At the recent book launch of Assata: An Autobiography in London a one minute’s silence was held in memory of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was gunned down by police, provoking fierce rioting and the de facto military occupation of Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
The unspoken conclusion was that little has fundamentally changed between the youngster’s death and the events of almost half a century ago that prompted Joanne Chesimard to changed her name to Assata Shakur, grow her hair into an afro and join the ranks of those seeking to fight state violence.
Subjected to surveillance by the FBI’s notorious counter-intelligence programme, she was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment following trumped up charges of shooting dead a state trooper. Four years later, in 1979, Shakur staged a spectacular jailbreak and was eventually given political asylum in Cuba, where she has lived quietly ever since, only remaining in the public consciousness as a distant hip-hop cause célèbre.
Then last year the FBI placed the now 66-year-old grandmother on its Most Wanted list alongside assorted drone-targeted terrorists. Apart from being the first and only woman to make the list, she also has a $2 million bounty on her head. The extraordinary move prompted the republication of her autobiography, which she wrote in 1988 and which tells the dramatic story of her political awakening, incarceration and trial.
“I wanted to be one of the people who stood up. These were serious times,” she writes, recalling how the civil rights struggle had eliminated segregation but not systemic racism. After a brief period with the Black Panther Party, she joined the Black Liberation Army to fight for the “freedom and justice of all people”, and soon came under the scrutiny of the FBI, which had been ordered by J Edgar Hoover to “neutralise” the black liberation movement
While awaiting trial, she was routinely beaten and held for more than a year in solitary confinement in the basement of a men’s prison without adequate medical attention and exercise. She was subsequently convicted on flimsy evidence following a hysterical disinformation campaign in the press. It was, her lawyer says, a “legal lynching”.
Despite her ordeal, Shakur’s deadpan wit never leaves her and, if she feels momentarily downtrodden, she quickly reminds herself that she is just one of many who “have been locked up by the lawless. Handcuffed by the haters. Gagged by the greedy” and for whom “a wall is just a wall and mothering more at all. It can be broken down”.
Shakur has plenty to say about a lot of things. Writing from Cuba, “a land of hope”, Assata’s talks about America’s system of “super exploitation” which attempts to contain “potentially rebellious sectors of its population”. She is also frank about of the limitations of the black liberation struggle, its lack of self-criticism and historical awareness.
Shakur’s political commentary is as pertinent today as they were 26 years ago. For now, we can only imagine what the world’s most dangerous woman feels about her new FBI status and why it has been thrust upon her after all these years.
First published in West End Extra September 19 2014