Once again, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is a candidate in the 2016 Republican presidential race, has weighed in on political prisoner Assata Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard. Shakur fled the U.S. in a prison escape over 35 years ago and has since sought asylum in Cuba. Christie has urged the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey not to open direct flights between Newark and Havana because Cuba continues to harbor Shakur, according to the New York Post.
“It is unacceptable to me to me as governor to have any flights between New Jersey and Cuba until and unless convicted cop killer and escaped fugitive Joanne Chesimard is returned to New Jersey to face justice,” Christie wrote to Port Authority chief John Degnan. “I will not tolerate rewarding the Cuban government for continuing to harbor a fugitive.”
In 1977, after numerous trials, Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army, was convicted of first degree murder in the 1973 death of New Jersey State trooper Werner Foster. Foster died during a shooting incident following a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, in which Shakur was injured with multiple wounds. The driver, Zayd Shakur, died and another officer was also reportedly wounded. In 1979, with the help of comrades, Shakur escaped from a New Jersey prison, where she was serving a life sentence, and in 1984 fled to Cuba, where she was granted asylum and has lived in exile ever since.
Shakur, 68, was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list in 2013 with a $2 million bounty. With the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, including the reopening of the respective countries’ embassies and Jet Blue opening direct flights between from JFK to Havana this summer, the issue of Shakur and other political prisoners in Cuba has resurfaced.
“We believe that the strong U.S. interest in the return of these fugitives will be best served by entering into this dialogue with Cuba,” President Obama said this spring.
“Cuba’s provision of safe harbor to Chesimard by providing political asylum to a convicted cop killer… is an affront to every resident of our state, our country, and in particular, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police,” Christie wrote in a letter to Obama, criticizing the decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba without resolving the situation with Shakur.
Despite calls from Christie and other public officials to have the Black liberation leader extradited, the Cuban government has made it clear that it refuses to return Shakur to the U.S.
However, missing from the dominant mainstream narrative of this case promoted by Christie and others is that the Black community views Assata Shakur as a hero, and not the Black boogeyman image that the establishment created. Evidence showed Shakur was a victim of racial bias, and the target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program under J. Edgar Hoover. According to an FBI memo, the goal of COINTELPRO to “prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY, by discrediting them to … both the responsible community and to liberals who have vestiges of sympathy.”
In the process, the government waged a war on Black America, with the destruction of its organizations and the imprisonment and assassination of its leaders and soldiers in the struggle for justice. The current FBI director, James Comey, has spoken on the past mistakes of his agency, including the monitoring of Dr. Martin Luther King.
According to the National Lawyers Guild, which represented Shakur in her last trial, she was subjected to an all-white jury of 15, including five jurors with personal connections to state troopers. A state Assemblyman spoke to the sequestered jurors, urging them to convict. Further, according to the Guild, the judge cut funding for additional expert defense testimony after medical testimony demonstrated it was anatomically impossible for Shakur to fire a weapon as she was charged.
As Angela Davis wrote in the Guardian last year, “Assata was falsely charged on numerous occasions in the United States during the early 1970s and vilified by the media.”
“[Shakur] was charged with armed robbery, bank robbery, kidnap, murder, and attempted murder of a policeman. Although she faced 10 separate legal proceedings and had already been pronounced guilty by the media, all except one of these trials – the case resulting from her capture – concluded in acquittal, hung jury, or dismissal,” Davis continued. “Under highly questionable circumstances, she was finally convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of a New Jersey state trooper.”