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Assata Shakur: Black Panther, Black Liberation Army Member, Bank Robber, Badass

1970s | July 10, 2020

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.

Assata Shakur was born JoAnne Bryon. (blackhistorymonth.org.uk)

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

Shakur was the godmother of rapper Tupac Shakur. (colorlines.com)

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.

Assata Shakur was a political activist and member of the Black Liberation Army. (telesurenglish.net)

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. 

During a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, Shakur was wounded and arrested. (foxnews.com)

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.

Members of the BLA posed as jailhouse visitors to spring Shakur from prison. (america.aljazeera.com)

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 FBI lists Assata Shakur by her given name on its wanted posters. (nationalreview.com)

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.

Shakur was granted political asylum in Cuba. (femmagazine.com)

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 StrongShe 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. 

Rapper Tupac Shakur was the godson of Assata Shakur. (ebony.com)

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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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.