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In 1977, a black militant named Assata Shakur was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in a shootout on the New Jersey turnpike. She escaped from prison two years later and fled to Cuba, claiming political asylum. Last week, the FBI added her to their “Most Wanted Terrorist” list, sparking questions about why a 40-year-old case is again making headlines.
- Jeffrey Ogbar History Professor and Vice Provost for Diversity, University of Connecticut; Author, "Black Power and African American Identity" (Johns Hopkins Press)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's that time and anxious America awaits the arrival of a book that often determines who is diagnosed with a mental illness and who is not.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, in 1973, a woman named Assata Shakur and two other members of a black militant group were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for a broken tail light. The encounter that followed left a state trooper and one of militants dead. Assata Shakur was convicted of killing the officer, but escaped from prison two years later. She left to go to Cuba where she lives today claiming political asylum.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILast week, the FBI added her to its "Most Wanted Terrorist" list. She is the first woman to ever make that list and joining us to discuss it by phone is Jeffrey Ogbar. He is a professor of history and vice provost for diversity at the University of Connecticut. He's also the author of the book "Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJeffrey Ogbar, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JEFFREY OGBARIt's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDII remember when she was Joanne Chesimard, Jeffrey Ogbar. But tell us who is Assata Shakur and what was she doing before she was convicted in this case?
OGBARShe was a member of the Black Panther Party, a native of New York and joined the Black Panther Party. And the Black Panther Party, after going through different stages, experienced a sort of extreme degree of state repression as one would imagine.
OGBARAnd a group as an offshoot, a group called the Black Liberation Army, emerged in the early 1970s that engaged in a series of clandestine activities and she was a member of the BLA, as it was called. And she and a number of other BLA members had engaged in a series of activities in the region and bank robberies among them had been attributed to the BLA.
OGBARAnd then she was, of course, as you mentioned, stopped in 1973 on the Turnpike and…
NNAMDIWhat do we know about the events of that night in May 1973?
OGBARWell, the story is that, you know, the BLA was explicitly, you know, supporting armed struggle and armed and the state, the local authorities had been on the lookout for its members and had identified the BLA as a particularly virulent threat.
OGBARAnd so all members of the BLA were aware that if confronted with the police that, you know, they, just like the Panthers and other militant groups at the time, you know, the police had been quite hostile in all sorts of ways. And so there were well-documented cases of hostility between the federal, state, and local authorities and different subversive groups in the United States resulting in all sorts of shootouts and everything else.
OGBARAnd so to have to stop here the, you know, police officers, Panthers, a shootout emerged, as you mentioned. One Panther was killed -- oh, excuse me, one BLA member killed, one state trooper killed and two, you know, one BLA member injured, Assata and the one trooper injured.
OGBARAnd at that point, you know, she was arrested and charged with a series of crimes, a number of them, most of which she was acquitted for and then convicted for the murder of the state trooper.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jeffrey Ogbar. He is a professor of history and vice provost for diversity at the University of Connecticut. He's also the author of the book "Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity." We're inviting you to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you know about radical movements of the '60s and the 1970s? 800-433-8850 or you can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWe don't have a great deal of time, Jeffrey Ogbar, but I think it's important for people to understand the context in which this was occurring. You just gave some of it. There had been, long before that, two members of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who had been essentially gunned down by police in their apartment in Chicago.
NNAMDIThis was the time when people had learned of the FBI's COINTELPRO program in which they set radical organizations against one another after infiltrating them. I guess one had to understand that there was a certain mood of the times of paranoia among the so-called black militants such as the members of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party at that time.
OGBARYeah, I mean, one of the most -- so the Fred Hampton and Mark Clark assassinations, those occurred in December of '69 and even moderate black organizations and sort of the NAACP and Roy Wilkins.
OGBAREven Roy Wilkins of, perhaps the most, you know, cautious Negro in the United States, even he came out and said that this was an egregious act of police malfeasance and aggression. So you have, you know, a wide cross-section of African-Americans and other people who are moderates who recognize the assassinations of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton to be sort of Gestapo-type tactics.
