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FBI Most Wanted Terrorists List: Who Is Assata Shakur?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we are going to hear more about that very disturbing story out of Cleveland, where three women who'd been missing for years were finally able to escape. That's in just a few minutes. But first, we want to find out more about a woman named Joanne Deborah Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur.

She is the woman who was recently added to the FBI's most wanted terrorist list. Chesimard was convicted of murder in 1977, for the fatal shooting of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foester. Here's FBI Special Agent Aaron Ford, talking about the case at a press conference last week.


MARTIN: In the decades since the crime, Chesimard, or Assata Shakur, developed a large following of supporters who still question the facts that led to her convictions. We wanted to learn more about this so we've called Alondra Nelson. She is a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. She's also the author of "Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination."

Professor Nelson, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ALONDRA NELSON: It's great to be here. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: These are the accepted facts. On May 2nd, 1973 she was present at a shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike. Both a state trooper and another member of the Black Liberation Army were killed. Those are the known facts that are accepted, but what are the facts that are in dispute?

NELSON: The facts that are in dispute are her role. I mean, she's admitting some of the charges that were brought against her include attempted murder, murder conspiracy and in fact, the evidence suggests that there were no gun powder residue on her fingers. None of her fingerprints were found on any of the guns at the scene. Shakur herself was shot during this incident.

And the expert witness testimony suggested that when she was shot she was seated and her arms were raised. So to make her, you know, sort of a cold-blooded murderer seems to be a little bit at odds with the facts.

MARTIN: But she was already on the FBI's most wanted list at the time of the shooting for her alleged role in bank robberies, kidnapping, and two murders. What was the disposition of those cases?

NELSON: There's half a dozen cases. These are bank robberies, as you say, kidnapping and murders. And three of them are acquittals and three of them are dismissals. And there's also a mistrial. Her first charge - the case in which she's first charged for this May 1973 murder incident is a mistrial.

And so I think it suggests to us that there had been a long pattern, at least from 1971 to 1973 in which police authorities and the FBI were actively trying to catch her doing something. But notably, all of these cases were dropped for lack of evidence. Evidence was quite flimsy. Often the charges were proven to be baseless. And so, even though as part of - we have to understand the backdrop - the counterintelligence program, which was the FBI's program of kind of disinformation and discrediting of activists, including the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King Jr. and up to Assata Shakur - you know, sort of had these campaigns against activists that were sort of seeking them out. And so the police authorities were - tried for a very long to sort of hem up Shakur and to arrest her.

And they were unsuccessful for many, many years until this incident in 1973.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur. She was recently added to the FBI's most wanted terrorist list. She's the first woman to be added to that list. Our guest is Alondra Nelson, sociology and gender studies professor at Columbia University.

Well, we do know that in 1979 she escaped from prison. She eventually fled to Cuba where she was granted political asylum in 1984 and she wrote a memoir. Here's a clip of her reading from a letter that she wrote to the pope in 1988.


MARTIN: But is she saying that she is not specifically guilty of the criminal charges leveled against her? Because it is important to note that the authorities continue to vigorously defend her conviction on the specific charges related to that shootout.

NELSON: Sure. I mean, I think that she's saying that she's not guilty and she's also - the things that she's pointing out - racial discrimination, economic injustice, social inequality - are the, kind of, core themes of the Black Panther Party. So she's very much harking back to the sort of themes and the arguments that they were making about, not only U.S. society, but sort of global inequalities.

MARTIN: But didn't the Black Liberation Army endorse violent revolution to achieve those goals if they weren't attained by peaceful means? Isn't that true?

NELSON: Yes. That's absolutely true. So - and the Black Liberation Army, for your listeners, was a kind of federation. A loosely, very decentralized federation of lots of, sort of, black radical pan-Africanist organizations, many of whom advocated militancy in the same way the Black Panther Party did, some who went a step further. And it comes in a - you know, this organization emerges after the Black Panther Party, in part, as a response to police repression.

So I think one of the things to back up and remember is that when the Black Panther Party emerges before the BLA, the Black Liberation Army, they're emerging as a response to police brutality that's happening in their communities in Oakland. And so, you know, the use of violence is not unjustified violence, it's violence, you know, a kind of tactic of violence or strategy of violence that begins in direct response to the police brutality that's being experienced in communities.

