Washington’s Most Wanted Terrorist List: Why Assata? Why Now?

Assata Shakur
By Felicia Gustin
Jun 9, 2013

The FBI’s announcement that it was adding Assata Shakur to its Most Wanted Terrorist List and doubling the bounty for her to $2 million is cause for alarm for the peace and justice movement as a whole. Though Assata has been living in exile in Cuba since 1984, the ramifications of Washington’s recent move are far-reaching and dangerous. Here are some of my thoughts as to the whys in no particular order:

1. This is an attempt to rewrite the history of Black liberation and freedom movements and discourage those who organize today. The 1960s and 70s were rich with struggles against racism and injustice. It’s no secret that the FBI put Black liberation movements like the Black Panther Party in their crosshairs, literally. Local police joined forces and COINTELPRO expanded, also targeting movements in other communities of color – the [email protected] movement, Puerto Rican Independentistas, the American Indian movement, Asian American militants, anti-war and civil rights activists and leaders.

Local police joined forces and COINTELPRO expanded, also targeting movements in other communities of color

The FBI and police carried out what can only be described as terrorism against all those it deemed dangerous, using assassinations and murder, infiltration, divide and conquer tactics, kangaroo courts, torture and false imprisonment. By trying to depict Assata Shakur as a terrorist, the FBI hopes to obliterate its own well-documented history of terrorism. It also hopes to discourage those who are taking up many of the same issues plaguing our society today – police repression, the prison industrial complex, war and militarism, racism, the decimation of social programs, educational access and so on.  Today’s social justice activist is tomorrow’s terrorist, if the FBI so decides.

2. Terrorism is good for the business of continuous war abroad. The so-called Global War on Terror has earned billions of dollars for companies like Halliburton (thank you, Dick Cheney) as well as for weapons manufacturers, oil corporations, chemical operations, the list goes on and on. Our tax dollars keep flowing into the coffers of private companies who garner humungous, no-questions-asked contracts to manufacture the tools of war, rebuild what they destroy, and carry on conflicts with no end in sight. From Iraq to Afghanistan and to the hundreds of U.S. bases and hot spots across the globe, the lobbyists who buy Congress are making sure the profits continue, collateral damage be damned. To do this, they must keep the fear of terrorism and terrorists front and center.

3. Terrorism is good for growing militarization at home. There have been acts of violence since 9/11 that have taken lives, but none were deemed domestic terrorism until the Boston Marathon bombing brothers turned out to be Muslims. To catch one 19-year college student, Boston went into martial law, civil liberties and the Constitution were suspended, the police and National Guard got to practice occupying a major U.S. city, and for all extensive purposes, they carried out war games, Humvees, Black Hawk helicopters and all. There were no protests, no outcries. For the most part, fear of terrorism/terrorists trumped democracy.

4. It keeps Cuba on the State Department’s list of terrorist nations. To make the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the U.S. Secretary of State has determined that a country has provided support for acts of international terrorism. Only four countries are on this list – Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba. There were recent calls from across the U.S. political spectrum to remove Cuba from the list. The Boston Globe said,  “the timing is ripe for a new diplomatic agenda with Cuba.” That sentiment was echoed in other media and from business leaders and politicians. Clearly, the Obama administration has other plans as it attempts to appease rightwing Cuban Americans while testing the Cuban government’s desire for normalized relations. “Give up Assata and we’ll talk,” may be the subliminal message in all this or who knows, one Washington may actually transmit to Havana. It also means that Washington's charge that Cuba is harboring a terrorist gives the green light to all types of operatives or vigilantes to attempt to capture or kill Assata.

5. It diverts attention from Guantánamo, the “other” Cuba in the headlines. Things have gotten ugly at the U.S. Guantánamo detention center as the majority of detainees join the hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison and their indefinite confinement. In defiance of international rules on the treatment of prisoners, guards at Guantánamo are force-feeding a number of the striking detainees. This makes for bad press especially when you have the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations human rights office, the American Medical Association, and a range of legal and medical organizations denouncing the procedure of forced feeding, characterized by New York City physician Kent Sepkowitz as “in a word, barbaric.” President Obama had to finally weigh in at a recent press conference, once again expressing his desire to shut it down. But action speaks louder than words. And perhaps trying to divert the media to focus on a woman living on the other side of the island will take some of the attention off the U.S. base in eastern Cuba.

There is ample evidence that Assata Shukur was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted 40 years ago. She escaped after six and a half brutal years in prison and went into exile long before the events of 9/11 launched the terms terrorism or terrorist into our national vernacular. Yet in 2013, she is added to the list of 22 mostly Middle Eastern men, including Osama bin Laden, which sets a dangerous precedent for all those who struggle for freedom and justice. Joseph Lowndes, University of Oregon assistant professor of political science, summed it up this way in the Huffington Post:

"The renewed state interest in Assata Shakur is not an anachronism, nor mere score-settling from a prior conflict. It goes to the heart of a set of interrelated issues that should be of deep concern to anyone concerned with civil liberties, political freedom, U.S. empire, and the future of racial justice. We should be asking Attorney General Eric Holder why $2 million is being put up in a 40 year-old case. State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said at a news conference Thursday that the case was "an open wound" for troopers in New Jersey and around the country. Yet the FBI's full-scale assault on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s remains an open wound for the nation itself. A truthful accounting of state repression in that era is required if we want to heal it, not making Shakur into a scapegoat.”

I would just add that we must be especially vigilant in the face of the so-called terrorist threat to not sacrifice our civil liberties nor our sisters and brothers, and to not allow the government to deter our determination to right society's wrongs. There is just too much at stake.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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