When the FBI announced that they were placing fugitive Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard) on the list of most wanted terrorists and that they were offering an additional $1 million for her capture, it caught most of the world by complete surprise. Assata has been living quietly in exile in Cuba where she was given political asylum for 30 years. The former member of the Black Liberation Army escaped captivity after being tried and convicted—under controversial circumstances—in connection with the killing of a New Jersey State policeman. Several other allegations against her were dropped either through acquittals or mistrials.
Assata Shakur had been a member of the Black Panther Party, later joining the Black Liberation Army. Like many other Black activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she witnessed the vicious repression of the Black Freedom Movement—and other movements of the time—by agencies of the U.S. government, including through the use of the now notorious COINTELPRO (the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program). COINTELPRO involved the infiltration and disruption of organizations that the FBI concluded were a threat to the U.S. elite. Disruption included rumor-mongering, provocation, the encouraging of splits, imprisonment and murder. The intensity of the repression of the Black Freedom Movement, in this case, led many activists to conclude that, at a minimum, self-defense was necessary. For others the conclusion was that a military arm of the Black Freedom Movement was needed.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions arrived at by Assata Shakur, one thing is very important: she was never a terrorist. Let us be clear about the meaning of this word that we hear so regularly these days. A "terrorist" is someone who uses military methods/violence against civilians in order to advance a political objective. There is nothing in the activism of Assata Shakur that displays anything approaching terrorism. Additionally, since her exile, she has not been involved with any activities in the U.S.A. that could be construed as terrorist.
So, what is this about? It appears that the main inspiration for this outrage is to derail any efforts at the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Upon the reelection of President Obama, there have been rumors circulating that there might be efforts to remove Cuba from the list of countries supporting terrorism. There were additional suggestions that there might be efforts towards normalization.
There are groups in the U.S.A. who oppose normalization of relations with Cuba and they will do anything that they can to disrupt such efforts. Whether those elements convinced the FBI to take this step is irrelevant. The fact is that this step complicates discussions about changing the terms of U.S./Cuban relations. Right-wing Cuban exiles as well as ultra-conservative elements in our political establishment have an interest in the status quo; most of this country is more interested in improvement in relations with Cuba.
For this reason, we need to understand the upping of the ante on Assata as not only a threat to her existence, a violation of Cuban and international law, but also a cynical move to disrupt efforts to end the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere.
Now is the time to demand that President Obama and Attorney General Holder reverse the decision of the FBI. Let's end this ridiculous melodrama.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of "They're Bankrupting Us" – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.