The Fugitive Assata Shakur, U.S.-Cuba Relations, and the So-Called 'Anti-Cop' Movement

Past imperfect


The thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations after 40-plus years of isolation opens the door to the extradition of convicted cop killer JoAnn Chesimard back to the United States to complete her life sentence. An alleged leader of the radical Black Liberation Army, she was convicted in 1977 of a 1973 shooting of a state trooper in New Jersey, escaped from prison in 1979 and ended up in Cuba, which granted her political asylum. The wide use of the term "anti-cop" to describe contemporary supporters of police reform, along with the new turn in U.S.-Cuba relations, give the Chesimard case renewed interest.

On the night of May 1, 1973, a few minutes before one in the morning, New Jersey State Trooper James Harper stopped a car driven by James Costan, known as Zayd Shakur, and also carrying Chesimard, known as Assata Shakur, and Clark Squire, known as Sundiata Acoli, allegedly for having a broken tail light and "slightly" exceeding the speed limit. Trooper Werner Foerster showed up in a backup car. Harper said he found a discrepancy and asked all three to get out of the car, saying he had also seen guns in the back seat of the car. A shoot-out between the occupants of the car and police ended with Foerster and Zayd Shakur dead—Foerster shot in the head by Acoli with his own service weapon.

The wounded Assata Shakur was captured shortly after the incident and Acoli a few days later. Acoli was convicted of killing Foerster and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. He was granted parole and ordered released by an appellate panel in September but the decision was appealed by the state parole board and he remains in prison.

On a third attempt (the first ending with a change of venue, the second a mistrial due to pregnancy) in March 1977 Shakur was convicted of the first degree murder of Foerster and the second degree murder of Squire as well as five other felonies. The left-wing National Lawyers Guild (NLG) notes multiple problems with Shakur's trial, including an all-white jury that met with an assemblyman who urged a conviction, as well as five jurors who had relationships with members of the State Police. The NLG points to medical evidence the defense said showed Shakur had her hands up when she was shot, as she testified in her trial, and that no gunshot residue was present on her hands. Harper also eventually recanted testimony that Shakur shot Foerster.

In the 1970s Shakur was accused of a string of crimes including bank robbery and murdering police. She was targeted by the FBI in CHESROB, an operation apparently named after her which, according to Kenneth O'Reilly's Racial Matters, the 1991 book that chronicled much of the FBI's campaigns against radical black groups in the '60s and '70s, tried to link Shakur "to virtually every bank robbery or violent crime involving a black woman on the East Coast." The Turnpike shooting, however, remains the only crime for which Shakur was ever convicted. On November 2, 1979, three members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) visited Shakur in a New Jersey prison carrying concealed weapons and facilitated her escape. By 1984 she had made her way to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.

Now, with the shift in U.S.-Cuba relations, New Jersey authorities hope to bring Shakur back to the U.S. "We remain ever hopeful in our resolve to bring Joanne Chesimard to justice," said John Hoffman, New Jersey's acting attorney general, according to The Star-Ledger, promising to work with federal authorities to find a way to capture Shakur in the new climate.  "We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back to the United States to finish her sentence for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper in 1973," the state police's superintendent said in a statement.

The FBI placed Shakur on the list of Most Wanted Terrorists last year. The special agent in charge of the Newark division of the FBI, Aaron Ford, said in a statement his office, too, was "hopeful" changing U.S.-Cuba relations will help them apprehend Shakur, "no matter where in the world she is located" and that the FBI would "continue to utilize all available resources" on that mission. "The individuals on the Most Wanted Terrorist List are not ranked in any way," Special Agent Barbara Woodruff of the division's public affairs office told Reason.com. "All are dangerous and all are wanted by the FBI equally. No priority is placed on any one over any other."

