Pursuing Assata Shakur is not about Assata Shakur at all. It is about holding on to the fiction of an inherently fair justice system, denying the continuity of institutionalised racism over the life of a young country, and affirming an investment in carceral forms of social control.
My skin is black/ My arms are long/ My hair is woolly/ My back is strong/
Strong enough to take the pain/ inflicted again and again/
What do they call me/ My name is Aunt Sarah/ My name is Aunt Sarah
— Nina Simone, “Four Women”
The recent announcement by US President Barack Obama to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba has been taken by many as a sign of changing times, as well as Mr Obama’s last-stitch efforts to regain foreign policy credibility for those on the left. This news has also brought about renewed calls by New Jersey police officials to apprehend Assata Shakur, who has political asylum status in Cuba. Before discussing the renewed talk about apprehending Assata Shakur (or pardoning her for something that she did not do), it is apt that I write something first about the place and context from which she escaped.
Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, now the Edna Mahon Correctional Facility, housed Assata Shakur before she escaped and fled to Cuba. The prison occupies a central place in my family’s history. We all know it by name. We are situated in relation to it, as Black people in general and Black women in particular. Clinton reminds us that we can be exiled right at home. Some of us were even born there.
In the 1930s, the facility was called the NJ State Reformatory for Women at Clinton, but we know it as Clinton Farms. My grandfather was born in the infirmary at Clinton Farms, one month after his mother, then a heavily pregnant seventeen-year-old girl, was arrested for fornication (sex work). She lived in the prison with her son for a year, before she was transferred to a different kind of reformatory across county lines. This other place was one of several institutions modelled on the Vineland School for Backward and Feebleminded Children, directed by American eugenicist, Henry Goddard. Her son remained in the prison alone for three months before being placed into foster care. They both have inmate files from Clinton Farms. According to his, he cried “crocodile tears” when he wanted the prison nursery staff to pick him up. He was chocolate brown. Until he turned 79, he thought his mother had abandoned him.
Clinton Correctional Facility is where my great aunt Beverline (known as ‘Bev’), a bipolar woman with an unconquerable spirit, was incarcerated for acting out. There, in the middle of the ‘60s, Bev gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, who I know as my aunt — a no-nonsense mother figure to my generation. It’s also where my father sent letters to his girlfriend, Shirley, in the ‘90s. Shirley was battling an addiction before she got locked up. I am not the only New Jerseyan who knows women who have passed through Clinton, knows how it mangles lives. The prison was never going to help Shirley kick her drug habit, help Aunt Bev manage her condition or convince great grandma Ivory Bettie that she should not try to provide a life for herself and her children by any means she could. The prison was not going to convince Assata Shakur that she should forfeit her life and freedom out of respect for a legal system that had targeted her for political reasons — namely, to suffocate revolutionary thinking among radical Black activists in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Of these four women, none were supposed to be there, and as with the Nina Simone song, we can identify variations of all four of these women in our communities. They should have been heeded rather than exiled.
Angela Davis and Assata Shakur’s lawyer, Lennox Hinds, responded to the 2013 FBI announcement that Shakur would be added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. They argued that this was an attempt by the FBI to reinvigorate the nation’s fears of the symbol of radical change that Shakur embodies. She has been regarded a symbol of hope for young activists fighting against racism, police brutality and other forms of state violence. The bounty for her apprehension was raised to $2,000,000, and she was branded a terrorist. The fear of ghosts, of unsmiling black mouths, confidently arched eyebrows and Afros is left to do its work, like the night-time stories of children who are too young to select their own reading material. The announcement of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba has merely re-mastered this fear, provoked more press releases where NJ officials put up Shakur’s photographs on easels, and resolve to bring “Joanne Chesimard to justice” and return her to “her rightful place in a New Jersey prison.” Officials pursue Assata Shakur, despite the evidence that has surfaced since her trial that the FBI counterintelligence programmes had been monitoring and attempting to frame Black activists in the 60s, and also despite the utter lack of any forensic evidence supporting the claim that Shakur fired a weapon at the officer she was convicted of murdering (after having, herself, been shot through the back).1According to Hinds, forensics evidence shows that she was shot in the back, no evidence suggests the gun was ever in her hand, and no arsenic residue from the gun was found on her.
But then again, pursuing Assata Shakur is not about Assata Shakur at all. It is about holding on to the fiction of an inherently fair justice system, denying the continuity of institutionalised racism over the life of a young country, and affirming an investment in carceral forms of social control. Searching for Assata Shakur is like sweeping the floor of a house that is burning. She has become a boogie man, a Bin Laden to bomb and be done with, a young thug to rattle and break. She is conjured like a ghost, still referred to decades later as ‘Joanne,’ called (in Spanish and English) a “terrorist” who is “armed and dangerous”. It is implied that she is still out there, when she should be exiled right here, at home.
Let us set aside, for the time being, that offering a bounty for the forcible return of a political asylee is clearly in contravention of international law principles on non-refoulement. What about a presidential pardon for Assata Shakur? On one hand, anything to remove a $2,000,000 bounty from Assata Shakur’s kidnap and return is well worth considering. This is the practical reality. However, it must be said that pardoning her for a crime that was largely (and admittedly) fabricated does not seem a suitable outcome for Shakur or any of us. It would seem more appropriate to stop sweeping the floor and focus on saving the house.
Eddie Bruce-Jones is Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck College School of Law, University of London, and Academic Fellow at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple.