Header

Red, White, Black and Blue: Assata Shakur, Leonard Peltier and Race

Cole R. DeLaune
5/23/13

In May 2011, the spectacle of political theater took a quickly forgotten detour into the realm of the absurd when minor protests erupted over the participation of Chicago rapper Common in a White House poetry slam. Karl Rove decried the recording artist and film star as a "thug" and “misogynist," while Sarah Palin took to Facebook with a sardonic, "Just lovely." The labor union representing New Jersey state troopers voiced robust opposition, and Obama press secretary Jay Carney found himself awkwardly debating the nuances of hip hop with the media corps. The impetus of this firestorm? A track on the singer's 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate entitled "A Song for Assata," on which Cee Lo Green proclaims of the tune's heroine, "Your power, your pride is beautiful."

The subject of this ode is, of course, Assata Shakur, an African-American activist and former member of both the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. To say Shakur is polarizing would be an understatement to the extent of effective distortion. Otherwise known by her married name of JoAnne Chesimard, the Queens native rose to prominence during the early 1970s when she was accused of perpetrating a string of violent felonies in and around the New York metropolitan area. By 1972, she appeared on the cover of the Daily News as speculation crescendoed regarding her possible involvement in an $89,000 bank robbery.

Shakur reentered the public discourse on May 2 when the FBI announced that the aging fugitive had become the first woman to warrant inclusion on the agency's list of Most Wanted Terrorists. Inevitably, disagreement with the news was loud and passionate. Rank-and-file conservatives applauded the policy decision, but others quite rightly expressed bafflement.

The press conference in which Shakur's bounty was doubled to $2 million registered as random and hyperbolic. Although she has by all accounts lived without incident in Cuba since 1984, New Jersey State Police Col. Rick Fuentes castigated her for "flaunting her freedom" and lamented that she "has been given a pulpit to preach and profess, stirring supporters and groups to mobilize against the United States by any means necessary." The FBI claimed she represents a "supreme terror" despite the absence of any new intelligence to suggest as much. Like the continuing incarceration of Leonard Peltier, the sudden full-press vilification of Shakur spotlights the extent to which racism pervades not only mainstream America at large, but also the progressive establishment and the aggregate radical left.

The revisionist fantasy which casts Shakur as a veritable horsewoman of the apocalypse trades on the basest of culturally ingrained biases. Often portrayed as a "cop killer" bogeyman, she affords — as one of the few female firebrands of the civil rights movement — governmental apparatuses an opportunity to simultaneously exploit the West's Lady Macbeth complex and deflect attention from its own shameful historical transgressions. Ever since Eve sampled the forbidden apple, society has loved a female antagonist, an impulse evident in the FBI's tellingly gendered description of Shakur as "a revolutionary mother hen." That she's a woman of color in this instance offers the unique benefit of camouflaging the U.S’s own significant sins in the race wars.

The realities of Shakur's persecution are disturbing. Between 1973 and 1977, she was indicted for a total of ten crimes in several different tri-state jurisdictions. Six of the ensuing seven trials culminated in acquittal or dismissal of the charges. Her luck ran out, however, when she was convicted of first-degree murder for her role in the New Jersey Turnpike shootout that ended in the death of law enforcement official Werner Foerster. The verdict was issued despite an admission under cross-examination by eyewitness State Trooper James Harper that he had lied repeatedly during his previous Grand Jury testimony and the contention of multiple medical professionals that injuries Shakur sustained during the gunfight could only have occurred with her arms raised in surrender. Such details leave little doubt that the activist was not exaggerating when she described the proceedings as "a lynching."