OGBARAnd this was actually before COINTELPRO was public, but many of these organizations felt that there was a systematic effort in the FBI to undermine -- and using illegal activities to do so, undermine the activities of these organizations. So the Church Hearings came out in the Congress in 1975 and that's when we had the sort of the full-blown testimonies and evidence about the scope of the counter-intelligence program.
NNAMDIThat being the Senate Committee on Intelligence, headed by then Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, investigating all of this stuff that had happened?
OGBARYes, sir, exactly. So between Fred Hampton's death, that's '69, December 4, and then this is '73 and the Church Hearings, of course, and all these came out a couple of years later. But there was already this sense that there is indeed something and, you know, it was in the air. They could smell it. They could feel it. They could taste it. They had not a name for it, but they knew it existed.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard, was convicted in this case, did escape, had become a fugitive, living in Cuba. In 2005, the FBI classified Assata Shakur as a domestic terrorist and last week she was added to the FBI's "Most Wanted Terrorist" list. She is not the first domestic terrorist to make that list, but it is relatively rare. What do you make of that designation?
OGBARAh, I think it was very surprising at some levels, I think. You know, we know we have to take it into its context. So in 2005, with the Bush administration and with, you know, of course, the Bush administration declares a war on terror, which is largely seen as an external threat, but at the same time, there's an increasing, you know, sort of hostility and criticism to many of the Bush policies and including the Patriot Act.
OGBARAnd in many ways, this sort of, you know, deals with subversive groups in the United States that in 2004 and 2005, you know, are very little in the way of anything like the BLA or some of the organizations we had back then. In fact, the only organizations we would say were like that are these sort of majority white groups that, you know, really became more popular under Clinton's administration.
OGBARAnd despite the erosion of civil liberties with the Patriot Act under Bush, a lot of these groups, ironically, were quite quiet according to the Southern (word?) Law Center and had grown exponentially under you know Obama's administration for the same reasons they came to sort of overstepping of the you know, federal government's policies and powers and those sorts of things.
OGBARBut someone in 2005 was going to understand the Patriot Act and their sort of concerns over domestic/subversives and it becomes a sort of affirmation of sort of, you know, their ability to do certain things. But unlike COINTELPRO or any point in the United States' history they could sort of do certain things legally.
OGBARSo things that were considered illegal under J. Edgar Hoover were now legal under, you know, Ambrosio Gonzales and some of the people from the Bush administration with the Patriot Act. So you didn't have to go through the same process to do certain things that had to be done prior to the Patriot Act.
OGBARBut I think this is kind of seen in that larger context of sort of, you know, letting people know exactly that if you're a domestic threat, you know, we'll treat you in a certain way on par with something like al-Qaida.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, why now, 40 years later, is the FBI focused on Assata Shakur? Is there an implication that she is still a threat to the United States, a domestic threat?
OGBARWell, certainly, the implication is that she's a threat. Whether that's true or not, you know, I need to see evidence and I don't know what the evidence is. I've looked at the news reports and they say that she's saying things that are sensitive to the United States and that she has connections to international organizations.
OGBARI haven't seen the names of those organizations. I wouldn't know. She's not known to be a sort of religious fanatic. She's not a radical Islamist. I wouldn't know what connections they would be and what organizations she would be working with.
OGBARI'm not tied to her or the organizations so I'm not sure how that would -- what the argument is for this sort of ratcheting up of her as a sort of threat. I am really kind of caught at a loss to describe this sort of -- to explain the rationale, the reasoning behind this new sort of doubling, but also the new emphasis on putting her on this "Most Wanted" list. And to be honest, I wish I had a better answer, but I'm kind of perplexed.
NNAMDIWe, too, are looking for answers. We're talking with Jeffrey Ogbar. He's a professor of history and vice provost for diversity at the University of Connecticut, author of the book "Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity."
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What criteria do you think warrants the designation terrorist? Do domestic political activists getting violent fit that bill? 800-433-8850, Assata Shakur is currently living in Cuba. She is probably in the vicinity of 70 years old. Do you have any idea what her situation is in Cuba and how do political relations between the U.S. and Cuba complicate this matter?
OGBARWell, a number of people have gone down to Cuba prior to 2005 and met with Assata and they're -- you may know people. I've known folks who have gone down there...
NNAMDII certainly do, yes.
OGBAR...yeah, graduate students and you know artists, Common, the famous rapper and a lot of other folks have gone down and met with her. And since 2005, she's, as I understand, and just from media reports that, you know, she's now sort of gone into hiding in some way and that, you know, there are mercenaries and, you know, soldiers of fortune or just folks who think, hey, I can go down there, you know, kidnap her and bring her back and get a million dollars.
OGBARNow it's $2 million and so there's a sort of reason why, you know, this -- but in terms of diplomatic relations, there were some conversations around if the United States -- and under Obama's administration, he's made it easier for people to travel to Cuba, as Bush made it more difficult, to sort of ease some of those things.
OGBARAnd there's a sort of a conversation that maybe as the United States moves to a sort of, you know, have friendlier relations with Havana, that this might be -- they could, you know, it kind of, you know, kill two birds with one stone. That, you know, there are people who would like to have -- a number of people, apparently, like many other folks who were considered, you know, escaped convicts, people who have escaped the law who have had refuge in Cuba, that Assata is their biggest fish. But along with everyone else that they could get all these folks back and then normalize relations.
OGBARAnd then that this would be a sort of, you know, win-win for the State Department as well as for diplomatic relations with Cuba that, of course, has been isolated for many years. Cuba doesn't pose any, as far as I know, any particular sort of, you know, military threat to the United States or even sort of a profound ideological threat as it may have, you know, 20 some odd years ago.
OGBARSo why this is occurring now, the only thing I could say is that maybe in terms of killing two birds with one stone that there's a process towards normalizing relations with Havana and that Washington might, you know, just kind of throw this in there as a sort of carrot along to get these other folks back along with Assata, as well as sort of making a certain position about subversives in the United States, too.
NNAMDIYeah, especially in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, which is fresh in people's minds. Lennox Hinds has been Assata Shakur's attorney since 1973. He's a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University. He said that -- quoting here, "This is a political act pushed by the state of New Jersey by some members of congress from Miami and with the intent of putting pressure on the Cuban government and to inflame public opinion."
NNAMDIBut you mentioned earlier, Jeffrey Ogbar, that Assata is the biggest fish. Assata Shakur wrote her autobiography in 2001 and there have been films, poems and books about her life. You mentioned the number of well-known celebrities who have visited with her in Cuba. Why do you think she looms so large in the public imagination?
OGBARI think there's a sort of -- so in the early 1970s there was a poll done that surveyed African-Americans by organizations they respected, they admired and thought would increase a sort of visibility and affluence. And while African-Americans respected the Urban League and (word?), the only organization they both respected and thought would increase an influence was the Black Panther party surprisingly, for an organization that many people, you know, now see as sort of extreme and marginal and had a lot of respect in the African-American community.
OGBARAnd I think that we've sort of -- seeing someone as a former Panther who for a generation of sort of hip-hop generation of African-Americans raised where there was this romantic gaze that many have toward the black power movement. And no organization looms as large as the Panthers. For right or wrong people see the Panthers in a sort of light. And then the idea of someone who unlike, you know, Huey Newton dies and is sort of -- you know, he's a drug addict who gets, you know, killed, you know, by a drug dealer in Oakland. So a tragic figure or people who are chased out of the country or assassinated.
OGBARYou know, here's somebody who, you know, actually, you know, is a strong black woman who survives and she escapes to Cuba. And then her book is read by, you know, thousands of people and, you know, hip-hop songs and people make reference to her. I think that sort of like Angela Davis, she has a sort of iconic, you know, sort of romantic image around her. And I think that for those reasons, you know, she's just sort of become this, again, admired and iconic figure.
OGBARThe term terrorist obviously is a very political term. You know, as people have said, you know, one man's terrorist is one man's freedom fighter. And the -- that term is a very, very powerful term, particularly in our context now it's preferred to be labeled that is -- I think it's sort of -- it's a very sort of powerful gesture by the FBI. And of course they did that in 2005 but, you know, the Panthers were called the greatest threat to national security in 1968 by J. Edgar Hoover.
