I originally wrote this nearly 2 years ago on my Yahoo Voices/Contributors Network page. It was the first installment of what was intended to be a 4-part series, which would include biographies of Mutulu Shakur, Afeni Shakur, and finally, Tupac Shakur. Well, I stopped writing on Yahoo Voices/Contributors Network quite some time ago, due to my disappointment with the editing staff and limitations placed on writers/authors. So, with that in mind, as I’ve done with several of my other WP posts, I decided to bring my work here.
Some of us know her by her birthname, JoAnne Deborah Byron, others know her by married name, JoAnne Deborah Chesimard, but most of us know her as, Assata—Assata Shakur. Assata’s tale begins on July 16th, sixty-six years sago, in 1947 Jamaica Queens, NY, where she lived until she was sent to live with her grandmother in Wilmington, NC at the age of three, after her parents divorced. She would later return to Queens as a teenager when she dropped out of high school and earned a GED while residing with her aunt. Not too much is known about Assata from the time she left high school until she was twenty-two. However, it is known that she continued her education by attending Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York (CCNY) where she graduated from in the mid-60s and became politically active at the age of 23.
It was during this time that she joined and became a leading member of the Harlem Branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Even though her earned and respected recognition promoted her to Primary Coordinator for the highly popular ‘Breakfast Program’ in Oakland, CA, her stint with the Black Panthers was rather brief after she left the faction, claiming it lacked a serious focus on Black History and was consumed with male egos. Its believed that sometime between attending college and becoming a Black Panther, is when Assata met and eventually married, Louis Chesimard, in April 1967, the same year she was arrested for the first time as a protester at ManhattanCommunity College. Her December 1970 divorce from Chesimard would mark the beginning of a turbulent decade as the 70s would bring her countless arrests, abuse, imprisonment, interrogations, and eventually place her high on the FBI’s wanted list.
In 1971 Assata joined two organizations, The Black Liberation Army, otherwise known as The BLA, whose main concentration was achieving independence for blacks. She also joined The Republic of New Afrika, a faction that attempted to form an independent black nation by joining the southern states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina. 1971 is also when she officially and legally changed her name from JoAnne Deborah Byron/Chesimard to Assata Olugbala Shakur. This name change was not done without thought as Assata means “she who struggles”, Olugbala is “for the people”, and Shakur means “the thankful one”. The year 1971 was pivotal for Assata; in April, she lost her fear of guns and being shot after an altercation at a Manhattan Hilton hotel. She was allegedly involved in a struggle that resulted in her being shot in the stomach and arrested on charges of attempted robbery, felony assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of a deadly weapon. She was later released on bail. Four months later, in August, Assata was questioned about a robbery that took place after a photo of a female suspect was said to fit her description. Additional details about the incident could not be found. Only days before Christmas, on December 21st, 1971, she was ideed from an FBI photo as a suspect involved in a grenade attack that left two New York City police cars destroyed, and two officers dead. This incident would spill over into the new year as she became wanted on January 28th, 1972 for her alleged role in the murder of the two New York City policemen.
In just over three and a half months, on May 21st, 1972, it was reported that Assata was wanted for questioning concerning the murders of two additional policemen, and once again, I was unable to find more details about this particular incident. As the year progressed, so would her legal problems. Early in the Fall of 1972, on September 1st, she was wanted for questioning of yet another robbery, that was said to have taken place in Brooklyn, New York. Only two weeks later, on September 14th, authorities sought her out again for questioning of a church robbery that occurred in Brooklyn. 1972 was also the year that the FBI began a nationwide manhunt after naming Assata the leader of The BLA and labeling her wanted for the deaths of several policemen, numerous bank robberies, and the 1971 grenade attack.
