Assata Shakur’s 1987 autobiography “Assata: An Autobiography,” describes how she became an activist who was in the middle of a massive racial conflict in the United States.
She eventually became involved with the black liberation movement and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Her story details the challenges dealing with the criminal justice system and chronicles the conflicts between the fight for black freedom and the police (James, 4). The details describe the dreadful police conditions in which she found herself, the false evidence laid against her, statements made about her that were conflicting, the crazy media frenzy over her legal struggles and the freedom movement, and racist people who pretended to be police officers. However, her account only documents one side of the story, and it is important to analyze the various perspectives in order to find the truth. Shakur provides a convincing argument about her innocence and the injustices that were committed against her by the police and the discussion often centers around whether she is in fact innocent or guilty. Her story is still widely discussed today, as it has major implications about the treatment of black people by the American criminal justice system.
This paper will take a close look at Assata Shakur and her participation in the Black Panthers, and analyze why her case is still relevant today. I will be looking closely at her autobiography, but it is also important to get the other side of the story, by taking a look at the news reports and other literature about her. The challenging aspect of trying to determine whether Shakur is actually a terrorist when looking only at her story, is the fact that she would likely not say that she was guilty of her crimes even if she were. The question about whether she is innocent or guilty makes her case continually relevant, particularly because she was recently added to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. While many assert that Shakur is innocent of the crimes for which she was committed, many other are convinced she is guilty (Stivers, n.d.).
Throughout Shakur’s book, she consistently leaves the reader wondering if she was writing the piece to influence people into thinking that she was innocent, even if she was not. After taking a look at the outside literature on the subject, it became clear that there is evidence on either side that indicates she is innocent or guilty. Her book has stuck a sympathetic chord with its readers, and this creates a larger following for her case. The autobiography provides an interesting perspective about police brutality. From the very beginning of her story, the alleged viciousness of the police is revealed and the minimalist explanation (expressed very simply) allows the reader to gain a solid understanding of the level of violence that the police were capable of. This creates the major sympathetic chord, not only among black people investigating the roots of many of the struggles that were faced by black people, but also by people of other faiths (Strickland, 9). Shakur says the violence is due to her ethnicity as a black woman. The sheer violence of the opening scene brings the reader right into the book, and makes them realize the type of novel it will be.
Following her arrest and detention, Shakur escaped imprisonment for the convicted homicide of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973. She has since 1984 been living in Cuba. The book does not specifically say how Shakur was freed from the maximum security wing at Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in 1979, but since her escape she has been out of the reach of the criminal justice system. While the U.S. government is assertive in deeming her a terrorist – and the FBI named her as the first female to be on the Most Wanted Terrorist list – the so-called facts about her involvement in the state trooper’s death are fuzzy. “By her supports’ accounts they are institutionally designed to falsely prosecute and imprison her” (Peterson, 5).
The dynamic between Shakur and the police is one of the most notable features of the book, and this creates a massive following among various audiences who are interested in the criminal justice system, human rights and in black history. It is important to remember that Shakur is one of the most wanted women, and there is certainly animosity between Shakur and the police. In fact, the behaviour of the police is likely what got Shakur off of many of her criminal charges. That makes it somewhat difficult to believe what she is saying about the police, which is why many people question whether she is actually innocent. She is a convicted felon who escaped prison custody, so it is difficult to take what she says as the truth. After all, the more she discredits the police, the more she appears to be innocent. This mystery about her precise involvement in the murder of the New Jersey state trooper has kept her story relevant, and at the top of the minds of many people. The black rights movement has come a long way over the years and Shakur provides a gateway from which people can study the struggles that were faced on a continual basis. Shakur does not just represent one black person involved with the Black Panthers, she represents the debate over the potential mistreatment of black people during this period. Her story also shows the need to learn from the past and ensure the same mistakes are not committed, and this has real meaning and implications into the future.
Shakur’s story also still strikes a strong chord because of her escape from prison. Her life has all the components of a major Hollywood blockbuster that keeps people interested. She is a real-life hero to many people, because of what she represents – not just a woman who was arrested for murder; her story is so much more far-reaching than that. She is a real human being, and a real hero to many black people throughout the world. Shakur has faced what many have called a racist police force, and she has overcome them to escape to Cuba. The police had her in handcuffs and behind bars, but she was able to overcome their power, and escape to a world where she was safe from the confines of the police. Her heroic story sparked intense debate about the treatment police officers had on black people, and that debate also delved into the treatment of black people within the criminal justice system. The evidence laid against Shakur is claimed to be planted, and this is another important addition to the relevancy of her story. The discussion about the tendency of police officers to frame black people, or others for that matter, is given a real-life example in the case of Shakur, and this makes her story extremely important to criminologists, and anyone involved in the criminal justice system.
