Former Black Panther Assata Shakur Added to FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List

Update: Watch our interview on Assata Shakur with her attorney Lennox Hines & scholar Angela Davis.

The FBI added Assata Shakur to its Most Wanted Terrorist List today. In addition, the state of New Jersey announced it was adding $1 million to the FBI’s $1 million reward for her capture. Shakur becomes the first woman ever to make the list and only the second domestic terrorist to be added to the list.

Assata Shakur, the former Joanne Chesimard, was a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. She was convicted in the May 2, 1973 killing of a New Jersey police officer during a shoot-out that left one of her fellow activists dead. She was shot twice by police during the incident. In 1979, she managed to escape from jail. Shakur fled to Cuba where she received political asylum. She once wrote, “I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government’s policy towards people of color.”

In 1998, Democracy Now! aired Shakur reading an open letter to Pope John Paul II during his trip to Cuba. She wrote the message after New Jersey state troopers sent the Pope a letter asking him to call for her extradition.

RUSH TRANSCRIPT
I hope this letter finds you in good health, in good disposition, and enveloped with the spirit of goodness. I must confess that it had never occurred to me before to write 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 this 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 student 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 the COINTELPRO program, a program that was set up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to eliminate all political opposition to the U.S. government’s policies, to destroy the Black Liberation Movement in the United States, 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. The FBI, with the help of local police agencies, systematically fed false accusations and fake news articles to the press accusing me and other activists of crimes we did not commit. Although in my case the charges were eventually dropped or I was eventually acquitted, the national and local police agencies created a situation where, based on their false accusations against me, any police officer could shoot me on sight. It was not until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the mid-’70s that we began to see the scope of the United States government’s persecution of political activists.

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 United States. I advocate self-determination for my people and for all oppressed inside the United States. 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 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.

The New Jersey State Police and other law enforcement officials say they want to see me brought to “justice.” But I would like to know what they mean by “justice.” Is torture justice? I was kept in solitary confinement for more than two years, mostly in men’s prisons. Is that justice? My lawyers were threatened with imprisonment and imprisoned. Is that justice? I was tried by an all-white jury, without even the pretext of impartiality, and then sentenced to life in prison plus 33 years. Is that justice?

Let me emphasize that justice for me is not the issue I am addressing 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 so-called “justice” in New Jersey. I am not the first or 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, quote, “officially sanctioned, de facto policy of targeting minorities for investigation and arrest,” unquote.

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 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 United 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 the prisons used as instruments of economic exploitation, they also serve as instruments of political repression. There are more than 100 political prisoners in the United States. 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 rapporteur appointed by the United Nations organization found serious human rights violations in the United States, especially those related to the death penalty. According to his findings, people who were mentally ill were sentenced to death, people with severe mental and learning disabilities, as well as minors under 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.

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 against 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, for the meek, for 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 we will ever achieve peace and prosperity on this 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.

Respectfully yours,
Assata Shakur
Havana, Cuba

Find this story at 2 May 2013

Former Black Panther Assata Shakur Becomes First Woman On FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List

Assata Shakur, an ex member of the Black Panthers who escaped from prison and fled to Cuba in 1979, has officially been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, making her the first woman ever. Shakur — born JoAnne Byron (married name Chesimard) — was a member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army when she was convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer in 1973. In 1979, she managed to escape from prison and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum and has been ever since. Since 2005, the FBI has classified her as a domestic terrorist and has offered a $1 million reward for her capture. Yesterday, the 40-year anniversary of the New Jersey Turnpike shootout, they upgraded her to the 10 Most Wanted List.

There’s a lot to read and sift through in regards to Shakur’s involvement in that incident and the various other crimes of which she was accused and convicted. Shakur has long maintained her innocence in regards to the death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster on May 2, 1973, and during her trial, her defense team presented testimony from medical experts that asserted the wounds Shakur obtained during the shootout — she was shot in both arms and the shoulder — would have made it impossible for her to fire upon Foerster. Additionally, during the trial, one of the prosecution’s primary witnesses, the other officer present (and wounded) at the shootout, Trooper James Harper, admitted he’d lied in all three of his initial statements when he said Shakur shot and killed Foerster and also shot at him. He admitted on the stand that he had in fact never seen Shakur with a gun and that she did not shoot at him. There was also no gunpowder found on Shakur’s fingers. (Shakur testified that after she was shot by Foerster, she took cover for the duration of the gunfight.) In the end, the all-white, 15-person jury, five of whom had personal ties to state troopers, convicted Shakur of all eight counts (two murder charges and six assault charges). She was sentenced to 26 to 33 years in prison.

Of her conviction and eventual escape to Cuba, Shakur once wrote, ”I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government’s policy towards people of color.” There have been numerous attempts to have her extradited, including an appeal to Pope John Paul II in 1998. In response, Shakur wrote a letter to the Pope which you can read here.

Amelia McDonell-ParryMay 3, 2013

Find this story at 3 May 2013

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Man who armed Black Panthers was FBI informant, records show

The man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training – which preceded fatal shootouts with Oakland police in the turbulent 1960s – was an undercover FBI informer, according to a former bureau agent and an FBI report.

One of the Bay Area’s most prominent radical activists of the era, Richard Masato Aoki was known as a fierce militant who touted his street-fighting abilities. He was a member of several radical groups before joining and arming the Panthers, whose members received international notoriety for brandishing weapons during patrols of the Oakland police and a protest at the state Legislature.

Aoki went on to work for 25 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at the Peralta Community College District, and after his suicide in 2009, he was revered as a fearless radical.

But unbeknownst to his fellow activists, Aoki had served as an FBI intelligence informant, covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups, according to the bureau agent who recruited him.

That agent, Burney Threadgill Jr., recalled that he approached Aoki in the late 1950s, about the time Aoki was graduating from Berkeley High School. He asked Aoki if he would join left-wing groups and report to the FBI.

Aoki is listed in an FBI report on the Black Panther Party as an “informant” with the code number “T-2.”

“He was my informant. I developed him,” Threadgill said in an interview. “He was one of the best sources we had.”

The former agent said he asked Aoki how he felt about the Soviet Union, and the young man replied that he had no interest in communism.

“I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?’ Very pleasant little guy. He always wore dark glasses,” Threadgill recalled.

Aoki’s work for the FBI, which has never been reported, was uncovered and verified during research for the book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” The book, based on research spanning three decades, will be published tomorrow by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In a tape-recorded interview for the book in 2007, two years before he committed suicide, Aoki was asked if he had been an FBI informant. Aoki’s first response was a long silence. He then replied, “ ‘Oh,’ is all I can say.”

Later during the same interview, Aoki contended the information wasn’t true.

Asked if this reporter was mistaken that Aoki had been an informant, Aoki said, “I think you are,” but added: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”

However, the FBI later released records about Aoki in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. A Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report on the Black Panthers lists Aoki as an “informant” with the code number “T-2.”

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on Aoki, citing litigation seeking additional records about him under the Freedom of Information Act.

Since his death – Aoki shot himself at his Berkeley home after a long illness – his legend has grown. In a 2009 feature-length documentary film, “Aoki,” and a 2012 biography, “Samurai Among Panthers,” he is portrayed as a militant radical leader. Neither mentions that he had worked with the FBI.

Harvey Dong, who was a fellow activist and close friend, said last week that he had never heard that Aoki was an informant.

“It’s definitely something that is shocking to hear,” said Dong, who was the executor of Aoki’s estate. “I mean, that’s a big surprise to me.”

Dong recalled that Aoki tended to “compartmentalize” the different parts of his life. Before he shot himself, Dong said, Aoki had laid out in his apartment two neatly pressed uniforms: One was the black leather jacket, beret and dark trousers of the Black Panthers. The other was his U.S. Army regimental.

In Berkeley in the late 1960s, Aoki wore slicked-back hair, sported sunglasses even at night and spoke with a ghetto patois. His fierce demeanor intimidated even his fellow radicals, several of them have said.

“He had swagger up to the moon,” former Berkeley activist Victoria Wong recalled at his memorial.

From gangs to the military

Aoki was born in San Leandro in 1938, the first of two sons. He was 4 when his family was interned at Topaz, Utah, with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II.

