» Government’s Secret Surveillance and Attack Against Black Liberators Joanne Chesimard
Oct 1, 2014 blackexaminer
The FBI’s announcement in May, 2013, that Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard, had been added to its 10 Most Wanted Terrorist list brought to mind the government assassination and harassment of personal friends who were victims of the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO covert counterintelligence program. That program was set up to eradicate political disapproval of the U.S. government’s policies, and thwart the rise of a Black leader; one who might unite and stoke the self-determination desires of those deemed undesirable.
One afternoon in 1967, my mother called me and in a calm voice told me that she was laying on the kitchen floor because a gun battle was raging in the front of the house between one of my high school buddies and Cleveland police. (I was living in Queens, New York at the time). I heard muffled gunfire in the background. My friend, whose name I can’t recall, was a small-framed, mild-mannered guy who was radicalized by the civil rights movement and joined a Black Nationalist organization. He was visiting my mother when unmarked police cars suddenly pulled up in front of the house. Several plainclothes cops jumped out with guns drawn and ordered him to raise his hands. Before giving him an opportunity to comply, they opened fire. He returned fire. I later learned that he received threats because of his political activities and carried a gun because he believed his life was in danger.
After a protracted gun battle, he laid critically wounded next to the front porch where he had taken cover. He was alive and writhing in pain when emergency medics arrived, but police refused to permit them to treat his wounds. Despite pleas from neighbors to take him to a hospital, the cops stood by and stepped over him for more than an hour while life drained from his body. The police let him die like a dog in the street. The authorities never offered an explanation as to what crime he was accused of committing that warranted deadly force, and the local news media did not deem the murder of a Black civil rights activist worth mentioning.
I met Rick E.R. Reed in New York City a few months later. We became instant friends, even though we were political polar opposites. Rick was radical and I was comparatively naive. He mentored and encouraged me to get involved in the civil rights movement. To be candid, I was afraid to join him because he seemed to be involved in some exceedingly revolutionary things. For example, he was involved with the Weathermen, and participated in the protests on the campus of Columbia University. He later protested about the construction of a proposed New York State office building on 125th street in Harlem. He lived in a tent on the construction site for several weeks until the police forced the protesters off the property.
In 1969, he joined a furtive Black revolutionary group. He declined to give any specifics about its activities, but later confided that dissention was growing within the organization. He suspected that it had been infiltrated was being fermented by undercover FBI agents and police informants who had penetrated the group. He was convinced that his telephone was tapped and thar he was being followed. As he left a meeting one evening, he was shot by unknown assailants in an ambush. He went underground because he feared for his life. The next time I herad from Rick, a year later, he was on his way to Cuba to volunteer in the sugar cane harvest. From there he went to China at a time it had poor relations with the U.S.
In July, 1972, Rick called from upstate New York. He told me that he lived in Atlanta and was about to return. He invited me to go back with him to check out the New South. In my mind, the South represented the Klu Klux Klan, but I reluctantly agreed go. I was unemployed at the time. I lost my job after I punched the supervisor in the mouth. In hindsight, getting fired was a blessing in disguise). The next morning, at about 3 three o’clock, I loaded up my wife and two young children into Rick’s rented car and headed south. Within two hours after we arrived, I decided to relocate to Atlanta. I enrolled in Morris Brown College, and a month and a half later moved into an apartment in the four-unit building where Rick lived.
Predictably, Rick was in another a secret organization. He wanted me to join without knowing its agenda. I declined. I was focused on graduating from college so that I could go to law school. During the year I lived there, I can honestly say I had no inkling what the organization was about, but can say they were definitely serious. They met every day for hours on end. Members disappeared from time to time without explanation. Like the Underground Railroad, strangers arrived in the middle of the night for meetings, and left the next night. There were more women than men in the organization. For security reasons, four of them asked my wife for permission to have a principled sexual relationship with me to avoid dealing with outsiders who might be government informants. My wife spurned their intriguing offer. Writing this still makes me in nervous.
My apartment was burglarized, and I called the police to report the break-in. Within minutes, two police cars screeched to a stop in the building’s parking lot with emergency lights flashing. The officers cautiously approached me. I asked why they treated a burglary as if an armed robbery was in progress. They told me that the building was considered to be occupied by dangerous individuals. There were standing orders to send at least two patrol cars for any request for service, and to approach with caution. Strangely, they did not take a report.
A few hours later, two detectives showed up to investigate the break-in, but seemed more interested in learning who lived in the building. Their search of the apartment went way beyond a burglary investigation. They even asked for permission to search the other units. Needless to say, Rick was furious that I called the police and brought unwanted attention to the building.
