Thursday January 22, 1998
I hope this letter finds you in good health, in good disposition and enveloped in the spirit of goodness. I must confess that it had never occurred to me before to write to you and I find myself overwhelmed and moved to have this opportunity.
Although circumstances have compelled me to reach out to you, I am glad to have his occasion to try and cross the boundaries that would otherwise tend to separate us.
I understand that the New Jersey State Police have written to you and asked you to intervene and to help facilitate my extradition back to the United States. I believe that their request is unprecedented in history. Since they have refused to make their letter to you public, although they have not hesitated to publicize their request, I am completely uninformed as to the accusations they are making against me. Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent, that is such a threat?
Please let me take a moment to tell you about myself. My name is Assata Shakur and I was born and raised in the United States. I am a descendant of Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas as slaves. I spent my early childhood in the racist segregated South. I later moved to the northern part of the country where I realized that Black people were equally victimized by racism and oppression.
I grew up and became a political activist, participating in students’ struggles, the anti-war movement, and, most of all, in the movement for the liberation of African Americans in the United States. I later joined the Black Panther Party, an organization that was targeted by COINTELPRO, a program that was set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to eliminate all political opposition to the U.S. government’s policies, to destroy the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S., to discredit activists and to eliminate potential leaders.
Under the COINTELPRO program, many political activists were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or otherwise neutralized. As a result of being targeted by COINTELPRO, I, like many other young people, was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death.
At this point, I think that it is important to make one thing very clear. I have advocated and I still advocate revolutionary changes in the structure and in the principles that govern the U.S. I advocate an end to capitalist exploitation, the abolition of racist policies, the eradication of sexism and the elimination of political repression. If that is a crime, then I am totally guilty.
To make a long story short, I was captured in New Jersey in 1973, after being shot with both arms held up in the air, and then shot again from the back. I was left on the ground to die and when I did not, I was taken to a local hospital where I was threatened, beaten and tortured. In 1977 I was convicted in a trial that can only be described as a legal lynching.
In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee.
Let me emphasize that justice for me is not the issue I am here; it is justice for my people that is at stake. When my people receive justice, I am sure that I will receive it, too. I know that your holiness will reach your own conclusions, but I feel compelled to present the circumstances surrounding the application of “justice” in New Jersey. I am not the first nor the last person to be victimized by the New Jersey system of “justice.” The New Jersey State police are infamous for their racism and brutality. Many legal actions have been filed against them and just recently, in a class action legal proceeding the New Jersey State Police were found guilty of having an “officially sanctioned, de-facto policy of targeting minorities for investigation and arrest.”
Although New Jersey’s population is more than 78 percent white, more than 75 percent of the prison population is made up of Blacks and Latinos. Eighty percent of women in New Jersey prisons are women of color. There are 15 people on death row in the state and seven of them are Black. A 1987 study found that New Jersey prosecutors sought the death penalty in 50 percent of cases involving a Black defendant and a white victim, but in only 28 percent of cases involving a Black defendant and a Black victim.
Unfortunately, the situation in New Jersey is not unique, but reflects the racism that permeates the entire country. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. There are more than 1.7 million people in U.S. prisons. This number does not include the more than 500,000 people in city and county jails, nor does it include the alarming number of children in juvenile institutions. The vast majority of those behind bars are people of color and virtually all of those behind bars are poor. The result of this reality is devastating. One third of Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are either in prison or under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.
Prisons are big business in the Untied States and the building, running and supplying of prisons has become the fastest growing industry in the country. Factories are being moved into the prisons and prisoners are being forced to work for slave wages. This super-exploitation of human beings has meant the institutionalization of a new form of slavery. Those who cannot find work on the streets are forced to work in prison.
Not only are prisons being used as instruments of economic exploitation, they also serve as instruments of political repression. There are more than 100 political prisoners in the U.S. They are African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Asians and progressive white people who oppose the policies of the United States government. Many of those targeted by the COINTELPRO program have been in prison since the early 1970s.
