International Women’s Day 2019: Assata Shakur

As part of a month long build up to International Women’s Day celebrations on the 8th of March, the YCL will be publishing daily articles highlighting the exemplary role played by women in the international communist and working class movement.

Today we discuss the life of Assata Shakur, black liberation fighter and Marxist #27.

YCLers are encouraged to host, support and participate in celebrations locally to bring the message of International Women’s Day into our workplaces, colleges and schools, and communities.

Assata Olugbala Shakur (born Joanne Deborah Bryon) (1947-) was born in Queens, New York on the 16th of July 1947. She spent her early childhood alternately living with her grandparents in Wilmington, North Carolina where racial prejudices were more extreme than in New York, where she lived with her mother. She was exposed to the realities black people face in the USA from a young age.

Shakur dropped out of high school at seventeen but returned to college during her early twenties, attending Manhattan Community College and City College of New York.

During her time at college Assata Shakur became more involved in politics. She became a student activist and participated in rent strikes, anti-war demonstrations, and sit ins which were aimed at protesting racial injustices. As a reflection of her new political consciousness and her commitment to her African heritage, she changed her name to Assata (“she who struggles”) Shakur (“the thankful”).

The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 led to Assata Shakur’s embrace of the militant Black Power movement and her rejection of the notion of non-violence.

Shakur joined the Black Panther Party in the late 60’s after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which only formally ended racial segregation and discrimination. The reality of course was that it continued in every aspect of life in the USA.

Shakur was in the Black Panthers alongside prominent women activists such as Fredrika Newton, Ericka Huggins and Charlotte Hill O’Neal. Her time in the Black Panthers was turbulent. The FBI treated the peaceful Black Panthers like criminals. Most of the members were harassed on a daily basis and in many cases imprisoned illegally. This was a turning point for Shakur, she decided that to take up arms against her people’s oppressors was the correct path in liberating her people and class.

Shakur eventually took her leave of the Black Panthers and founded the Black Liberation Army (BLA) in 1970 alongside Eldridge Cleaver. Assata Shakur went underground for many years in the period which followed. She was placed on the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted List’ for a few bank robberies that took place over the years of 1971 and 1972. Around the same time Shakur and the BLA kidnapped drug dealers and robbed them of their money to put towards their struggle against the US government.

On the 2nd of May 1973 driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, Shakur and two other BLA members were pulled over by police and became embroiled in a gun battle. This led to multiple casualties and fatalies. The police officer Werner Forrester was shot and killed and another officer James Harper was wounded. Assata Shakur was wounded, Zayd Shakur was shot dead and Sundiata Acoli escaped with no injuries but was caught later. Shakur was charged with the murder of the police officer Werner Forrester even though there was no evidence of her pulling the trigger.

Shakur was imprisoned in a men’s jail and was placed in solitary confinement for a year. She was repeatedly beaten by the prison guards and had to endure the mental torture of being alone in solitary confinement. While in prison she fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl who she named Kakuya Shakur. She was to be brought up by Assata Shakur’s mother in New York.

In 1977 Shakur was convicted of murder for the Turnpike police shooting, even though experts testified in court that it was not physically possible for Assata Shakur to kill Werner Forrester. Unsurprisingly the famously racist and unjust US ‘justice’ system was entirely prepared to sentence an innocent woman to life in prison because she had dared to resist. The American government had to put down a marker on one of the most influential women fighters in the country, an African American Marxist.

Shakur struggled with the conditions in jail. The guards deliberately mistreated her by placing her into sweltering hot, rodent-infested room in the jail’s basement. She was subjected to constant surveillance and spotlights. Even when she was pregnant she was subjected to these types of conditions.

In 1979 Shakur broke out of jail with the help of three visitors who took two prison guards hostage which allowed Shakur to break free from her New Jersey jail. Shakur was placed back on the FBI’s most wanted list and she was back in hiding once again. With the help of former Black Panthers and BLA members she managed to evade the FBI for five years. Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba in 1984 after she managed to get to the Communist safe haven in the Caribbean undetected.

Shakur was astonished at the lack of distinction between black and white Cubans. She was instantly impressed by how this Communist nation held no barriers up for the black Cubans and for herself. Shakur was given a free home and universal healthcare, something that the USA would never offer her people, then or now. Cuban society, which is committed to removing all vestiges of racial oppression, inequality and discrimination, understands theses to be a hangover from capitalism and can only be done away with under socialism.

In 1987 her daughter Kakuya moved to Cuba to be with her mother and to live in the anti-racist socialist society. Various US administrations have demanded the extradition of Shakur but the Cuban government have stood firm in supporting the extraordinary anti-racist fighter that is Assata Shakur.

Shakur has inspired millions of female revolutionaries around the globe to struggle against racist and oppressive governments and build a new society with no fascism or racism.

Assata Shakur’s incisive description of anti-Communism in Western Society is an argument YCLers can take into their schools, workplaces, universities and communities: “We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”