Political Exile or Most-Wanted Terrorist: Why the Discourse on Assata Shakur Matters to You and to Everyone

Cultivating fear to justify violence in the name of justice.

The FBI has brought political exile Assata Shakur back to the top of the newsfeed, and they’re making sure the public believes that this action is in the name of public security.  On May 2, 2013, the FBI placed Shakur on their Most Wanted Terrorists list, the same list as Taliban and Hezbollah leaders.  In doing so they also upped her bounty from $1 million to $2 million, creating a manhunt, or womanhunt, if you will, and reviving a case that has been quiet for the past 30-40 years.  Why now?  (Does it have anything to do with the recent decision to keep Cuba on the U.S. list of terror sponsors?)

Since 1984, Shakur has been living in exile in Cuba where she received political asylum under international human rights law.  She received asylum because she cannot get a fair trial in the U.S. due to her beliefs and views, and because she has justifiable reason to fear persecution if she returned to the U.S.  The FBI does not mention her political asylum status in their description of her on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists website.

What is political asylum?  

The U.S. Government describes asylum like this:

Every year people come to the United States seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership in a particular social group
  • Political opinion

Wiki says:

The political asylum is one of the human rights affirmed by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a rules of international human rights law. All countries who have agreed to the United Nations Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees must let people, who do qualify, come into their country.

People who qualify for asylum are those who can show that they might be badly treated in their own country because of their:

According to these sites, the U.S. appears to show definite agreement with international human rights law.  It is reasonable to say that Shakur received political asylum in Cuba based on these criteria.

 What is terrorism and who is a terrorist?

The CIA gives this loose definition of terrorism on their CIA FAQs page:

Q: How do you define terrorism?

A: The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):

  • The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
  • The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
  • The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

The broad scope of the CIA’s definition leaves a large amount of room for subjective interpretation.  In fact, the definition is so general, the term could be used as a label when the government deems it fitting, given that there are no clear and specific criteria.  For a more detailed discussion on defining terrorism, Digital Journal recently featured an op-ed  examining a working definition of terrorism and how the term is now generally thrown around without specificity in the media and in political speeches, such as in Obama’s public address following the Boston bombings.

FBI National Priorities

The FBI has a page addressing terrorism under their “About Us” section that lists what they investigate.

They list their National Priorities as:

1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack

2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage

3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes

They list their Criminal Priorities as:

4. Combat public corruption at all levels

5. Protect civil rights

6. Combat transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises

7. Combat major white-collar crime

8. Combat significant violent crime

Given this list of priorities, we have to ask why now, 40 years later, are they bringing Assata Shakur to the list?  Does she fit any of their priorities?

Under National Priority #1–Protect the United States from terrorist attack— the FBI defines terrorism as, “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  Assata Shakur has been living peacefully in exile in Cuba since 1984.  This action is supposed to protect us? Or is it supposed to inflame public opinion?

Under National Priority #1 the FBI also claims to, “investigate terrorism-related matters without regard to race, religion, national origin, or gender.” Further they claim, “reference to individual members of any political, ethnic, or religious group does not imply that all members of that group are terrorists.”  The FBI has included an over-arching disclaimer regarding racial profiling.  This should have your minds rest easy (right?) that this doesn’t happen because they have assured us in writing that it is against policy.  Perhaps they could team up with big media on this priority as it seems the two institutions could do some great work together….  Read here NPR’s talk with Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, and how she describes the way Shakur, who is but only one woman, has been portrayed as a violent threat jointly by the government and big media.

Also, see National Priority #5–Protect civil rights.  Under this priority they state, “Hate crimes are a particularly insidious threat—they are often violent and serial in nature and breed fear and distrust in communities.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  I wonder how they would explain then, Shakur’s treatment in the all-men’s prison where she stayed for two years in solitary confinement, was beaten and tortured, and handled only by male prison guards before her lawyer won the case that she should be moved to a women’s prison.  Or how she was shot from the back and the front with her hands in the air at the time that she allegedly fired a gun, though there is no forensic evidence supporting that she held a gun let alone fired one.  Can you get a fair trial when forensic evidence is ignored over government and media preconceptions and misrepresentations of events?

