By Les Blough
Axis of Logic
August 26, 2014
“It didn’t matter what position you took, it mattered that people related to those positions, that people understood what you were saying, that people supported you…. The government perceived us as a threat because they understood that we were serious, they understood we were serious and they understood also that we were becoming a more sophisticated opposition.” –Assata Shakur
Writing an adequate review of Assata Shakur’s autobiography that captures the essence of this woman and her history is no easy task. The story of her life beginning in early childhood to her life and work as a leading Black Revolutionary in the US to the present day is so packed and refined with fascinating, frightening and fire-eating details that one is only left to select from the gold for there is no dross to exclude. This review contains some of the salient portions of Assata’s life and it would be regrettable for anyone read it as an alternative to her lustrous book. The first edition of her book was published in 1988 and this second edition in 2014 by Zed Books Ltd, 7 Cynthia Street, London N1, 9jF, UK.
Looking at White Racist Amerika through Assata’s brown eyes is an experience for which “white” Americans will be ill-prepared. In his foreword to the book, Lennox S. Hinds, one of Assata’s attorneys, writes:
“Assata leads us all to understand more about the society we live in. Clearly, it was the racism riddling every aspect of the early life of this sensitive, intellectually gifted, and life-passionate child, as she struggled to establish her own identity, that led her to seek solutions to the catastrophic impact of racism and economic oppression on all people of color in the United States. It is racist America that provides the context for the making of this Black revolutionary.”
Assata’s honesty is self-evident to the reader and her writing, intensely personal. Her fierce defense of Blacks, Latin Americans and all People of Color leaves the reader wordless. “ASSATA” alternates chapters between stories of her private personal & family life and those of her adult life as a revolutionary in the ‘70s, beginning with the latter in the first chapter. In the second chapter, even her birth in 1947 in the Bricktown section of Jamaica, New York begins with, “The FBI cannot find any evidence that I was born. On my FBI Wanted poster, they list my birth date as July 16, 1947, and in parenthesis, ‘not substantiated by birth records’.” Later, her life at her grandparent’s house in Wilmington NC included at once, delightful childhood memories and her first experience with racism.
“For me, the beach was a wonderful place, and to this day there is no place on this earth that I love more” and her first confrontation with racism begins not with white southern racists but instead, of how it affected the way that Blacks viewed themselves. [On the beach that Blacks were permitted to visit], “Many would say, ‘I can’t stand the sun … I’m too Black already, I ain’t goin’ out in no sun.’ It was amazing the number of people who said they were too Black already” and about children’s intra-Black fights she writes, “But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible. ‘Nappy head, nappy head, I catch your ass, you gonna be dead …. You think you Black and ugly now; I’m gonna beat you till you purple … You just another nigga to me. Ima show you what I do with niggas like you … You better shut your big blubber lips …”
But in early development, her grandmother prepared Assata to reject this negative self-image and develop into a fortress that the white establishment was never able to penetrate or break down, even by use of its courts, police brutality and torture.
Grandmother: “Who’s better than you?”
Grandmother: “Get that head up.”
Grandmother: “Yes, who?”
Assata: “Yes, Grandmommy.”
Arrest and Murder Conviction
The first chapter of Assata’s autobiography begins with her only arrest, which led to a jury-rigged conviction. That conviction followed many fabricated charges for which she had been arrested, tried and acquitted including, kidnapping, bank robberies and murder. In 1973 on the New Jersey Turnpike, the police ambushed and shot her 3 times, leaving her for dead and killed her friend, Zayd, “Police were everywhere. One had a gun to my head. ‘Which way did they go? … Bitch, you’d better open your goddamn mouth or I’ll blow your goddamn head off’ … One pig said, ‘We oughta finish her off’ …”
Shadowed by death in the hospital, she asked for her family and the police responded, “Oh, you got a family, do you? Is your mother a nigger whore like you?” but she gradually survived grave injuries to the disappointment of her captors and began gain strength and read books like, Black Women in White Amerika and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Her book projects some of the power of her own poetry and the first chapter ends with her:
And kept on getting up.
A little slower
And a lot more deadly.
And more deadly Assata became. Not deadly as the killer the US government and liberal media made her out to be but rather, as a formidable Black Revolutionary. Years before that attack and arrest by NJ police, she found her footing as a young Black woman and eventually an organizer, first serving the Black community in NYC, later as a leading member of the Black Panther Party and upon leaving the Panthers, a leader in the Black Liberation Army. Her revolutionary work for the BPP and BLA was dedicated to the “crimes” of providing free food to Black children in NYC barrios and health care in the Black community and helping to organize Black revolutionaries. But because of her intelligence, passion, power and leadership this young Black woman was targeted as a threat to the mighty US government. One of her attorneys Lennox S. Hinds, provides the set and setting:
“As is now clear, a carefully orchestrated intelligence and counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) campaign was conducted by the FBI in cooperation with state and local law enforcement agencies to criminalize, defame, harass, and intimidate Assata beginning at least in 1971. By the time Assata Shakur was shot and captured on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 3, 1973, she was wanted for a number of serious crimes.”
