Written for Red Pepper - 16/11/14
Assata Shakur is the US government’s hangover. Many black political activists of the 1960s and 70s were systematically targeted by the FBI, falsely convicted and at times killed in order to destabilise the black power movement. However, after being convicted of killing a police officer in 1977, Assata’s escape from a similar fate remains a defiant and symbolic act of resistance. Though the evidence of the murder trial, both forensic and medical, is overwhelmingly in Assata’s favour (there were no traces of gun residue on her fingers, no fingerprints on the gun in question and with the injuries sustained from being shot at three times it would have been impossible to shoot at the police officer), she is considered a threat to the US government and is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. Forty years on, Assata Shakur is still a dangerous woman.
With this in mind, it’s clear that Assata: An Autobiography, republished by Zed Books in July, is as imperative a read and powerful a defence against the FBI’s ongoing claims as it was in the year of its original publication in 1987. The autobiography begins at the shootout involving the police officer and from there Assata takes us through her subsequent legal battles. This is interspersed with emotionally charged poetry and recollections of formative experiences throughout her life, which lead up to her political awakening and involvement in the black power movement. In the final chapter, she brings us up to the 1987 present day – having escaped from prison, she is living in Cuba.
Through Assata’s experiences, we are invited to look directly into the mechanisms of power and the measures the US government has taken to uphold its winners and subjugate its losers. She shows us how the police, backed by the FBI, operate with impunity under the guise of neutralising ‘black nationalist hate groups’, while Assata, much like her black radical counterparts of the time, is systematically targeted and vilified for an array of fictitious crimes. The language used by US officials offers a critical case study in systemic power and denigration. The parallel between the public depiction of Assata and her eloquence and compassion is palpable throughout the autobiography. Words used by the police and media to describe her, such as ‘threat’ and ‘enemy of the state’, create a reductive caricature of a woman seeking justice and equality.
Angela Davis, in the foreword, recalls how Assata asks in an open letter to the Pope, ‘Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat?’ The reality is we were never supposed to hear Assata’s story; the criminal plastered on every ‘wanted’ poster wall in 1970s New York was the only side of her we were ever supposed to see. The danger she poses to the US government, therefore, lies in her freedom and her disruption of this mainstream narrative. Assata has lived in the bowels of a corrupt and oppressive legal process but she has lived to tell the tale. Her unapologetic critique of the system that tried to crush her and her beliefs exposes the hypocrisy behind the principles of equality and freedom that the US believes its ideals were built upon.
Assata’s autobiography is a book that should be irrelevant now, a historical flag post of the struggles of our revolutionary forebearers. Instead, the picture she paints is strikingly similar to the deep-rooted structural inequalities we are familiar with today. Her accounts of police brutality and impunity, the communities of colour disproportionately imprisoned and the selective character defamation all have resonance in the injustices of Trayvon Martin, Mariss Alexander, Mike Brown and the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. For all of the misguided assertions that we are living in an Obama ‘post‑racial’ climate, these continuing cases of racialised police brutality, as well as the ongoing attempts made by the US to denigrate and convict Assata, signal a systemic prejudice as raw and as visceral as it was in the 1960s.
There is much to learn from this book. As personal as it is political, it has vital lessons for any activist committed to challenging social injustice and fighting for global solidarity. Assata’s reflections as an activist in exile are also important; she is both in the centre and the periphery of the struggle, which breeds insightful and nuanced considerations.
Assata’s sense of hope, even in the most dire of situations, is striking. She talks about the creativity and power borne out of hardship and her poems within the book, often written during the bleakest of times, seem to give testament to this. For her, there is still beauty and truth even in the darkest moments of struggle. In her words:
I believe in living.
I believe in birth.
I believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And I believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home