Although the situation in the prisons is an indication of human rights violations inside the United States, there are other, more deadly indicators. There are currently 3,365 people now on death row and more than 50 percent of those awaiting death are people of color. Black people make up only 13 percent of the population, but we make up 41.01 percent of persons who have received the death penalty. The number of state assassinations has increased drastically. In 1997 alone 71 people were executed.
A special reporter assigned by the United Nations Organization found serious human rights violations in the U.S., especially those related to the death penalty. According to these findings, people who were mentally ill were sentenced to death, people with severe mental and learning disabilities, as well as minors under age 18. Serious racial bias was found on the part of judges and prosecutors. Specifically mentioned in the report was the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the only political prisoner on death row, who was sentenced to death because of his political beliefs and because of his work as a journalist, exposing police brutality in the city of Philadelphia.
Police brutality is a daily occurrence in our communities. The police have a virtual license to kill and they do kill — children, grandmothers, anyone they perceive to be the enemy. They shoot first and ask questions later. Inside the jails and prisons there is at least as much brutality as there was on slave plantations. An ever-increasing number of prisoners are found hanging in their cells.
The United States is becoming more a land more hostile to Black people and other people of color. Racism is running rampant and xenophobia is on the rise. This has been especially true in the sphere of domestic policy. Politicians are attempting to blame social problems on Black people and other people of color. There have been attacks on essentially all affirmative action programs designed to help correct the accumulated results of hundred of years of slavery and discrimination. In addition, the government seems determined to eliminate all social programs that provide assistance to the poor, resulting in a situation where millions of people do not have access to basic health care, decent housing or quality education.
It was with great happiness that I read the Christmas message that your holiness delivered. I applaud you for taking up the cause of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. The fact that you are addressing the issues of today — unemployment, homelessness, child abuse and the drug problem — is important to people all over the world. One third of Black people in the United states live in poverty and our communities are inundated with drugs. We have every reason to believe that the CIA and other government agencies are involved in drug trafficking. Although we live in one of the richest, most technically-advanced countries in the world, our reality is similar to an undeveloped, Third World country. We are a people who are truly seeking freedom and harmony.
All my life I have been a spiritual person. I first learned of the struggle and the sacrifice of Jesus in the segregated churches of the South. I converted to Catholicism as a young girl. In my adult life I have become a student of religion and have studied Christianity, Islam, Asian religions and the African religions of my ancestors. I have come to believe that God is universal in nature, although called different names and with different faces. I believe that some people spell God with one ‘o’ while others spell it with two. What we call God is unimportant, as long as we do God’s work.
There are those who want to see God’s wrath fall on the oppressed and not on the oppressors. I believe that the time has ended when slavery, colonialism and oppression can be carried out in the name of religion. It was in the dungeons of prison that I felt the presence of God up close, and it has been my belief in God, and in the goodness of human beings that has helped me to survive. I am not ashamed of having been in prison, and I am certainly not ashamed of having been a political prisoner. I believe that Jesus was a political prisoner who was executed because he fought against the evils of the Roman Empire, because he fought the greed of the money changers in the temple, because he fought against the sins and injustices of his time. As a true child of God, Jesus spoke up for the poor, the meek, the sick and the oppressed. The early Christians were thrown into lions’ dens. I will try and follow the example of so many who have stood up in the face of overwhelming oppression.
I am not writing to ask you to intercede on my behalf. I ask nothing for myself. I only ask you to examine the social reality of the United States and to speak out against the human rights violations that are taking place.
On this day, the birthday of Martin Luther King, I am reminded of all those who gave their lives for freedom. Most of the people who live on this planet are still not free. I ask only that you continue to work and pray to end oppression and political repression. It is my heartfelt belief that all the people on this earth deserve justice social justice, political justice and economic justice. I believe it is the only way that we will ever achieve peace and prosperity on earth.
I hope that you enjoy your visit to Cuba. This is not a country that is rich in material wealth, but it is a country that is rich in human wealth, spiritual wealth and moral wealth.
- “Assata And The Pope” | Interview With Assata Shakur
- Nazis, New Jersey State Police and Assata Shakur