In addition to Shakur, that list includes or included Abdul Rahman Yasin, accused of building the bombs used on the World Trade Center in 1993, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a 9/11 mastermind captured in 2003 and then tortured, Al Qaeda operative Adam "The American" Gadahn,  as well as terrorists involved in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the 2000 USS Cole bombing. Shakur and Ahmed Ghailani are the only two people to be convicted in a U.S. court—Ghailani on conspiracy charges related to the 1998 embassy bombings and Shakur the only one on the list for a crime committed in the continental United States and for a crime not linked to terrorism.

Although some liberals would like to create distance between the FBI's inclusion of Shakur on the list of most wanted terrorists and Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama, the man in charge of the FBI and the Department of Justice and the man who is his boss, that distance doesn't exist. The move to treat Shakur as a domestic terrorist fits into the wider project adopted by the Obama administration of expanding the definition of domestic terrorism to encompass mere criminal conduct. It's foolish for Obama's more radical supporters, those that may be left, to hold on to the idea that the president has any sympathy for Shakur's cause. Renewed U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations could instead make Obama the president who finally returns Shakur to prison.

Why is this important? Events this summer in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and in other places, helped propel the issue of police violence to the national stage for the first time in recent memory. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice has relatively vigorously pursued allegations of patterns and practices of abuse by police departments around the country. At the same time in these investigations the feds have been careful to display deference to the actual police officers comprising the abusive departments. "We recognize that many of you are dedicated public servants who wear your badge with distinction," acting Assistant General Jocelyn Samuels said while announcing the results of an investigation in Albuquerque, which saw at least two fatal police shootings and sustained police reform protests in the weeks before the announcement and one fatal shooting shortly after. "You must come home safely to your family and loved ones," Samuels said.

Nevertheless, President Obama and Attorney General Holder have both been accused of being "anti-cop." One popular meme wrongly accused the president of not recognizing police fatalities. More damagingly, even non-controversial and inadequate measures to reform cops, like $250 million in funding for body cameras and police training recommended by the Obama administration, became contentious debates about whether police are being supported. Bill Kristol compared the recommendation to "beating up on cops." Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani accused President Obama of "anti-cop rhetoric" that contributed to the murder of two New York City police officers this weekend. All this for the president's public statements expressing sympathy with the idea that police sometimes use excessive force, and that their interactions with the public can be racially tinged. These aren't the makings of radical anti-cop rhetoric. They're small, insufficient steps toward reform being treated like a wholesale abandonment of law enforcement.

The headline of the New York Post's coverage of the weekend murders was "War on Cops," a tack taken by opponents of police reform. But it's not true. It's never been safer to be a police officer. Yet the state legislature in New York is now pushing to dip into a $5 billion bank settlement fund to buy bulletproof glass for the police in New York, starting with the NYPD. What about priorities? Cost-benefits? And this same legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill earlier this year ceding more control of the law enforcement disciplinary regime to police unions. The "war on cops" calls are dangerous rhetoric that evokes a time gone by.

The NYPD is processing the horrific loss of two of its members. But it's not facing the kinds of conditions the BLA, which Shakur was accused of leading, tried to foment in the '70s. The radical group was responsible for the assassination of at least four police officers in one nine-month period in New York City in the early 1970s and as many as nine other police killings across the country.

Today, civil rights activists push for an array of reforms, some worthwhile, some distractions. An extremist minority may hold bona fide anti-cop views but despite the protestations of cop apologists those kinds of anti-cop views are policed by protesters. The same pro-police reform activists organizing protests over the last few weeks participated in vigils for the NYPD officers gunned down this weekend. Members of the NYPD are understandably on edge. They patrol a city of seven million and haven't seen a line-of-duty killing in more than three years. But such tension also characterizes the city's poorer and marginalized residents, who experience the brute force manifestation of all the nanny state laws emanating from City Hall and the state and federal government.

Painting supporters of police reform, and President Obama, as "anti-cop" is an unfair game, and a dangerous one, as it assigns an extremist anti-cop view held by an insignificant minority of people to a position taken by a broad swath of the population. That attitude, of mistrust and fear, can only be corrected by embracing reform, not by writing off the campaign for it as "anti-cop."