After the war, Aoki grew up in West Oakland, in an area that had been known as Little Yokohama before becoming a low-income black community. He joined a gang and became a tough street fighter who as an adult would boast, “I was the baddest Oriental come out of West Oakland.”

He shoplifted, burgled homes and stole car parts for “the midnight auto supply business,” he told Berkeley’s KPFA radio in a 2006 interview. Oakland police repeatedly arrested him for “mostly petty-type stuff,” he said in the 2007 interview. Still, he graduated from Herbert Hoover Junior High School as co-valedictorian.

But the internment during World War II had shattered his family, Aoki had said. His father became a gangster and abandoned his family, and his mother won custody of her sons and moved them to Berkeley. Aoki did well academically at Berkeley High School and became president of the Stamp and Coin Club. However, he assaulted another student in the hallway and, as he recalled, “beat him half to death.”

Aoki was an avid firearms collector and military enthusiast. After high school, he joined the Army and later was a reservist.

Credit: Courtesy of Harvey Dong

Three days after graduating from high school in January 1957, Aoki reported for duty at Fort Ord, near Monterey. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army the prior year, at age 17. He acknowledged in the 2007 interview that he had “cut a deal” in which military authorities arranged for his criminal record to be sealed.

Aoki said he had hoped to become the army’s first Asian American general, but he served only about a year on active duty and seven more in the reserves before being honorably discharged as a sergeant.

Although he saw no combat, he became a firearms expert. “I got to play with all the toys I wanted to play with when I was growing up,” he told KPFA. “Pistols, rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers.”

Being in the reserves left Aoki a lot of free time, and he became deeply involved in left-wing political organizations at the behest of the FBI, retired FBI agent Threadgill said during a series of interviews before his death in 2005.

“The activities that he got involved in was because of us using him as an informant,” he said.

Threadgill recalled that he first approached Aoki after a bureau wiretap on the home phone of Saul and Billie Wachter, local members of the Communist Party, picked up Aoki talking to fellow Berkeley High classmate Doug Wachter.

At first, Aoki gathered information about the Communist Party, Threadgill said. But Aoki soon focused on the Socialist Workers Party and its youth affiliate, the Young Socialist Alliance, also targets of an intensive FBI domestic security investigation.

By spring 1962, Aoki had been elected to the Berkeley Young Socialist Alliance’s executive council, FBI records show. That December, he became a member of the Oakland-Berkeley branch of the Socialist Workers Party, where he served as the representative to Bay Area civil rights groups. He also was on the steering committee of the Committee to Uphold the Right to Travel.

In 1965, Aoki joined the Vietnam Day Committee, an influential anti-war group based in Berkeley, and worked on its international committee as liaison to foreign anti-war activists.

All along, Aoki met regularly with his FBI handler. Aoki also filed reports by phone, Threadgill said.

“I’d call him and say, ‘When do you want to get together?’ ” Threadgill recalled. “I’d say, ‘I’ll meet you on the street corner at so-and-so and so on.’ I would park a couple of blocks away and get out and go and sit down and talk to him.”

Arming the Black Panthers

Threadgill worked with Aoki through mid-1965, when he moved to another FBI office and turned Aoki over to a fellow agent. Aoki was well positioned to inform on a wide range of political activists.

Aoki attended Merritt College in Oakland, where he met Huey Newton, a pre-law student, and Bobby Seale, an engineering student, who were in a political group called the Soul Students Advisory Council.

In fall 1966, Aoki transferred to UC Berkeley as a junior in sociology. That October, Seale and Newton took a draft of their 10-point program for what would become the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to Aoki’s Berkeley apartment and discussed it over drinks. The platform called for improved housing, education, full employment, the release of incarcerated black men, a halt to “the robbery by the capitalists of our black community” and an “immediate end to police brutality.”

Soon after, Aoki gave the Panthers some of their first guns. As Seale recalled in his memoir, “Seize the Time:”

Aoki (left) represented the UC Berkeley Asian American community as part of the Third World Liberation Front.

