by the government, taking down someone who was innocent. We began to look around the country to try to find other people.

“Pretty soon we began to find a lot of people,” he said. All of them had one thing in common; they were part of a patter on what he calls “preemptive prosecution.” Victims of the practice were enticed or entrapped into committing crimes, often at the hands of provocateurs who were forgiven of terrible crimes, and often given handsome cash rewards for their efforts.

This government overreaching, however, may eventually spell the end of the practice of preemptive prosecution. “I was very depressed a couple of months ago. We didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” Mr. Downs said in response to a question from The Final Call, “and then along came (Edward) Snowden.

“Snowden’s leak, I think will turn out to be one of the pivotal moments in American history, because he changed the debate. Suddenly, White folks began to see that they were being treated like Muslims. I’ve always felt that we’re going to win when we get the people to fear the government more than they fear the Muslims.

“People have to understand that Muslims are simply being used as the excuse. They are creating the fear. To have ‘national security’ you have to a war? All of these folks up here are part of a fake war, a phony war that justifies going in and violating the Constitution. All of this security state violates the Constitution he added.

“Inevitably, if you give the government that much power, they’re going to overreach. Once they overreach, we have an opportunity to join together, but we’ve got to join together,” to combat the surveillance state,” said Mr. Downs.

Related news: One-on-One Interview with Assata Shakur (FCN, 06-11-2002)