UPDATE 12/23: Cuba’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal, says that the country will not extradite people who have been granted political asylum. That includes Assata Shakur. As The Root reports, Vidal told the Associated Press. “We’ve explained to the U.S. government in the past that there are some people living in Cuba to whom Cuba has legitimately granted political asylum.”
This week, ongoing protests and marches have reminded the country about numerous Black women (and girls) murdered by police—Aiyana Jones, Kathryn Johnston and, last month, Tanesha Anderson. At the same time, President Obama announced that the United States is normalizing its relationship with Cuba, ending a 54-year-old diplomatic freeze.
While these events unfolded simultaneously, I began to wonder: What does the thawing of US-Cuba relations mean for Assata Shakur, a Black woman who escaped being killed by police in the ‘70s and then fled to Cuba?
In May 1973, Assata Olugbala Shakur might have become another statistic of police violence. A member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation army, Assata was driving on the New Jersey turnpike with Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik, two other Panthers. They were stopped by a state trooper, ostensibly because their car had a broken tail light. But in the 1970s, such stops, especially for activists, could turn deadly. The FBI had launched COINTEL, a program targeting political organizers such as the Black Panther Party. As part of its war on social justice organizing, the feds issued guidelines instructing police to stop activists for minor traffic violations. After the state trooper pulled them over, a shootout occurred. In her testimony later at the United Nations, Assata described being pulled over and told to get out of the car:
He then drew his gun, pointed it at us, and told us to put our hands up in the air in front of us, where he could see them. I complied and in a split second, there was a sound that came from outside the car, there was a sudden movement, and I was shot once with my arms held up in the air, and then once again from the back.
Zayd Malik was killed. So was a state trooper named Werner Foerster. Sundiata Acoli, who escaped that evening, was captured a few days later. Shakur woke in a hospital where, despite her injuries, she was interrogated by police officers. According to her memoir, these interrogations were not limited to verbal questions. Police poked, prodded, and hit her as she lay in the hospital bed.
In 1977, Shakur was convicted of the killing of the state trooper as well as of several other felonies. She was sentenced to life in prison. Two years later, in 1979, she escaped from prison. An FBI hunt ensued, with police sweeping through black neighborhoods in search of her. In response, supporters mounted posters stating, "Assata Shakur is welcome here."
Poster by Molly Fair and Laura Whitehorn of Just Seeds.
In the 1980s, Shakur resurfaced in Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. In 1987, while in Cuba, she wrote Assata: An Autobiography in which she details her life as a Black woman coming of age and coming to political awareness. She also describes the atrocious conditions inside women's jails and prisons during the 1970s. Many of these conditions, such as demeaning strip searches, awful medical care, abuse by jail and prison staff, continue unabated today. Given that Black women are disproportionately imprisoned, they are often the targets of these horrifying practices.
Shakur's ability to live openly in Cuba has irked law enforcement and politicians. In 1998, Congress passed a resolution to asking Cuba to return Shakur to the U.S. (Cuba did not do so). Last year, as Jordannah Elizabeth noted in her article about why feminists should care about Shakur , the FBI placed Shakur on the Most Wanted Terrorist List. It also increased the bounty on her head from one million to two million dollars.
Now, on the heels of the news about the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations, New Jersey state police and its attorney general are hoping that they can now capture Shakur and consign her to the living death they had originally planned. It’s uncertain what the future will bring for Shakur. When Obama broke the news of reestablishing relations with Cuba, people who remember Shakur and her work started a petition asking the president to pardon her. As of today, the petition has 11,000 signatures.
Related Reading: Why Feminists Should Care About the FBI's Hunt for Assata Shakur.
Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.