On May 2nd, 1973, at 12:45am, Assata was involved in the most spoke of incident of her life; the New Jersey Turnpike Shootout that left one state trooper dead, and the other seriously injured. The altercation began as Assata and Zayd Malik Shakur, along with a third associate was stopped by the first trooper. The reasoning for the stop is unclear; some reports state it was a ‘routine’ traffic stop, while others state that authorities were already searching for the car Assata and her associates were traveling in. Prior to approaching the vehicle, the first trooper radioed for backup, and it was during his questioning of Zayd Malik Shakur, the driver, where things took a drastic turn for the worst. Some reports claim that Zayd Malik Shakur and the first trooper began arguing, and Zayd Malik Shakur reached for a nearby revolver or other firearm. Other reports claim it was Assata, who was in the front passenger’s seat, who reached for the gun, while yet other reports state that the trooper noticed a firearm, and then drew his weapon while racing back to his car for cover, and that’s when the shooting started. Nonetheless, before the night was over, one trooper was dead, Zayd Malik Shakur was dead, the other trooper was seriously injured, Assata was shot and in serious condition, while the third associate ran off into nearby woods, only to be captured the next day after a 400-man search. Later reports state that a BLA book containing ‘intended targets’ was found in the car, and Assata was later interrogated and arraigned from her hospital bed while under ‘heavy’ guard. Its also known that in 1973, the FBI intentionally tried to tie Assata to every alleged, illegal action involving a female member of The Black Liberation Army, however, despite her capture, she was never charged with any of the previous crimes she was wanted for. In a documentary, “Eyes of the Rainbow”, Assata says there’s documented proof that she was either ‘a’ target or ‘the’ target of the FBI’s operation, COINTELPRO and that the FBI created similar programs such as, “CHESROB” and “NEWKILL”, that were specifically targeted towards her.
Between 1973 and 1977 in New York and New Jersey, Assata would face 10 indictments that resulted in three dismissals without trial, seven criminal trials, and a list of accusations and charges. Those charges included; two bank robberies, kidnapping, attempted murder, and eight other felonies from the New Jersey Turnpike Shootout. Of the seven trials, three were acquittals, one was a hung jury, one was a mistrial, another was a change of venue, and finally, one conviction. Assata began serving time in prison sometime in 1973 at Riker’s Island, where she was condemned to solitary confinement for 21 months, and the victim of beatings by guards, including one incident in which she was severely beaten for refusing a medical exam. In 1978, she was transferred to Alderson Federal Prison Camp, a maximum security facility in West Virginia. Sharing a cellblock with two female followers of Charles Manson, Assata was once again the victim of abuse and inhumane treatment so severe, that it has been said no other inmate has ever received abuse of that caliber. A short time later, she was transferred to Clinton Correctional Facility where she was the only female inmate, and again, the subject of unprovoked abuse and unjust treatment. It was in late 1979, on November 2nd, that Assata escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility with the aid of Mutulu Shakur and other visiting BLA members, who revealed pistols and managed to drive Assata through prison gates without injuring anyone. Mutulu Shakur would later be apprehended for his role in the escape and other charges, as Assata fled to Cuba to begin a new life, while the FBI meticulously began monitoring her family and friends.
Despite her turbulent past, and years of abuse, imprisonment, and so forth, Assata Shakur, Tupac’s step-aunt, has always had to the strength and audacity to stand firm on her beliefs while facing the odds and adversity. In “Eyes of the Rainbow”, Assata is found to be very humbling with a warm and peaceful aura about her, and describes Cuba as a “whole new world” and “so African”. She goes on to credit her grandmother as the one who gave her strength, even though she believes like many of us, she has no voice in the United States. While she remains a political refugee in Cuba, till this day, the FBI has a one million dollar bounty for her capture, however, she now has more support than ever before through various programs and campaigns. Assata’s courage and boldness has been a gift to us all. We love you Assata!
1. “Eyes of the Rainbow” (found on YouTube)
2. “Assata aka JoAnne Chesimard” A Fred Baker film (movie)
1. “In Her Own Words” by Assata Shakur
2. “Assata: An Autobiography: Assata Shakur” by Assata Shakur
2. http://www.happybirthdayassata.org (support for “Hands Off Assata” Campaign)
3. http://www.myspace.com/assatashakur (support for “Hands Off Assata Campaign)
- On This Day In 1969, Two Black Panther Members Brutally Gunned Down By Police (rememberinghistory.wordpress.com)