The Federal Bureau of Investigation has announced that Joanne Chesimard has been added to its Most Wanted Terrorists list. Thursday’s bulletin gave Chesimard, a black nationalist, the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be placed on the list.
Chesimard, better known as Assata Shakur, was a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army when, on May 2, 1973, she was driving through New Jersey with two others. The car was pulled over for a broken taillight and a gunfight ensued with police. One officer and one man from Shakur’s group were killed.
Despite being injured, she managed to flee from the scene but was eventually arrested and, in 1977, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. But in 1979, The New York Times reported, she “escaped from Clinton Correctional Institute for Women after three male visitors drew handguns, kidnapped two guards and seized a prison minibus in order to drive out of the grounds to two getaway cars. They left the guards handcuffed but unharmed.”
It’s been widely speculated that Shakur was aided in her escape by the Black Liberation Army. William Kunstler, her trial lawyer, told reporters at the time that Shakur’s health had declined in prison.
“I was very happy that she escaped because I thought she was unfairly tried,” he said, as quoted by the Gothamist.
Her surviving accomplice, Sundiata Acoli, born Clark Edward Squire, is still held in a federal prison after being denied parole several times.
In 1984 Shakur was granted asylum by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who called the charges against her “an infamous lie.” Originally from the Queens section of New York City, Shakur explained her situation on her website.
“My name is Assata (“she who struggles”) Olugbala (“for the people”) Shakur (“the thankful one”), and I am a 20th Century escaped slave,” she wrote. “Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color. I am an ex political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984. I have been a political activist most of my life, and although the US government has done everything in its power to criminalize me, I am not a criminal, nor have I ever been one.”
She went on to admit involvement with the Black Panther Party and described the FBI’s intention to “destroy it and its leaders and activists.”
Federal and New Jersey law enforcement announced during Thursday’s news conference that they had doubled the reward for information leading to Shakur’s capture from $1 million to $2 million. Along with being the first female named to the list, she is only the second domestic ‘terrorist’ on the list, which was assembled to identify those responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We would be naïve to think there’s not some communication between her and some of those people she used to run around with today,” said Aaron Ford, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Newark, New Jersey.
He did not elaborate on the reasoning behind the seemingly sudden decision to add Shakur, now 65 years old, to the list. New Jersey law enforcement has previously campaigned for her extradition, appealing to Pope John Paul II when he traveled to Cuba in 1998.
State Police superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes may have shed light on authorities’ reinvigorated motivation to apprehend Shakur, however.
“To this day, from her safe haven in Cuba, Shakur has been given a pulpit to preach and profess, stirring supporters and groups to mobilize against the United States by any means necessary,” Fuentes said. “We also have reason to believe that she has established association with other international terrorist organizations.”
Fuentes did not mention what evidence the New Jersey state police had connecting Fuentes to international terror syndicates, but Ford was careful to note that the US – still struggling to reform its relationship with Cuba – has little hope the country will comply with American requests.
“Currently it’s not good,” Ford said during the press event. “We don’t enjoy a great extradition status with that country.”