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After outcry, Marquette University removes campus mural of Assata Shakur

Joanne Chesimard, now known as Assata Shakur, in handcuffs and leg irons in January 1976. (Frank Hurley/New York Daily News archive via Getty Images)

Assata Shakur is a cop killer and terrorist, or a wrongly accused folk hero, depending on whom you ask. So her name and likeness tend to ignite controversy, particularly on college campuses.

The latest one flared up at Marquette University’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, which displayed a mural of Shakur, also known as Joanne Deborah Chesimard. A university critic blogged about the indoor mural on Saturday, prompting an outcry.

By Sunday night, the mural was gone.

“Our university’s senior leadership just became aware of a mural that was created and displayed in a remote area of campus,” Marquette officials said in a statement Sunday. “This is extremely disappointing as the mural does not reflect the Guiding Values of Marquette University. It is being removed immediately. We are reviewing the circumstances surrounding the mural and will take appropriate action.”

Shakur, a Black Panther and Black Liberation Army leader, escaped prison after her conviction in the 1973 death of a New Jersey state trooper. She fled to Cuba and in 2013 became the first woman on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.

“Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style,” FBI special agent Aaron Ford said at the time.

Her supporters have called into question her role in the incident, saying authorities had been targeting her for some time; they insist she was wrongly convicted of murder.

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

Marquette’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center posted Facebook photos of the mural in March, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. The indoor mural featured a silhouette of Shakur along with two quotes from the polarizing fugitive.

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them,” one read. “Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”

The second quote read: “Before going back to college, I knew I didn’t want to be an intellectual, spending my life in books and libraries without knowing what the hell is going on in the streets. Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory. The two have to go together.”

Conservative media picked up on the mural after an associate professor and known Marquette critic, John McAdams, flagged it. On his blog, he referred to to the resource center as “a sop to the campus gay lobby” and pointed to the mural as “yet another case of the extreme leftist agenda of the organization.”

The university suspended the political science instructor for using his blog to publicly criticize a teaching assistant last year, and he could face termination, the Journal-Sentinel reported.

Some students expressed dismay at the university for removing the mural. Joshua-Paul Miles, the coordinator of the student government’s Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice Committee, said in an e-mail that the resource center has helped to foster inclusion on campus and that the university’s actions “against its Gender and Sexuality Resource Center are frowned upon by many students and faculty on this campus.”

“Marquette’s administrative actions are seen as taking a step back on its initiatives surrounding inclusion,” he said. “These actions do not reflect Marquette’s Jesuit and Catholic identity. These are not our values.”

A day after the mural was removed, a university spokesman told the Marquette Wire that the center’s director is no longer a Marquette employee. By Tuesday night, 180 people had signed a petition to keep Susannah Bartlow as the resource center director, the Wire reported.

The Shakur mural was painted during service projects hosted by the campus chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in March. In a statement to Fox affiliate WITI, the sorority said the mural theme had been approved by the university.

“The chapter, along with other university staff and students painted a mural that featured an image and quote by Assata Shakur to promote student thinking about their educations and history,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, Ms. Shakur’s entire history and background was not fully researched. If that process had occurred, she would not have been featured in the mural.”

[Cuba still harbors one of America’s most wanted fugitives. What happens to Assata Shakur now?]

The sorority promotes “peace, nonviolence” and does not “condone, promote, or tolerate the killing or violent activities of anyone,” the AKA statement read.

Shakur has ignited controversy on other campuses. Earlier this year, New Jersey’s Kean University rescinded its invitation to rapper Common as a commencement speaker after police raised concerns about his 2000 recording “A Song for Assata.”

Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, said the school’s invitation was a “slap in the face” to police.

[Report: Number of law enforcement officers killed in shootings rose this year]

Earlier this year, the University of California at Berkeley’s Black Student Union asked campus administration to rename an ethnic studies building after Shakur. It prompted national media attention and more public outcry.

That request, made to the school’s chancellor in a letter, came along with demands that included more support for black student athletes and hiring more black staff. The letter prompted a discussion, but the Shakur building request went unanswered.

“Her story is emblematic of the black freedom struggle in the nation,” BSU member Spencer Pritchard told San Francisco’s CBS affiliate. “I think the media has focused on this conversation, because they actually don’t want to address what black students and black people have to go through in this nation.”

[This post, originally published May 19, has been updated.]

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