As soon as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced yesterday that they would be normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in 53 years, Black activists all over the U.S. and beyond immediately had one pressing question: What’s going to happen to Assata Shakur?
The 67-year-old activist and author who has been living freely in Cuba for 30 years—after being granted asylum by Fidel Castro—is now in danger of being extradited back to the U.S. to resume a prison sentence. Shakur, known to U.S. authorities as Joanne Chesimard, was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, which Shakur has long denied and whose facts have long been in dispute.
Judging by the statements coming from law enforcement in New Jersey and the federal government, Shakur supporters have plenty of reason to worry.
“We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973,” Col. Rick Fuentes, head of the state’s largest law enforcement agency, said in a statement. “We stand by the reward money and hope that the total of two million dollars will prompt fresh information in the light of this altered international relationship.”
Fuentes told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview that he has already discussed the issue with federal law enforcement officials.
“Chesimard isn’t the only fugitive down there wanted for a violent crime, and she’s already been convicted, so it’s a matter of bringing her back and sending her back to jail,” he said. “There’s other people that surround her that Castro has taken a liking to and it’s been very, very difficult in their particular cases to have discussions to get them out.”
Acting state Attorney General John Hoffman told NJ.com, “With the president’s announcement today on easing relations with Cuba, we remain ever hopeful in our resolve to bring Joanne Chesimard to justice. We will be working closely with federal authorities as we explore ways to apprehend her and return her to her rightful place in a New Jersey prison.”
Representing the federal government, Aaron Ford, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Newark, said the organization “will continue to utilize all available resources in our attempt to apprehend Joanne Chesimard, no matter where in the world she is located.”
“As long as there is an active warrant for … Chesimard, the FBI will continue to pursue justice, regardless of how long it takes, and are hopeful any changes in relations between the United States and Cuba, will assist us with her apprehension and return,” Ford said, according to NJ.com.
If the tone of the bloodthirsty story in today’s New York Daily News is any indication, she’ll also have to contend with a mainstream American media eager to see her return.
The Queens-born Shakur, the step-aunt of rapper Tupac Shakur (her brother was Tupac’s stepfather), for decades has been a despised figure in law enforcement circles, where she is seen as a dangerous cop-killer and terrorist. But to many Blacks, Shakur is a hero for standing up to law enforcement while she was a leader of the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s and for her forceful writings and commentary on the conditions of black people after she fled to Cuba around 1984.
She has been the subject of films, documentaries and rap songs over the years, in addition to her own writings, which were influential to a generation of activists.
After her conviction for killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973, Shakur became an underground legend in 1979 after she made a daring escape from prison—with the help of accomplices who took two guards hostage—and fled to Cuba, where she has been living in exile the last 30 years. The FBI and the New Jersey State Police last year raised the reward for her capture to $2 million and put the 67-year-old fugitive on its Most Wanted Terrorist list—the first woman to make the list of top terrorists.
Shakur left the Black Panther Party because she felt they weren’t educated enough on Black history and joined the Black Liberation Army, which was even more radical than the Panthers. She became a well-known target of law enforcement and the subject of surveillance and stakeouts after she became wanted in connection with a string of felonies, including bank robberies in New York.
On May 2, 1973, Shakur was the front-seat passenger in a Pontiac LeMans heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike with other members of the BLA, an organization that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government and the killing of police officers because of racist treatment of African-Americans. There were many facts disputed at her trial, but the Pontiac was pulled over when Trooper James Harper spotted a broken taillight. They were stopped about 200 yards from state police headquarters, then in East Brunswick. Soon, Trooper Foerster arrived as backup.
Shortly after the stop, the prosecution claimed Shakur opened fire with a 9mm pistol, hitting Harper in the shoulder, and then squeezed off two more shots at Foerster as she scrambled out of the car. After Harper shot Chesimard twice, she collapsed to the ground.
After Harper ran to headquarters for help, somebody fired two shots into Foerster’s skull. Shakur and an accomplice were arrested five miles down the turnpike.
After she was convicted of Foerster’s murder, carrying a mandatory life sentence, Shakur said the jury was “racist” and had “convicted a woman with her hands up.”
“This case constitutes an open wound in our organization, and open wound in the Forester and the Harper families, and we have tried to take advantage of every opportunity,” Fuentes said.
Obama was very detailed about the specifics of the prisoner swap that had been negotiated with Cuba during his announcement yesterday. The president didn’t mention Shakur.