Prior to moving to Atlanta, I owed federal taxes. Shortly after moving there, I informed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) of my new address. Within a month or so, the IRS notified me that an appointment was scheduled for me to meet with a special revenue agent. In hindsight, a meeting should have been scheduled with a revenue officer that deals with debt collection, not a special agent who performs criminal investigation. When I met with the agent, he immediately asked questions about the apartment building. He already knew who owned it, but wanted to know who lived there, how much rent tenants paid, and what organization operated out of the building and what was its purpose. He told me that the IRS was willing to forgive my debt if I agreed to provide the information he requested. I was so shocked that he asked me to be a confidential informant, I didn’t know how to respond. I promised to think about it.
I told Rick what happened, and he reminded me about the burglary. He warned me to be vigilant. His group was under heavy surveillance and had been infiltrated. A week later I received an IRS notice stating that my tax obligation had been forgiven. The IRS did not contact me again. I assume that Rick informed his organization of the incident, and the embedded informant reported it back to his handlers.
Rick’s group disbanded under unexplained circumstances, and its members moved to different states around the country. I suspect that the government was involved in the political assassination of my friend, and Rick’s experiences were nearly confirmed by my encounter with the IRS. I just didn’t know the FBI’s COINTEPRO counterintelligence program existed.
Interestingly, someone exposed the program in 1971. The news media obeyed the FBI’s request to not publish the information for more than a year. The illegal program was organized by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to undermine the upward swing in radical politics in the 1960’s. Its mission was to eliminate radical political opposition inside the U.S. by targeting individuals and groups the government considered subversive, particularly the Black liberation movement. FBI field operatives were instructed to create a negative public image for target individuals and groups; release negative personal information to the public; create internal havoc within organizations and dissension between groups; and restrict their ability to organize protests. The traditional methods of repression failed to sufficiently stem the growing tide of insurgency. The opposite occurred, and the movements gained momentum. The Bureau then secretly resorted to using fraud, criminal prosecution on trumped-up charges and murder to disrupt constitutionally protected political activity.
There is no question in my mind that my friend in Cleveland was assassinated by the FBI. Rick and the political organization he belonged too were undoubtedly targeted, as were many of other Black liberation groups. Like them, Shakur’s sin was to involve herself in the struggle for Black liberation.
When the program was exposed, Hoover declared that it had been shut down and that all future counter-intelligence operations would be handled on a case-by-case basis. No one in the government was ever held accountable for the crimes committed. Edward Snowden’s recent revelations demonstrate that governmental surveillance was not halted, but expanded to include every American.
Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party before joining the Black Liberation Army, a revolutionary organization that believed in armed struggle. Its stated goal was to take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of Black people in the United States. It was through this association that she came within Hoover’s case-by-case criteria, and became the poster child for the illegal program. Between 1973 and 1977, just about every time someone was shot or a bank was robbed in New York, the government tried to frame her for the crime; even when she was in another state at the time.
The Washington Times printed, “From February 15, 1977 to March 25, 1977, Ms. Chesimard was tried and convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, atrocious assault and battery, assault and battery against a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery. She was also tried between 1971 and 1973 for two separate instances of bank robbery, and one count of kidnapping, but was acquitted of those charges.2 Indeed, she was acquitted three times, a hung jury ended another trial, and the government was forced to dismiss the charges in the other three cases for lack of evidence. She was never charged with terrorism.
In 1973, Shakur was a rear seat passenger in a car she was riding when it was stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike by a state trooper. A gun battle between the driver and the trooper ensued; resulting in the deaths of another passenger, Zayd Malik Shakur, and the trooper. Assata Shakur was shot multiple times. She was faulted for killing Trooper Werner Foerster and wounding Trooper James Harper. Her defense team stated that she didn’t fire a weapon was supported by the absence of gunpowder residue on her fingers at the scene, and her fingerprints were not on any weapon. Her hands were up when she was shot. The bullet severed her median nerve, instantaneously paralyzing her right arm, and making it anatomically impossible for her to have shot a gun. Even medical experts testified about the trajectory of the bullet, indicating that her arm was in the air. The trial judge abused his discretion when he cut off funding for additional medical experts.
All 15 jurors selected for the trial were white, and five of them had personal connections with state troopers. Not one was a peer of Assata Shakur. A New Jersey State Assembly member met with jurors in the hotel where they were sequestered and urged them to convict her. Juror composition, conflicts of interest and misconduct virtually assured her conviction. Moreover, Trooper Harper wrote three investigative reports. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged in court and during his Grand jury testimony, that he perjured himself in all three of the official reports.
