FBI’s Most Wanted: Review – Assata An Autobiography
By Joy Macready
“He looks just like what he is: a racist dog craka… I want to scream, ‘Dirty dog, slimy pig, you’re not a judge. You’re just another prosecutor.”
These are the words that Assata Shakur, a founding member of the Black Liberation Army and the first woman ever to make the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, uses to describe the presiding judge of the kangaroo court trying to “neutralise” her revolutionary potential.
But it wasn’t just one “craka” (white) judge that Assata was up against – it was the whole state apparatus, racist to its core from the judges to the prison guards, state troopers and police. But state racism doesn’t stop there – it pervades every aspect of life, including education, housing, employment, healthcare and childcare, and infects communities.
Assata’s autobiography exposes the naked racism built into the ideology – and reality – of the world’s greatest imperialist power, the USA. Her chapters alternate between the bogus trials and lengthy internment she faced in the 1970s, and her life as a young black woman growing up partly in the Jim Crow South and partly in the “integrated” North. The chapters are also punctuated with her powerful and sharp poetry.
She writes about the rise of the anti-war/anti-imperialist and civil rights movements in the 1960s and her growing militancy from a young age. This is illustrated in her gut reaction to the non-violence strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) – “to sit there and let some craka dog spit on me, well just the idea of it made me want to fight”.
She also recounts her political journey from community politics and black empowerment to an international revolutionary. Her political awakening began when she was at Manhattan Community College, participating in student government and fighting for community control of schools and education, as well as deep political discussion with African liberation fighters.
“We always starting talking about reform and ended up talking about revolution. If you were talking about anything except a few little jive crumbs here and there, reform was just not going to get it. I was long past the day when I thought reform could possibly work, but revolution was a big question mark. I believed, with all my heart, that it was possible. But the question was how,” she writes.
She joined the Black Panther Party, which promoted militant self-defence, and worked in the free breakfast programme in East Harlem, getting up every morning to cook for and feed hungry children before they went to school, and free health clinics. However, stoked by police infiltrators, the Panthers began to tear themselves apart, and Huey Newton, the “Supreme Commander”, began expelling longstanding loyal members. So Assata resigned from the party.
According to Assata, “One of the Party’s major weaknesses, I thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.” Assata was clear about the need for an armed struggle, but she argued it had to be part of a mass movement and supportive of the aims of the working class.
Not long after leaving the party, she was forced underground as state oppression was ratcheted up and the police began hunting her, trying to fit her up for crimes she didn’t commit.
In the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its peak, the FBI (led by J. Edgar Hoover) launched a counterintelligence programme (COINTELPRO) to systematically “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralise” black organisations and individuals, railroading the best and most revolutionary activists into prison on trumped up charges.
The Fed had already imprisoned the Black Panther 21, who were arrested in a pre-dawn raid on 2 April, 1969 and charged with conspiracy to blow up the New York Botanical Gardens. Tellingly, after the longest political trial in New York’s history, all 21 New York Panthers were acquitted of all charges in just 45 minutes of jury deliberation on 13 May 1971.
Angela Davis had also been jailed for almost two years for aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder, of which she was acquitted in 1972.
In the same year, Assata, also known as JoAnne Chesimard, was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, accused of being a bank robber, and subsequently a kidnapper and murderer. Her picture was plastered in every bank, post office and subway station in New York. She moved around covertly with the help of the Black Liberation Army.
On 2 May 1973, she along with Zayd Shakur and Sundiata Acoli were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike by state troopers who claimed that they had a faulty taillight; such spurious reasons were continually used to harass the black community, in the same way that stop and search is used today. This encounter left Assata critically wounded, and Zayd and a state trooper dead.
Incarcerated for the next four years, she was treated in the most barbaric way. She was continuously confined in a men’s prison, under 24-hour surveillance, without intellectual stimulus, adequate medical attention or exercise, and without the company of other women. She spent most of this time in solitary confinement.
During those years, all the many other charges that caused Assata to be a fugitive and led to the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike were dropped for lack of evidence, dismissed or resulted in acquittal. The vicious vendetta that the state pursued against her is captured in great detail as she recounts the many trials she endured.
After being convicted of the state trooper’s murder, Assata escaped from prison and gained asylum in Cuba, where she has lived for the past 30 years. She is still on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and the New Jersey State Police has never given up trying to pressurise the Cuban government into extraditing her.
Assata argues that capitalism and class play a central role in the oppression of black people. She reports getting into heated arguments when others claimed that the oppression of black people was only a question of race. “It would burn me up every time somebody talked about black people climbing the ladder of success. Anytime you’re talking about a ladder, you’re talking about a top and a bottom, an upper class and a lower class, a rich class and a poor class.”
The problem with the Black Liberation Army, as with other urban guerrilla groups in the 1970s, like the Weathermen, is that they did not relate to a real mass movement and were therefore doomed to failure. Assata herself recognises this error in her book.
But although Assata criticises black nationalism, recognising its reactionary nature without a truly internationalist component, she remains a black separatist. Although she believes in uniting with white revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, she argues that black people need to have their own separate organisation in order to struggle for black liberation.
“I believe that to gain our liberation, we must come from the position of power and unity, and that a black revolutionary party, led by black revolutionary leaders, is essential.”
Black people do need to organise themselves within the wider working class movement in order to defeat racism and fight for their own specific needs, however Workers Power doesn’t support the building of separate black political parties or trade unions. We reject separatism and insist on both the possibility and the necessity of black and white workers uniting in the struggle against racism and capitalism.
Workers Power argues that black people – as well as other oppressed groups such as women, youth and LGBTs – should organise within a single revolutionary party, comprised of the most militant fighters against capitalism and racism. Black workers have a leading role to play in that party.
But in order to combat racism, sexism and homophobia, all oppressed groups have the right to caucus. Our support for the right of black workers to organise within the workers’ movement is aimed at strengthening the unity of the working class.
Furthermore in a country like the US, where racism and racial oppression are deep-rooted in the white population’s psyche and manifest, black working class movements will spontaneously arise and revolutionaries should support them or agitate for them if they do not yet exist. But such movements do not have to be – and should not be – black-only.
The great black liberation movements of the past show this to be the case. The anti-slavery movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, certainly had black leaders, but also white activists and leaders among them, especially from the Jewish community, where the experience of racism was both raw and recent.
But only the working class, black and white, has a consistent interest in defeating racism – and capitalism – once and for all.