Assata Shakur: Political Exile or Most Wanted Terrorist?

assata shakur

It appears that the U.S. government agrees with international law regarding political asylum.  However, the FBI does not discuss Shakur’s political asylum status in their press releases or in their discussion of the case.  Many people who speak out as activists and educators have been granted asylum in the U.S. and in other countries since it was established as a human right internationally in 1948.  Where is the line between speaking out, or even radical activism, and terrorism? Or is that an ambiguous line relative to the political motives at stake?

The immigration help website immihelp states, “asylum status and refugee status are closely related…All people who are granted asylum must meet the definition of refugee. ”  Can the connotations of “refugee” and “most-wanted terrorist” coexist together?

Yesterday, the National Lawyers Guild urged the FBI to respect Shakur’s political asylum status; there is an obvious discord between the facts in this case and the hyperbole of the FBI’s recent actions.  Read the NLG’s statement and a summary of Shakur’s case here.

This action against Shakur by the FBI is a declaration, but of what?  It is a declaration in collaboration (or corroboration?) with mainstream media, establishing again the constant, dualistic story of good vs. evil; creating fear to justify violence.  This simplified narrative goes unquestioned far too often.  For every public political statement and gesture, there is a much less public political motive.  It takes an educated and participatory public to read beyond the frequently corrupt and insidious narrative of big media and powerful government agencies.

In Assata Shakur’s words:

“We need to create media outlets that help to educate our people and our children, and not annihilate their minds. I am only one woman. I own no TV stations, or Radio Stations or Newspapers. But I feel that people need to be educated as to what is going on, and to understand the connection between the news media and the instruments of repression in Amerika. All I have is my voice, my spirit and the will to tell the truth.”

~Assata Shakur, 1998                Assata-Shakur-braids-smiling

Can one woman be both a political exile and a terroristic threat?  No, she cannot.  But only one side of the narrative is presented by the FBI and big media, the side that will further their political agenda.  One big, loud voice should not control the narrative of the world.  If they put it at the top of the newsfeed, then let’s take it, and tell it how we see it, and tell it how it really is–an issue with one more than one side, and more than one voice.   If they’re going to brand a woman to further their political agenda, let’s call them on it.  We all have a say, not just the powerful few.  We all need to claim this truth.  And we all need to speak it, and speak it loud.

Additional reading:

Read below some excerpts from American political activist, scholar, and author, Angela Davis, and Shakur’s lawyer, Lennox Hinds, on Democracy Now’s segment on Shakur.  Hinds is a world-renowned criminal defense and international human rights lawyer who was also Nelson Mandela’s U.S. attorney.  This is an excellent segment that I recommend taking the time to view:

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, see, there’s always this slippage between what should be protected free speech—that is to say, the advocacy of revolution, the advocacy of radical change—and what the FBI represents as terrorism. You know, certainly, Assata continues to advocate radical transformation of this country, as many of us do. You know, I continue to say that we need revolutionary change. This is why it seems to me that the attack on her reflects the logic of terrorism, because it precisely is designed to frighten young people, especially today, who would be involved in the kind of radical activism that might lead to change.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes, it was. And I find it really interesting that the FBI decided to focus quite specifically on black women, because somehow they feared, it seems to me, that the movement would continue to grow and develop, particularly with the leadership and the involvement of black women. I was rendered a target, an ideological target, in the same way that Assata Shakur was called the “mother hen” of the Black Liberation Army. The way in which she was represented became an invitation for racists and everyone who assented to the repressive behavior of the U.S. government to focus very specifically on her, to focus their hate, to focus vendettas on her. And I really find it surprising that when the grandchildren of those who were active in the late ’60s and early ’70s are becoming involved in similar movements today, there is this effort to again terrorize young people by representing such an important figure as Assata Shakur as a terrorist.

LENNOX HINDS: No, there is no way to appeal someone being put on the terrorists list. This is a political act, and this is an act that has been done by—being 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.

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One Response to Political Exile or Most-Wanted Terrorist: Why the Discourse on Assata Shakur Matters to You and to Everyone

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    As the Hoppers become more insecure in their moral authority, they must rely on brute force to keep the Fliks of the world in line (See “A Bug’s Life).

    Peace to Shakur. Long may she run.

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