Assata Shakur: Black Panther, Black Liberation Army Member, Bank Robber, Badass
JoAnne Chesimard, A.K.A. Assata Shakur, the reputed "soul" of the Black Liberation Army, being led from Riker's to await trail for the murder of state trooper Werner Foerster. (Getty Images)
Tupac Shakur, the king of '90s West Coast hip-hop, had a reputation for skirting the law. Perhaps he got his rebel attitude from his godmother, JoAnne Deborah Byron Chesimard, who later took the name Assata Shakur. She's an activist, member of the Black Liberation Army, and escaped convicted murderer with a $2 million bounty currently on her head.
A Troubled Childhood
Assata Shakur was born JoAnne Deborah Byron in Queens in 1947. A rebellious child, she ran away from home several times and ended up living with an aunt. She attended the Borough of Manhattan Community College and then the City College of New York in the 1960s, when she became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement.
A Name Change
Following Byron's short-lived 1967 marriage, she became known as JoAnne Chesimard. However, after she graduated from college, she decided—along with many of her fellow Black Panthers in New York City—that her birth name was too white and Anglicized. Several Panthers took the last name "Shakur," which means "thankful" in Arabic, including Afeni and Mutulu Shakur, Tupac's mother and stepfather. Chesimard followed suit, rechristening (or rather, unchristening) herself Assata Shakur.
The Black Panthers And the Black Liberation Army
Assata Shakur was only a member of the Black Panthers for a short time in the early 1970s, around the time her godson was born. She soon moved on to the Black Liberation Army, a more militant offshoot of the Panthers that was determined to make an enemy of the United States government. The BLA was known to cause disruptions by robbing banks, kidnapping people for ransom, hunting down drug dealers, and killing police officers. Shakur participated in these activities as a key member and one of the leaders of the group, soon becoming a wanted criminal.
A Cop Killer
On May 2, 1973, Assata Shakur—along with two other Black Liberation Army members, Zayd Malik Shakur and Sundiata Acoli—was pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike for a broken taillight. In the squad car were two state troopers, James Harper and Werner Foerster. Knowing they had warrants out for their arrest, the BLA members immediately opened fire on the troopers, who returned in kind. In a matter of minutes, Trooper Foerster and Zayd Shakur were dead, Assata and Trooper Harper were wounded, and Assata was taken into custody. Although Foerster had actually been shot by Acoli, she was charged as an accomplice to murder.
Sentenced To Life In Prison
At the conclusion of her 1977 trial, Shakur was found guilty of the murder charges against her as well as a litany of other charges and sentenced to life in prison. Just two years into her sentence, however, she escaped with the help of some Black Liberation Army members. She has been in hiding ever since.
The Search For Assata Shakur
After her prison escape, the FBI spent years hunting Shakur. They stalked her friends and family and even harassed her young daughter as she walked to school, but everyone refused to talk. In 1980, they raided a building in Harlem, keeping residents at bay with machine guns for hours as they turned the building upside down in search of Shakur.
Asylum In Cuba
Shakur resurfaced in 1984 in Cuba, where she was given political asylum by the Cuban government. The U.S. tried unsuccessfully to extradite Shakur on several occasions, but it appeared that the Cuban government was unwilling to even consider it. In the meantime, Shakur had it made in the shade. She was secure enough in Cuba to grant a few news interviews and write a few books, including Assata: An Autobiography and Still Black, Still Strong. She praised Cuba's president, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban way of life. By 1985, she even managed to secure passage for her daughter to accompany her in Cuba.
A Bounty On Her Head
More than 30 years after the New Jersey Turnpike incident, the FBI changed its classification of Assata Shakur to label her a domestic terrorist, and a bounty on her capture was placed at $1 million. The party was over for Shakur, who subsequently went back into hiding. In 2013, the FBI named her one of its "Most Wanted" fugitives, making her the first woman to make the list, and the bounty for her capture was increased to $2 million. Today, Assata Shakur is in her seventies and still living in Cuba, although she's understandably reluctant to divulge anything further.
Tags: 1970s | civil rights | crime
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