Occasionally through the din of crime-and-punishment rhetoric bandied about like so many other hot-button issues in the political scene, one hears a voice from a not-so-distant shore. It troubles the ears of those it reaches because it refuses to fade. And because it bespeaks a truth we've long tried to hide from the rest of the world - and from our national consciousness.
This voice casts an uncomfortable light upon the society we've convinced ourselves is the most righteous, the fairest, and the best that imperfect beings can create in order to arrive at justice in this world. In such a light, our national shames of bequeathed racism and stubborn inequality cannot help but be gazed upon, seen for what they are, and abhorred. These, our collective sins find no easy absolution. And this voice shakes the very core of our being.
This voice has had many intonations, spanning the two hundred plus year history of this Great Experiment called America. One hundred and fifty years ago, it came from the mouths of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. Thirty- five years ago, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. claimed it as their own. Today, that voice belongs to, among others, Assata Shakur.
The responsibility that faces the Jinx Project, then, is to determine whether or not it will add its voice to the one she now claims, strengthening the message, enlarging the audience, and adding weight to it by the Project's mere participation. A responsibility, history has shown, it does not take lightly.
MAY 2, 1973
The events of the 2nd of May, 1973 remain, to this day, sketchy and contradictory. As is always the case, it depends upon which side of the event tells the story. Their differences are manifold and seemingly intractable. In an effort to avoid adding any more conjecture, let us simply deal with The objective facts of the incident.
Following a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike of three Black Panthers (a group J. Edgar Hoover called the "greatest threat to the internal Security of the country") by a pair of State Troopers, a gruesome scene ensued. The results of which are as follows:
Assata Shakur shot and near dead.
Zayd Malik Shakur shot and killed.
State Trooper Werner Foerster shot and killed.
In the trial that followed, prosecutors claimed Ms. Shakur (formerly JoAnne Chesimard) had been crouched in a "firing position" with a nine millimeter pistol in her hand, a fact contested even by the surviving State Trooper. Medical experts testified that "it was anatomically necessary that both arms be in the air for Ms. Chesimard to receive [her] wounds" and that prosecutors' claims of her being in a firing position were "totally anatomically impossible." The State offered no refuting medical testimony. Neutron Activation tests to determine if she had even fired a weapon on that day were negative.
Despite such evidence, an all-white jury in the richest county in New Jersey (where a poll revealed that 72 percent of registered voters believed her to be guilty based on pretrial publicity alone) convicted her and passenger Sundiata Acoli (a former NASA engineer) of both murders, including that of their Friend Zayd Shakur - a killing confessed to by Trooper Harper, the other officer on the scene.
The inhumane treatment of her immediately following arrest, not limited to the denial of medical attention, physical abuse, and solitary confinement in a men's prison fostered in Shakur a realization that blind justice may be an elusive freedom in which she may never take solace. This, combined with the spurious conviction by a jury of her "peers," led Shakur to plan and successfully orchestrate a prison break.
Escaping to Cuba and securing asylum as a political prisoner of the United States, Assata Shakur has lived free from American extradition for over 20 years.
While in Cuba, her consistent and repeated attempts to draw the world's attention to her case and cases like hers have aroused the ire of many in the U.S., most notably current New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. Whitman has posted a $50,000 bounty for the return of Shakur to the judicial system and nation that has already condemned her. That she be returned alive or in a manner consistent with national or international law has not been stipulated.
Shakur has described herself as a "twentieth century escaped slave," Likening the efforts of Whitman to slave owners of the nineteenth century who often encouraged illegal means under the auspices of property and justice for the return of "problem slaves." Efforts, it should be stated, which have Included national television publicity of the bounty and even a written appeal for intervention to the Pope before his recent visit to Cuba this year.
Whitman, who has claimed to have reviewed the evidence of the case, has not ruled out kidnapping Shakur and, through New Jersey police officials, has even encouraged the donation of "outside money" to increase the bounty. In doing so, she has issued a clear signal. Not that New Jersey will not tolerate law-breakers. But, that the Fugitive Slave Act, while no longer having the force of law, still lingers in the mind of those charged with executing law and that Assata Shakur's crime may not have been in her being a Black Panther - rather her crime may have been in her being black.
It is the opinion of this agent that, based upon the facts of her case alone, there is sufficient proof that Shakur qualifies as a compelling political refugee worth Project support. Her actions since arrest have been consistent both with her beliefs before arrest and with the actions of similar individuals falsely accused.
What remains troubling, of course, is her embracing of the Communist Horde (Enemies of Jinx) with seemingly tireless dedication. Her pro-Communist pronouncements, however, may be merely the wages of a Cuban asylum. The United States can pressure nearly any nation into returning its "escaped slaves." Castro knows that it cannot compel him to return this well-spoken woman so long as she continues to speak well of his Revolution and denounce the United States' embargo of Cuba. Shakur, this agent is convinced, understands this tenuous accord better than most.
Lest we forget, it was her involvement with the Black Panthers (Friends of Jinx) that brought her to this precarious position. That she refused to renounce her dedication to their struggle is a fact that should not be discounted, but rather revered.
The Jinx Project, though, must weigh all of this evidence before rendering its decision. Willing as always to heed the Project's conclusions, this agent hopes nevertheless that it comes down on the side of Assata Shakur. Not to do so, it seems, would cheapen the efforts of an individual who has embodied the grandest ideals of Jinx and done so in the face of tremendous opposition.
This is a woman who commands the voice that, once again, reminds us that ours is not a society always worth praising, the voice that lingers in our mind until we are forced to admit to our failings, and the voice that refuses to falter under the weight of our insistence. Assata Shakur, echoing the words of Harriet Tubman before her, speaks with the voice that simply says, "There was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted . . ."