By Karen Wald
Interview by Karen Wald of Assata Shakur during the Pope’s visit in January 1998
Q: The New Jersey State Police asked the Pope to intervene on their behalf to get the Cuban government to extradite you to New Jersey. Before asking your reaction to that, I think it would be a good idea if we could summarize what happened in New Jersey, with a little background.
Well, I was captured in May of 1973 on the New Jersey State Turnpike. I was asked to put my arms in the air, which I did – at which point I was shot, once with my arms in the air, once in the back. I was left on the ground to die; they kept coming back and saying “Is she dead yet? Is she dead yet?” When it was clear that I was not dead or going to die immediately, I was taken to a hospital where I was held four or five days incommunicado. I was beaten, tortured, had stuff stuck in my wounds. I was charged with all kinds of false charges, and of all the additional charges I was found “not guilty”, or the charges were dismissed. In the case of New Jersey, I was tried by an all-white jury, accused of felony murder of a police officer, found guilty in a county in which 70% of the people who lived there already thought that I was guilty based on the pre-trial publicity. I was sentenced to life in prison plus thirty-three years plus thirty days. I was all together in prison six and a half years. I spent more than two of those years in solitary confinement in men’s prisons.
I was sent to several places in the prison system. One for example was a special prison-within-the-prison in Alderson, West Virginia, where I was put in a unit with about 15 members of the Aryan Sisterhood which is the sister organization of the Aryan Brotherhood, which is a neo-Nazi organization and famous for “torching”. “Torching” means, in prison language, throwing lighter fluid or some other inflammable substance into a cell, and then throwing a match. Who they are famous for torching are black prisoners. So I became convinced that the prison authorities were trying to kill me while I was in prison. The same thing basically happened, kind of, trying to set me up when I went to Clinton Prison in New Jersey. I felt it was only a matter of time before they did something to kill me, and with the help of some of my comrades in 1979 I was able to escape. In 1984 I arrived in Cuba, where I am currently living, in exile, as a political refugee.
Q: Even for people who understand and have encountered, the racism of the police system in the United States, or in many of the police departments of the United States, the viciousness with which they treated you may seem somewhat shocking. What was it about you, or about what you had been doing, do you think, that produced that particular reaction on the part of the New Jersey State Police?
Well, to start off I was a political activist most of my adult life. Some time during the mid-60s I was targetted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, and that program was designed to eliminate all political opposition to the policies of the United States government. I was an activist in the student movement and in the anti-war movement, and later I joined the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party was the number one organization in the 1960s that was targetted by the COINTELPRO program. And because of my activities in the Black Panther Party I became more of a target of the FBI and I was subsequently forced to go underground based on false charges being levied against me, accusing me of harboring a fugitive. And so I think that the New Jersey State Police at some point probably recognized me, I mean, they had my photograph everywhere. And I think what happened was that either they just decided to kill me on the spot or just got nervous and started to shoot.
Q: You mentioned having been acquitted in a number of other trials previous to this. Do you think there was an element of frustration there?
Well, I was acquitted after I was captured. Certainly they did everything to try to get a conviction, and in fact, I don’t know what they promised the witnesses but in one case a witness was asked what the FBI had promised him to testify against me and he took the 5th Amendment and refused to say what he had been offered, because he wanted to avoid self-incrimination.
Q: Prior to this New Jersey trial, though, there had been a number of other times when you had been accused of things and they didn’t succeed in getting a conviction, right?
Once I was captured in 1973 I underwent quite a few trials. Before my capture what happened was that the FBI systematically fed information to the press accusing me of being a bank robber, accusing me of kidnapping drug dealers, accusing me of attacking police – all of those charges were dropped or I went to trial on them and was acquitted. I went to trial something like three or four times on different charges before the New Jersey conviction in 1977.
Q: I want to ask you a question now: there are a lot of things that people do throughout their lives that may be defined by a particular system or system of laws as being illegal, but which people do because they believe that they are justified in doing them, or to test a law – for instance, Puerto Rican independence fighters who believe that they are carrying out a number of actions because they are fighting for the independence of their country, and will probably say “yes, I did this, and I had a right to do this”. Or people who were testing the original segregation laws in the south. You’re sitting here now in Cuba. You are safe for the time being from the grasp of the people who would imprison you. Of all the things that they have believed and/or accused you of over the years, are there any that you have actually done?
When I started to be an activist in the movement it was against the law to go to the park, it was against the law to go to the zoo, to eat in restaurants – this was in Wilmington, North Carolina, where my grandparents lived. So that the law, at that time was used overtly to oppress black people and other people of color. When I was forced to go underground, I was part of a network of people – some of whom were in contact with each other and some of whom were not – which was loosely called the Black Liberation Army. And that organization was involved in analyzing whether or not armed struggle was applicable in the conditions that existed at the end of the 1970s, and if so, how. And also, we hid people, we helped draft dodgers to escape from going to fight what we considered the very criminal war in Vietnam, and different sectors or units of the Black Liberation Army were involved in activities which could be considered illegal. And we also helped people to escape from prison.
So even though they were considered illegal by law enforcement agencies, we considered that we were involved in a very moral, correct struggle, that we had the right to resist the oppression and the repression of the United States government by any means necessary. But the reality is that the Black Liberation Army was basically a response to the very illegal activities of the COINTEL program. What they did was try to frame people, which forced people to go underground, which forced people to go into hiding. What they did was outright assassinate people. What they did was to go into Panther offices and shoot – with no warrant, with no legal authority. And what happened was that we responded. Where there is repression there will be resistance.
Q: Going back to the specific acts for which the New Jersey State Police are asking for you to be extradited – although you already indicated you were shot by the New Jersey police with your hands in the air – did you in fact carry out any of the acts for which they wish to extradite you?
No, I did not kill Werner Forster; no I did not shoot – I was a victim in that. I was innocent.
Q: What was and what is your reaction and your response to this communication to the Pope on the part of the New Jersey State Police?
You know my first initial response was just outrage – you know, how dare they!? I mean it was such a cheap, shoddy little maneuver to capture the attention of the press. It was such a repetition of what had gone on before in my life that for a couple of days I just walked around bumping into my furniture in kind of a daze. But really it was like a deja vu kind of situation. [And then] I said, I just have to do something. And what I decided to do was to write a letter to the Pope, not ony talking about my own history, which I think is not that unique – I think many other people were victimized by COINTELPRO. Some of them are still underground; some of them are dead. Some of them are still in prison, and some of them – you know, one of the things that most pains me, because when people talk about COINTELPRO, they don’t talk about all the mental, psychological pain that many people suffered, and many people really lost their minds, or were frightened out of being activists, and just became inactive and totally paranoid about any type of political activism, and I don’t think that part has been spoken to. But I decided to write the Pope and explain some of the realities of justice, not only in the state of New Jersey but in the United States as a whole. There are right now 1.7 million people in prisons in the United States. And that indicates that the United States has a rate of incarceration higher than any other country in the world.
The racism involved is enormous. There are no words to describe a population for example, like in New Jersey, which has a population that is more than 78% white, but the … women in prison are 80% Black and Latina. In terms of the prison population as a whole you’re talking about 75% are people of color, which is outrageous.
And that is just a microcosm of what goes on in the country as a whole. Out of every two black men, one will be arrested [some time in his life]. One out of three young black men between the ages of 20 and 30 is in prison or the jurisdiction of the so-called criminal justice system.
If I were to cite these figures in the context of Nazi Germany no one would be surprised, but in the context of the United States people either believe that can’t be so, or there is a tendency to totally negate the implications of the statistics as they apply to how prisons are used in the United States. What we’re seeing more and more is that prisons are becoming new kinds of plantations. They’re moving factories into the
prisons, and prisoners who could not find jobs in the streets are all of a sudden being forced to work for slave wages inside the prisons. And that tendency is on the uprising. The prison industry is the fastest growing industry in the United States.
Q: What if anything do you expect or hope the Pope’s response to be?
I did not ask the Pope to intercede on my behalf; I did not ask the Pope to look into MY case. My interest is more to call the Pope’s attention to the real violations of human rights in the United States; to talk about the use of repression in the United States, so that he would have some kind of context into which to put not only my letter but also the letter of the New Jersey State Police. I essentially hope that the Pope would do his own investigation and really speak out against human rights violations in the U.S., to speak out against racism in the U.S., and to speak out in favor of social justice, economic justice, political justice in the context of the United States. And I realize that that would mean that the Catholic Church would take much more progressive positions than they have taken in the past. But I hope that the Pope’s recent speeches on the evils of poverty, the evils of the drug traffic, on the abuse of children, etc., indicate that the Catholic Church is taking positions that are more in favor of social justice and have really turned away from the policies of before, when the Catholic Church was very much involved in either turning the other way in terms of slavery, in terms of oppression and exploitation, and ignoring or upholding the colonization of people all over the world.
Q: The Pope spent four or five days here in Cuba and probably a whole forest of trees were felled in creating the newsprint, the paper that went into all the media that were covering his visit – although unfortunately Clinton’s sexual exploits decimated their ranks in the middle of the Pope’s trip. Given that most people heard from the Pope whatever they wanted to hear, in one direction or another, it would be interesting to know what you think about the trip in terms of from the Cuban viewpoint, from the Church’s viewpoint – what do you think this trip was all about and what came out of it?
Well, I think that – immediately, I think it was very positive, his visit. I think that the image of Cuba being this country that’s against religion and is totally persecuting religious people, I think the Pope’s visit kind of destroyed that image, which was to start with a very false image. I think that Cuba, as the revolution has grown, has become more and more open to religion and more and more, and more and more hopeful that there will be some kind of convergence between the struggle for social justice and the struggle for religious morality, for lack of a better way of putting it.
But the long-term effects of the Pope’s visit remain to be seen. I think that there are very positive things that can come of this. But then I also think – I also HOPE – rather, that elements in the Catholic Church that have a reactionary agenda, do not try to use the churches here as a counter-revolutionary movement against the Revolution – something which happened at the beginning of the revolution. I hope that the Church has grown and that the Church is willing to come out on the side of people who are committed to securing basic rights for people, whether it’s health care, or education, or peace. So I think that we’ve seen the initial reactions, but I think that it’s important to wait and see how the Church continues to interact with the Cuban Revolution.
Q: There are people who would share many of those positive views, especially the interest in social justice, economic justice, greater equality in the distribution of wealth around the world, but who also believe that Cuba is a dictatorship, that there is no democracy in Cuba because there’s a single party, that Cuban doesn’t respect human rights because it doesn’t grant certain civil liberties or basic freedoms to opponents of the revolution, and that is what *they* were hoping for a change in by the Pope’s visit. And many of them still, judging from the media response, think that is a potential outcome of the visit. In fact that’s what they think the pope came here for. How do you, as someone who has fought for justice and social justice your whole life, respond to that?
Well, I think that no system of democracy is perfect. What I feel about Cuba is that, number one, the Cubans’ democratic system – I mean, they have elections and it’s a kind of grassroots movement where people are elected based on what their history is in their communities, and I think that that’s very important. I think that the attacks made on Cuban democracy comefrom, essentially, countries that have not a dem-ocracy but a
dollar-ocracy where big business and millionaires essentially control the electoral process, the campaign funds, and dictate the political and economic policies of those countries. So people have to be very careful when they talk about “freedom”. What countries like the U.S. government mean when they talk about “freedom”, they’re talking about “free enterprise”, they’re talking about “free trade” for the huge companies that go all around the world making profits while the workers who work for those companies receive a salary which just allows them to subsist. And often workers don’t even get the basic things they need to survive.
So I think that although Cuba is not a fantasy land or a perfect country, I think it is a country that is struggling very hard to perfect its system of democracy and also to increase the levels of human rights that exist in Cuba. And I think that compared to other countries which no one ever attacks, the Cuban government’s record on human rights is a good one.
Q: I think this is a question that a lot of people have been wanting to ask you, which is: how have you found life here in Cuba? Starting off with how would you compare the freedom and democracy you experienced in the United States with that which you found in Cuba?
(Laugh) Well, I didn’t find too much freedom and democracy in the United States (still laughing). I would have to get a super, mega-telescope to find it. But (more serious), when I came here, you know, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I found people who lived without the kind of fear, the hostility, the violence that exists in the U.S. I felt extraordinarily free here. Before the special period I used to take walks at 3 o’clock in the morning and feel perfectly safe. It’s still, compared to most other places, relatively safe. It’s not as safe as then, because of the economic problems that the Revolution is now facing because of the blockade and because of the disappearance of the socialist camp in Eastern Europe. But for me personally Cuba has given me, first, the possibility to unite and to bond with my daughter who lived here for several years, and also given me the chance to do some basic healing, growing, introspection. And to experience what it is like to live in a country where there is a real sense of community, where there’s a real sense of the importance of human beings. And where people relate to each other in a natural way: people know their neighbors, people care about their neighbors. I have never been anywhere where my neighbors have been more supportive and more a part of my life. So find living in Cuba a very good experience in many ways.
Q: There have been articles and even books that have taken extremely opposite positions regarding the racial question in Cuba. They range from those that have said that Cuba is still very racist to those that have said that all racism has been eliminated. As a black woman, what has your experience been like and how do you analyze the situation in Cuba?
Well of course when I came here that was one of the first questions that I had, and I certainly have looked at what is happening in Cuba very carefully. Unfortunately, a revolution is not a magic wand, it’s not this paint that you paint over everything and everything turns perfect. A revolution is a process.
I think it would be very idealistic to think that a revolution that is less than forty years old could completely overturn and change and destroy all racist ideas, attitudes, etc. But I DO believe that the Revolution is committed to eradicating racism in all of its forms.
I think that as people study racism as a phenomena, people learn more and more about racism, and learn that the concepts of racism that existed in 1959 were very different from the concepts that exist today. And so I think that the Revolution cannot afford to rely on definitions that existed in 1959. All of us understand that as what we know about racism increases, then our struggle and the ways in which racism is struggled against have to increase and intensify.
And since I believe that racism is not a national phenomenon but an INTERnational phenomenon, I don’t believe it can be eradicated in one country unless that country is completely isolated from the mass media, the movies, the television programs that come from places that fabricate racism, like the United States. So I think that the Revolution needs to continue to be very vigilant and very serious about struggling to end all racism.
Q: Looking back now over the years that you’ve been here in Cuba – what you have been able to accomplish, perhaps also some of the things you maybe couldn’t do because of the isolation that has been imposed on Cuba – going back to 1984, and you are on the threshold of deciding where in the world you want to go, and youc ould go any place that you wanted: would you make the same decision? Would you come back to Cuba?
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- Assata Shakur : Letter to the Pope, January 22, 1998
- Nazis, New Jersey State Police and Assata Shakur