Assata had a series of lawyers over the years and her book credits each one for their generosity and service. Two are of special interest for this review. One is Stanley Cohen who was found dead in his apartment “after he was discovered to have found prosecution documents hidden from the defense.” An initial report stated that Cohen was, “a victim of trauma,” a finding that was later changed to to death by “natural causes” and NYPD took all records for Assata’s legal defense from her dead attorney’s apartment, “as evidence.” Assata writes, “we never got the real cause of death, whether or not he was murdered.”
The other is Evelyn Williams, Esq., the woman who advised and stood by Assata over the years. As her defense attorney, Evelyn Williams was repeatedly subjected to humiliation and brutish treatment by the courts and as her loving aunt, she provided Assata with refuge and guidance throughout much of her youth.
Convicted by the Media
Just as the corporate media supports racism, oppression and war today, they worked hand-in-glove with the government to destroy Assata. Publications by the New York Daily News and New York Magazine stand as examples. The Daily News repeatedly showed full page ads with her photo accusing her of 2 bank robberies in 1971 and 1972. The second one came even after she was acquitted of both robberies.
“Hungrily, i read every word of the article. I stared down at my picture on the front page of the Daily News. The paper said i was wanted for questioning in relation to the machine-gunning. ‘Shit!’ I walked aimlessly around in circles. I couldn’t believe it, but I was looking at it. ‘You’ve got to get out of here sister,’ my friend said. ‘Where am I supposed to go’?”
On February 12, 1973, four months after the police shot her on the New Jersey Turnpike and before her trial, New York Magazine had her tried and convicted with their cover story, “Target Blue. The Story Behind the Police Assassinations,” providing intimate details of the BLA with a picture of Assata Shakur. After 9 dismissals and acquittals, Assata was finally convicted on March 25, 1977 for first degree murder of a NJ State police officer and for 7 other related felonies. As with many in US prisons today, her conviction actually took place in the public media before she ever entered the court room.
Assata’s History of US Slavery
In the 12th chapter of her book, Assata’s penetrating insight into the popular views of slavery in the North and the South, economic conditions of the time and the myth of Lincoln’s election and emancipation of the slaves, enlightens the most learned scholars of US history. In one paragraph of her view of US slavery and the civil war Assata writes,
“Many of us have misconceptions about Black history in amerika. What we are taught in the public school system is usually inaccurate, distorted, and packed full of outright lies. Among the most common lies are that Lincoln freed the slaves, that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and that the history of Black people in amerika has consisted of slow but steady progress, that things have gotten better, bit by bit. Belief in these myths can cause us to make serious mistakes in analyzing our current situation and in planning future action.”
Many on the Political Left know nothing more than superficial and often romantic ideas about the Black Panther Party of the ‘60s and ‘70s. While a member of the BBP, Assata was a leader and internal critic of the Party and of important figures like Huey Newton. Her insight and fearless criticism of the internal conflicts and the external government and media oppression provide invaluable lessons for all would-be revolutionaries today. She lays bare the egoism, male chauvinism and in-fighting for power & control and outright ignorance in the BPP of the ‘70s. These eviscerate leftist groups today who fail for the same reasons, all to the pleasure and often by design of the U.S. government and their intelligence agencies.
Sadism Cloaked in Blue
The words “base,” “lewd,” “brutal” and “depraved” come to mind as descriptors of Assata’s treatment during her many years of imprisonment in US jails and prisons. Lennox S. Hinds, wrote that Assata,
“… understates the awfulness of the condition in which she was incarcerated” and “in the history of New Jersey, no woman pretrial detainee or prisoner has ever been treated as she was, continuously confined in a men’s prison, under twenty-four hour surveillance of her most intimate functions, without intellectual sustenance, adequate medical attention, and exercise, and without the company of other women for all the years she was in custody. In 1979, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported a “consistent pattern of gross … violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of certain classes of prisoners in the United States because of their race, economic status, and political beliefs.”
The 12 international jurists who examined Assata’s case wrote,
“One of the worst cases is that of ASSATA SHAKUR, who spent over twenty months in solitary confinement in two separate men’s prisons subject to conditions totally unbefitting any prisoner. Many more months were spent in solitary confinement in mixed or all-women’s prisons. Presently, after protracted litigation, she is confined a Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in maximum security. She has never on any occasion been punished for any infraction of prison rules which might in any way justify such cruel or unusual treatment.”