One of the most interesting features that continues the debate long after she escaped from prison is Shakur’s claim that the FBI was created to stop the black liberation movement. She says the police killed many of the leaders of the black liberation movement, including members of the Black Panthers. It is very easy to side with Shakur in her argument that the police, FBI, and the American government were out to send out false press releases to discredit many of the people who were out to simply stand up for, and to establish, the rights of black people. These rights have been a central debate in America since the time of slavery, and this is what keeps the story of Shakur so strong today. Her case is relatively recent in comparison to many of the other stories about the transgressions committed against black people. No conclusive evidence has shown that the FBI was created to stop the Black Liberation Movement, but this fact does support a healthy debate even today (Maag, 12).
Shakur also provides a gateway from which to study the Black Panthers. The organization was a major part of the black movement from 1966 to 1982, and is still the topic of intense discussion about the challenges faced by black people throughout America. Shakur’s involvement makes her a prominent figure in the debate about the Black Panther Party’s involvement in criminal activity, or whether the group was merely assembled to tackle social reformation. The Black Power movement began with the intention of protecting black neighborhoods from police brutality. This is a key point, due to the fact that Shakur protested the treatment of herself in her autobiography. Furthermore, the evidence that was laid against her, she claims, is due to the police planting evidence. This draws a tighter link to the Black Panther Party and the dynamic between black people and the police during this period. The connection that Shakur provides allows people to investigate the ways in which black people have claimed they were targeted by the police (Chamberlain, 23).
Whether Shakur is innocent or guilty also provides a significant amount of debate on the issue. The question about her innocence resonates not only because it leads to questions about the ease that the police can plant evidence, but it also provides some context on which to study whether the Black Panthers was an organization that was relatively peaceful in its social activity, or whether it was a terrorist group. According to the FBI, it was a terrorist group – due to the fact that at least one of its members (Shakur) is considered by the FBI to be a terrorist. In her autobiography, Shakur leads her readers to believe that she is a victim of a society that was unethically intolerant of black people. The only thing the reader has to go on in deciding whether Shakur is innocent or guilty is her claim of innocence. The audience needs to make up their own minds, and it is very easy to side with her. In order to fully grasp the debate, a reader would have to take a look at what other sources have said about her (Peterson, 8). Finding primary sources on the subject is vital. This mystery is also what keeps her story alive and well, because the reader continues to question whether she is actually a terrorist. The media has also kept this story alive, with its recent report that Shakur was added to the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list (Shaker, n.d.). This high-profile treatment of Shakur keeps the debate alive, and even makes the topic of relevance to post-secondary school students. Reading this book is a constant struggle between hating the American government and its enforcement officers, and questioning the credibility of Shakur. However, judging by the proven behavior of the American government and the way it has dealt with those who have spoken in favor of human rights, many readers would likely ultimately believe that Shakur is telling the truth.
Ultimately, Shakur’s story strikes a chord on multiple levels, and this keeps her life of ultimate importance in the political and social realms. Not only does she provide a solid gateway from which to analyze the criminal justice system and its past treatment of black people, it also provides an interesting benchmark on which to look at the ability of police officers to plant evidence. Also, her story continues to have prominence because of its connection to the Black Panthers, and Black Liberation Movement. This is one of the most major, and progressive movements in American history, and her connection creates a never-ending relevance that will continue to be ruminated throughout the ages. In the case of whether Shakur is innocent or guilty (which also keeps her story alive and relevant) it is important to analyze the convictions laid against her and determine if they are evidence enough to prove Shakur’s guilt. This has kept many of those in the criminal justice system scratching their heads.
Chamberlain, Kathy. “The Autobiography of Assata Shakur (review).” John Hopkins University. (2013). Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
James, Joy. “Framing the Panther.” Williams College. (n.d.). Web. 3. Dec. 2013
Maag, Chris. “New push to capture woman in ’73 killing of state trooper.” New York Times. (2013). Web. 3 Dec. 2013
Peterson, James. “Why the Assata Shakur case still strikes a chord.” The Grio. (2013). Web. 11 Dec. 2013
Shakur, Assata. (1999). Assata An Autobiography. Chicago, Mass: Chicago Review Press.
Shakur, Assata. “Open Letter From Assata Shakur.” University of Texas. (n.d.). Web. 4 Dec. 2013
Strickland, G. “The Thin Line Between Greek god and Mortals” Academia.(2013). Web. 11. Nov. 2013.
Stivers-Isakova, Valeri. “Reading it now – Assata: an autobiography.” Huffington Post. Web. 8 Dec. 2013