MARTIN: But that being the case, I mean, are you saying that she specifically contests the specific charges against her? Because in that context one could say where she would have felt it was entirely justified to meet the police response with gunfire. Because the police were inherently viewed as the oppressors.

NELSON: Sure. I mean, I think there's two things to separate. One, I think, conceptually, you know, the Black Liberation Army supported armed struggled. Right? So, you know, they carried guns and it was part of what they did and part of what they believed was necessary for liberation for black communities who they felt were repressed in the U.S. and also globally.

On the other hand, this specific 1973 case, although this point is arguable, doesn't suggest that she actually was involved in an armed struggle on that evening. So I guess we have to keep those two things in our minds together.

MARTIN: What is it about her case you think that has captured the attention of so many people over the years? Why is it that she - and I'm kind of again looping back to both why the FBI put her on this most wanted terrorist list but also why it is that she has continued to maintain a measure of support. There are a lot of people who - not just scholars like yourself who continue to be interested in her case, who follow the facts of her case and continue to support her.

NELSON: I think it's actually in part the unexpected consequences of the way that police authorities use the media to frame her as a violent threat and as a criminal. So during the early 1970s when there were these various charges against Shakur that would be dropped or dismissed, or that would resolve in acquittal, it was common to see wanted posters of her in bus stations in the New York metropolitan area.

In newspapers like the New York Daily News, in subway stations. So her image was everywhere. That created a kind of fascination, both amongst people who reviled her and amongst people who would have been sympathetic to her cause.

MARTIN: You are also telling us about the conditions in which she was held from the time she was arrested in 1973 until her eventual trial. Could you talk a little bit about that?

NELSON: She's the first woman, when she's held in New Jersey - the first woman prisoner to ever be confined in a men's prison. And she was in a men's prison and she was under 24 hour surveillance. This was unprecedented. And part of that was because she had this frame created around her that she was a violent threat. She writes in her autobiography, which is simply called "Assata," about meeting at another prison facility, a woman comes up to her and says, I can't believe you're so small. You're just a little thing. All of the pictures I saw of you made you look, quote, bigger and blacker.

NELSON: So she becomes this figure that is sort of a woman, and objectively a beautiful woman, but is also constructed in this very masculine way. And the way that she's detained and held as a prisoner in this unprecedented fashion in this men's prison, and also being today the first woman to be on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list.

MARTIN: So you're saying in a way that she was made out to be larger than life.

NELSON: She was made out to be larger than life and, you know, the story of the escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 1979 is, you know, three people from the BLA, including her brother Mutulu Shakur, come in at gunpoint. They take a prison van. They bring her to a waiting car and she ends up in Cuba. It's very melodramatic.

There is a kind of folkloric sense to her that's notable.

MARTIN: What has her life been since she escaped? I mean, I understand that - what does she do?

NELSON: So we don't have a lot of information about this. We know from her writing and occasionally tapes or, you know, written work from her will appear. I think she just lives there. She lives there, you know, under the auspices of the state. Occasionally people go to Cuba and bring back reports of her and she seems to be doing well. She's writing and, you know, speaking locally and has really become part of the fabric of Cuban life.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Professor Nelson, I do want to ask if you have an opinion about Assata Shakur's guilt or innocence, given the specific facts against her, given that you've looked at these facts. And do you believe she's guilty of anything for which she should return to the United States to face the authorities and to follow through the process?

NELSON: It's hard to say. You know, I haven't - I've looked at some of the case but I haven't read through all of the case files. But from what I've observed, it seems arguable that she's guilty of the crimes that they're charging her with. There's just no material evidence that suggests that she was involved in this murder.

MARTIN: Why not then come back and face justice and put those facts before a jury?

NELSON: Because I think that we, you know, that part of what's happening begins to happen in the 1970s, is that this sort of heightening of the mass incarceration system that we face now. And so because she was followed by the police for very particular political reasons, I could imagine that Shakur feels like that she can't get a fair trial, you know, under these conditions, both because of the conditions of her arrest 40 years before and also because of the disproportionate number of black and brown men and women that go to the jail in the United States today. That's a reasonable, I think, perspective to hold.

MARTIN: Alondra Nelson is a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. She's the author of "Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination." She was with us from our bureau in New York. Professor Nelson, thank you for speaking with us.

NELSON: Thank you very much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.