Despite the fact that the prosecution presented no credible evidence that Shakur shot the trooper, and the trial was fraught with irregularities and reversible errors, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison
Shakur was an innocent victim of a racist legal system. Had the judicial system been fair and honest, the trial irregularities, intentional misrepresentations and lack of forensic evidence would have resulted in the case being dismissed or she would have been acquitted. In November, 1979 she escaped, and surfaced five years later in Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.
The elevation of Shakur’s name to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Terrorist list was announced 40-years to the day after her conviction. This marked the first time a woman was added to the most-wanted terrorist list, and the reward for her capture was doubled to $2 million.
Shakur, now a grandmother in her sixties who has lived in exile in Cuba for over 29 years, has maintained a low profile. She certainly does not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. Nothing in her case has changed over the past 40 years. So, what motivated the government’s renewed interest in her capture and the basis for branding her as a terrorist?
Aaron Ford, Special Agent in charge of the Newark, New Jersey field office, a Black man, failed to specify what aspect of her case changed to justify her reclassification as a terrorist other than to say, “While living openly and freely in Cuba she [Joanne Chesimard] continues to maintain and promote her terrorist ideology. She provides anti-US Government speeches espousing the Black Liberation Army message of revolution and terrorism. No person, no matter what his or her politics or moral convictions are, is above the law.” 3 If Shakur’s message of revolution and terrorism posed a grave enough threat to warrant placing her on the premier terrorist list and doubling of the bounty on her head, Special Agent Ford, instead of speaking in broad generalities, should have cited a specific example of the terroristic rhetoric she is accused of spouting, and how her words constitute a clear and present danger to U.S. national security. None were given, and most likely none exists. Apparently not all citizens of the U.S. have the freedom of speech, even if he had concrete evidence that she spoke against the actions of the U.S. government, that does not justify branding her a terrorist. Ford also stated that Joanne Chesimard was convicted murderer. It didn’t seem to matter that the charges were bogus, the legal proceedings were fatally flawed, and that illegal tampering with the jury occurred.
In today’s war on terrorism atmosphere, anyone, including American citizens, especially those living in a foreign country and proselytizes views contrary to American policies, will be designated a terrorist. Attorney Lennox Hinds, one of Shakur’s lawyers in the murder trial, called putting her on the Ten Most Wanted list a pure political act to “pressure on the Cuban government and to inflame public sentiment.”4 One must also consider whether the government sought to heighten the American public’s antiterrorism sentiment, which was already aroused by the Boston Marathon bombing just two weeks before. If so, she would be another government created boogeyman, like Osama bin Laden, to keep Americans perpetually scared into a state of blind obedience to a police state government.
A commentary by Glen Ford on Black Radio Agenda summed it up nicely when he said, “President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, the two Black men who are most responsible for making Assata Shakur the face of domestic terror in the United States, are fully conversant in the language of symbolism. They are publicly defining the Black liberation movement – or what’s left of it, or those who might attempt to revive it – as a priority domestic target for repression.” 5 What’s most ironic is that, but for the likes of Shakur and Malcolm X on the militant end of the civil rights movement, the Black leaders who made the decision to declare her a terrorist would not be in the positions of power they occupy.
The elephant in the room, if you will, was the Obama Justice Department’s failure to mention the substantial role its illegal COINTELPRO program played in her legal saga. Indeed, in order to put into context what the Shakur case is all about, it is absolutely critical to understand what the government’s secret surveillance program was also about.
According to the New York Times, Attorney Hinds is still convinced that “there is no evidence that she in fact either caused the death or was involved in the shooting of the state trooper…The allegation that Ms. Shakur is a terrorist is unfounded. The attempt at this point by the New Jersey State Police to characterize her as a terrorist is designed to inflame the public who may be unfamiliar with the facts.” 6
The FBI pressed Pope John Paul II to push for her extradition while visiting Cuba in 1988. Shakur wrote him an open letter. “As a result of being targeted by [the FBI program] COINTELPRO, I was faced with the threat of prison, underground, exile or death.” She also wrote, “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.”
There must be a clear definition of what makes someone a terrorist; especially if that someone is an American citizen. With no well-defined designation, the authorities have too much latitude to entrap and inculpate someone. As difficult as it may be to do so, we must scrutinize and defend the rights of all of our citizens; even those whose crimes are heinous and reprehensible; because if we don’t protect theirs, we will certainly lose ours.