This treatment continued for years after the 1979 UN report. The US government only allowed proper medical care for her complicated pregnancy after a protracted legal battle that ended with a furious, racist judge when he was forced to allow her treatment by a private gynecologist after a prison doctor told her, “Well, I can’t force you to do anything, but my advice is to have an abortion. It will be better for you and everyone else.” During the full bed rest required for the duration of her pregnancy in the notorious prison at Riker’s Island, she was put on a weak “pregnancy diet” and chained to a bed post. Following childbirth, she was returned from a short hospital stay and returned to Riker’s Island where she was denied personal hygiene, gang-beaten on the floor and chained, arms and legs by prison guards. Details of this monstrous treatment is left for Assata to tell in the reading of her book.
Transfer to Federal Prison for Women, Alderson West Virginia
On April 8, 1978 Assata was transferred to the maximum security unit of the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia,
“… in the middle of the west Virginia mountains and it seemed as if the mountains formed an impenetrable barrier between the prison and the rest o the world. It had no airport, and to reach it, days of travel were necessary. The trip to alderson was so expensive and difficult that most of the women received family visits only once or twice a year.”
Assata’s description of the prison is one to which I can attest. I was once obliged to visit that rat hole many years ago and slept in a vacant cell on a night when a number of women escaped into the surrounding mountains. Assata defined the prison population as, “the nazis, the ‘niggah lovers,’ and me.” The prison is known for its history with other “infamous” prisoners in history like the wife of Machine Gun Kelly and Tokyo Rose and is said to hold, “the most dangerous women in the country.” But Assata was only “dangerous” to a racist government being threatened at the time by social movements organized to bring it down.
In 1978, the maximum security unit at Alderson was closed and Assata was transferred back to the Clinton Prison for Women in New Jersey. In a daring armed escape, Assata left the Clinton Prison and went underground. She somehow survived under the protection of other revolutionaries until 1984 when she was granted political asylum by the Cuban Government. In her book, Assata tells the joyous story of the first visit in 1985 from her daughter, Kakuya who now lives with her mother in Cuba.
Assata still strikes fear in the Heart of the Beast
Cuba consistently rejected numerous US government attempts to have her extradited and they still want her dead after all these years. Angela Y. Davis, Black author and intellectual revolutionary today, wrote in her forward to Assata’s book,
“During the late 1990’s the racist hysteria directed against Assata was resuscitated when the New Jersey State Police prevailed upon Pope John Paul II to use the occasion of his first trip to Cuba as pressure for Fidel Castro to extradite Assata. As if this were not enough, New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman offered a $50,000 reward – later doubled – for Assata’s return, and Congress passed a bill calling on the government of Cuba to initiate extradition procedures.
“In an open letter to the Pope, Assata asks a question that should concern all of us: ‘Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat?’ We would all do well to seriously ponder her questions. Why, indeed, was she constructed by the government and mass media as a consummate enemy in the 1970’s, only to reemerge at the turn of the century as a singular target of governors, Congress, and the Fraternal Order of Police? What ideological work has this representation performed?”
“Twenty-five years later, the retailoring of the image of Assata as enemy is even more damaging, omitting the original political context and representing her as a common criminal – a bank robber and murderer. This lifting of her image out of the past for very contemporary purposes serves to justify the consolidation of a vast prison industrial complex, which Assata herself has described as, ‘… not only a mechanism to convert public tax money into profits for private corporations [but also] an essential element of modern neoliberal capitalism.’ In her view, this new formation serves two purposes: ‘one, to neutralize and contain huge segments of potentially rebellious sectors of the population, and two, to sustain a system of super-exploitation, where mainly black and Latino captives are imprisoned in white rural, overseer communities’.”
In 1998, the US State Department offered to lift the Cuban embargo in exchange for the return of 90 U.S. political exiles, including Assata.
On May 2, 2005 the FBI used the 32nd anniversary of the NJ Turnpike shootings to classify Assata as a domestic terrorist and increased the bounty for her head to $1 million, the largest reward placed on an individual in the history of New Jersey. In the same month, Fidel stated that Washington, “wanted to portray her as a terrorist, something that was an injustice, a brutality, an infamous lie.” In 2013 the FBI made Assata the first woman on its list of “most wanted terrorists” and doubled the bounty to $2 million hoping to attract a killer to penetrate Cuba’s protection of this heroic woman.
This book review only sweeps the surface of Assata’s story. We strongly encourage Axis of Logic readers to purchase and digest Assata Shakur’s important and enlightening book.
I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
I believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path.
I have seen the destruction of the daylight,
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted.
I have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
I have walked on cut glass.
I have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference.
I have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know any thing at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.
I believe in living.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home
– Assata Shakur
© Copyright 2014 by AxisofLogic.com
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