In the mythologies that have developed since Shakur's 1979 escape from prison, commentators of every ideological stripe have reductively conflated her trajectory with those of ostensibly similar collectives like the Weather Underground. But while the BLA occasionally crossed paths with other organizations — most notably in the notorious 1981 Brink's truck armed robbery — their memberships could hardly have been more different. Helmed largely by affluent Caucasian dilettantes engaged in delayed adolescent rebellion, the WU proved a philosophically inconsistent cohort of alternately embarrassing and tragic individuals. After lauding Charles Manson’s savage rampage, Bernardine Dohrn (née Ohrnstein; apparently, the ascendancy of Anglicized names trumps the appeal of liberal "diversity") cashed in with lucrative jobs at the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin and Northwestern University. Her husband, Bill Ayers, penned a memoir primarily devoted to parsing his past sexual conquests. Devolving into the domestic terrorist version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the couple seem to have occupied themselves over the past thirty years mostly with reveling in obscure triumphs and embracing the kind of bourgeoisie lifestyle against which they once railed. Poor little rich girl Kathy Boudin, meanwhile, was content to pantomime solidarity with the disadvantaged until she faced a murder charge of her own, at which point she enlisted her father to assemble an expensive legal team that pleaded with her co-defendants to lie about the degree of her involvement in the aforementioned deadly Brink's holdup. Like Dohrn, Boudin now enjoys the professional and financial security of teaching positions at Columbia and NYU.

By contrast, Shakur spent much of her childhood in the cauldron of the Jim Crow South. If her biography recalls that of any fellow freedom fighter, it is Peltier. Both grappled from an early age with the net of systematic oppression, the former in 1950s North Carolina and the latter on Turtle Mountain and Pine Ridge. Both endured dubious criminal trials as prologue to their widely contested convictions. And both find themselves either literally or symbolically imprisoned decades after suspicions of police and FBI misconduct initially emerged while white counterparts like Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans received commutations of sentence by President Clinton. One needs only to refer to such disparities to realize that minorities remain unequal in the practical application of the law. When it comes to questions of race, even the revolution, it seems, will not be color blind.

Educated at Darmouth College and Columbia University, Cole DeLaune is a native of Oklahoma and Tennessee. He currently resides in Atlanta, and has contributed editorial content to Vogue and Elle, among other publications. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Skin-walking, his first book of poetry, will be published in October.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

6

POST A COMMENT

Comments

Two Bears Growling's picture
We have seen bias since the washichu first set foot on our lands. It is not surprising that this woman has been the target of the federal thug machine since she defied them & threw their deceit back in their faces. This is why they want her so badly & have offered such a reward for her capture. How many times have we read in the papers or seen on the news about some case where someone is acquitted of a crime, yet the case is refiled & prosecuted time after time because the prosecution legal team wants someone to be guilty. That, my friends is not justice. It is a travesty & misuse & abuse of justice. Justice is not for all when a prosecutors ego has been bruised because time after time they continue to refile the charges & demand a retrial UNTIL they get the jury & conviction they want regardless of the evidence & what it tells to the contrary. Justice is not blind when a vengeful DA or PA have had their egos bruised & continue time after time to get the outcome they wanted to begin with regardless of what the evidence reveals, even if they know someone is NOT guilty of the crime they are charged. STILL they continue to refile a case & waste the citizens tax dollars unjustly. Shame on ALL who wrongly pursue the innocent out of arrogance & an evil spirit! A corrupt justice system is no justice at all, but instead, a slap in the face of all that is good & of those who are righteous & innocent in the Creator's eyes.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
Might have been a better article in the Atlanta Journal of somewhere with a large black readership. Nothing here for Native Americans.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Newsflash, American Indians aren't the only folks who read ICT. Why do you assume Black people read the Atlanta Journal? Racism begins with faulty assumptions. Just sayin!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I thought this article was going to focus on native activist. Though the African-America has had a struggle too. Their protest did nothing for our cause. We need more articles on Native Activist.
Anonymous
OglalasNeverIdle's picture
Sounds like a column from someone who lives in Atlanta. Oh wait he does. Wonderful use of literary talent but like usual it is further evidence that he is the most out of touch columnist in Indian country. Thanks ICTM for promoting the wrong voices again.
OglalasNeverIdle
Anonymous's picture
Why create such an elaborate red herring to defend Peltier? There are so many logical fallacies in this argument by merely mentioning Peliter in passing and concluding it must be the same exact comparison.
Anonymous