OGBARBut, you know, African-Americans still -- you know, about 10,000, you know, kids were fed by the Panthers, you know, weekly. And I think that the relationship -- although J. Edgar Hoover would make this claim, I think the people themselves had a very different relationship with them. And they might perceived them to be the greatest threat to their lives.
OGBARAnd probably see the police department as a greater threat than the Panthers were to them.
NNAMDI...I think that's what Anthony in Annandale, Va. wants to talk about. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYYeah, I was going to say that's -- I had a totally different experience with the Black Panthers. They were actually at Fort Monmouth, N.J. in a program teaching us math skills, job skills and how to present yourself in a positive way to get jobs. I mean, they started the breakfast program. They had lawyers. They even had a congressman. They even -- they did so many positive things and I don't understand, who were they threatening?
NNAMDIYes, there is a former member of the Black Panther party who is a member of congress from Chicago even as we speak, Anthony. Care to comment at all on that, Jeffrey Ogbar?
OGBARYeah, Bobby Rush of course, the congressman from Chicago and he along with other people in congress have an indifferent -- I don't know what Bobby Rush actually -- I don't know what he said about the Assata case, if he's said anything about it most recently. I know that Maxine Waters who -- I'm from Los Angeles and Maxine Waters is the congresswoman representing parts of south central L.A. She has actually, you know, questioned and has disagreed with, you know, these efforts to -- in fact, I just saw a quote where she -- I think she disagrees with even the statement of calling her a terrorist. And some of the other -- the efforts they used to, you know...
NNAMDIIndeed, we have a caller, Clay, in Owings Mills, Md. who wants to address the issue of being someone being labeled a terrorist. Clay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAYYes. First I want to thank you for your show and your guest. His opinions seem to be broad and unbiased. But as it pertains to, you know, the label terrorist, I just think that the government seems to be moving into an area where regular citizens -- or if you're an NRA member, now they're label terrorists because they believe in the constitution. And me being a constitutionalist, I think that, you know, the reason why we were afforded the right to have guns was not to go hunting, but to protect us from the tyranny of the government (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOh, your telephone is breaking up, Clay. You need to stay in the same position. Oh, it's gone completely now. I can't hear you at all. But we do have time for one more call. Here is Carl in Washington, D.C. Carl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CARLWell, sir, you know, as I'm listening to this, it seems to me that if she was participating in a murder of a state trooper, despite the relationship between the police and the black community at the time, that she should be held accountable. And it was my understanding that the reason it came up at this time is because we're coming up on the 40th anniversary of that. And we're trying to reaffirm that crimes such as this would not go unpunished.
CARLAnd I think we have conflated the activities of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther party. And they are -- they were two different groups. And one decided to take a more militant, aggressive violent activity as an expression of their disdain for (unintelligible) missing. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment on that at all, Jeffrey Ogbar?
OGBARYeah, actually I agree with everything he said. To be honest, I think that the -- I mean, the BLA and the Black Panther party, as I mentioned, are, you know, two separate organizations. The BLA, you know, went underground. They engaged in -- you know, they weren't above ground, you know, giving, you know, free food to children and making breakfast programs or the medical clinics that the Panthers had or for clothes giveaways.
OGBARAnd, in fact, illogically there were members of the BLA who thought that those sort of activities were -- these performance activities weren't revolutionary enough. And that, you know, the struggle needs to be multifaceted, including an armed wing that was underground and engage in those sorts of activities. And so, yes, I hope I did not conflate the two organizations but it's quite clear that they were two separate organizations.
NNAMDICarl, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid we're out of time. Jeffrey Ogbar, thank you so much for joining us.
OGBARThank you very much for having me on the phone, Kojo, and I look forward to being on here again. Hopefully it won't be another, what, six years or so.
NNAMDII hope not. Jeffrey Ogbar is a professor of history and Vice Provost for Diversity at the University of Connecticut. He's also the author of "Black Power: Radical Politics and African-American Identity." When we come back, we will talk about it is that time of every several years when we're looking forward to the next edition of the book that often determines who is diagnosed with a mental illness and who is not. We'll talk with the author of a new book about that "The Book of Woe." We'll talk with author Gary Greenberg. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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