Credit: Courtesy of Nancy Park

“Late in November 1966, we went to a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns … .357 Magnums, 22’s, 9mm’s, what have you. … We told him that if he was a real revolutionary he better go on and give them up to us because we needed them now to begin educating the people to wage a revolutionary struggle. So he gave us an M-1 and a 9mm.”

In early 1967, Aoki joined the Black Panther Party and gave them more guns, Seale wrote. Aoki also gave Panther recruits weapons training, he said in the 2007 interview.

“I had a little collection, and Bobby and Huey knew about it, and so when the party was formed, I decided to turn it over to the group,” Aoki said in the interview. “And so when you see the guys out there marching and everything, I’m somewhat responsible for the military slant to the organization’s public image.”

In early 1967, the Panthers displayed guns during their “community patrols” of Oakland police and also that May 2, when they visited the state Legislature to protest a bill.

Although carrying weapons was legal at the time, there is little doubt their presence contributed to fatal confrontations between the Panthers and the police.

On Oct. 28, 1967, Newton was in a shootout that wounded Oakland Officer Herbert Heanes and killed Officer John Frey. On April 6, 1968, Eldridge Cleaver and five other Panthers were involved in a firefight with Oakland police. Cleaver and two officers were wounded, and Panther Bobby Hutton was killed.

During the period Aoki was arming the Panthers, he also was informing for the FBI. The FBI report that lists him as informant T-2 says that in May 1967, he reported on the Panthers.

None of the released FBI reports mention that Aoki gave guns to the Panthers.

Retired FBI agent Wes Swearingen worked closely on counterintelligence operations and surveillance of radical groups, including the Black Panthers.

Credit: Josiah Hooper/Center for Investigative Reporting

FBI’s reliance on informants

M. Wesley Swearingen, a retired FBI agent who has criticized unlawful bureau surveillance activities under the late Director J. Edgar Hoover, reviewed some of the FBI’s records. He concluded in a sworn declaration – filed in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking records on Aoki – that Aoki had been an informant.

Swearingen served in the FBI from 1951 to 1977, and worked on a squad that investigated the Panthers.

“Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, because I understand he is Japanese,” he said. “Hey, nobody is going to guess – he’s in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant.”

Swearingen also said the FBI certainly must have additional records concerning Aoki, including special informant files.

“Aoki wouldn’t even have to be a member of the party. If he just knew Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, if he went out to lunch with them every day, they would have a main file,” he said. “But to say they don’t have a main file is ludicrous.”

In the 1990s, testimony from Swearingen helped to vacate the murder conviction of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a Black Panther leader in Los Angeles. Evidence showed that the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department had failed to disclose that a key witness against Pratt was a longtime FBI informant named Julius C. Butler. Pratt later won a civil suit for wrongful imprisonment, with the City of Los Angeles paying Pratt $2.75 million and the FBI paying him $1.75 million.

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, the FBI sought to disrupt and “neutralize” the Black Panthers under COINTELPRO, the bureau’s secret counterintelligence program to stifle dissent, according to reports by the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.

As part of COINTELPRO, the committee found, the FBI used informants to gather intelligence leading to the weapons arrests of Panthers in Chicago, Detroit, San Diego and Washington. By the end of 1969, at least 28 Panthers had been killed in gunfights with police and many more arrested on weapons charges, according to news accounts.

Hoover declared in late 1968 that the Panthers, who by now had chapters across the nation, posed “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” He cited their radical philosophy and armed confrontations with police.

A young Richard Aoki is involved in a 1969 protest at Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way near the UC Berkeley campus.

Credit: Courtesy of the Oakland Tribune

Although Aoki later would boast of his role with the Panthers, he was secretive about his relations with them at the time, explaining in the 2007 interview that he feared being expelled from UC Berkeley if his activities were known.

In early 1969, Aoki emerged as a leader of the Third World Liberation Front strike at UC Berkeley, which demanded more ethnic studies courses. He advocated violent tactics, according to interviews with him and Manuel Delgado, another strike leader.

Aug 20, 2012
Seth Rosenfeld
Contributor

Find this story at 20 August 2012

© Copyright 2012, Center for Investigative Reporting