Socialist Worker

Assata Shakur—a revolutionary who defied US state repression

Issue No. 2714

A mural of Assata Shakur

A mural of Assata Shakur (Pic: Gary Stevens)


To be a black revolutionary in the US in the early 1970s was to accept the likelihood of prison or death. Assata Shakur, who was born JoAnne Deborah Bryon, knew the risks and faced both.

Born in New York in 1947, but raised in the Deep South, she had been brought up to hold her head high and never to cower before white authority.

Hardly political until her late teens, she was radicalised by opposition to the Vietnam War. She remembered it hit her as a revelation. 

“We’re taught at such an early age to be against communists,” she said. “Yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. 

“Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”

Involvement in the movements that followed led her in 1970 to the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party. 

But she grew critical of the party and left to join a looser formation known as the Black Liberation Army (BLA).

She split from the Panthers as the organisation was wracked by internal strife and state targeted assassination. 

Some who headed to the BLA saw the Panthers’ social programmes as too “reformist” and felt the BLA should dedicate itself to fighting the racist state.

A US Justice Department report on the BLA said the group was suspected of involvement in over 70 incidents of violence between 1970 and 1976. And the Fraternal Order of Police blamed the BLA for the murders of 13 police officers.

No one can be sure of the accuracy of these reports. 

The BLA was heavily infiltrated by FBI spies intent on discrediting and destroying revolutionary organisations.

But the group itself claimed responsibility for many reprisals against racist police, and for “re-appropriating the funds” of the various banks and drug dealers it robbed.

Accused

Between April 1971 and January 1973, Shakur was accused of crimes ranging from kidnapping to armed robbery, attempted murder and murder. On each occasion, she was found not guilty.

In May 1973 she and two BLA members were stopped by police for a traffic violation. 

An altercation followed which left one cop and one revolutionary dead. 

Shakur was put on trial for the killing of the officer.

 In a tape smuggled from prison to supporters she declared, “I have declared war on the rich who prosper on our poverty, the politicians who lie to us with smiling faces, and all the mindless, heartless robots who protect them and their property.

“I am a Black revolutionary, and, as such, I am a victim of all the wrath, hatred and slander that amerika is capable of. Like all black revolutionaries, amerika is trying to lynch me.”

Shakur was eventually convicted of first degree murder, despite the gunshot wound she received during the shootout making her incapable of firing a gun. 

In 1977 she was sentenced to life plus 30 years.

Two years later she broke out of her New Jersey prison and later escaped to Cuba, where she lives today.

The FBI placed Shakur on its “Most Wanted” list, making her the first woman ever to appear on it.

This is part of a series about radical black lives Go to bit.ly/SWBlackLives

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