Assata Shakur was convicted of murder. Is she a terrorist?

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?


This is an undated picture provided by the New Jersey State Police showing Assata Shakur, who has been put on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. (Associated Press)

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.

“I have advocated and I still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the United States,” Shakur wrote. “I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism, and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.”

She has consistently maintained her innocence on the murder charges that sent her to prison. She has said that her hands were up when she was wounded and that she did not shoot the trooper.

A fatal confrontation

On this there is no disagreement: Shakur was on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 2, 1973, when she and two other members of the Black Liberation Army were pulled over by two state troopers. There was a confrontation, and State Trooper Werner Foerster and a BLA member were killed.

Shakur was found guilty of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and other crimes in 1977 and was sentenced to life in prison, according to the police statement. Less than two years later, she escaped from prison with the help of a coalition of radical groups called “the Collective,” which took two guards hostage during an armed assault at the New Jersey prison where she was being held. They ushered Shakur to a getaway team, and she later resurfaced in Cuba. Since her escape, she has been charged with unlawful flight to avoid confinement.

On May 2, Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, presided over a news conference on the 40th anniversary of Foerster’s killing. Fuentes called Shakur a “domestic terrorist.” Although labeling Shakur a terrorist does not change the charges against her, it does increase public awareness of her case and her identity. It has also spurred the state to pledge $1 million as a reward for her capture, bringing the total reward to $2 million when coupled with the FBI’s standing $1 million pledge.

Fuentes teaches every new crop of troopers about Shakur, whom he calls Chesimard.

“There is no such thing as a routine motor vehicle stop,” Fuentes said. “This has been one of the most notorious cases in the annals of our history.”

According to police accounts, Shakur and the two other BLA members opened fire on the two troopers who pulled them over for a motor vehicle violation.

From the front passenger seat, Shakur fired the first shot, wounding Trooper James Harper in the shoulder, said Fuentes, who has worked on the case for 30 years. He said she continued to fire at both troopers until she was wounded. Chesimard fled, but was picked up a half hour later. False identification, fake license plates and more weapons were found in the BLA vehicle, Fuentes said.

The New Jersey State Police have had a full-time detective assigned to her case since her escape.

“It is personal to us,” Fuentes said. “We’ve been pressing for an increase in the reward and to have her placed on the terrorists list. She continues every day to flaunt her freedom in the face of this horrific crime. It’s an open wound for us.”

Foerster’s son, Eric, who was a New Jersey state trooper before leaving the force, said in a statement to Fox News that “the fact that Chesimard gets to enjoy time with her family and my father did not is wrong. It is a loss that will stay with us forever.”

After the news conference, Fuentes spoke on Radio Martí, the federally financed broadcast outlet that reaches Cuba, to ask police in that country to turn her in — a plea from one law enforcement officer to another. The timing of law enforcement’s appeal to Cuba could also play into political relations with the island nation, which have thawed in recent years and have led to a loosening of U.S. travel restrictions. A decision by the country’s leadership to give up Shakur could open a new stage of cooperation — a situation long feared by Shakur and others who were granted political asylum by Fidel Castro.

FBI Special Agent Barbara Woodruff said Shakur easily fits the bureau’s definition of domestic terrorist. “It is a long one,” she said, “You can abbreviate. Just don’t change the meaning.” In full, The definition reads: “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or its territories without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian populations or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Debating a definition

From 1970 to 1984, the BLA was responsible for four bombings, four hijackings and 32 violent armed confrontations in the United States. Sixteen of those involved confrontations with law enforcement officers who were killed, Woodruff said.

But during that time, BLA wasn’t labeled a domestic terrorist group. The term was not in regular use. Instead, law enforcement tagged the BLA as a group fomenting “civil unrest.”

Today, there are more than 100 academic definitions of terrorism, said Steve Chermak, a professor at Michigan State University who helps to operate a database of extremist crime. His database goes back only to the 1990s, but if it went back further it would include Shakur based on its definition of terrorism, which asks only whether a violent crime was committed and whether the perpetrator was linked to an extremist group.

“We tried to avoid the debate because defining terrorism has a political element to it,” Chermak said. “Especially in a post-9/11 world, calling somebody a terrorist carries with it a different meaning than murderer.”

In an interview on “Democracy Now!” last week, Shakur’s attorney, Lennox Hinds, argued that her placement on the FBI’s terrorist list — so soon after the Boston Marathon bombing — was a purely political act with the “intent on putting pressure on the Cuban government and to inflame public sentiment.”

Priscilla Ocen, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School, said that referring to Shakur as a terrorist “undermines the power of that word.”

“My understanding of the definition of terrorism is when you have individuals who target civilian populations for ideological reasons,” Ocen said. “Even if you believe the theory that she is an accomplice to the murder that took place, that to me doesn’t rise to the level of terrorism.”

Shakur’s contemporary Elaine Brown, who led the Black Panthers after its chairman Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba in 1974 in the face of murder charges, said she sees the labeling of Shakur as a continuation of “the reactionary state-sponsored terrorist acts against people who are dissidents.” If Shakur is returned, Brown, 70, said she would be waiting for her at the gates.

“Should the Cuban government turn this woman over they will do nothing but revive a movement that has been moribund,” she said. “At my age I would be happy to see anything that would reinvigorate the movement.”

Ocen and scholars of the black power movement said it is important to place Shakur’s role in the shootings on the New Jersey Turnpike, a portion of which has since been named for Foerster, in the context of the radical debates of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

It was a time when Black Panther member Fred Hampton was shot in his bed during a law enforcement raid, National Guard members fired on unarmed students at Kent State University and 16 law enforcement officials were shot by members of the BLA.

Radical activists in the 1970s learned to assume that their meetings were under FBI surveillance. Law enforcement organizations saw leftist groups as a violent threat.

It was a time of government overreach, as exemplified by COINTELPRO — the much-criticized secret counterintelligence program headed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover — which monitored the movements of domestic political groups, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, antiwar groups and members of the women’s movement.

From the perspective of 2013, New Jersey law enforcement officers see no justification for her actions. As the step-aunt of the famed rapper Tupac Shakur, she has been embraced by parts of the hip-hop generation. Rapper Common’s “A Song for Assata” created a stir that made his participation in a recent White House poetry night controversial. In 1999, Common traveled to Cuba, where he met Shakur . Before Common, the hip-hop group Public Enemy mentioned her in one of its songs.Shakur’s autobiography is read in African American studies programs, and the documentary filmed in Cuba is posted online for all to see.

Now, so is her profile on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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