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